The editors of Irreverent History begin the preface by stating that ‘the present work celebrates the life and scholarship of Professor Muttayil Govindamenon Sankara Narayanan’. Indeed one of the most celebrated historians of India is offered a bouquet of sixteen essays by scholars, many of them his students. This tribute to MGS as he is popularly known, actually celebrates introspective readings of the past which MGS always stood for. Those who are acquainted with his work know about his absolute commitment to historical method. His statements are always buttressed by solid evidence and his command over the different genre of sources is amazing. While reviewing MGS Narayanan’s masterpiece Perumals of Kerala: Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy—Political and Social Conditions of Kerala Under the Cera Perumals of Makotai (c. AD 800–AD 1124 ), Rajan Gurakkal commented that this book was a mine of new knowledge enabling other studies. His book could also be a model for writing regional history as most of the times while writing regional history authors’ own sentiment overpowers the rationality of writing from hard evidence. MGS’s book was ‘regional history at its best, written without any sentiments of regionalism, and placing Kerala within the larger context of south India’ as Kesavan Veluthat puts it. Why the book is called Irreverent History is clear from the opening essay which is written by Kesavan Veluthat, one of his senior students.
The volume is justifiably divided into two sections, one exclusively on Kerala History and Culture and the other on Epigraphy, Connected history and Conceptual frameworks dealing with the Indian subcontinent in general. The preface by the editors provides a crucial overview of the admirable range the essays in this volume offer.
As mentioned earlier the introductory essay by Veluthat first illuminates us on the use of the word ‘Irreverent’ for Narayanan and then places his contributions in the historiographical context of Kerala. Veluthat’s choice of the word ‘irreverent’ emanates from Narayanan’s own attitude to earlier writings on the history of Kerala which he dissected and finally rejected. He respected only his sources and nothing else.
The first section with six essays shows how Narayanan’s own opus enabled other studies. To begin with we have Cristophe Vielle whose essay ‘How did Parasurama Come to Raise Kerala?’ traces the historical processes by which the myth of Parasurama became intimately associated with the creation of Kerala from the sea. This he could accomplish by a careful reading of the extant textual and epigraphical sources. His thorough study reveals how Kerala commentators on Sanskrit texts and the prasastis of South Indian inscriptions build up the story. In fact the epigraphs from 11th century refer to Parasurama giving special protection to the kingdom of the Ceras. The amazing range of texts used in this essay show how the Parasurama creation episode acquired the status of a regional foundation myth.
The next essay by K.N. Ganesh brings to focus the important political institution of medieval Kerala called Swarupam. Through a thorough study of inscriptions, he discusses the transition from Nadu to Swarupam in the context of the history of Venad and this study helps in clearing many gaps regarding the actual nature of this political institution.
Manu V. Devadevan in a study entitled ‘Changes in Land Relations during the Decline of the Cera State’ questions the tendency among historians to treat the three centuries of Chera rule as a single historical block. His fascinating study of inscriptions underlines enormous difference in the nature of land holding between the ninth century which showed the beginning of the Chera state and the early twelfth century when the state collapsed implying the political changes brought by new land tenures.
The traditional Sanskrit theatre of Kerala Kutiyattam is central to two essays written by Heike Moser and Donald Davis. While Moser’s essay is focused on Jatayuvadham, the Fourth Act of Shaktibhadra’s play Ashcharyacudamani (The Wondrous Crest Jewel) and her experience as a performer, Donald Davis examines the tradition of satire from the Kutiyattam by focusing on a performance text called the Purusartthakkuttu. The essay discusses this specialized genre with such clarity that for a non-specialist like the present reviewer, it is an enriching experience.
The final essay in this section by Rich Freeman is a delightful reading. The Arattupula Puram festival is central to the essay. Freeman carefully studied the distribution of the participating temples and examined the itinerary of Arattupula Sastavu, the only deity in graphic detail. It is an illuminating, rigorous ethnographic study underlining the complexity of ritual life, mobility of festivals without any executive centre. Thus the last three essays in the first section mark a shift from political history to cultural history.
The second section of the book opens with an essay on ‘Social Structure and Commercial Pursuits in Early India: Reflections on Some Conceptual Issues’ by Krishna Mohan Shrimali. In the true role of an opening batsman Shrimali sets the stage for the other essays in this section which are conceptually engaging while being grounded on sources be it epigraphic, textual, document like Geniza letters or archival. Shrimali’s main concern is the lack of understanding among the practitioners of Indian history of the nuances of various terminologies, categories etc., used for understanding early Indian society and commerce. He points out the ‘colossal insensitivity’ of the historians and archaeologists towards appropriate vocabulary. He cautions us on the danger of using modern terminology for describing pre-modern behaviour.
From conceptual issues we are now into representation. Daud Ali’s ‘The Image of the Scribe in Early Medieval Sources’ is a fascinating study of how scribes were represented and the roles they played. Daud examines the parallel representations of scribes, one as loyal, indispensable and virtuous and the other as villain. He feels that with decrease in issue of copperplate charters and emergence of new kind of documentary writing like the Lekhapaddhati, the image of the scribe has been changing. He has largely drawn from the eleventh century work of Kshemendra and the anthologies beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A selection of verses on scribes from the anthologies enriches the text further.
Bhairabi Prasad Sahu writes on ‘Community, Caste and Region in Odisha’ focusing on the formative period. Sahu’s sustained study on the regional history of Odisha is well known. He traces the political development in Odisha and focuses on the non-brahmanical aspect of state formation. He argues for recognizing early Odisha as a state reflecting composite culture where a process of caste-tribe continuum could be experienced.
Need for reinvestigation of the complex history of caste in ancient and early medieval times is the prime concern of Upinder Singh’s essay entitled ‘Varna and Jati in Ancient India: Some Questions’. She talks about looking at caste beyond an idea or a classificatory system and trying to fathom it as an aspect of the lived experience of various social groups. This is very true as we find that though every region of India had a caste society, it was patterned differently. This difference comes through an understanding of lived experience. Moreover the epigraphic records also suggest the variations in the development of social institutions in different parts of the subcontinent. Colonial and nationalist historiographies have assumed that the actual pattern was identical all over. Upinder has drawn our attention to a very important point relating to the nonmention of Vaisyas and Sudras in Pali Canonical texts. She argues that the reason could be their lack of interest in Vaishyas and Sudras. In her opinion one should study the ideological underpinnings of Buddhist texts which remains neglected. She also rightly points out that often Dharmasastra statements are taken to be a direct reflection of social reality. Indeed a historian needs to question the cause of putting up norms and also the intended audience.
From Varna and Jati we move to the world of Geniza sources, the Jewish merchant letters in an essay by Elizabeth Lambourne. Recovered from the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo these letters of voyaging Jewish merchants give us interesting and quantifiable data on maritime trade. It goes to the credit of S.D.Goitein to first recognize the volume of material related to what he termed the ‘India trade’. Elizabeth Lambourne should be congratulated for bringing a new aspect in the study of these letters by concentrating on the languagescape of the medieval Indian Ocean world. She identifies two Indic loan words in medieval Judaeo-Arabic and Yemeni Arabic—the nouns talam (dish, salver) and fatiya (box, chest) which are borrowed from Malayalam and Tulu. The value of historical linguistics and interrelationship of language and material culture is undoubtedly brought to light in her essay.
This essay is followed by two contributions from the masters of south Indian epigraphy, Noboru Karashima and Y. Subbarayalu. Noboru Karashima’s study of sixteen inscriptions from the latter half of the twelfth and the first half of the thirteenth centuries unravels the historical implications of the political compacts made by local chiefs during the later Chola period. His study reveals the growth of power of low ranked caste groups coming from former hill tribes. However they were finally suppressed and replaced by the nayakas. A single copperplate inscription of Krishnadevaraya’s time is the subject of discussion by Y. Subbarayalu. The date of the grant is 13th January 1513. The charter records a decision of Periyanattavar which is the name of a supra-local assembly of the agricultural communities. Representatives of Periyanattavar came from the entire Tondaimandalam and thus according to Subbarayalu it was the culmination point of the supra local integration of the agrarian communities that had started in the late Chola period.
Continuing with the time of Krishnadevaraya’s rule Venkata Ragothom’s prime discussion revolves around Historical Memory and Statecraft in Late Medieval South India. He discusses the political aspirations of Krishnadevaraya in the context of the Gajapatis of Kalinga and demonstrates how the Gajapatis were presented and represented as an existential threat to Vijaynagar. He argues that historical memory played its role in shaping the course of activity of medieval monarchies of South India and Vijaynagara was not an exception. This according to him is neglected by medievalists.
The final essay of the volume is on understanding the transformation of Delhi by Nayanjot Lahiri. We are informed of the controversial history of the city and how its heritage was neglected in the process of highlighting the city as a capital. Her study relating to the peripheries of Delhi which represent the oldest continuously inhabited areas of the city and acts as a safety valve for the residential and minor industrial needs of the capital is worth noting. Lahiri rightfully indicates the insensitive attitude of the government towards aesthetics and environment of the capital city.
The editors of the volume need to be congratulated for their efforts in putting together sixteen essays which are both informative and insightful. Each of the essays here treads the path of hard empiricism and reflects distinctive voices of different sources of our past. It is truly a befitting tribute to the master who only strove to write the truth.
Suchandra Ghosh is with the Department of Ancient Indian History & Culture, University of Calcutta, Kolkata.