Dr. Ramakrishn Bhandarker

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Excerpt from Writing Regional Consciousness: Writing Maratha History and Regional Identity in Modern Maharashtra. Prachi Deshpande [1]

bhandarker in phalke's journey [2]


New engagements with the Past

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the colonial education system drastically altered the importance and reach of history. History became a powerful instrument of empahasizing Western superiority and triumph over the Orient and an integral part of colonial discourse on Indian society, but also became a means of refuting this discourse and expressing collective identities of different kinds. 10. At the same time, its practice was not longer restricted to scribes with a graceful hand sought after by notables, but part of a pedagogical process that every aspirant to a job in the colonial administration and a middle class existence had to undergo. The history taught in government schools and colleges was almost entirely European in material and method, with an emphasis on chronology and political history. The history of India was taught every year in schools and every othe year or so at the college level, but it was not until the 1870’s that Maratha history was introduced into college curricula, as an optional subject for the B.A.level. 11. The first generation of English-educated Marathi intellectuals, accordingly, comprehended History as a subject essential to the advancement of mankind, along with other ‘sciences’ such as logic, mathematics, grammar and ethics and part of a wider genre of ‘useful subjects’. 12. Some early writings such as those by Lokhitwadi or M.G.Ranade soon took on some patriotic stirrings, but these were still a far cry from the later identification of Hisory as a useful plank against colonial rule and or fenerating nationalist pride. 13.

The first concerted engagement of the new Marathi middle class with an aspect of the Indain past was in the field of Indology, an interest greatly encouraged not only by the increased interest in Sanskrit literature and comparitive philology among European scholars, but also by the government’s continued patronage to Sanskrit learning and the search for Sanskrit manuscripts. The Indian scholars in this field, by the late nineteenth century, not surprisingly, were all Brahmans, but these were not traditional shastris; they were Western educated men, well versed in the rationalist scientific tradition. The best known among thisgroup of Indologists was the liberal reformer, author of several Sanskrit textbooks and Professor of Sanskrit at the Elphinston and Deccan Colleges, Sir Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar. The principal thrust of Indological research was on Sanskrit texts and poetry. Indian writers and European Indologists frequently debated the antiquity and ‘classicism’ of Sanskrit literature in general and the authenticity and reliability of specific texts. Indian scholars spent much energy painstakingly denouncing European suspicions, such as K.T. Telang’s refutation of the German Sanskritist Albert Weber’s theory that the Ramayana had been copied from Homer. 14. In attempting to establish a civilizational parity between the ancient West and India, Indian Sanskritisists such as Bhadarkar firmly placed themselves within the new discourses of scientific research and comparitive philology and emphasized the linguistic connections between classical languages like Greekk an Sanskrit.

Bhandarkar’s attempts to apply new ‘scientific’ parameters to judge this ancient material to avoid adversial debates and arrive at its ‘truth’, however, led him towards a consensus with his European counterparts about the lack of a genuine historical consciousness in ancient India. Bhandarkar discounted most of the ancient Indian texts as sources for history because their objective had been ‘to please… the reader and excite the feeling of wnder” rather than to “ record events as they occurered’ and tehrfore dismissed the epics, charitas of kings and any text with a hint of hyperbole, as a usable historical source. He added, however that they were the main source for understanding the ‘thoughts and feelings, aims and aspirations, and the manners and customs of the people… and present to us a picture of the life and civilization of the period.” 16. While a political history, therefore, could not be gleaned from these ancient texts, cultural matters could certainly be ascertained. Indological research, thus, came to explore the Sanskrit corpus through the framework of ‘literature’ and ‘religion’, rather than history.

If Brahmans dominated this pool of Maharashtrian intellectuals, why didno’t this particular period of ancient history with its ‘classical’ bent become the primary focus for patriotic and historical imaginings? With exclusive linguistic access to these texts, this elite could construct a glorious classical past that also emphasized Brahman social and political leadershi throughout Indian history. The answer lies in this very ‘culturalist’ classification of the ancient texts as sources not for political history but civilisational information. As Partha Chatterjee has persuasively argued, one of the most important responses of colonial Indian society’s response to colonialism was centred on the issue of power, and historical writing was deeply imbricated in this question of power, its loss and regeneration under the naionalist project. 17. While cultural power could definitely be located in a vibrant civilization that expressed itself through a classical language, religion and ritual, it was ultimately the issue of political power that was most crucial to the creation of a viable and substantive modern, national identity. From the very beginning Indological scholarhship, including that of Indians such as Bhandarkar, not only highlighted the ‘literary’ and ‘cultural’ approach towards ancient India, but also ended up re iterating the argument in colonial discourses about the lack of a genuine historical consciousness in pre-colonial Indian society. Moreover, the increasingly positivistic historical method that interpreted political history in narrow terms of battles and kinds underscored the foggy political picture of ancient India that the Sanskrit material presented. Unable to fire the nationalist imagination of the middle classes, Indology remained, in the end, the preserve of a few scholars who did not really lead or influence historical debate and questions in the Marathi public sphere.

The low cast thinker and activist Jotirao Phule, who also wrote at length on Indian history, presented an early, radical alternative to the Indologists.

10. Sumit Sarkar, ‘The Many Worlds of Indian History’. Writing Social History, Delhi, 1997, p. 13 11 . “Syllabus of Studies for the School Department’, R.V.Parulekar and C.L.Bakshi eds. Selections from the Records of the Governments of Bombay, 2 vols., Vol. 1, Bombay, 1953, pp.176-177 12. This was how Bal Gangadhar Shastri Jambhekar, one of the ost talented and prolific generations of early intellectuals described it. G.G. Jambhekar, Memoirs and Writings of Acharya Bal Gangadhar Shastri Jambhekar 1812-1846: Pioneer of the Renassance in Western India and Father of Modern Maharashtra, 4 vols. Vol. 2, Poona, 1950, page 192 13. Lokhitwadi a.k.a. Gopal Hari Deshmukh, frequently wrote on historical topics in his famous ‘hundred letters’ to the Marathi newspaper Prabhakar in the 1840’s. See S.R.Tikekar ed. Lokahitavadinchi Shatapatre ( The Hundred Letters of Lokahitavadi). Aundh, 1940. Also see M.. Ranade, “ English Essay Beta, Elhphinstone School Paper, 1858. 14. K.T. Telang, Was the Ramayana copied from Homer? A Reply to Prof. Weber, Delhi, 1972. {1873}. 15. R.G. Bhandarkar, “ The Critical, Comparitive and historical Method of Inqiry,” in N.B. Utgikar and V.G.Paranjpe, eds. Collected Works of Sir R.G.Bhandarkar, Poona, 1933 [1888]. P.363. 16. Ibid. pp. 335-366 17. Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World.

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