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Nature, Culture, Polity: Showcasing Interactions




INDIA'S ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY, VOLS. 1 AND 2
Edited by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2012, pp.464 & pp.614, 1850.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 2 February 2012

Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivarama-krishnan's two-volume collection is a carefully selected set of essays that together represent the remarkable scope and sophistication of Indian environmental history.The volumes showcase the theoretical, methodological, and empirical relevance of placing the interplay of ecology, culture, and power at the center of historical inquiry. Theoretically, selections underscore key arguments about state-community dynamics, the constitutive role of the non-human world in human social relations, and processual approaches to ecological change.  Its temporal sweep from prehistory to the present argues for the relevance of environmental history to Indian history more generally.  It reorients us in crucial ways by urging us to think about political phenomena as windows onto the interaction of nature and culture, to incor-porate a plurality of human and nonhuman actors in analyses of historical change, to think with greater nuance about the relationship between materialist and cultural frameworks, and to account for continuities and shifts in the meanings associated with different land-scapes. Methodologically, the volumes illu-minate a range of innovative approaches-archaeological, archival, literary, oral-to understand the interaction between nature, culture, and polity.  Particularly in the first volume, the essays argue for the significance of varied narrative forms-poetry, oral history, folklore, sacred texts, and dynastic records-to understanding the dynamic relationship between natural and social systems. Empi-rically rich, each essay offers detailed accounts of social and political life, and their rela-tionship to ecological change; even when they put forward strong arguments about pre-colonial society, or colonial and postcolonial state interventions, the evidentiary basis is solid. The editors' primary tasks are to push for greater nuance in scholarly accounts of ecological and social phenomena, and to question the easy periodization of environ-mental change.  Towards these ends, the first volume offers a varied, dynamic, and multi-layered picture of the precolonial period, and the second complicates monolithic under-standings of colonialism and the nation-state.  In devoting the entire first volume to the period before the nineteenth century, Ranga-rajan and Sivaramakrishnan offer a much-needed corrective to the overriding focus on colonialism and its effects in scholarship on Indian ecology.  The dynamism and comple-xity of the precolonial past is wonderfully represented in the first volume's essays that together explode any notion of self-contained ecological communities existing in a state of equilibrium. Kathleen D. Morrison's essay, for instance, illuminates the interactions of south Indian forager-traders with larger scales of political life through elaborate networks of exchange and forms of economic interdepen-dence from ...


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