- Hiding the Nation in the Global: Modern intellectual history and South Asia
Between 1921 and 1934, the Nobel Prize–winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore traveled to various points across the globe in many places in East Asia, West Asia, North and South America and throughout the Indian Ocean. He logged in enough miles to circumnavigate the planet six times. In his paintings, songs and poetry, travel, encounter and an allophilia emerge throughout nearly all of the media in which he created art. Twenty years before these travels commenced Tagore had contributed to the transformation of education in India through the creation in 1901 of Shantiniketan, a rural school which emphasized free inquiry and openness to encounters, still active today. Having built it after a decade of traveling in the Bengal countryside, Tagore began to emphasize the “irrigation of knowledge,” or the creative and willful encounter with the outside world in the rebuilding and sustenance of modern Indian educational and scientific institutions. This element of modern Indian history—of travel and encounters with external sources—leads to a broader consideration of the recently revived field of intellectual history and its relationships with global history. What were the precise connections to worlds outside of India and the intellectual history of India in the modern world?
This question is by no means a new feature of South Asian history. Intellectual history has revived in recent years as an invigorating subfield of South Asian history1 that reframes old questions into new paths forward for the study of South Asia. Historians have begun to investigate the problem of situating the history of ideas in South Asian history within world-historical frameworks that speak not only to the particular history of colonial India (as one example of a site within the broader field of South Asian history), but also the global history of issues like liberalism, nationalism, post-colonialism, etc. Research in South Asian intellectual history has long addressed the role and extent of European hegemony and its role in the development of liberalism and political thought in colonial India.2 Recent reviews of the entire enterprise3 have urged historians to capture the detailed specificity of the South Asian intellectual landscape—through research in South Asian languages with attention to local knowledge formation—and simultaneously address audiences of global historians and the demands of global history, thereby reshaping both South Asian and global history in the process.
Does the framing of intellectual history in “global” terms appropriately capture the endeavors of contemporary South Asian intellectual historians? Would it obscure, potentially, histories that resist being slotted into a “global” categorization? When South Asian history does not explicitly name itself as “global,” or “intellectual history,” such as Bhavani Raman’s Document Raj: Writing and scribes in early colonial South India, which examines the epistemic changes in linguistic skill sets, documentation and attestation in early nineteenth-century South India, are there productive conceptual insights that emerge from reading South Asian history from the vantage point of the recent global intellectual history? As Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia has surged to popularity throughout the Anglophone world, and as Andrew Sartori and Samuel Moyn’s Global Intellectual History promises to deliver insight into how best to conduct global intellectual histories, the question of how South Asian intellectual history relates to global intellectual history has arrived as a key concern for the discipline. Though not all works under review necessarily demand such a reading, and many offer insights that need not...