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Since 1st March, 1999
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Society and Circulation: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia 1750-1950 Edited by Claude Markovits, Jacques Pouchepedass and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Permanent Black, Rs 695

The dichotomy between stasis and circulation is an old one in the Indian historical imagination. The wandering trader contrasted with the sedentary king, the itinerant bard versus the court musician, and the singing mystic who circulates through the cultural landscape of the subcontinent untrammeled by territorial conventions have been identified as important components of the dynamics that operated within the matrix of Indian culture.

And yet myths about the fixity of Indian society, the insularity of the unchanging village, and the bias of caste-bound Indians have remained compelling, complicating any description or analysis. The volume under review is thus one more building block in our understanding.

Drawing inspiration from the rich body of research that has grown around India’s itinerant groups who peddled goods and ideas across the oceans and over land, the volume seeks to make a case for circulation and circulatory regimes in pre-colonial India and the consequences of the colonial encounter for them.

Circulation, the editors tell us, is not just about movements and transportation mechanisms — it is as much a dynamic of social processes as the monsoon-based agricultural practices are for the Indian peasant. Circulation is about change and evolution, and is not specifically or specially a by-product of the colonial regime. In fact, the autonomy of local circulatory patterns deflected the regulating drive of the colonial state and India remained not just a functioning anarchy but also an autonomous domain of circulation.

The essays in this volume deal with different modes of circulation, from the peddler to the local survey assistant and independent traveller who, by the end of the 18th century, was not just a pilgrim but someone who travelled for pleasure and observation. The volume reads well and is well-integrated, without the contributors or editors laboring too hard to make the general argument work.

Two essays, by Neeladri Bhattacharya and Catherine Servan Schreiber, stand out. Bhattacharya’s protagonist is the itinerant peddler of north India — a common enough entity in the historiography of India’s trading economy. To Bhattacharya’s credit, he recasts the peddler as he charts his quotidian existence, his travels and travails, and his ability to fit into the ever-expanding global structure of markets. The essay makes a critical link between the local and the international and looks not just at how peddlers operated in a changing world but at how they experienced that change.

He refers to the predicament of mobility in this connection, the very word khanabadosh (a house on shoulders) carrying negative connotations about a person without a stable home. Even if the self-perception of the itinerant trader did not take on the censure of the sedentary, he did have to confront colonial surveillance and control. The authority was bewildered at his mobile existence and often, the bewilderment became the basis for arbitrary controls. Kabulis, Kashmiris and Minas became embodiments of lawlessness in colonial discourse. However, this demonization did not disrupt the peddling activity. It was a way of life subject to a different conception of time and space and escaped official attempts to either capture or define it.

Schreiber deals with Bhojpuri peddlers who made a living by recounting tales and singing songs of humour, simple ethical values of heroism and asceticism. These singers were part of the bardic tradition that was pan-Indian and yet grounded in a strong regional tradition, the circulatory regime of oral culture and performance that was central to the development and dissemination of Indian performing arts. Schreiber’s protagonist is also the chapbook that became a part of the expanding book bazaar in the 19th century. These books enjoyed wide circulation and gave renewed value to the traditional art of story-telling and performance. The printed book did not displace the songster, indeed the peddler of tales in Schreiber’s analysis is not the marginalized itinerant, he is integrated into a variety of village and urban activities and is free to circulate.

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