March 27, 2007

Book Review: of KN Panikkar's 'Colonialism, Culture and Resistance'

(Book Review / The Hindu
March 27, 2007)

Culture and colonialism


This collection of essays discusses various forms of resistance to colonial rule

COLONIALISM, CULTURE AND RESISTANCE: K. N. Panikkar; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.

This book is a part of the series of collections of essays of eminent scholars that OUP has been bringing out from time to time. K.N. Panikkar is among the foremost historians of modern India, and has written extensively on intellectual and cultural history. As the preface to this book states, and its title suggests, "the common thread which binds together the essays in this volume is the idea of resistance to colonialism as a source of alternative modernity."

While the volume is a book of history, and covers the colonial period — barring one essay on the changes in history textbooks during the NDA regime — the concerns of the present reverberate throughout the book. It is clear that as a historian he is deeply disturbed by the "the failure of [an] alternative modernity" in India, which, in his opinion has "led the way to the uncritical acceptance of globalisation and to sympathetic response to cultural revivalism" during the last two decades. Therefore, from the large body of his work, he has chosen for this volume those essays which reflect the different forms of resistance to colonial rule and which analyse the vicissitudes and the incompleteness of the efforts of independent cultural expression, free from the constraints of both colonial hegemony and the shackles of tradition.

The essays cover three broad categories: armed resistance, intellectual preparation, and cultural practice. Culture as reflected in this book is not some apolitical space; it is inextricably connected with the colonial reality, and notions of nation that arise from a differentiated cultural expression of the intelligentsia during the 19th century, which is in turn strongly influenced by colonialism and the social matrix in which they emerged.

At a juncture when many other historians of modern India are prone to wish away the overarching reality of colonialism and its hegemonic presence in the lives of the Indian people, he is emphatic that "colonial domination and resistance occupied the centre of historical experience" during the period described by him. The consciousness about an alternative formed very slowly, he says, primarily because the intelligentsia, to begin with, tended to identify colonial rule as an agency of liberal dispensation, and when they did seek to transgress it their political perspective remained circumscribed by liberalism, and then increasingly came to accommodate tradition in the same way that colonialism did: this created a cultural crisis for the intelligentsia. This trajectory is explored in some depth through the studies on different forms of cultural articulation of the 19th century and to an extent early 20th.


He describes the plurality of forms of resistance, analyses many of them, and shows how these were an aspect of challenging and transgressing the limits of colonial modernity, yet "influenced partly by the way power was exercised by the colonizer", as much as by what came to be seen as tradition under colonial rule.

The themes covered range from the formation of cultural consciousness to questions of cultural pasts and national identity; matters of dress and manners and social reform in the context of tradition, power and concern for legitimacy; literature, literacy and educational initiatives, the expansion of print media and creation of new cultural tastes and notions of nation; indigenous medicine and coming to terms with new knowledge and colonial hegemony; and the early armed revolts and peasant resistance in the backdrop of agrarian laws of the time, specifically as reflected in the revolts of Velu Tampi and of the Malabar peasantry.


The essays explore the implications these forms of resistance had for the formation of political and cultural consciousness, and how these forms of resistance constituted what he calls "the proto history of political and cultural nationalism."

In a short review it would be fruitful to simply encapsulate some of his propositions and conclusions on the varied themes covered in the book: both renaissance and revivalism were integral to the search for identity, neither being overtly against colonialism; colonial cultural interventions did not mean a departure from the traditional pattern of life, even to those directly exposed to the influence of the colonial, social and cultural engineering; the lack of integration between political and cultural struggles had important implications; a critique of religion is essential for the battle over transformation of consciousness for a social revolution; and unlike in Africa or South America, the colonialists hegemonised Indian society by both expropriating and appropriating many traditional cultural symbols.

His analyses of the Malayalam novel Indulekha and the `Great Shoe Question' reveal the complexities of contestations over cultural symbols and self-perceptions of individual identities in the social matrix of colonial hegemony and need for traditional legitimacy. The dynamics of the peasant revolts discussed reveal the vital interconnections within popular struggles between traditional religious ideology and `the hidden transcripts' of a challenge to the dominance of the landowning classes and the agrarian laws of the colonial state.


He strongly argues that the vital force that could have emerged from a creative dialogue between the spirit of rationality and universalism derived from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment on the one hand and an equally enlightened choice from within the tradition, remained split into two distinct tendencies. In the event, he says, the void has been filled either by the culture of the capitalist West or the obscurantism of tradition, currently being advocated by the Hindutva forces.

He concludes even more emphatically that "the cultural alternative contemporary India is seeking is therefore located in a choice between the elements inherited from the renaissance and those promoted by revivalism. At a time when there are attempts to redefine the identity of the nation, the choice is imbued with a meaning not purely cultural but also political."

To this we may add that in an era of `cultural nationalism', when the field of culture and its centrality to politics and transformation of Indian society has suffered great neglect from secular, left-liberal historians, and when the Hindu right wing seems to have hijacked the entire discourse on culture, this book is a timely warning to take culture seriously, and to evolve an effective agenda for cultural action.