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Selling History: Tourist Guides, Bazaar Histories, and the Politics of the Past

Indra Sengupta

How do we understand popular historical consciousness and the ways in which it constitutes political subjectivities? To grasp this we need to move beyond the politics of academic history writing. It is clear from events that have unfolded over the decades that the sense of history that mediates political action is not always shaped by academic histories. The collective common sense is constituted by a sense of history that we need to explore. We need to track the processes that go into the making of such shared notions of the past, identify the heterogeneity within this seemingly collective historical conscience, and unpack the worlds they open up. We need to move away from framing historical narratives in the context of nation-states alone, and look at the political uses of history for the assertion of identities – common or competitive – that may not have engaged with the nation-state or did so in various, complicated ways that defy the framework of national or larger regional narratives of the past. This requires that we identify what people read, and the historical narratives they hear on smaller, local levels and at sites where the nation, the region and other larger entities were reconfigured in ways specific to a place. We need to see how these genres of popular historical narratives come to frame notions of historical truth, and visions of the past, shaping everyday action.

One way of entering this world of the popular is to explore the power that tourist guides have in shaping ideas of the past. Tourist guidebooks narrate the past of the place, track its long history, identify the historical places in the region and tell stories about them to tourist/culture consumers. Yet, the stories that circulate through tourist books often find their way into the collective conscience, fashioning minds, forming social and political attitudes, and shaping action. My part-project situates travel guide books and related material at the interstices of the production and circulation of history at and around particular historical/heritage sites and the shaping of the political on the local, regional and national levels.

This project is a part of the module History as a Political Category of ICAS Metamorphosis of the Political.

Related Conferences and Workshops

‘Travel guides and popular histories: a research agenda’, Workshop Thematic Module 1: History as a Political Category, M.S Merian-R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP), Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, 18 –19 April 2016

‘Reading history and the political in locally produced travel guides’, ICAS TM1 Workshop Selling history: tourist guides, bazaar histories, and the politics of the past. Some preliminary reflections, India International Centre, New Delhi, 17 March 2018

‘Of places past: history and the political in locally produced travel guides in late 20th century India – a case study’, presented at Exploring the (Post-)Colonial Encounter. Performance, Material Agency, Violence. Workshop convened at University of Southampton, 11 September 2018