- Reversing the Gaze: Amar Singh’s Diary, A Colonial Subject’s Narrative of Imperial India
As an elite Indian’s intimate account of life under the British Raj and also as a model of how scholars can treat such sources, this volume stands as a significant contribution to colonial history. Amar Singh (1878–1942) served as a military officer in India, China, Europe, and Afghanistan, as well as a courtier in several Rajput states. During most of his life, he wrote an expansive personal daily journal in English, describing and evaluating his life and times. His constant commentary exposes his inner self and the personalities around him. His narrative provides rich detail about the many worlds in which he functioned: private and public, male and domestic, military and political, regional and imperial, Indian and British. The editors project Amar Singh as perpetually liminal to these worlds, in part because of his constant engagement with his diary, in part because of his family’s social and political location.
Since 1971, the Rudolphs have been grappling with this massive manuscript (89 bound volumes, each about 800 pages), analyzing its content and form. Working with Amar Singh’s nephew and male heir, Mohan Singh Kanota, they here publish selections from the diary covering only the 1898–1905 period, extensively contextualized and analyzed. The 645 page book under review contains only about 1% of the original diary even for those seven years. The editors have chosen pages, paragraphs, or even just phrases from Amar Singh’s diary, and organized them both in rough chronological order and also separated by theme. Their running editorial analysis strives to balance the diarist’s voice with their own. Their substantial Introduction thoughtfully lays out the issues inherent in this kind of project and makes transparent most of their editorial decisions. To illustrate the diarist’s life, the editors include 70 black and white images: mostly photographs (many from Amar Singh’s own albums); some floor plans; and a few maps. In addition, they include: many reproductions of title pages of books which Amar Singh was reading; a dozen tables of animals he killed, books he read, dowry he saw given, and grades he and classmates received; genealogical and other charts; frequent lists of “Dramatis Personae”; and forty pages of glossaries of people, places, and terms.
During the years covered in this volume, Amar Singh lived around power but had little independence, except while writing his secret diary. As the heir apparent to a modest and contested landed estate, Amar Singh remained dependent on his strong father and paternal grandfather, who themselves served Rajput princely rulers. As an Indian military officer, he trained and served under British and Indian commanders, in India and in China. This volume ends in 1905, with his graduation from the Imperial Cadet Corps.
The diarist reveals how deeply his life reflected his family’s elite but also dependent status. As a junior branch of a Champawat Rathore Rajput clan which had left its ancestral home to serve as courtiers and ministers in Jaipur, his family stood as outsiders to the local ruling dynasty. During the period covered in this volume, Amar Singh’s paternal grandfather remained out of royal favor, having to fight against the current Jaipur Maharaja—in British courts and in local power struggles—to hold on to the family’s landed estate at Kanota within Jaipur state. Through British influence and impermanent alliances, Amar Singh’s father served as Guardian over the young Maharaja of Alwar state nearby. To educate and protect Amar Singh, his family entrusted him as a ward to the temperamental but influential Sir Pratap Singh, chief minister in neighboring Jodhpur state and commander of the Jodhpur Lancers, in which the diarist was a subaltern officer. These cross-cutting familial, regional, personal, and regimental links of loyalty and sources of tension informed and threatened Amar Singh’s early life. His frequent musings on each of these relationships, assessing their potential...