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History from Below

rather than with any character or aspect History from Below of the Mahabharata, as Uma would have Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of

prince who would save the Mauryan empire rather than with any character or aspect

History from Below

of the Mahabharata, as Uma would have

Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of ‘Ancient’ India

by Uma Chakravarti; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxx + 328, Rs 595.


truly deem it a privilege to have been asked to review this collection of essays by a “scholar extraordinary”. If a pun is perceived here, the pun is intended. One has always known Uma as a fellow-traveller, walking down dusty roads shouting antiestablishment slogans during the great teachers’ strike of the 1980s. For over three decades, Uma remained an “ordinary” teacher in Miranda House like many of us teaching in the various colleges of Delhi University. Yet, despite her everyday existence as an undergraduate teacher of history, Uma’s many books and essays have won the respect and admiration of the international academia. The present book is an anthology of her thought-provoking research pieces written over a span of 30 years.

Uma’s academic activism can be perceived in most of these essays. As she candidly puts it in her introduction titled ‘History as Practice’, the collection constitutes “an unashamed study of the past from the standpoint of the present”. To those lay persons who still believe that history has largely to do with facts and dates and nothing at all with lived realities, I would suggest that they start by reading her brilliant introduction.

The essays themselves consist of two or three distinctive strands – (a) theoretical essays; (b) essays relating to the socioeconomic structure of ancient India; and

(c) research pieces which would broadly fall under the genre of women’s studies. It is therefore under these themes that I intend to review the author’s writings.

Theoretical Essays

The first of the theoretical pieces is titled ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism and a Script for the Past’. It is noteworthy that the title ought to be taken literally since the essay has no further reference to the Vedic Dasi! Rather the essay looks at the politics that shaped the image of women in the cultural and ideological milieu of colonial India

– a homogenised image of the ideal “pativrata” sati, drawn primarily from the upper caste predominantly brahmanical patriarchal register. In most of the arguments of the “reformers” the “golden age” of Hindu womanhood became synonymous with the “golden age” of the Vedas. Sati both as concept and as practice became the pivot of many of the debates between the orient and the occident. Uma’s essay could be profitably read by combining it with a reading of the book Sati: A Historical Anthology by Andrea Major which has come out in 2007 from the Oxford University Press. This book on sati places in perspective many of Uma’s arguments on the “invention” of an ideal Hindu woman by providing extracts from the nationalist journals and papers, chronicles and records from the princely states written by the British administrators and observers as well as the many writings of the Indian “reformers” like Raja Rammohun Roy.

The second essay ‘Inventing Saffron History: A Celibate Hero Rescues an Emasculated Nation’ locates Uma’s writings squarely within the realms of presentday politics and ideological debates between the “secular” and “Hindutva” forces. Saffronisation and homogenisation of the Indian nation, according to Uma, was achieved partially through the small screen with mega tele-serials such as Ramanand Sagar’s epic serials – Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I must add that Uma should not overlook the active agency of Muslim intellectuals like Musaffar Ali in this enterprise. Nor should she forget the prime slot allotted to Saeed Naqvi for his various episodes on India’s syncretic past. The Sword of Tipu Sultan again which had a nationalist agenda, but not a saffron one, enjoyed considerable popularity on the small screen. Therefore, while agreeing with the author over the homogenisation or nationalism agenda of the state and its most powerful voice, the Doordarshan, I believe that the saffronisation agenda is not so clear since a “fuzzy” syncreticism also seems to have driven the policymakers of Doordarshan.

Uma’s other major argument about the television serial Chanakya as an allegory for a nation in the throes of a crisis, is a point well taken. Dwivedi’s Chanakya, however, had more in common with Machiavelli and his quest for a strong us believe (p 42). The author argues here “In a far-reaching reinterpretation of dharma, the patriotic worshiper of the nation could lie, cheat, bribe and incite in the cause of dharma, where dharma now stood for securing the integrity, unity and brahmanic values of the nation”. While the nationalist agenda is fairly obvious, the brahmanisation part is difficult to understand in view of the fact that Chanakya chose the low-born Chandragupta Maurya as his chief collaborator in empire building. In the ultimate analysis, however, Uma’s reading of the broad purpose of the serial holds together. “What Chanakya emphasises is that if the cultural roots are the same from Taxila to Magadha, then the political frontiers must coincide with cultural boundaries”. While the reviewer is in consonance with the author’s broad arguments one can’t help feeling that at times there is an “over-reading” of the political intent of tele-serials.

Socio-Economic Structure

The next series of essays use Buddhist sources to reconstruct the everyday lives of workers, peasants and dasas in early India. The first of these essays is titled ‘Historical Sociology of Stratification’. Categories like varna, jati and kula are explained in terms of economic differentiation between owner-producers like the gahapati, vanija and gopaka on the one hand, and dasa-karmakaras like agricultural labour who constituted the “have-nots” of the society, on the other. Another division corresponded to the differentiation in skill levels between manual and non-manual skills – accounting, writing and computing being rated as “high” and artisanal work such as leather-working and basketmaking as lowly work. Categories like ‘rathakara’ or craftsmen and ‘tantuvaya’ or weavers, however, have always occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in society. It was pointed out by a scholar [Misra 1975] that as the medium of crafting changed from wood to stone, the status of the carpenters among the rathakara group fell while the status of masons rose. Uma’s interesting piece on social stratification as well as the subsequent essays could also have looked at this shifting category/categories of craftsmen such as the smiths and the weavers who constitute the middle rung of the shudra varna.1

The set of essays on “everyday histories” of the peasants and workers have

Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007 however, effectively fragmented the monolithic perceptions of categories like gahapatis to dasas and karmis. For example, the author draws our attention to the use of terms like brahmana-gahapati and setthi-gahapati to distinguish between brahmin landlords and merchant landlords. Clearly then the gahapatis represent a class, cutting across caste boundaries. The next few essays show the textured meaning of dasa representing a trope constituting of personal servitude, war slavery, debtslavery, etc. Economic distress such as famines also led to the sale of one’s own wife or children by the men resulting in their enslavement. Some instances are also there of daughters being donated as temple devadasis as a result of prayers made by the parents to particular deities. Here clearly not economic compulsions or political coercions but personal choices result in enslavement. The author points out that the term dasa itself is a highly textured one. In contrast to the dasa who is a slave, the Arthashastra refers to dasas who could hold and inherit property (p 70). Some of the dasa-karmakara provided ‘vishti’ or free labour to the state and they have been therefore seen as representative of state slavery (p 82). Uma has also discussed the possibility of vishti being seen as paid but conscripted labour rather than unpaid forced labour (p 84). The dasa-karmakara who constituted agricultural labour were however very different from those made to offer their labour free as vishti. The last part of this essay has a special section on the physical and sexual exploitation of women slaves in early Indian society. These three essays on social stratification and the complex structure of labour relation could be profitably combined with a reading of the chapter on ‘The Social Philosophy of Buddhism and the Problem of Inequality’.

Essays on Women’s Studies

I now come to the last group of essays which could be broadly classified as falling under gender studies. Her essay on ‘Gender, Caste and Labour: Ideological and Material Structure of Widowhood’ has been re-printed like many of her other seminal essays from Economic and Political Weekly. Indian widowhood in all its ideological, ritual and material ramifications has been studied by the author in her other research pieces as well [Chakravarti 1993] and more recently, in her anthology on widowhood co-authored with Preeti Gill [Chakravarti and Gill 2001]. The next couple of essays discuss women-oriented myths, especially the representation of women in the popular tradition of the Jataka and the zig-zag course of the development of the persona of Sita in what Uma terms Sitayana. Her essay on the Sita myth shows how many of the major elements of Ramayana recur in most versions such as the “Lakshmana rekha” or the abduction of Sita and her “agni pareeksha” or, in fact, later interpolations. The last essay in this remarkable collection situates the ‘Bhaktin in South Indian Traditions’. She takes up for a critical analysis the hagiographies of four women saints – Andal, Avvaiyar, Karaikkal Ammaiyar and Akka Mahadevi. This essay was first published in the special issue of Manushi on ‘Women Bhakta Poets’ in 1989. She shows how marriage and familial obligations posed problems and challenges for women in ways which were completely different from the male experience. While male saints could opt for marriage and still seek liberation, for women, the two seem to have been mutually exclusive. Neither Karaikkal Ammaiyar nor Andal, or somewhat later in historical time, Akka Mahadevi or Lal Ded could reconcile domesticity with their quest for transcendence. It is noteworthy that the Manushi anthology on women saints set the tone for many in-depth studies on this theme.2

Uma Chakravarti’s book reflects a life time of research and academic activism and no brief review could do adequate justice to this seminal work. It is interesting that many of her polemical essays were first presented to the academia through the Economic and Political Weekly which has always provided a forum for public debates on major issues. This book is indispensable reading for scholars, young researchers and those interested persons who wish to understand what “history from below” is all about.




1 I have specifically looked at craft and artisanal communities in an effort to situate them within the socio-economic milieu of early peninsular India. See ‘Vishwakarma Craftsmen in Early Medieval Peninsular India’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient,

No 643, 2004, pp 548-82.

2 Among many others like Vidya Daheja or Parita Mukta, this includes my own books: Divinity and Deviance: Women in Virasaivism, OUP, 1996; and Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality in South India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 1997.


Chakravarti, Uma (1993): ‘Social Pariahs and Domestic Drudges: Widowhood among Nineteenth Century Poona Brahmins’ in Social Scientist, Volume 21, Nos 9-11, September-November, pp 130-58.

Chakravarti, Uma and Preeti Gill (2001): Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood, Kali for Women, Delhi.

Misra, R N (1975): Ancient Artists and Art-Activity, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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Economic and Political Weekly April 21, 2007

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