Literature as a source of history

Print edition : May 27, 2000
Interview with David Shulman.

David D. Shulman, Professor of Indian Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, studied Tamil under John Marr. He is the author of Tamil Temple Myths (1980), based on his Ph.D. thesis on the sthala puranas, The King and the Clown in T amil Myth and Poetry (1985), God as a Customer (1992), with Velcheru Narayana Rao and A. K. Ramanujan on Telugu padams, and The Poem at the Right Moment: Verses from Pre-modern South India, with V. N. Rao (1998). He has translated Sunda ramurthy Nayanar's Thevaram into English. He is now studying Tamil and Telugu folk epics and prabandhams. S. Theodore Baskaran spoke to Shulman when he was in Chennai recently. Excerpts:

Can you tell us about your engagement with South Indian ballads and their place in Indian historiography?

This is the subject of a book I am writing with Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Velcheru Narayana Rao. Earlier we wrote a book about the Nayaka period in Tamil Nadu. This new book is a sequel to that. In the earlier book we dealt with not only the social and pol itical structure of Tamil Nadu during that period, but really the world of the inner imagination - what it was like to live in the 17th and 18th century Tamil Nadu. What were the shifts that were happening in the composition of this inner imaginative wor ld?

So this is taking us a step further in the direction of historiography. We are used to being told that India has no historiography, no historiographical literature. And therefore no history and that Indians think in terms of millions of years, cyclical a nd recurrent. This is a colonial perspective that is clearly absurd. Anyone who has firsthand experience of the medieval literature of South India knows that this is absurd. On the other hand, I think we are experiencing today, both inside and outside In dia, an overreaction in the other direction - a kind of post-Modern decolonising vision which tries to assert its history at any cost without any sense of what constitutes the internal logic of an Indian historiography. So basically what we argue in this book is that in India, as in all human cultures, there is a natural and intuitive distinction between reports that are meant to be factual and reports that are not considered factual; the latter may be true but not factual. Facticity and truth are not i somorphic. So when one fully comes to grips with this distinction that is inherent in the entire range of Indian genres, then the presence of powerful historiographical impulses suddenly becomes transparent. At first it might have appeared opaque because if you are stuck in a map of genres in which all you have is puranas, ithihasa puranas, kavyas and ballads, you cannot see the internal distinctions within these genres, and then history too would disappear. That was the situation in the 19th and most of the 20th century as well. We inherited this notion that these are ballads and they are not historical.

So through this method we can redeem a number of sources of historical information.

That is right. Look at the late medieval literary output in South India during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. With this internal distinction between fact and fiction built into your understanding of the text, suddenly there is a vast historiographcia l literature that has to be redeemed and seen as history. But these sources are not being preserved.

Take a concrete example - the ballad Desingu Rajan Kadhai. For some reason they tend to sing this more in Madurai and Tirunelveli than in South Arcot district, where the events occurred. There is a whole range of sources of material about Desingu Rajan here. He is a hero from Bundelkhand whose family came to Tamil Nadu; he died fighting the Nawab of Arcot at Gingee in 1714. We want to argue that Desingu Rajan Kadhai is a particular kind of historiographical text, which is one stage removed from the actual event. In the late medieval literature of southern India there is a recurring evolutionary sequence. There is the event itself and then comes an attempt to produce a factual report within that generation. This attempt may be in many form s. It is not always written in a single genre, and then it may take a third stage, which may be a folk epic. The essence of our argument is that if you are sensitive to the texture of the narration - to what is meant to be heard as fact and what as somet hing else - then you will discern history in many genres. Desingu Rajan Kadhai is one such source. It is couched in terms of a template, a pre-conceived structure, which has been superimposed or interwoven with the actual historiographical materia l. It does not mean that they are not historical. They have merely been transformed in another direction. This is, incidentally, true of all historiographical works, in all cultures. All history is organised, selected and transformed in the course of bei ng told or recorded. In the case of the ballad of Desingu Rajan, the first stage of the complete sequence has survived only in some fragmentary form.

Look at Bobbili in Andhra Pradesh, in the northern end of South India. For an event that happened in 1757, we have the whole historical sequence. The Bobbili Yuddhamu, a "ballad" in Telugu about a battle, has a structure analogous to the Desing u Rajan Kadhai. The Telugu text reads like a folk epic. At the same time there is tremendous attention to detail and there is an attempt to collect first-hand information. Then there is a second text 30 years or so later called Pedda Bobbili Rajul a Katha that has no author, whereas the first text has an author. So you see there is the event, then material relatively close to the event and then an eventual reworking of this material in line with the projected, pre-existing template.

You mentioned that such material, particularly the print heritage, is better preserved in Tamil Nadu than in other parts of South India. Many of these ballads and their company drama versions are preserved in print. What is the factor that generates b etter care of these materials in Tamil Nadu?

This may be because the situation in Tamil Nadu is better than that in Andhra Pradesh. I think this comes out of a different culture of the book in Tamil Nadu. Although it is part of the same continuum, the urge to conserve and care for printed materials is stronger in the case of Tamil Nadu than in Andhra Pradesh, for example. But even in Tamil Nadu this cannot be taken for granted. The preservation of 19th and early 20th century printed books depends on a few dedicated individuals. Maybe that is enoug h but that is very critical. Above all it requires an awareness that these texts are worth preserving and that they are in danger of disappearing in all south Indian languages. The example of the Roja Muthiah Library in Chennai, where modern, scientific methods have been put to excellent effect, by a very dedicated group of workers, should be the model for all of South India. Printed books of this period were printed in small numbers and on poor quality paper. So in this climatic condition they do not s urvive for long.

I will give a contrasting example from Andhra Pradesh. As in Tamil Nadu, there was a renaissance of Telugu printing, much of it in Chennai, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The print runs were only 200 to 500 volumes. Most of these volumes have disappeared. It is almost impossible to find these titles now. There was a book titled Padmanabha Yuddhamu, about the royal family of Vijayanagaram in northern Andhra. Written by the well-known poet Chatrati Lakshmi-Narasakavi, the book was publi shed in Rajamundhry. I have been searching for a copy for the last three years. I cannot find one. In the court of Vijayanagaram there was a tremendous production of literary texts. So far I have managed to find only five per cent and that too is disappe aring fast. If there is some deliberate and concerted effort to save this heritage, as there is in Chennai, then maybe we could conserve them.

If we claim these sources, such as ballads, will there be added momentum to Subaltern studies? Do you see that possibility?

My own view is that the creative impetus of the Subaltern movement has declined considerably. Thanks to the work of these historians, people have paid attention to a certain range of material which was not noticed earlier. An important contribution was m ade. But I think we can go a lot further than the conceptual parameters of the Subaltern school. What I am talking about is something different. Not all the sources I am talking about come from Subaltern origin. Many come from a courtly culture, such as the Kavya texts that are historiographical masterpieces. For example there is this 18th century text Rangaraya Charithramu by Dittakavi Narayana Kavi. I think this is a historiographically significant work, now almost forgotten. There is more info rmation here than we know how to deal with. We have lost some of the natural and intuitive criteria to read these materials. We look at it from a colonial point of view that classified these texts as mere fantasies. The essence of this is not only a ques tion of redeeming the sources of information. What is necessary is to see them as historiographical material, by removing our blinkers. The uniqueness of this material is that it offers a different understanding of history.

History is not a monolithic vision. Now nobody says that history should be written in a purely positivistic, 19th century, Rankian mode. Sure, Ranke represented one vision of history that had its advantages and disadvantages. Every historiographical work includes a metaphysical understanding; it has its internal modes and conceptions of causality and temporality and sequence; all of these require formulation by critical readers. If you read these texts, you could see that within these historiographical material of late medieval South India there is also a unique vision - or a range of visions. It has to be formulated, brought back into the awareness of a historically-minded readership.

How do you react to the post-Modernist approach to South Indian historiography?

I myself am very disappointed with the post-Modern idiom. I feel it blurs the critical distinction between fact and fiction. It is a kind of violent overreaction to the overly positivistic assumptions of an earlier historiography. I have to say this in s pite of the intellectual contributions of some so-called post-Modern literary theory. I think within ten years most of it will be forgotten. It is a transient phase with very limited intellectual power. In India, post-Modernist theory has had an afterlif e. Even after it began dying in the West, it has been reincarnated in Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai. I think there is something fundamentally dishonest about it.

In your research you move from Tamil to Telugu and on to Sanskrit with ease. What is the factor that facilitates such a movement?

First, I think that if one has a clear centre - for example, Mylapore, which feels to me more like home than anywhere else in the universe, in a cultural and spiritual sense - then you can move between these languages easily. This also used to be the ca se, not that long ago - before the division into linguistically-based States in the 1950s. Educated scholars and the educated public could easily move from Tamil to Telugu and to Sanskrit, feeling no tension or discomfort. That is still an ideal one coul d aspire to.

In addition, however, there is a certain common basis for all of the Indian languages. The division that we use, as Indo-Aryan or Indo-European and Dravidian languages, may have some historical and typological relevance but it is not close to the reality of the actual Indian linguistic experience. For example, if you typologise not on the basis of etymology but on the basis of syntax then in all Indian languages you find a common syntactical field. If you read medieval Sanskrit with the awareness of at least one Indian mother language, you will find the similarity. We have been blinded by one sort of typological difference and so we have become insensitive to the underlying common nature of the Indian linguistic zone. It depends on where you are rooted . I feel I belong to this area, specifically, to Mylapore.

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