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The Resources of History: Tradition, Narration and Nation in South Asia.

Edited by JACKIE ASSAYAG. Etudes thematiques, vol. 8. Paris and Pondicherry: ECOLE FRANCAISE D'EXTREME-ORIENT, INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY, 1999. Pp. xvii + 374.

This volume presents the proceedings of the social sciences half of an international symposium on Indology and on the social sciences held in Pondicherry in January 1997. Most of the twenty-two contributors are anthropologists, as is the editor. The theme originally proposed to the participants in the symposium was "The Resources of History; Traditions: Transmission or Invention?," a reexamination of the theory set forth in the influential volume edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, and visited on India by Nicholas Dirks and others. The fact that many contributions spontaneously addressed issues of temporality, past, present, and future, according to the three concepts of tradition, narration, and nation led to a change in the subtitle of the proceedings. The papers are arranged in three roughly equal sections: "Sacred Texts and Regionalism or Nationalism," "Construction of Regional Traditions," and "Imagined Narratives of Regionalism or Nationalism."

The editor observes that "the textual approach predominates in this volume," a circumstance that "the anthropologist will regret" (p. 25). By this is meant that unwritten practices have been neglected, not that the authors' methodology is what a philologist would recognize as textual criticism. The only contribution that fits squarely in this latter mode is that of Alf Hiltebeitel on the Alha Hindi folk epic in the Sanskrit Bhavisyapurana. Yet other papers, particularly in the first section of the volume, command the interest of humanists as well. They inelude those by Gerard Colas on the reworking of "Vedic" paradigms in medieval Vaikhanasa liturgies, and of L. S. Vishwanath on the successive recourse to texts, Shastric and Puranic, and to empiricist knowledge by the British to suppress female infanticide in Northern India. Chris Fuller's paper on the teaching of the Agamic tradition to temple priests in contemporary Tamilnadu is particularly noteworthy in that it points to a tension--which, one might add, manifests itself most strongly in the Indian diaspora--between the traditional pedagogical mode of memorization and a modernist emphasis on understanding the sacred texts first and foremost. In this dialogic situation, Fuller argues, the project of the French Institute of Pondicherry to collect and critically edit Agamic texts emerges as an influential player. This study is nicely collocated with another by Rich Freeman on the interplay between changes in ritual management and concerns for authenticity in the contemporary project of Nambutiri Brahmans to revitalize the Tantric tradition in Kerala. Readers interested in a satire of the textual editing process for the Indian epics, the Mahabharata in particular, may turn to Peter van der Veer's piece, "Monumental Texts: The Critical Edition of India's National Heritage."

Among sources examined here that have contributed to the construction of regional traditions are family biographies in Urdu of inneteenth-century Muslim women in Hyderabad (Sylvia Vatuk), a Kanoada hagiography of a saint (pir) whose "biography evokes a kind of salutary confusion between Islam and Hinduism" (p. 187, Jackie Assayag), along with contemporary folk theater in Tamil Nadu, oral traditions among artisans of Karnataka, and current architectural design in Bbutan. Issues addressed in the final section are the uses, transformations, and myth-making to which historical figures may be subjected for political purposes by later generations, as has been the case with Pratapaditya by nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians and writers of Bengal (Aniruddha Ray), Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi in colonial and nationalist interpretations (Marc Gaborieau), and Shivaji at the hands of the Shiv Sena (Gerard Heuze). How potent mythologizing processes can be in local politics and in the nationalist debate is illustrated in Veronique Benei's account of the 1989 public burning of a Kolhapur District Gazetteer supposed to have defamed the turn-of-the-century ruler and social reformer Shahu Maharaj.

This is a rich collection, in which a multiplicity of voices and representations come to the fore. No attempt has been made to enforce a uniformity of approach, or even format. Regrettably, no index has been provided.
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Author:Rocher, Rosane
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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