South Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College
Chair: Indira V. Peterson, Mount Holyoke College
Discussants: Antoinette M. Burton, Johns Hopkins University; Gauri Viswanathan, Columbia University
Much recent scholarship has focused on comparative analysis of "personhood" in South Asian and European cultures and the ways that scholars can seek to represent those concepts through biography. During the 18th and 19th centuries within South Asian cultures, British colonial expansion, and also indigenous transformations, produced new cultural formulations of the person. Simultaneously, British notions of the individual also changed due to imperialism coupled with Britains own internal social changes. This panel uses case studies from several social classes of Indians, engaged in disparate ways with European colonialists, to consider these changing conceptions and self-representations of the person. The panel also considers the methodologies inherent in our own biographical representations of these people.
Using distinctive case studies and academic disciplines, each paper will contrast evidence from fragmented contemporary records with self-representations by its subjects. Peterson will consider Raja Serfoji II of Tanjore as he improvised self-representations from the several European, Maratha, and South Indian cultures in which he acted. Mines will compare East India Company records of three individual Madrasi Chettiars with later self-representations in diaries and autobiographies, concentrating on concepts of personal honor and insults in relationship to changing social order. Fisher will examine three types of evidence produced by and about several classes of Indian immigrants to Britain. The discussants, Viswanathan and Burton, will relate these papers to their own biographical studies of Indians in the nineteenth century and locate them in the larger debate about biographical methodologies.
Mattison Mines, University of California, Santa Barbara
As an anthropologist, I am attempting to recover senses of personal identity from the fragments of life stories of ordinary persons in Madras that are preserved in the East India Company Records from the 18th and 19th centuries. Comparing these fragments with later diary and autobiographical accounts, I seek to understand the historical transformations that have occurred in how individual identities have been publicly conceptualized and expressed. Working from the premise that personal identities are always sustained in social relations and are in part a voicing of these, the identities of Madrasis reveal stylized features of estimation and contested sociality. This paper focuses in particular on accounts of life events that express emotions and mood. It draws on representations of individuals in petitions, court records, and Company proceedings, comparing these with individuals represented in commemorative writing, diary, and autobiographical accounts. Many scholars consider emotional feelings largely missing from Indian personal representations. Yet to a twentieth century reader of the Company archives, the period prior to the early 19th century is richly peopled, personal, and often laced with strong emotions and moral outrage. Insult shadowed personal honor in Madras society and was an important feature of daily life. By contrast the 19th century seems impersonal and bureaucratic, reflecting the routinization of rule and a shift in the social construction of civil society. The paper concludes by considering the location of order in 19th century Madras society and the changing role of the individual actor under 19th century colonial rule.
Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College
Historians attempting to reconstruct and represent the lives and works of early Indian immigrants to Britain find our approaches and interpretations shaped by the often contrasting evidence produced respectively by the colonial experience, the metropolitan culture, and the immigrants themselves. Regarding them as simply the thread linking colonial and metropolitan environments loses their individual personhood. Nevertheless, treating them as individuals in the conventional Western sense of biography also alters their self-representations and often overshoots our limited evidence. Reconsidering the biographical method thus stands central to this paper.
This paper examines three case studies, each with fundamental implications for historiography. Indian sailors and (female and male) servants immigrated to Britain in increasing numbers from 1750 on. Aside from brief occasional life-stories, however, little can be known about them as individuals. Thus, prosepography, or collective biography, emerges as the prime genre one necessarily adopts.
Exceptional Indian immigrants to Britain represented themselves before Anglophone audiences by drawing upon and yet subtly reshaping the contemporary British genre of autobiography. Improvising from their own experiences, they asserted their agency, and their cultures validity, to advance their personal agendas within British society. Here I examine autobiographers Emin Joseph Emin (17261809) and Dean Mahomet (17591851).
Finally, rare immigrants preserved their personal diaries and correspondence. David Octerlony Dyce Sombre (18081851) recorded his intimate thoughts and deeds, enabling psychological analysis as well as social history. Out of these varied lives and sources come a range of implications for writing about the disparate colonial and metropolitan lives of early Indian immigrants.