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Missing the Medieval

Chandan Gowda

By Urvi Mukhopadhyay
Orient BlackSwan, Noida, 2013, pp. xiv 318, Rs. 790.00


The medieval ages, however you mark its temporal coordinates, are a bright period in India’s history. My choice of the metaphor of ‘bright’ is deliberate, of course, because history textbooks, which make space for mostly dynastic and military details, make them appear dark.    Medieval India saw an efflorescence of literary activity in various languages, often led by Bhakti and Sufi saints. Indian cinema has brought the medieval ages alive in popular memory in exciting ways. Urvi Mukhopadhyay’s The ‘Medieval’ in Film (TMF from now on) aims to historicize the popular films made on the ‘Islamic past’ between the 1920s and the 1960s. She also considers devotional films (‘sant films’) that were based on the lives of medieval saints. Her choice of ‘popular historicals’ includes only those made in Hindustani/Hindi, and, to a smaller extent, in Marathi, in Bombay (p. 15). The historical and devotional films made in South India are not part of her discussion.   TMF begins with an account of how the discipline of modern history took shape in colonial India, and of how historians like Alexander Dow and James Mill framed medieval India as Islamic and its pre-medieval past as Hindu and established that political rule in the former period was bigoted, pleasure seeking and despotic. These views gradually spread through school textbooks and, later, through the historical writings of various social actors which helped foster a nationalist consciousness. The latter episode is of course complex: while many viewed the ancient Hindu past as glorious and the medieval ages as decadent, a few others saw the latter period, especially the figure of Akbar, as exemplifying cultural harmony. The makers of ‘medieval’ films, TMF contends, worked on this terrain of historical imagination.    The silent ‘historical’ films of Dadasaheb Phalke (Raja Harishchandra), Baburao Painter (Sati Padmini, Sairandhri), Jamshedji Framji Madan (Nurjehan, Laila Majnu) and Mama Warekar (Poona Raided) used local lore and musical traditions and showed affinities with performative elements from folk traditions and Parsi theatre. While the films on Shivaji, for example, showed the power of Indian nationalism to recast local episodes as national ones, and films like Franz Olsen’s Shiraz (1928) borrowed colonial images of the Mughal court, TMF argues that the silent films of the 1920s were not beholden to the protocols of colonial or nationalist histories.  In the 1930s, when talkies were made, a slew of devotional films were made on figures like Chandidas, ...

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