Friday, July 28, 2006

D. D. Kosambi

I have just finished reading a book I have been planning to read for a long time: An introduction to the study of Indian History by D. D. Kosambi. It is one of the most unusual books I have ever read. The innocuous title is a bit misleading - the book is a how-to manual for anthropological field work and numismatics in addition to being a radical approach to Indian History. It is not easy reading for the casual reader, and I also suspect that a scientist or an engineer would appreciate the rigor of the methods more than a traditional historian. After all, not very many books on Indian history will have a note telling you that the distribution of weights in a hoard of coins (deposited in the Prince of Wales museum in Bombay) is skew-negative and platykurtic, with a weight standard of 3.51 g and variance 0.0307 ! (If you have to know, this is from note 37 of the commentary to the illustrations, 1956 edition, Popular Book Depot, Bombay).

Damodar Dharmanad Kosambi (1907-1966) was perhaps exposed to rigorous scholarship early on, being the son of a renowned Buddhist scholar who had to move his family to Cambridge, MA after accepting a teaching position at Harvard. Kosambi studied Mathematics, History and languages at Harvard and returned to India in the late 1920s. He taught for short periods at Banaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University and for over a decade at Fergusson College in Pune. From 1946 onwards, he held a chair for mathematics at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bombay. He lived in Pune and commuted to Bombay every day on the train called the 'Deccan Queen'. The preface to the book is datelined 'Deccan Queen, December 7, 1956'.

A list of Kosambi's works spanning different fields is given at the end of this brief biography, from where I obtained the details for the short sketch above. His father seems to have been a polymath and a remarkable personality in his own respect, according to this online account.

Kosambi is a master of all he surveys in this book - his dexterity, scholarship and decisive judgments reminded me of Eric Hobsbawm. The book is fascinating in many respects - the choice of photographs, the detailed endnotes, the insistence on deducing historical information from observing ritual and practice among the various castes and tribes in India, the obvious comfort with the ancient history of Iran and the near east, the deep knowledge of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, Kosambi's scientific studies of coin hoards etc. His contempt for poor scholarship is expressed without reservation and with caustic precision. His writing is terse and elegant. It often rises to the eminently quotable:
  • Chapter 1, Note 11, on sources of information about castes and tribes:
The Indian decennial Census reports are useful before 1951, when the whole idea of classification by caste was officially abandoned as a Canutian method of abolishing caste distinctions.
  • Chapter 3, Section 3.1, p.51, describing the blocks of 12' x 20' two-room tenements discovered during excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa:
These were called 'coolie lines' by the excavators, whose ingenuity had found modern names for the streets, but rarely any explanation beyond the mental reach of an Imperial Briton.

Unfortunately, this does not mean the book is well-written. The organization of the material is unintuitive and the flow from one section to another is not obvious. My guess is that the book arose from a set of notes which were later woven together. In many places, I got the feeling that either too much was being made of thin evidence (something which Kosambi accuses others of doing) or that I was being rail-roaded into some conclusion based on current anthropological observations.

Kosambi's offers his definition of history early on: it is "the presentation, in chronological order, of the successive developments in the means and relations of production". He goes on to show that given the conspicuous absence of any chronologies or historical narratives for the ancient period, this is the best that a historian can do. He also implies that in any case, this is exactly what a historian ought to be doing. I am not convinced that this is all one ought to do, especially for later periods in Indian history.

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