Inquiring Minds: Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam

(The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center.)

Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam is now concluding his tenure as the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at The John W. Kluge Center. His research looks at the first person narratives of early modern India and the new questions facing Indian historians. He lectures on the topic at the Library of Congress on Thursday, July 11. Read more about it here.

Q: Tell us about your current research.

A: This is ongoing research with Muzaffar Alam from the University of Chicago. We’re concerned with first person narratives of India written in a variety of different forms between 1500 and 1800, during the Mughal Empire. This is what we call the early modern period. There’s been a lot of interest in these types of narratives in Europe, the Middle East and China. But in India, for whatever reason, no one has paid too much attention. To the extent that attention has been paid, it’s been mostly focused on memoirs written by the emperors. To get the emperor’s point of view is one thing; it’s quite another to get the view of others in the social structure.

Q: Can you give us a few examples of the kinds of first person texts you’re looking at?

A: One text that is relatively well-known is a text written by a merchant in the 17th century, written in a language similar to today’s Hindi. Interestingly, it is written in verse. It reflects on the author’s life as a merchant and an intellectual. Of the more obscure texts that I’ll be mentioning in my lecture, one is a text written by a man named Bhimsen Saksena who was a secretary, or a scribe, involved in the Mughal campaigns in Southern India. This is a funny case because the text has never actually been published—we are working from the manuscript. The last author is Anand Ram, a very prolific author from the 18th century. He was in the court in Delhi. These are interesting texts because he’s living in a moment with political turmoil. He also enjoys the good life and talks a lot about food. We don’t have a very good history of food in South Asia, so it’s interesting to see the names of dishes and recipes which are essentially the same as now.

Q: Do we have these materials at the Library of Congress?

A: At the Library we have editions and translations. For example, the Library has the whole set of works by the first of these authors. Print editions are rarely available digitally. Many of these things are still in copyright.

Q: What are the ramifications for this research? What gaps does it fill?

A: Actually, historians don’t reason anymore in terms of gaps. That kind of assumes that history is a building that you go at brick by brick. Instead, the attention of historians in India has shifted. The main questions used to be about taxation, peasants and merchants—sometimes with the big question behind us of why we didn’t have an Industrial Revolution in India. We’ve now moved onto other questions. By looking at these autobiographies, we’re opening social and cultural history and finding a different angle of vision.

Q: Does South Asian history particularly resonate with you given your heritage?

A: Yes, but I don’t think that one should insist too much on this. It’s my job to teach everybody, and everyone can learn from each other’s histories. So I like to separate those questions out. No one should be ashamed to study one’s own culture. But sometimes we have a tendency to insist too much that things must associate with our own identity and heritage.

Q: How do you reflect on your time at the Kluge Center and as the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South?

A: The Kluge Chair has significance because I know two of the previous holders, who are both senior colleagues and friends: Romila Thapar and Christopher Bayly. The main thing, though, is the huge set of collections available under one roof here at the Library of Congress. That makes a big difference. Quite nice, too, has been the interaction with the post-doctoral fellows at the Kluge Center. Also it has been a pleasure to get to know the staff in the various reading rooms. It turns out that someone in the Russia Section is the son of an old friend. So that’s been a real treat.

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