Kāvali Brothers and the Origins of Modern Historiography in India
By Rama Sundari Mantena
Assistant Professor of History, Department of History,
University of Illinois
I have been engaged in the study of everyday practices surrounding the acts of collecting, surveying, and antiquarianism in the early colonial period in south India. It is through this study that I have come to argue that new practices of history were disciplined by an intellectual encounter, rather than suggest that there was a diffusion of ideas and concepts as a result of the imposition of colonial rule. In other words, the discipline of history was not simply a European ‘import.’ The modern idea of history and history writing was not a neatly packaged body of knowledge that had been formed back in England and had then been simply transported and disseminated in India. Instead, it might be more apt to view historical practice as undergoing profound change and as a culture of historicism that was taking root simultaneously in England and India in the last decades of the eighteenth century. In England, antiquarian practices converged with the practices of philosophical history to produce a new emergent historicism. In India, precolonial practices of history were being appropriated by colonial antiquarian practices, which produced a new historical method that was embraced by both Indians and colonial officials. Conceptualizing it as such disrupts the narrative that colonialism in India was a rule of simple domination. If we consider colonialism or colonial rule to be solely about a rule of dominance, then we might neglect to unravel the discourses that surround practices of history in precolonial India in all their complexity and overlapping allegiances. The explanatory power of the rule of dominance would be at a loss to demonstrate the emergence of new practices of history taking shape in the encounter itself.
In the past few decades, in our zeal to overturn earlier assumptions that colonialism successfully undermined Indian intellectual traditions and practices through the introduction of English education and European knowledge systems, we may have neglected to pay attention to the particular ways in which colonialism enabled Indians to creatively reconfigure Indian traditions and cultures after confronting Western modes of intellectual inquiry. The questions that animate my inquiry are concerned with how we can understand these encounters to get at the emergence of new ideas and concepts while still keeping attuned to the strength of colonial power and the asymmetrical relations that it fostered and sustained. In other words, how do we give weight and power to new ideas without succumbing to the binarism of imperial logic that posits impenetrable differences between European and Indian traditions? One significant practice (amongst multiple enduring practices that emerged in this productive intellectual encounter between Britain and India) was the modern practice of history—especially so its positivist variant.
In my book, The Origins of Modern Historiography in India (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), I examine the work of Colin Mackenzie and his Indian assistants, especially the Kavali brothers, to illuminate the generative nature of the intellectual encounter in the making of an archive for South India. Mackenzie, a Scotsman, was sent by the then governor-general to conduct topographical surveys of the regions after the Mysore wars. Mackenzie’s primary duties were to map the territories and to report on the conditions of the lands. Mackenzie became very intimate with the geography of Hyderabad and the Carnatic regions and therefore played a central role in the military campaigns against the Mysore state. His surveying duties required him to inquire into the revenue systems and the actual state of the lands. Still, over and above these duties, Mackenzie began to amass an archive for writing south Indian history. His collection included manuscripts, transcription of inscriptions, translations, and sketches of archaeological curiosities. Mackenzie’s collections ran into hundreds of journals and manuscripts that are currently spread across India and Britain. He exemplified the antiquarian impulse with his focused energy on collecting all textual and material objects relating to the diverse pasts of south India. Mackenzie took an interest in philological researches as he was tied closely with some prominent philologists in Madras, such as Francis Ellis and John Leyden and also maintained correspondence with such renowned philologists as H. H. Wilson and Charles Wilkins. However, Mackenzie himself was not a philologist as he lacked training in languages.