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Interrogating the 'Region'

the prime cultural resource for forging a modern, Maharashtrian regional identity


the prime cultural resource for forging a modern, Maharashtrian regional identity”.

Interrogating the ‘Region’

While both these essays interrogate the

Region, Culture and Politics in India

edited by Rajendra Vora and Anne Feldhaus; Manohar, Delhi, 2006; pp 380, Rs 795.


his rich collection of essays is another evidence of the recent return of the “region” as a serious analytical category in academic discourse. The introductory note which tells us that the anthology intends to “examine the processes through which regions and regional consciousness are formed and maintained in India”, locates it within a particular trajectory of work that includes previously edited works on the subject by Robert Crane and Richard Fox1. However, although engaging with the historicity of the concept, a central assumption of these earlier works, several of the essays in the Vora and Feldhaus collection also indicate a discomfort with the ways in which the concept of the region has been defined in academic disciplines and suggest instead, a fresh interrogation of the concept itself. Further, the approach in the essays appears to be not so much to conceptually defend the region as an unit of analysis out to use it as a category to address questions in different but connected ways about colonial modernity, culture, power, and the national and regional imaginations. In this too, the collection far exceeds the earlier work on the region.

The editors tell us that they have “organised the essays into three groups based not so much on the academic disciplines of the authors or the parts of India they cover, as on the types of material they deal with” (p14). The book is accordingly divided into three sections: ‘Regions in History and Literature’, ‘Regions in Imagination and Ritual’ and ‘Regions in Politics’. Apart from the problem of conceptual overlaps and the refusal of the essays to remain confined to the categories that the sections assign, there is also the more obvious problem of the use of multiple kinds of sources by several essays. More importantly, however, such an arrangement fails to emphasise adequately the essays’ complex and nuanced reading of the concept of the region, the strength of a collection such as this. I was tempted therefore, in this review, to arrange them in an alternate order from the one suggested in the volume. It is hoped that this order would succeed in highlighting conceptual linkages and shifts between the essays in their analysis of the processes through which regional categories were constructed and resisted in colonial and post-colonial India.

To begin with, the historicity of the region, both imagined and material, is a concern that is foregrounded in these studies, and following from this, the idea of a regional identity as an imagined construct, subject to moments of disintegration and accommodation and characterised by transient, shifting boundaries. In several essays, this issue converges around explaining the connections between colonialism, culture and identities. Thus, the colonial state’s normative view of colonised society, marked by a degree of coherence and articulation not seen in the pre-colonial regimes, and which saw knowledge production as primarily a disciplinary project, informs the essays on the formation of Oriya and Maharashtrian identities. Bishnu Mohapatra, in his essay on Oriya linguistic nationalism, attributes the emergence of an Oriya identity to the “fixing” of previously fluid cultural and linguistic categories. Prachi Deshpande’s essay returns to the familiar ground of history writing and regionalism to discover a more complex relationship between the discipline and the new emergent classes and communities in late 19th century Maharashtra than has been allowed for in the historiography from the region. Reflecting upon the critical significance of political power in the imagining of collective identities, the essay proposes a more layered reading of the “practices through which Maratha history was constituted as hegemony of colonial modernity, Daniel Jasper’s detailed account of the spectacle of the Shivaji festival in different parts of Maharashtra traces post-colonial continuities in the persistent evoking of history to arbitrarily validate contemporary political agendas. Colonial categories and postcolonial continuities is the subject of analysis also in Surinder Jodhka’s essay of the emergence and consolidation of social identities in contemporary Punjab. Against the essentialising the category of the region, Jodhka lays out a detailed narrative of the construction of Sikh identity, the shifts in markers from language to religion, and the contingency of the political appropriation of symbols and identities.

What emerges most powerfully in these essays is their engagement with the tensions between colonial power and the colonised, particularly with those concerning the interplay between colonial power and imperial knowledge and the contradictions of colonial cultures. It is then quite puzzling that the project of colonial (and post-colonial) governmentality, and its critical implications for the emergence of collectivities are not taken up for discussion at all in the Introduction. The diverse scholarship on colonial knowledge, cultural identities, modernity and the nation, and their central bearing on the arguments in several of the papers, is a glaring absence in the editor’s note. What we are offered by way of explanation instead is a highly problematic historical narrative of Indian nationalism that essentialises the nation, dehistoricises “modernity”, and sits the region rather awkwardly in the midst of it all. We are told, for instance, that “the modern Indian nation state was constructed on the foundations of a civilisational bond” (p10) and that in “in modern India, the idea of the region emerged during the course of the national movement” (p 9).

To return to the essays, Daniel Jasper’s rediscovery of the appropriation of the symbol of Shivaji for reinforcing the cultural and political power of the Maharashtrian people connects us to another significant focus of the anthology – the idea of the region as a category for the deployment of power. Although this is

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

underscored in several essays (and in some ways, informs the entire volume), at least three authors – Sanjay Palshikar, Leela Prasad and Rajendra Vora – suggest obvious links between power, dominant representations and the logic of formation of a region.

Hanging IdentitiesHanging IdentitiesHanging IdentitiesHanging IdentitiesHanging Identities

Leela Prasad does a close reading of regional identity in the religious town of Sringeri and discovers that the rhetoric of power that celebrates exclusivity as a definitive marker of this identity ensures different (and sometimes opposing) cultural conceptualisations of region by various communities. Prasad further argues that the geographical fixity of a cultural region still leaves it vulnerable to fluidity of various kinds. Thus, “the celebrations of Sringeri festivals index different senses of regionality, …Sringeri discourse about a performance reveals that Sringeri tradition is a contextually changing collectivity” (p 232).

The shifting and alternate cultural representations within the boundaries of a region marked by an apparently fixed territoriality indicate, therefore, not just the multiplicity, fluidity and contingency of identities that fraught a region. More importantly, the fiercely contested nature of these identities also transforms the region into a space permeated by power, a site for sedimented hostilities of various kinds. By extension, the national space too no longer remains a secular, abstract space. Rather, it involves a violent erasure of spaces, a silencing of marginal narratives.

These questions frame Sanjay Palshikar’s essay, which while focusing on how spatial and temporal strategies construct a region, attempts also to illuminate alternate cultural representations within a region. Of the various examples from contemporary Maharashtrian culture that is used to illustrate the central thesis of the paper – region construction as an activity of domination – it is the rich, cultural analysis of the Kalnirnay calendar that particularly stands out. The nature of information that gets filled into the squares of dates on the calendar, Palshikar argues, effects an erasure of historical and cultural specificities and their “formal subsumption” into the homogeneous cultural region of “Maharashtra”, collapsed further into the similarly subsuming category of the nation.

On a similar note, Suhas Palshikar’s essay examines the interface between caste and region to argue that the emergence of area specific dominant castes in various parts of India (but particularly in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) has strengthened the exclusion of other communities and castes from political processes. This transforms the region yet again into a space for the deployment of power. Drawing upon rich empirical data on caste politics, the essay sees the exceeding of regional territorial boundaries by dalit and OBC organisations as a resistance to this discourse of dominance.

It is possible to see Rajendra Vora’s paper on the trajectory of the constitution of Muslim identity in northern India as a “minority” identity as an extension of these arguments. We discover in his essay, another marker for our alternate order for the review – the interrogation of dominant assumptions about the nation. One could argue that despite the more obvious emphasis in Vora’s paper on immediate political alliances and strategies within the Muslim community in “the Hindi heartland”, there is a willingness to recognise the more complex process of “disciplining of difference” by the post-colonial state, including the marginalisation and the Othering of minorities.

Imagined ‘Nations’Imagined ‘Nations’Imagined ‘Nations’Imagined ‘Nations’Imagined ‘Nations’

The nation comes up for interrogation yet again in Sumathi Ramaswamy’s essay on the “lost” Tamil homeland of Lemuria, an imagined former continent in the Indian Ocean which was submerged as a consequence of a series of ocean floods. In an incisive piece of writing that adds to the theoretical critiques of the nation and colonial modernity, Ramaswamy uses a cartographic archive consisting of maps of the Lemuria produced in Tamil Nadu in the early 20th century, to explore what she calls “the dilemmas of belonging to a lived…homeland and the yearning simultaneously for a lost – and absent one”. The idea of this homeland, which forges Tamil identity as powerfully as a lived one, suggests alternate categorisations and representations of history and territory that both contest and transcend the nation’s historical and political boundaries. In the process, Ramaswamy recovers spaces, identities and memories that are found forged “in a cauldron brimming with the contrary pulls of an imperialising Indian nationalism, a separatist Dravidian nationalism, and an accommodating Tamil nationalism” (p 156).

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

A strand in Ramaswamy’s essay – the idea of a “lost” homeland in the Tamil devotional imagination that exceeds the territorial boundaries of the nation state – can connect us, though tangentially, to Anne Feldhaus’ description of the “religious geography” of Maharashtra and the inevitable overlap between religious spaces and administrative boundaries. For the most part though, Feldhaus sees a happy coexistence of the two kinds of spaces. Through descriptions of the numerous pilgrimages that define this sacred topography and during which regions are imagined but also de-imagined, the essay sensitises us to a defining marker of a region: its frequently contingent and transient nature.

And finally, along with the presumptions about colonial modernity and the articulation of identities, there is another strand that informs some of the essays in the collection. This is the burden of the precolonial heritage, the way it evolved and the evidence of pre-colonial continuities in colonial and contemporary histories. The obvious example is Richard Freeman’s contribution to the volume. The essay, which looks at the emergence and development of regional consciousness in premodern literary identity in medieval Kerala, traces the memory of the region to precolonial times, simultaneously drawing fine lines of difference between “regional consciousness” (a self-conscious articulation) and “regional imagination” (a largely unreflective practice). Yet again, the significance of the location of “linguisticliterary and specifically Kerala identity” in medieval and not colonial times, appears to have escaped the editors. Instead the editorial note continues to stress on the absolute modernity and the origins of regionalism, ignoring the nuanced negotiation with these issues by some essays.

On a concluding note, in a growing body of work in recent times, there has been a denial of nationalism and colonialism as important sites around which the notion of the region gets constituted, sharpened by a refusal to privilege the nation in the imagining of the region and other collectivities. The focus in these writings has been on local imaginations and spaces that are not necessarily formed in resistance to mainstream national narratives. These imaginings neither contest the nation nor do its narratives appropriate them. Rather, they are “beyond the nation”, as it were, with histories and memories that are not in a dialogical encounter of any kind with the nation. This trend, visible, for instance, in some recent work on collective memories and identities in the transitional and liminal regions in north eastern India, is not reflected in this collection.

More crucially, the anthology raises the larger question of whether the region is really only a derivative category that at times might coalesce social/cultural and political factors and help freeze history at certain moments, but is not always necessarily always a foregrounded concept. This is evident in all the essays in the collection and leaves the reader wondering why the canon of research on the region, which seems to be often another dimension to the existing corpus on political and cultural studies, should be projected as an independent area of research. As with other similar collections, the essays raise critical questions but do not explain why they should be brought under the umbrella of region studies.




1 Robert Crane (ed), Region and Regionalism inSouth Asian Studies: An Exploratory Study,

Duke University, Durham, NC; Richard G Fox(ed), 1977, Realm and Region in TraditionalIndia, Vikas, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

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