Tale of a city

Print edition : December 17, 2010

What it was to be in an early Indian city is recaptured here in its fullness, but with a difference.

TIME was when cultural history was looked upon as a recitation of the achievements of high culture the glittering things that can be exhibited with pride in the showcase of the past. Art and architecture, for example, were among the subjects that the cultural historian was most fond of; a certain discussion of literature if it was in a classical language and was pandering to what were perceived as the more refined sensibilities was also not unwelcome. A study of the habitus of the city, such as the one that Shonaleeka Kaul makes in the book under review, would hardly qualify for the description of cultural history in that scheme of things. Even if this book is looked at within the narrower definition of urban history, which it is going by its title and contents, it does not conform. For, what is expected of urban histories is a thick description of the processes of urbanisation, settlement patterns including the acre-cent (lately hectare-are) inventories, architecture, trade and commerce, and so on, with a discussion of the causes of decline. If you did it with the archaeologist's spade, so much the better.

And again, as history written with the help of literary sources, this book is apt to raise eyebrows for it can possibly be said that this is not how you use literary sources to write history go and read your basic lessons in historical method once again. You may use normative texts for reconstructing social history; an occasional reference in romantic literature may also be summoned to testify in support of a point in political, social or economic history. Privilege your epigraphy and archaeology as sources for such business. Can kavya literature in Sanskrit, which is notoriously ahistorical, form the first source for urban history?

This book gives the answer in the affirmative, and with great confidence. However, what we have here is not urban history or cultural history in the conventional sense. You are in for disappointment if you are looking for the chrono-topos of urban history or cultural history of the variety sanctioned by received wisdom. The fortunes of a city that can be located on the map with precision and the precise dates of it all within the BC-AD (or, if you want to be politically correct, BCE-CE) scheme will not be available here. Nonetheless, you can get a feel of the city as it impressed the sensibilities of those who expressed them in the kavyas.

If history is a re-enactment of the past, then this book will eminently satisfy you as the experience of what it is to be in an early Indian city is recaptured here in its fullness. The city emerges as more than a number of big and small buildings, often haphazard but sometimes also ordered, and just a centre of trade, administration or pilgrimage. Men and women, who are curiously absent in the histories available to us so far, inhabit the city with all vibrancy and fullness of activity. The city acquires an existence at the ideational level, going beyond the spatial, and gathers notions, images and associations around it.

A study of urbanism

Drawing largely on Sanskrit kavyas of the first millennium C.E, the epics and prescriptive and normative texts such as Mayamata, Arthasastra, Natyasastra and Kamasutra, Shonaleeka Kaul also uses, where relevant, epigraphical and archaeological sources. This, however, is a different kind of exercise. There was a certain distrust of literary sources in urban studies following the archaeological turn of the 1980s. Shonaleeka Kaul shows that if the individual author and his world view, not to speak of the narrative structure of the text, intervene in the exercise of the historian using texts, archaeology is fraught with an equal or greater amount of difficulties: the vertical nature of excavations, losses and erosion over time, the technical insufficiency and, above all, the imagination (or the lack of it) of the archaeologist or historian interpreting the evidence. Thus she establishes a case for using the kavyas for a study of urbanism, shedding inhibitions about the use of romantic literature for historical reconstruction.

More to the point is the kind of questions that she puts to her sources. In a study of ambiences, mentality, and so on, such as the present one, the primacy of such texts cannot be exaggerated. However, the general tone of intolerance in dealing with earlier scholars on urbanism, particularly in dealing with real stalwarts, could have been avoided.

The ambit of the city is captured in a whole chapter, which discusses the external structure, the limits, the settlement geography and suchlike. This shows that even though the descriptions in literature may, or may not, correspond to the realities that are obtained in the city, what literature represents is the city as it may have been. The illustrations from sculpture, reproduced in support of the statements of literature, bear this out. Thus, the fictive nature of the texts notwithstanding, the locational and architectural aspects of the city included in them allow us to assume an authenticity.

The glimpses of settlement geography gathered from the texts help one locate the city within the context of both the villages and unsettled forest land, within the interstices of which it lay. Thus the walls, the gateways, the pleasure gardens, the burning ground, and all that can be seen from outside are recaptured from the texts, both prescriptive and descriptive. So also, the royal road, the royal palace, the residential quarters of other important men and women, the marketplace, and other structures serving commercial, recreational, institutional, religious and administrative purposes come alive here. Alive, also because of the din and bustle of the smithies and other workshops, the noises of the people who gather there from different parts often in tongues unintelligible, the dogs, now snarling at one another and now fast asleep in the various lanes between shops, and other details which contribute to the life of the city. It is this that is wanting in the urban histories that we are used to. The archaeological picture, placed as an appendix to this chapter, eminently supports the arguments framed on the basis of the texts.

What makes the city

However, what make the city itself are more the people who inhabit it. Foremost among them is the nagaraka, the man-about-town. He is the cultivated gentleman par excellence. The archetypal nagaraka in the Kamasutra and his representations in various kavyas are taken up for detailed analysis. He is a connoisseur of the arts and enjoys all that is good in life, with taste and fulfilment. Life for him is a veritable festival, which he indulges tirelessly in. He is also compassionate and efficient.

His female counterpart, the ganika or the courtesan, too gets an equal amount of attention. She is more than a courtesan accomplished in the arts, she is the epitome of refinement. Together, these cultivated gentlemen and comely ladies constitute all that is refined and civilised about the town, its raison d'tre. In fact, going beyond what Shonaleeka Kaul has written, one starts wondering whether the yakshas, kinnaras, gandharvas, siddhas, vidyadharas and so on as well as the apsaras are not inspired by the ideal nagaraka and ganika of the kavyas.

Taken up with the nagaraka and the ganika are the vita and the abhisarika. The vita, translated as the libertine, is defined in the normative texts as something of a panderer, a voluptuary, functioning as an aide and companion to the nagaraka; he is less than the nagaraka only on account of his weak finances, and not inferior ability. So also, the abhisarika. There is an excellent discussion of the kulastri (the family woman), bringing out the predicament of the woman almost always confined to the four walls of the house, with her sexuality controlled. In an insightful comment, Shonaleeka Kaul suggests that the stealthy abhisarika of the night is nothing but the sequestered kulastri by day!

The city is not just for such men and women alone. There are the ascetics, the Brahmanas, the kings and his men, and others who make the city. The life of each of these sections is recaptured with vividness. However, Shonaleeka Kaul seems to have missed a point or two in her enthusiasm to see the out-of-the-way things. For instance, while it is true that most Brahmanas represented in the texts are a far cry from the ideal, there are a few, such as the royal priest of the Abhijnana Sakuntala or the Brahmanas in the Harshacharita who conform to the archetype. The ascetics, too, do not emerge in very kind light in Shonaleeka Kaul's treatment and that is how they are represented in most texts.

The urban experience is captured with all fidelity in this brilliant study. As I mentioned earlier, even if you cannot cartographically and chronologically situate a city with the help of this book, you can feel what it was to be in the city in early India.

Perhaps a couple of elements, which characterised the city, could also have been taken up. For instance, it also took the ruffian, the corrupt, the debaucher, the depraved and the like to make the city, the antithesis of what it was to be civilised, to be a nagaraka. This aspect is missing in Shonaleeka Kaul's study.

Is Sanskrit literature silent about them? Perhaps not. The case of the officers apprehending a thief in Sakuntala comes immediately to mind. The famous Palam Bauli Sanskrit inscription of the reign of Balban describes the city of Delhi in glowing terms but does not fail to mention that it is also the very abode of demons like Patala. This is not to pick holes in an otherwise brilliant study seeing the city in the purple tint should not obscure the dark patches there.

This is a cultural history and urban history with a difference. Philosophers talk about the linguistic turn in historiography; but here is a return to the use of literature not as an about-turn, but as reading texts with a sense of history and writing history with literary sensibility. This book announces that return and does it with confidence.

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