South Asian encounters
Rumina Sethi

Remapping Knowledge: The Making of South Asian Studies in India, Europe and America (19th and 20th centuries).
eds. Jackie Assayag and Véronique Bénéï. Three Essays Collective.
Gurgaon. Pages 135. Rs 400.

Remapping Knowledge: The Making of South Asian Studies in India, Europe and America (19th and 20th centuries)THREE Essays Collective, in recent years, has produced erudite collections of essays that are contemporary as well as relevant to South Asia. Remapping Knowledge is an interesting experiment in ascertaining new configurations of the production of knowledge in terms of the infiltration of "third world" scholars into the West, a process spurred by globalisation.

This intervention by South Asia has changed the tenor of intellectual debates and redistribution of power on several levels by "translating" the South into the North. The three essayists explore different locations of academic interchange between the two worlds.

Jackie Assayag connects the scholarship of India, England and Germany during the Orientalist phase and links it to changes in the curriculum of the American university system underpinned, as it is, by its political agenda. The subject of knowledge, or rather the object, was India. In other words, both England and Germany were embarking on what came to be known later as "area studies". Much of this knowledge was responsible for bringing into America the idea of India as "pantheistic, mystical and blissful". Attributed largely to Ram Mohan Roy and later, Mahatma Gandhi, America was inspired by the pacifism of the East to produce heroes like Martin Luther King. American pedagogues, on their part, were impressed by Sanskrit learning that had become so deeply entrenched in Paris.

In 1876, Johns Hopkins University introduced courses in Sanskrit, followed by Harvard and Columbia in 1880. Chicago, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were to soon follow suit. As Assayag writes: "The striking character of Indian studies over a long period in the US is recognisable by the importance conferred on the figure of the Sanskritist." A good example was W. Norman Brown, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who played a major part in setting up the American Institute for South Asian Studies, an interest that so strategically coincided with the desperate need for information about the orient during the decade of the commencement of World War II. However, since the 1970s, area studies interest in India declined shifting attention to Islamic Studies. But after 9/11, this new Islamicist focus came under fire, aided by Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" thesis.

Véronique Bénéï continues with the theme of Area Studies relating to South Asia in the construction of a national tradition in Britain. These studies came into being precisely as an aid to the protection of the nation. English education imparted in Indian universities, as well as in Britain, not only perpetuated British imperialism but also created a handpicked class of intellectuals that could be integrated into the British system. But gradually, Britain’s failure was America’s gain, as its multicultural ethos gave rise to models of "ethnic studies" followed by "diasporic" studies.

The last section by Jacques Pouchepadass recounts the evolution of the Subaltern Studies collective, which grew as a counter to all kinds of elitist approaches—colonialist, nationalist—to history in the endeavour to discover "real" history. By far the most lucid of the three essays, it explains how Marxist representations also proved to be a huge disappointment plagued as they were by economic determinism and the rhetoric of false consciousness: "It doubted the revolutionary potential of the peasants in the class struggle, and considered their revolts as nothing but spontaneous outbursts of collective anger ... devoid of organisation."

In the 1990s, subaltern studies changed gears and took a postmodern turn with the entry of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyan Prakash and Gayatri Spivak, realising that a deconstruction of texts of insurgency was creating a homogeneity of peasant consciousness.

Alongside postcolonialism, subaltern studies started pushing the idea of the hegemonic discourse of modernity and its complicity with history writing.

Pouchepadass traces the history of subaltern studies from its inception to its "fragmentation" and failures, ridiculing all "post-ist" terminology and its intentions. Towards the end of his essay, it is hard to determine whether he himself does not have an unwitting tendency to use postmodernist jargon, judging by the obscurity of his prose despite his attempts to disown it.

The three essays together are commendable in representing the theoretical shifts in South Asian studies. The arguments are marshalled with much scholarship from diverse fields enabling an understanding of the development of curricula concomitant with dominant forms of cultural politicking.