- Europe's India: Words, People, Empires, 1500–1800 by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and: India in the American Imaginary, 1780s–1880s ed. by Anupama Arora and Rajender Kaur
The above books remind us of the many ways in which India has been a focus of European and American attention and enterprise during the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. These books are based largely on textual (historical and fictional) materials, accounts of direct encounters which became more frequent following the opening of Suez Canal and other technological innovations in transportation means. Both books provide fresh and critical insights into understandings and imaginations of Europeans and Americans of India and Indian culture.
A prolific scholar of encounters and interactions between Europe and Asia, Sanjay Subrahmanyam in his recent book, Europe's India, advances our knowledge of social positions Europeans held in India and their representations of Indian people and society during 1500–1800. [End Page 631] European interactions with India and Indian culture, Subrahmanyam argues, "were the product of layered and intermittent conversations and distinct asymmetries in perception. Cultural translation was never a transparent matter in these contexts, because the translators themselves were such complex and fraught actors, caught in the webs both of their own making and produced by others" (p. 323). Such interactions resulted in the construction of knowledge which became associated with Indian society and culture in the long-term. Subrahmanyam documents the formation of knowledge largely relying on an impressive array of textual materials, what he calls "the realm of words." The content and nature of such knowledge, he suggests, was affected by the institutional context and condition in which it was produced. For example, he points to the emergence of certain "topoi" such as the caste in the context of Portuguese interaction with India which continues to be associated with Indian social reality. Similarly, the representation of Mughal emperors as "oriental despots" and Indians as "Hindoos" became enduring trends in Western scholarship about India.
However, Subrahmanyam rejects any single Portuguese, French, British, and much less European view of India. Instead, he consciously anchors these views in their specific contexts, thus highlighting the diversity of European representations of India, which were sometimes contradictory in nature. Taking the case of relatively less known Scotsman James Fraser, who had spent considerable time in India, Subrahmanyam suggests that in contrast to the portrayal of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as a "fanatic" and "hypocrite" in a majority of European accounts, Fraser represented Aurangzeb's rule "as the continuation of a period of expansion and prosperity …" (p. 197). Fraser's representation of the Mughal rule is not only a departure from the stereotype of "oriental despotism," but is also an assertion of the "legitimacy of the Mughal government against the illegitimate nature of the East India Company's ambitions" (p. 209). Relying on his linguistic expertise and his talent for close textual analysis, Subrahmanyam illustrates not only the many different images Europeans had of India and Indian society, but also highlights the complexities surrounding such images which at times brought them closer to Indians. Insightful anecdotes help advance his arguments and make his narrative particularly engaging. Take for example, the case of Augustin Herryard, a Christian jeweler, who managed to be recognized at the court of Mughal Emperor Jehangir and thus spoke of "affective" relation he enjoyed with the Emperor who gave him a gift of cash, a horse, and an elephant. [End Page 632]
Chapter 1 focuses on two different approaches of the Portuguese—one was textual and philological represented by chroniclers, the other oral and ethnographic represented by missionaries. These accounts contributed to certain enduring trends in the production of knowledge which were regarded authoritative in the ensuing accounts. Chapter 2 examines the questions Europeans asked of Indian religion beginning in the sixteenth century. Did they have one? If they did have one, was it in their texts, or rituals, or daily practices? By the...