CSAS Lecture Series | Writing History in Colonial Times: The Space and Time of Religious Polemic in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Southern India
South Asian history after the subaltern moment has moved to a writing of the intellectual history of colonial India. While at one level this signifies an attempt to take seriously forms of intellection by indigenous intellectuals, in its form and method it may signify a return to an elite history that privileges elite thought, national identity, and a hermetic understanding of writing and texts over the contextual and miscegenated spaces of historical imagination. Moreover, it continues with the dichotomy instituted by subaltern history of doing elite thought and subaltern action. Menon suggests we need to look at the idea of itinerant thought, of the circular relation between text and contexts and the necessarily transnational space of intellection.
The space within which power is conceptualized is multiple, contingent and miscegenated. While researching anti-Christian missionary polemic in late 19th century in Kerala through the writings of a religious figure Chattampi Svamikal, it became clear to Menon that not only were several conceptions of power involved here but also differing conceptions of territory. The enterprise of colonial history writing had created a unilinear narrative of native political and social decline within a territory produced and defined by conquest. Chattampi Swamikal attempted to recover religious traditions not only from a larger Dravidian space to counter this delimiting of territory; he also drew upon the circulation of polemic generated by centuries of Protestant-Catholic conflict in Europe as much as rationalist critiques of the very idea of Christianity itself proceeding from the Enlightenment. Added to this mix were the Hindu apologetics generated by Brahmin intellectuals in Jaffna, Bengal, and Maharashtra which drew upon indigenous philosophical traditions as much as the detritus of intra-Christian debate. Pilgrimages, itinerant preaching, pamphleteering and the movements of labour from SE Asia and Ceylon carried these debates across political, religious and linguistic boundaries.
Dilip Menon studied in Delhi, Oxford (Balliol) and Cambridge (Trinity) and was a Fellow of Magdalene College Cambridge before returning to India to take up teaching posts and fellowships in Trivandrum, Hyderabad and Delhi. He has held postdoctoral and teaching positions at Cambridge, Yale, Zentrum fur Moderner Orient (Berlin)and Maison des Science de les Hommes (Paris) and has published three books and several articles on caste, socialism and modernity in India. Menon is currently working on a book project on the historical imagination in South India between 1860 and 1960 to be titled "Thinking History in Colonial Times." He is currently the Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, and Director Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.
Cosponsored by the African Studies Center.