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Windows into the Past

Life Histories and the Historian of South Asia

Judith M. Brown

Publication Year: 2009

Judith M. Brown, one of the leading historians of South Asia, provides an original and thought-provoking strategy for conducting and presenting historical research in her latest book, Windows into the Past. Brown looks at how varieties of “life history” that focus on the lives of institutions and families, as well as individuals, offer a broad and rich means of studying history. Her distinctively creative approach differs from traditional historical biography in that it explores a variety of “life histories” and shows us how they become invaluable windows into the past. Following her introduction, "The Practice of History,” Brown opens windows on the history of South Asia. She begins with the life history of an educational institution, Balliol College, Oxford, and tracks the interrelationship between Britain and India through the lives of the British and Indian men who were educated there. She then demonstrates the significance of family life history, showing that by observing patterns of family life over several generations, it is possible to gain insight into the experiences of groups of people who rarely left historical documents about themselves, particularly South Asian women. Finally, Brown uses the life history of two prominent individuals, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, to examine questions about the nature of Indian nationalism and the emergent Indian state.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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p. vii


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pp. ix-x


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p. xi

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Introduction: The Practice of History

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pp. 1-6

This book is based on a series of lectures on the practice of history given in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame in 2008. As a practitioner of imperial and global history, and, in particular, of the history of South Asia and South Asians outside that subcontinent, I found this invitation exciting and challenging...

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Chapter 1: Colleges, Cohorts, and Dynasties

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pp. 7-30

Our exploration of the potential of new kinds of “life history” which are wider than studies of individuals begins with what I wish to call rather loosely “colleges, cohorts, and dynasties.” I want to ask if there are other kinds of “lives” apart from those of individuals which the historian may fruitfully study as a source of evidence about the past...

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Chapter 2: Family Histories

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pp. 31-52

The previous chapter examined aspects of the “life history” of a particular Oxford college, to ask whether they could provide new source material for the historian of South Asia. The personal and career records of Balliol men who served in India demonstrated, among many other things, considerable evidence about the significance of British family traditions and connections in the creation of a professional elite...

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Chapter 3: Individual Lives and Their Public World

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pp. 53-72

In the first two chapters I expanded the more usual understanding of “life history,” beyond the life of an individual, to include the life of key institutions and of families, as ways of doing history. I argued that engaging with these different sorts of “lives” might open new windows on to the recent South Asian past, though of course the technique...

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Chapter 4: Individual Lives and Their Inner World

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pp. 73-90

The third and fourth chapters of this exploration into “life histories” are concerned with the lives of prominent individual Indians, particularly Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, to see how this genre may be a creative way of doing history rather distinct from the art form of biography. In chapter 3 we examined how their life experiences in Indian politics can open a window for historians...

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pp. 91-96

The chapters in this volume have explored varieties of “life history” as windows into the past, particularly the recent past of the subcontinent of South Asia and its peoples. To change the metaphor, we have asked whether life history can, at a time of considerable historiographical flux and contestation, be a helpful door or entry point into the historical study...


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pp. 97-108


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pp. 109-114


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pp. 115-118

E-ISBN-13: 9780268075750
E-ISBN-10: 0268075751
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268022174
Print-ISBN-10: 0268022178

Page Count: 120
Illustrations: Images removed; no digital rights.
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 694144531
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Windows into the Past

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • India -- Biography
  • Balliol College (University of Oxford) -- Alumni and alumnae -- Biography.
  • Families -- South Asia -- Historiography.
  • Families -- India -- Historiography.
  • South Asia -- Biography.
  • Gandhi, Mahatma, 1869-1948.
  • Nehru, Jawaharlal, 1889-1964.
  • South Asia -- Historiography.
  • India -- Historiography.
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