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New History of Marwar

Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan, by Nandita Prasad Sahai

New History of Marwar

Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan,

by Nandita Prasad Sahai; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 286, Rs 595 (hardcover).


andita Prasad Sahai argues in her new history of political life in 18th century Marwar (Jodhpur) that most existing scholarship on state-formation in the early modern India suffers a distinct elite bias insofar as analytic scrutiny rarely extends beyond the activities, ambitions and agendas of the upper caste groups who dominated the formal apparatus of rule. The subaltern groups, such as the artisans of her study (including weavers, dyers, carpenters, cobblers, blacksmiths and so on), if considered at all, typically have been portrayed as unreflecting drones who passively and mutely endured the royal polity’s revenue extractions and forced labour demands. Politics of Patronage and Protest, on the other hand, shows that the levies placed by the late precolonial state on the subaltern groups were informed by a “moral economy” that to some extent empowered low caste groups with a critical capacity for socio-political criticism that frequently animated protests against elite exploitation. Moreover, Sahai suggests that the effect of this moral economy was not merely limited to curbing the levels of upper caste avarice by providing an ethical standard against which the demands of elites were judged, but it also had a more constitutive effect insofar as it informed the organisation of state institutions (particularly, the system of courts and panchayats) and helped define the logic of political action for elites as well as subalterns.

Discourse on ‘Wajabi’

Sahai locates the epistemological roots of 18th century Marwar’s moral economy in the local discourse on ‘wajabi’, or that behaviour which is “appropriate”, “just”, or “proper”. Through her readings of official state records, especially petitions (‘arzees’) written by artisans to the courts requesting redress of their grievances and the state’s responses to these petitions (‘parwanas’), Sahai reveals the textures and contours of this discourse and how, through it, artisan groups comprehended, (re)considered and contested their subordination and exploitation. In pursuing this line of inquiry, however, Sahai does not romanticise the subaltern by endowing her with an autonomous, fully selfconscious and self-constituting subjectivity. Not only does Sahai bring out, in a brutal wealth of detail, the harsh material conditions under which artisans often laboured but, more importantly, she shows how the discourse on wajabi often acted as a double-edged sword that engendered significant degrees of compliance to elite domination by channelling low caste protest into acceptable avenues of expression. As a result, although Marwar’s artisans may have frequently engaged in acts of rebellion, only rarely were their protests radically utopian or fully revolutionary (to invoke the Aristotelian distinction).

Despite its entanglement with elite modes of domination, Sahai nevertheless shows

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

that subaltern protest was not without significant effect. The discourse on wajabi did not produce seamless, internally consistent, and cybernetically integrated webs of signification that blinded artisans to their plight, but rather suffered from various tensions, disjunctions, and contradictions that opened creative possibilities for subalterns to fashion new, self-interested syntheses from constituent elements of this discourse. This type of epistemological “bricolage” may not have been revolutionary, but it was not exactly the same as what preceded it either. In remaining alive to this fact, Sahai historicises the operations of power by showing how it constantly evolved over time in response to historical contingencies and the creative agency that artisan groups exercised through those conditions. In other words, while the simple existence of domination may have been a constant feature of the historical record, the bases on which it rested and the specific forms that it took were not. When stated so baldly this proposition seems self-evident, but it is one that has escaped most studies of domination and resistance and for this reason alone Sahai’s book is important.

But this book offers much more, for it also analyses the recursive links existing between the epistemological dimensions of the discourse on wajabi and the organisation and operations of Marwar’s political economy. To some extent, Sahai shows that the maintenance of the region’s moral economy was only partially the result of a commitment to culturally informed standards of social decency. Indeed, she shows that when given the chance, the elite representatives of the state felt few qualms about hiking levels of taxation or forced labour on artisans beyond traditionally sanctioned levels. Far more important to the maintenance of norms of acceptable extraction was a political economy that placed significant constraints on the levels of exploitation that elite, high-caste patrons could generally exercise. In particular, Sahai shows that artisans generally worked in what might be called a “seller’s market” where skilled labour was still relatively scarce and where labour of all types remained highly mobile and thus able to “up stakes”, with varying degrees of ease, in search of more liberal or more just patronage elsewhere. Two principal conditions enabled this mobility. First, in an economic environment where most artisans, especially those living in villages as opposed to cities, supplemented their incomes with agricultural work. Sahai shows that agricultural land remained relatively plentiful in Rajasthan (despite the harsh desert environment). What was in short supply was the labour to work it. Thus artisans who judged their working conditions too exploitative did not face insurmountable economic obstacles to search for more favourable conditions elsewhere. Secondly, and in conjunction with the foregoing, the political landscape of 18th century Rajasthan remained highly fractured and competitive. The modern, bounded, unitary state with its monopoly on the use of military force and its discrete, functionally specialised, and hierarchically organised administrative bureaucracies did not yet exist. Not only were there a multiplicity of overlapping and interpenetrating, rival polities, each attempting to attract skilled labour to their domains but even “within” polities, sovereignty was distributed amongst a bewildering array of (often) competing co-sharers (both military clients and other religious and mercantile status groups), all of whom vied for the services artisans provided. Thus, where moral suasion failed, the capacity for flight became a powerful weapon in artisans’ contestations and negotiations with elites.

Domination and Resistance

The book is composed of six chapters, which one can usefully divide into three sections. The first section provides a theoretical introduction (chapter one) and background to the local setting (chapter two). Sahai’s theoretical introduction sensitively situates her interest in the discourse on wajabi at the confluence of two separate, ongoing debates concerning state-formation in late precolonial India and the relationship between domination and resistance (especially, as inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s notions of hegemony and counter-hegemony). Chapter two charts the rise of Marwar’s political fortunes during the 18th century in the wake of the long decline of the Mughal empire and explores the role of craft production and trade in this political florescence.

The next three chapters collectively form the empirical heart of Sahai’s book insofar as they explicitly concern the lives of Marwar’s artisans. The first of these chapters explores the relationship between artisans, local caste councils (jati panchayats), and the state’s juridical institutions. It is here that Sahai makes her case that subaltern protest was never truly revolutionary. Although jati panchayats and state courts were more or less independently constituted and developed as the result of somewhat different social and political pressures, Sahai shows how a type of symbiotic synergy developed between them that directed and regulated forms of artisan protest in subtle, yet powerful, ways. While accepting that their protests were never fully self-constituting, the following two chapters, on the other hand, attempt to recover some limited degree of agency on behalf of artisans. Chapter four focuses on Marwar’s rural villages and maps the triadic relations that existed between the kingdom’s ruling elite, local landed intermediaries and artisans. Here Sahai shows how artisans exploited tensions and rivalries amongst upper caste elites in order to defend their traditional rights and prerogatives. Moreover, she reveals a number of pragmatic steps that artisans took in order to strengthen their position in their negotiations. For example, she shows how rural artisans enforced monopolies on trade as well as regulated the numbers of apprentices who were permitted to take up certain trades in order to keep their wares and services relatively scarce. Chapter five examines a similar triad of relations in Jodhpur’s urban ‘qasbah’ towns but this time involving artisans, merchants and the state. Again Sahai delineates a number of pragmatic strategies that artisans developed in order to maintain their status and wellbeing vis-à-vis more powerful urban groups.

The last chapter of the book is in many ways the most ambitious and potentially innovative because it attempts to chart how the discourse on wajabi was transformed during the course of the late 18th century when the marathas were extending their influence into the region. Sahai argues that the maratha revenue regime placed novel stresses on the Marwar treasury leading to a significant erosion of the moral dimensions of wajabi during the later part of Vijay Singh’s reign. While one might not agree with Sahai’s totally negative characterisation of the effects of the marathas on Rajasthani society nor with her narrative of “civilisational” decline (a long-standing colonial hangover in the historiography of Rajasthan), Sahai is certainly correct to view the various tensions within the discourse as providing grist for creative rearticulations of its meanings and orientations by elites (as well as subalterns). Thus, Sahai shows that power has a meaningful history whose trajectories of change are in urgent need of being charted.



Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

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