School of writings

Approaches used to study Early Indian History

Ever since the commencement of history writing in the modern age in India in the number of schools has emerged in the context of the reconstruction of Indian history. These schools & scholars associated schools used different approaches as per circumstances in which they emerged & object 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

After the end of 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 led by Anil Seal, Gordon Johnson, Richard Gordon, and David A. Washbrook, downplays ideology. However, this school of historiography is being criticized for western bias or Euro-centrism.

The Nationalist school of writings has focused on Congress, Gandhi, Nehru, and high-level politics. It highlighted the Mutiny of 1857 as the war of liberation, and Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ begun in 1942, as defining historical events that led to the freedom of India from British Colonialism.

The Marxist school of writings has focused on studies of economic development, land ownership, and class conflict in pre-colonial India and of 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 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.

Colonial School of Writing (Orientalist School of writing)

This was a common “Orientalist” approach of writing in 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 historian 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 portrait as a contribution of foreigners. This school focus on political history primarily & that too history of the elite class. Phases of Indian history were divided along the religious lines in the Hindu period & the Muslim period & British period.

Certain periods of Indian history were portrait as dark-age to shatter Indian pride & self-esteem. Dark-age refers to a phase of human history during which progress was completely absent. 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 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, downplays ideology. However, this school of historiography is being criticized for western bias or Euro-centrism.

The Cambridge School of historiography was school of thought which approached study of British Empire from imperialist point of view. It emerged especially at 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 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 reaction to negative propaganda being unleashed by colonial historians. They were motivated by desire to interpret Indian History in positive light so that spirit of national pride could be infused among Indians. Their interpretation was aimed at straightening foundation of Indian nationalism & to provide positive ideas to Indians struggling against British Rule.

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

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

Marxist School of Writing

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

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

Subaltern School of writing

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 military. However, it gained wide popularity in scholarly circles after the works of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).

Gramsci had adopted term to refer to the subordinate groups (non-royal or common people) in the 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 1990s & it is being followed by most of Historians at present. This approach, endeavors try to reconstruct Indian History in balanced manner without getting affected by any particular ideology.

This approach focuses upon elements of changes & continuity in Indian History. On basis of these elements, periodization of Indian History was carried out. Instead of following religion base classification of Indian History in three phases it follow 5 base approaches-

  1. Ancient India
  2. Early Medieval India
  3. Medieval India
  4. Early Modern India
  5. Modern India

This approach relies more on archeological & other evidences gathered through scientific examination of past so that history could be reconstructed in most truthful manner.