Prof. Dr. Tanika Sarkar (Senior Fellow, JNU History Retd.)

Birth of a Genre: History-writing and Identity-formation among Modern Bengali Hindus

1 November 2018 – 30 April 2019

History never featured as a formal academic discipline or a part of a pedagogical syllabus at any level in pre-colonial Bengal, even though court chronicles and hagiographies did, occasionally, include strong elements of a historical sensibility.  A vernacular historical apparatus, however, grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, assuming institutionalized forms within and outside the schoolroom. Predominantly local or regional, they occasionally encompassed the national and the global, too, balancing the foursome in interesting ways. 

I discuss some Bengali Hindu histories written between the 1860s and the 1920s:  the years being formative for a modern sense of the past, as also for a Hindu-Bengali identity-formation. I look at textbooks, English and Bangla, and at popular histories meant for lay readers. Some were recognizably academic works. Others were largely antiquarian. I try to locate their diversity as well as discursive regularities.

I focus largely on local histories:  districts, cities, small towns, royal estates. It is interesting to observe, nevertheless, how the local came to understand itself as local, and how its specific personality was produced within a spectrum of adjacent identities. A Bengali Hindu identity, too, was simultaneously forged at the intersection of the local, the regional and the global-imperial:  each spatial term being relational, each deriving self-understanding from a comparison with others.