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Selling History: Tourist Guides, Bazaar Histories, and the Politics of the Past in India the late 20th and early 21st Centuries

Indra Sengupta

Since the 1980s, India has witnessed a steady rise in influence of the forces of majoritarian Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), which have increasingly and successfully contested the post-Independence, Nehruvian ideal of a secular nation-state. Notions of a Hindu past, already a part of anti-colonial nationalist historiography, have played an important role in such a reimagining of the nation. Such narratives, usually produced outside the domain of academic history, have often centred on built heritage sites (such as the well-known Babari Mosque in Ayodhya) that are the subject of contesting claims of religious groups and of historical evidence. My project focuses on a site, Murshidabad, that lives on in national memory as the place where the local rulers of Bengal were defeated by the British, marking the beginning of colonial rule, and hence as a site of national humiliation. At the same time, the historic palaces, mosques, and temples of its 18th-century rulers and rich merchant communities draw large numbers of local and regional tourists in a celebration of regional cultural pride. In my research, I use a rich corpus of locally and cheaply produced historical travel guides to explore the ways in which local histories constitute the past, how they relate to grand conflicts about the nation, and how they enable us to understand popular imaginings of place, region, and the nation. The project considers both the content and the context of the guidebooks and histories that circulate there, looking at what kinds of narratives of the past are recounted, who writes and publishes these books, how they are financed, and who reads them. Such a site-based study will provide clues to the development of political attitudes and the formation of sectarian identities in small locales and regions that are far away from the political centre of the Indian nation.

The project is connected to two lines of research that I have been pursuing for several years. Firstly, it is an extension of my long-term research interest in the politics of history and heritage in colonial and post-colonial India, which is the subject of a monograph that I am currently revising for publication. Unlike the book project, which focuses chiefly on state policy and mainly used the colonial archive, the current research looks at popular conceptions of the past as evident from locally and cheaply produced historical tracts that have a limited regional circulation. Secondly, the project engages with the research question of the BMBF-funded Merian Centre ICAS: Metamorphoses of the Political (specifically, the module History as a Political Category, of which I am a member) and examines how the production, circulation, and reception of popular history is linked to a changing political sphere in contemporary India.

The project is a sub-project of ICAS:MP TM1 and is conducted jointly with Prof Neeladri Bhattacharya (New Delhi). Apart from my research, the project will produce a repository of the texts that we have collected, which are stored at the Max Weber Foundation India Branch Office. The collection will be digitised and published, with a detailed index, on ICAS:MP’s digital platforms.

Related Events and Presentations

Conference presentations:

‘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 Sept. 2018

‘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 Mar. 2018

‘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 Apr. 2016



‘Selling history: tourist guides, bazaar histories, and the politics of the past: Some preliminary reflections’, ICAS:MP Workshop at the India International Centre, New Delhi, 17 Mar. 2018