Re-look at the uprising
Rachna Singh

Revisiting 1857: Myth, Memory, History
Ed. Sharmistha Gooptu and
Boria Majumdar. Roli Books.
Pages 218. Rs 295.

A mutiny, a revolt, or a fledgling national movement? This archetypal debate about the 1857 uprising has resounded in the academic corridors for decades.

Scholars and historians have variously described the uprising as a sepoy mutiny, a peasant revolt and lately a death knell for the ‘nawabi’-style aristocracy. With the passage of time, these arguments have become pass`E9. It is not surprising then, that scholars and historians are venturing into uncharted waters and attempting to re-orient the academic and popular perspective about the uprising.

Revisiting 1857 is an interesting attempt in this direction. The collection of essays explore the manner in which the uprising affected the "popular" consciousness and found its way into modes of communication and entertainment like cartoons, ballads, comics, sports and visual renditions like paintings, photographs, cinema, etc.

Majumdar’s essay very interestingly theorises how the cricket field became an arena for "assertion of native strength against European dominance." What began as an attempt at "acculturation" to suppress native sensibilities became a tool of revolt. This essay strongly brings to mind the epic cricket battle of Lagaan. Projit Mukharji’s essay Can the Subaltern Sing? traces how the English broadsheets "memorialised the suffering of the fellow Englishman in India" with ballads that passionately cried:

"they cut their scarlet bodies up as they done many before

this way the clergy used our sepoy at Cawnpore."

Gooptu explores cinematic renditions like Junoon, Mangal Pandey, Shatranj ke Khilari, etc., focusing on how the films have drawn from the "mainstream discourses" and prevalent political climate.

Amar Chitra Kathas have constructed history in the minds of impressionable readers for ages. Mehta points out how Amar Chitra Kathas reflect the dichotomy in the mutiny discourses. On the one hand, we have Rani of Jhansi who draws an authentic picture "of isolated theatres of war" against the British power. On the other hand is the politically correct "The March of Freedom" that describes 1857 as the start of the freedom struggle.

But the most intriguing study is Manjita Mukharji’s Violence in the Mutiny: Reading the World of Punch. Manjita argues that the Punch cartoons published in 1857 are the uncanny reflections of ‘English’ sensibilities regarding the uprising. Especially interesting is the study of the cartoon titled "The British Lion’s Revenge of the Bengal Tiger" published on August 22, 1857. Here, the Bengal tiger of the cartoon reflects the marauding ferocity of the mutineers who killed innocent women and children, while the British tiger symbolises the call for vengeance of the British public. The cartoon of Disareli stirring a cauldron with ingredients of "King of Oude’s sauce" also makes a good case study. Both cartoons highlight the British psyche after the uprising.

The book successfully redraws the academic lines of debate about 1857 to include in its ambit genres of popular culture. In doing so, it not only frees the discourse from a time freeze but also makes history more contemporary. Although academic in form and content, the essays are a great read for all history buffs.