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Volume: IV, Issue: I, January-June 2013

Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, The Changing Gaze, Regions and the Constructions of Early India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, xvi 340pp., ISBN 0-19-808919-8


Book Review by Subrata Kumar Acharya

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The dominant historiography in post-Independence India is largely characterized by conceptualizing the historical development in early India in the line of the so-called ‘Marxist-Nationalist’ ideology. The Marxist intervention of looking at the state society of early India had a centric or epicentric perspective that was largely confined to the Gangetic valley and its fringes.

This opened up a major school of thought which has been popularized as the feudal model of state formation. The centric or epicentric perspective of the feudal model failed to address the structural polity, socio-economic dynamics and cultural pluralism of the variegated regions. It is because of these limitations, in the last three-four decades, scholars began to identify the regional specificities as chief motivating forces for understanding the historical processes in definite regions. This has been fruitfully argued in the context of early medieval Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and orissa.

Bhairabi Prasad Sahu’s present monograph The Changing Gaze is a change in perspective in understanding regions, their interactions and transformations. Regions were characterized by variability, conflict and change, involving unequal networks of relationships between the centres and peripheries or even the sedentary peasants, pastoralists and hill people within the wider context of the dialectics of relationships between sub-regional, regional and trans-regional (p. 19). The twelve articles selected and incorporated in the volume have been written by him in the last two decades and they are arranged in three parts, each having four articles. “About half of them are focused on Orissa and Chhatisgarh while the rest, using evidence and works on the varied regions, have a spatial reach” (p. xii). In the learned Introduction at the beginning (pp. 1-28), the problems and perspectives in understanding regions in the context of an over-arching and unifying cultural domain have been spelt out. He believes, “Complex, plural societies across regions were not held together mechanically, but sustained through processes of emulation, competition and antagonistic toleration” (p. 5).

In Part I the early pattern of social and cultural change have been narrated within the broad framework of the dominant Brahmanical ideology. The distinction between the textual conceptions of caste and the actual foundation of the origin of the caste society is envisaged and it is argued that the heterogeneous foundation of the caste society was shaped by political and social processes. As in other regions of peninsular India, he could see a two-tiered varṇa structure in Orissa comprising of the Brāhmaṇas and the non-Brāhmaṇas, and boldly assert that for historical reasons, the kṣatriya and vaiṡya varnas did not emerge in the region. The idea of the Kali Age as mentioned in the epics and purāṇas and in the inscriptional literature of early medieval India is usually viewed as a crisis or a perception of threat to the established order. However, the author has very convincingly portrayed it as a crisis of confidence and attributed its construct to the ascendancy of the Brahmanical ideology. “The idea or the metaphor of the Kaliyuga, thus, like many other such symbols, imageries and idioms, was a product of times and it beautifully encapsulates the contemporary historical processes of change in the region” (p. 56). In Chapter four (pp. 80-105), the historical evolution of Daksiṇa Koṡala (western Orissa and Chhatisgarh) as a sub-region is traced. It seeks to understand the trajectory of socio-cultural transformation in the region from an early phase of segmented localities to the constitution of a large supra-local community identity bound by a commonly shared cultural system. He has very convincingly argued this by taking into account the already excavated sites, as well as the epigraphic and numismatic finds from the locality. In the evolution of the structure of the polity, the growth of rural economy, the rural settlements, the transition to a caste society, the royal patronage to popular and autochthonous deities, and in the distinctiveness of its art forms and architecture, he could identify the personality of the sub-region.

In Part II, the trajectories of regional polities have been sketched. The changing perspective in the historiography of the state in early India over the past several decades has been dealt with in Chapter 5 (pp. 109-128). The way Romila Thapar treated the origin of the state in north India and the Mauryan state, and the ways of seeing the emergence of state in different regions by others like B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Hermann Kulke, Y. Subbrayalu and S. Seneviratne have been critically estimated by the author. In the subsequent two chapters the author has studied the early state in Orissa and the evolution of the structure of polity in early medieval Dakṣiṇa Koṡala and beyond. As regards the origin of state in early Orissa, the details of the emergence of localities and the transition to early historical period are not clear. The historic-cultural stages were uneven over the region. While some localities, particularly those in the coastal tract, acquired early visibility, others inland were still characterized by ill-defined, at times even exasperatingly hazy, contours of development. (p. 142). However, in the early medieval period this hazy and uneven development disappeared by the conception of kingship, constitution of courtly ideology, expansion of agriculture and the spread of peasant society. This transformation was possible because of the contemporary processes. “These processes and institutions were derived not from the undoing of earlier large political systems but from changes from within local societies, which were propelled by a network of linkages. The emergence of larger polities was shaped by gradual territorial and political integration of peasant localities.” (p. 174). Similarly, regarding the power of legitimacy the author has very rightly pointed out that it was the cult of war as the ideology of the ruling elites in the early historical phase that legitimized power. But in the early medieval period the shift was made over to the Brahmanical ideology. It was the Brāhmaṇa-kṣatriya relationship, involving the patronage for one and validation for the other, which was instrumental in the legitimization of power.

In Part III, the pattern of regional land systems, rural settlements, rural society, agrarian economy, peasantry and many more similar issues have been discussed. The author has mapped the pattern of the evolution of the agrarian regions from the Harappan times to the Gupta and post-Gupta period and concludes, “The formation of agrarian bases at the locality and sub-regional levels was an ongoing process and it introduced a new kind of comparable socio-political structure throughout.” (p. 230). In the subsequent chapters the main focus is on the state formation, agrarian economy and changes in early medieval Orissa. The conviction of the author that ‘Orissa presents a good case of feudal exaction and peasant subjection’ (p. 269) and his projection of Brāhmaṇas as ‘mostly humble landlords’ (p. 267) are two contradictory positions. However, his take on uneven social formation and pattern of growth across regions by establishing a comparison between Kaliṅga and Khijjiṅgakoṭṭa, the two sub-regions of Orissa, is well founded. While analyzing the historiography of the dissent and protest of the subjected people against the established order, he is one with many historians who examined the situation in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But in the case of Orissa, he observes that although there are instances of tribal hostility against the aspects of state society, yet, the cultic appropriation of the autochthonous deities and caste-tribe continuum as evidenced in the cult of Jagannāth, subsided possible threats to the established order. Thus, ‘The Changing Gaze’ is a change in perspective and a definite shift from centre to periphery. In the whole narrative the author makes us understand the creative processes that influenced the network of linkages between the localities, regions and trans-regions. His work is found to be a significant supplement to the processual approach and integrative paradigm, and this he did within the broad framework of the ‘Indian feudalism’ model. His change of perspective should never be viewed against this ideological position. The author deserves huge appreciation for unfolding before the historians the whole lot of ideas and processes in studying the state in early India. It is a welcome addition to the existing literature on the subject.