ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Writing Alternative Histories

Case of Early India

Since the 1990s, historiography in India has experienced a shift which has led to directing academic focus on different regions in the country. This historiography shared its predecessor's concern with social and economic processes but departs from the latter in identifying trajectories of transformations in regions, subregions and localities. This article describes some of the landmarks that marked this shift towards regional history and also engages with the seminal works that marked this endeavour.

This article was presented as the Presidential Address, Historiography section, Andhra Pradesh History Congress, 39th session in Srisailam.

The writing of early Indian history has experienced significant shifts, which have become distinctly perceptive since the 1990s. Their genealogy can, however, be traced to the 1970s, the heyday of a certain kind of historiography. A group of historians who grew up admiring, or being familiar with, the then dominant historiography encountered difficulties in applying its ideas in their entirety when they began to engage with the study of the regions. So, the birth of new ideas had much to do with studying regions as well as studying relationships of regions with trans-regional or pan-Indian formations through time. The early studies within this framework were marked by a concern with state formation, which in turn directed attention towards social and economic change in regions and their constituents. Instead of generalising at the trans-regional or subcontinental level and across centuries, these works departed from established historiography by conceding space to regions—and within them, subregions and localities—and identifying stages in the trajectory of their transformation. This bottom-up perspective distinguished them from their influential predecessors.1

It needs to be mentioned that alternative histories did not involve a shift from the basic concerns of the discipline or moving into radically different new pastures. Nor were its practitioners in opposition to the prevailing state-of-the-art; they only practised it differently. They engaged with the study of society, economy and the state across regions, but introduced amendments and fine-tuned inherited ideas to suit their requirements of engaging with regions. They brought new perspectives to bear on existing ideas and in the process provided the latter with new meanings and at instances even turned them on their head. This was made possible by asking new sets of questions of the available source materials, problematising and opening up themes and issues, and simultaneously using new methods of study. To elaborate, inscriptions began to be read in their entirety and with a new-found thoroughness. It was realised that they represented a variety of texts and so were amenable to the techniques used for reading texts. Authorship, context, audience and patronage came to be factored in.2 The introduction of the quantification method to study inscriptional data and contextualising such data brought in greater certainty to the assumptions, especially compared to their earlier tentativeness.3 The reading of literary sources too experienced corresponding changes. Admittedly, advances in historiography were not merely through addition of new source material but by asking different questions, which could shift the discursive ground. If some of these developments went on to impact and change some of our cherished notions, that was but natural.

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