The School of Writing

Ever since the commencement of history writing in the modern age in India a number of school of writing has emerged in the context of the reconstruction of Indian history. These schools & scholars associated with schools used different approaches as per the circumstances in which they emerged & objects they trying to accomplish through history writing. To understand more about approaches being used for historiography, writings styles and patterns are divided into the schools of historiography. One school represents the ideology of that type of writing.

Schools of Historiography

Since the end of the Orientalist or Colonial school of writing, there have been four main schools of historiography in India:

  1. Cambridge
  2. Nationalist
  3. Marxist
  4. Subaltern

The Cambridge School was formed under the guidance of Anil Seal, Gordon Johnson, Richard Gordon, and David A. Washbrook. Cambridge School of historiography was being criticized for western bias or European-centric content.

The Nationalist school of writings was found to be centered around the Congress, Mahatama Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and politics around them. This school of writing marked the Mutiny of 1857 as the war of liberation, and Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ began in 1942, as important historical events which leads to the freedom of India from British Colonialism.

The Marxist school of writing has its own importance as this school of writing focuses on research and further need for studying economic development, land ownership, and conflicts among different classes in pre-colonial India and deindustrialization during the colonial period.

The “Subaltern school”, was started in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha and Gyan Prakash. This school of writing focuses attention on “history from below” which is history more focused on the peasants using folklore, poetry, riddles, proverbs, songs, oral history, and methods inspired by anthropology. This school of writing focuses more on the colonial era before 1947 and typically emphasizes caste and downplays class, to the annoyance of the Marxist school.

Colonial School of Writing (Orientalist School of writing)

This was a common “Orientalist” approach to writing in the British Raj with its image of a sensuous, inscrutable, and wholly spiritual India that has died out in serious scholarship research.

This school emerged during the opening decade of the 19th century. Company officials & western scholars were associated with the school. They interpreted Indian history to suit the needs of British Colonial rules. Scholars like V.A. Smith, H.H. Wilson & James Mil were associated with this school. Colonial historians presented a distorted picture of Early Indian History to justify the establishment of British rule.

They focused on highlighting the limitation of Indian life. The achievement was deliberately neglected. Everything bad was considered Indian & every good element was portrayed as a contribution of foreigners. This school focus on political history primarily & the too history of the elite class. Phases of Indian history were divided along religious lines in the Hindu period & the Muslim period & the British period.

Certain periods of Indian history were portrayed as dark ages to shatter Indian pride & self-esteem. Dark-age refers to a phase of human history during which progress was completely absent. The post-Mauryan period, early medieval age & 18th Century were presented as dark ages of Indian History. It was emphasized that India was invaded by foreigners during this period. Political unification was absent. No progress of any kind was there in political, socio-cultural, or economic life.

This idea of the dark age was used to justify the slogan of “Providential Mission” & “White men’s Burden”. It was emphasized that the British came to India to uplift natives from prevailing darkness. The communal outlook was dominant in historical interpretation put forward by colonial scholars. Their object was to put one Indian community against others so that the policy of divide and rule could be used successfully.

Cambridge School of Writing

The Cambridge School was led by Anil Seal, Gordon Johnson, Richard Gordon, and David A. Washbrook downplaying ideology. However, this school of historiography is being criticized for western bias or Euro-centrism.

The Cambridge School of historiography was the school of thought which approached the study of the British Empire from an imperialist point of view. It emerged especially at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s. John Andrew Gallagher (1919-80) was especially influential, particularly in his article with Ronald Robinson on “The Imperialism of Free Trade”

Nationalist School of Writing

This School of Indian History writing got emerged during the 1840-60s. Historians like R.C. Majumdar, Roy Choudhari & K. Neelkantha Shastri were associated with this school of Historiography.

The Nationalist school of Indian History emerged as a reaction to negative propaganda being unleashed by colonial historians. They were motivated by the desire to interpret Indian History in a positive light so that spirit of national pride could be infused among Indians. Their interpretation was aimed at straightening the foundation of Indian nationalism & to provide positive ideas to Indians struggling against British Rule.

To counter the concept of the Dark Age being introduced by colonial historians, the National historian put forward the idea of the Golden age. The golden age refers to a phase of human history during which all-around progress of very high order was witnessed.

The Gupta period was presented as a golden age. The nationalist historians also suffered from many limitations. The picture of Early Indian History presented by them was distorted toward the positive. Nationalism Historians deliberately neglected limitation failure. They also focused on political dimensions & elite class like their colonial counter-part.

Marxist School of Writing

This school of Indian history writing got emerged during the 1960s. Scholars like R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib, Sumit Sarkar, D.D. Kosambi etc. is associated with this school of writing. These historians focused on the economic factors shaping human history. They focused on socio-economic dimensions in the reconstruction of History & neglected the political dimension.

Greater significance was attached to the role of the common masses (peasants, workers) in the making of Indian history. This approach is also known as history from below. Like earlier schools, the Marxist school also suffered from presenting an incomplete picture of Indian History.

Subaltern School of Writing

Ranajit Guha, Subaltern School of writing
Ranajit Guha

The “Subaltern school”, was started in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha and Gyan Prakash. This school of writing focuses attention away from the elites and politicians to “history from below”, looking at the peasants using folklore, poetry, riddles, proverbs, songs, oral history, and methods inspired by anthropology. It focuses more on the colonial era before 1947 and typically emphasizes caste and downplays class, to the annoyance of the Marxist school.

It was initially applied to serfs and peasants in England during the Middle Ages. Later, by 1700, it was used for subordinate ranks in the military. However, it gained wide popularity in scholarly circles after the works of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).

Gramsci had adopted the term to refer to the subordinate groups (non-royal or common people) in society. In his opinion, the history of the subaltern groups is almost always related to that of the ruling or royal groups.

Multidisciplinary/Scientific Approach

This approach emerged during the 1990s & it is being followed by most Historians at present. This approach, endeavors try to reconstruct Indian History in a balanced manner without getting affected by any particular ideology.

This approach focuses on elements of changes & continuity in Indian History. On basis of these elements, the periodization of Indian History was carried out. Instead of following the religious base classification of Indian History in three phases, it follows 5 base approaches, Ancient India, Early Medieval India, Medieval India, Early Modern India, and Modern India.

This approach relies more on archeological & other evidence gathered through scientific examination of the past so that history could be reconstructed most truthfully. 

Previous Year Questions for UPSC Prelims

Ques 1: Which one of the following statements regarding the Imperialist approach to the writing of Indian history, is not correct?

  1. The Imperialist approach first emerged in the official pronouncements of the Viceroys and was convincingly put forward by V. Chirol, the Rowlatt Committee and Verney Lovat.
  2. It was firstly theorized by Bruce T. McCully in 1940 and its liberal version was adopted by Reginald Coupland and Percival Spear.
  3. Its conservative version was made brighter and prettier by John Gallagher and Anil Seal, after 1968
  4. The Imperialist writers believed that India was in the process of becoming a nation

Answer: Option 4

Explanation: This school of historiography is also known as the Cambridge School since a group of Cambridge University researchers was primarily responsible for developing the imperialist method of writing history. The Cambridge school’s theorists essentially contend that Indian nationalism was a byproduct of imperialist designs because the movement’s leaders were drawn from various castes and community groups, and their internal factionalism prevented any strong nationalist sentiment from emerging and gaining momentum.

Even if such a sentiment did emerge, it was only made possible because the British imperial government permitted representation, so this school eliminates all agency.

Ques 2: Whom among the following historians does not belong to the Aligarh School?

  1. Anil Seal
  2. Irfan Habib
  3. Nurul Hasan
  4. Athar Ali

Answer: Option 1

Explanation: Anil Seal belongs to the Cambridge School of Histriography.

Quick Questions on School of Writing for UPSC Preparation

Historiography is the writing of history, particularly the writing of history based on the critical analysis of sources, the selection of specific details from the authentic materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those information into a narrative that withstands the test of critical analysis.

There are four main schools of writings of Histriography of India, they are; Cambridge, Nationalist, Marxist, and subaltern.

In the 1960s, it was primarily developed at the University of Cambridge. The “The Imperialism of Free Trade” article that John Andrew Gallagher (1919–1980) co-wrote with Ronald Robinson was extremely important. Anil Seal, Gordon Johnson, Richard Gordon, and David A. Washbrook are some of the School’s administrators.

Anil Seal: He studies history at the Cambridge School. The Cambridge School of Historiography was a school of thought that took an imperialist stance while studying the British Empire.

The word is attributed to Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), an Italian Marxist and Communist who spent a significant amount of time in prison under Mussolini’s police (from 1926) before passing away at the age of 46.

Ranajit Guha, who together with young historians devised the idea of publishing a work on subaltern classes in India, deserves credit for the advent of “Subaltern Studies.” Before getting into further detail, let’s take a look at Jules Michelet’s body of work (1798-1874).

The following are characteristics of nationalist historiography:
Historians from India: The writings of Indian historians who received their education in the British educational system are included in nationalistic historiography.
Their work was done with the intention of raising the readers’ self-esteem and restoring pride in India’s former splendour.

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