Story of synthesis

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

THIS is a most fascinating study of Indian history and culture from 1200 to 1750 by two scholars from different disciplines. Catherine B. Asher is an art historian. Cynthia Talbot is a historian. The book was written together when they could meet; more often, it was evolved in cyberspace. It is profusely illustrated with photographs and maps.

Cross-cultural interaction was particularly significant in the period covered by the book. Beginning in 1200, much of north India came under the control of warriors whose family origins lay in Afghanistan or Central Asia. They were not large in number, but their political importance encouraged an influx of educated immigrants from the Islamic world and closer ties between South Asia and the regions to its west. The Central Asian ethnic heritage, Persian cultural orientation, and Islamic religious affiliation of this ruling class introduced many novel elements into the subcontinent, including different forms of art and architecture, political ideologies and practices, and techniques of warfare. Muslim scholars, mystics, and institutions also received much patronage from this new political elite, leading eventually to the presence of a sizeable Muslim population in the subcontinent. The already pluralistic human landscape of South Asia was enriched as a consequence and, over time, a composite culture developed that drew on both the Indic and Perso-Islamic traditions.

This composite culture came under threat after Partition and not only from the open votaries of Hindutva. It is, therefore, important to recall how it was formed and what it did to weld a great nation into one. Regional societies vary as much as do, say, England, France and Italy, and yet they also share a European culture. The varied regions of India share its composite culture. A multiregional perspective on historical developments and an interest in the interaction between Indic and Islamic cultures and peoples are the hallmarks of this book.

Rather than focus almost exclusively on the Gangetic north, it adopts a wider view that also covers events and processes taking place in southern India and elsewhere. It emphasises the extent to which cultural productions and practices inspired by Perso-Islamic traditions became integral to the subcontinent as a whole over the long run.

South Asias art and architecture, its political rituals, its administrative and military technologies, and even aspects of its popular religions were deeply inflected by the new forms introduced, beginning in 1200. They are well described in this book. Another distinguishing feature is its coverage of political culture, particularly as manifested in elite cultural productions such as paintings and monuments.

The authors discard John Stuart Mills periodisation, which gave a false religious colour to the phases of Indian history. They hold that: The twin processes of growing Perso-Islamic influence and increasing regionalisation have started gaining momentum by 1200 and continue to flourish with vigour up to our ending point in 1750. Soon thereafter, the course of Indian history becomes more and more entangled with that of Britain, and its political culture undergoes substantial transformation, ushering in a different age. However, we do not endorse the label Muslim that was applied to this period in histories of South Asia written during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in contrast to the preceding Hindu and subsequent British periods. The use of a religious affiliation to characterise the first two sets of rulers, Hindu and Muslim, is highly objectionable.

They view the era from 1200 to 1750 as the foundation for the highly pluralistic human landscape of modern South Asia, with its composite culture that draws on both Indic and Islamic high traditions in many and rich regional variants.

The work brings a fresh perspective on our history. Its empathy for India is pronounced but does not impair the rigour of its analyses. It is very relevant to our times.

Their conclusion merits quotation in extenso: During the second half of the nineteenth century, simultaneously with their increasing antipathy toward Indian Muslims, the British conviction that South Asian society was fundamentally divided along religious lines grew stronger. This conviction was not only expressed in British modes of thinking about South Asias peoples but also in their policies toward them. In the long run, the British thus intensified and solidified the sense of religious difference within the subcontinent, leading Indian nationalists and others in the early twentieth century to cast the Muslims of Indias past as similar to the colonial British of their present in being alien invaders and oppressors. The Sangh Parivar echoed this.

The British presented the great rulers of Vijayanagar not as kings who promoted a cosmopolitan culture that valued Islamicate traditions, but rather as champions of Hinduism against predatory Muslims. The situation is no better today, as Hindu nationalists refute any contributions Indian Muslims may have made, while their common South Asian heritage is often denied in Pakistan.

All of this has served to obscure the rich composite culture of South Asia that we have written about in this text, which started to come into being after 1200 and fully matured during the Mughal era. We stand firm in our own conviction that South Asian society and culture cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of the many interactions and exchanges, some negative but many positive, between Muslim and non-Muslim traditions and peoples. In Pakistan, its Hindutva counterparts, the Muslim bigots of its Establishment, must be fought by its sane elements with the same vigour with which Indian secularists fight the Sangh Parivar.

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