How to See

I was invited to speak on Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s 2014 (already seminal) book Memory, Power, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. It was awarded the 2016 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize at the Association for Asian Studies. Alongside Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor (2015)– about which I wrote here— and Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2015), this book represents a significant turn in South Asian studies towards ‘memory studies’ broadly speaking. Due to the travel EO, I chose not to attend the festivities in Toronto but Professor Nile Green (the Chair of the panel) was gracious enough to read my comments. I post here a shortened version for your edification.


Two of the works that were significant in my own intellectual formation belong to Phillip Wagoner and to Richard Eaton. Wagoner’s Tidings of the King: A Translation and Ethnohistorical Analysis of Rāyavācakamu (1999) taught me the invaluable lesson that historical texts can pretend a pre-textual history as its own– and that any prima facie reading of such texts can compound historiographic errors over generations. Wagoner’s effort in re-situating Rāyavācakamu as an early-seventeenth century text, as opposed to it’s own claim to be an early sixteenth century text, and in thinking about the genre as a source of historical emplotment, gave me a method to interrogate my primary concern– a thirteenth century Persian text claiming to be a translation of an eighth century Arabic work– anew. Eaton’s landmark study Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (1978) was itself methodologically innovative in considering texts emerging from within or about Sufi households alongside legal declarations and historical narratives. In my own research on thirteenth century Sindh, I was guided by Eaton’s example of creating a social network for a distant past by tracing textual and material networks that continuously cross borders enacted by historical or historiographic sensibilities.

I want to start with this particular perspective– of thinking about method for studying Indian medieval pasts. It is my contention that Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014) invocation and use of “Memory” begins from their methodology of walking the secondary regional centers to compile their GIS maps. In effect, walking provided the means with which the authors ‘see’ the landscape– both in its contemporary form and in its historical context.

In the Appendix 1, “Notes on Method”, the authors begin with a database of over 100 fortified secondary cities from Firishta’s early seventeenth century history of the Deccan. They converted this database into points on a map, and using Thiessen models spread over ten year intervals, were able to see how boundaries and borderlands exerted influence over capitals and secondary centers. The mapping provided as they write “only part of the picture” and so they had to incorporate visits to 48 sites including 31 secondary centers. For Kalyana and Raichur– lynch pins for their argument– they walked each site and followed the circuits of fortifications to learn not only about the historical contours of the land but its present formations.

This grounding in material landscape leads to an intimacy with the epigraphic and textual evidences that the authors draw upon for their analysis. It allows them to check the validity of their reading or even to correct it. In ways both small and profound, the making of database, and the making of the map, constitute a practice that restores to historical memory the memory of these secondary sites. The spaces that constitute their walked landscape corresponds to their usage of nucleus, frontier zones and shatter zones (drawing upon OHK Spate via Bernard Cohn) and for the next section of my remarks, I want to focus on their chapter on Shitab Khan where, in my reading, memory and geography come together most seamlessly.

The authors define the intersections of their titular categories thusly: “Power enabled ruling élites to patronize vast enterprises; memory of a prestigious Chalukya past informed what projects they would patronize; and the architectural works themselves publicly displayed both that memory and their patrons’ ability to project it” (p. 90). The directionality of memory here is what I am most drawn to in their formulation. Speaking about Kalyana, they note, “Glorified in inscriptions and literature, the city’s former splendour had for long been lodged in the conscious or subconscious memory of those members of élite society who were literate in Kannada or Sanskrit. And for the general population, the city’s many sculptural and monumental remains stood as mute witnesses to, and reminders of, a lost but brilliant epoch” (p. 146).

The material world grants a particular valence to memory which informs the elite expenditure of their capital that deploys in forms new and nostalgic, which in turn creates among the public the memory of a history that is now perhaps their present but whose glory is certainly their future glory. That movement of past through the present and into the future allows, our authors contend, a form of self re-fashioning for their historical subject.

There is only the one inscription of Shitab Khan left in Warangal to mark his conquest in 1504. The inscriptions uses Chalukya dynastic memory to inscribe Shitab Khan’s break from his erstwhile Bahamani king. The chapter is a model for the whole book– in demonstrating the nuanced ways in which sacral acts and political power are read by the authors as well as the wide array of sources that they utilize to wrest from an opaque past a rich biography. Shitab Khan, in their final appraisal, is able to marshal particular ritual, material, and cultural memory to make a claim for restoration of Kakatiya past and his own future. All of this is amply demonstrated by the authors. The question then arises, how did he manage to do it? What made Shitab Khan possible? Their answer is tied closely to landscape. Shitab Khan Shitab Khan’s career, they argue, emerged in “a political vacuum, or shatter zone” in “a region saturated with memories of a glorious past” (p. 195). The analytical space of a gap in power corresponds, in this case, with an abundance of history. Khan is able to ressurect a foregone empire, reclaim lost dieties and proclaim his own glory– all as acts of political memory. The argument for a savvy agent of change through nostalgia, like Shitab Khan, is convincingly put forth by the authors. Shitab Khan also illustrates their second, though not secondary, argument of the book regarding the Hindu-Muslim encounter in the Deccan as “an initially military encounter tranformed over the course of fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, ultimately resolving in the mutual interpenetration of two civilizational traditions”.

Memory moves in and through texts, within and without built environments, and across the landscapes of Deccan. It is itself mobile and tensile and responds to political, social and sacral pressures. Eaton and Wagoner point to it in certain elite formation but their argument extends to non-elite, populous venues just the same. The power to re-form past is not the dominion of the powerful alone.

Our authors enter this debate through landscape and assert that land and what remains on it are part of the theoretical argument of the text. In that vein, and to conclude my thoughts, I want to draw our attention to one particular footnote from Appendix I: “At two of the secondary sites we visited– Ganjoti and Kohir– we were unable to locate any traces of a late-medieval/early modern settlement, despite searching and making inquiries with the local residents” (p. 349). Here interdependencies of Power, Memory and Architecture resolve themselves into an absence and not a presence. In thinking about the limits of memory, Paul Ricoeur traced the relationship between lieux de mémoire and milieux de mémoire to highlight the central tension in Pierre Nora’s project for recovering a foundational memory for France. For Ricoeur, there was the need to highlight the uncanniness of memory in history– this is a difficult task and made doubly difficult because of the unique burden facing the post-colonial historian of South Asia. How to reconcile the uncanny nature of a dis-contiguous present and a contiguous past. In Power, Memory, Architecture, our authors have constructed a geographic, epigraphic, material and modular framework to reconcile first and foremost the history of a region into the history of a sub-continent; next, communal and disciplinarian difference and finally, the distance between memory and history.

Just as I learned from their earlier works, I find myself being informed and taught by this significant contribution to the study of Indian pasts. It is a work that joins Cynthia Talbot and Shahid Amin’s new books as opening new horizons on memory and history for South Asia. I wish to congratulate them on receiving the A. K. Coomaraswamy Book Prize and I hope we can follow in their footsteps– literally and figuratively– and create new orchards from ancient knowledges.

Thank you.