Event ReportsPublished on Jul 18, 2019
Political and economic history typically studied structures and processes. Social history was interested in documenting the values, interests, and everyday lives of the common people.
Social history details and delineates the times, says expert

“There are many ways of knowing the history of a place. Social history draws from literature, architecture, poetry, sculpture, clothes, jewellery and so on,” said K.R.A. Narasiah, author & social historian. Initiating a discussion on ‘Contextualising Social History’ at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai on 6 July 2019, Narasiah elucidated that social history, in contrast to other kinds of histories such as political history, economic history, colonial history and so on, focused on the social lives of people in communities of all sizes and types, at specific times and places. Narasiah insisted: “It is necessary to know the stories of how people lived and what actually happened within these communities.”

Political and economic history typically studied structures and processes, noted Narasiah. On the other hand, social history was interested in documenting the values, interests, and everyday lives of the common people. He traced social history to two schools of thought: the Annales School of French Historiography and the English Social History. The Annales School attempts to incorporate innumerable local histories in order to construct “a history of society,” he said. English Social History was known for its focus on the “manners, morals and customs” of the English. Famously, English Social History is defined by George Macaulay Trevelyan, as “history with the politics left out.”

In particular reference to present-day Tamil Nadu, which was once a part of the Madras Presidency, works in social history range from Col Reid’s The Story of Fort St George, which has been described as “making the streets, the walls and the buildings of the fort themselves tell their enthralling tale” to Kanaklatha Mukund’s writing on “Women’s Property Rights in Tamil Society Caste Conflict in South India in Early Colonial Port Cities,” as well as a recounting of colonial history by using a bottom-up approach in The View from Below: Indigenous Society, Temples, and the Early Colonial State in Tamilnadu, 1700-1835.

Arjun Appadurai’s study of temples in South India in Worship and Conflict Under Colonial Rule: A South Indian Case, within an integrated anthropological framework traces institutional change in South Asia under colonial rule. Narasiah pointed out how Prof. Appadurai studied “the problem of authority as a cultural concept and as a managerial reality, looking at problems of deference, sumptuary symbolism, and religious organisation.”

Prof. Sugirtharajah was able to establish the antiquity of Christianity in India in his work The Bible and Asia, drawing on literature. Narasiah was particularly struck by how he compares verses from The Kings and the Sangam poetry in order to establish these early links.

Bird migration

Narasiah further spoke about Theodore Baskaran’s observations on the dramatic spectacle of bird migration and explicated how it tells us so much more about Indian society than one would think. Baskaran’s writing, which focuses on major fly-aways of migratory birds to Gujarat, shows that though this trend is explained by the large number of lakes and marshes that dot the countryside, as well as the Great Rann of Kutch, which tends to be inundated after the monsoon, there is another social reason for this migration. Theodore Baskaran writes that another reason is “the abiding Gujarati tradition of not harming birds.”

Similarly, red migratory birds migrating northwards is often taken as a totem of wealth and prosperity, Narasiah remarked. In this context, he made a particular mention of the Sangam era Tamil poem, Naarai Vidu Thoodhu, in which the despondent poet is seeking to send a message to his desperate wife about the abject poverty he was living, as he was unable to meet the local king to be able to sing in his praise and get some gifts, and thus keep penury away. The messenger is a chengaal-naarai, which could have been the American white ibis. It meant that bird migration from another part of the world was known to south India, some two thousand years ago, Narasiah averred.

This interdisciplinary nature of social history which draws from a range of social sciences is best seen in the work of Radha Kamal Mukherjee. Narasiah emphasised that it was only by embracing an interdisciplinary approach we could gain a comprehensive appraisal of social reality in the Indian context. R.K. Mukherjee who was trained in anthropology, said Narasiah, took a micro-level focus by studying inter-caste tensions, sociology of values, urbanization and cities in transition.

‘Wealth of history’

An important field of research in social history is urban history that studies the complexities of towns and cities, particularly urban planning, urban expansion, urban communities and networks. The city is the focus here, both as an independent variable, i.e., “as a source of energy or a shaper of social structures or social relations in society” (Rowney 1977) and a dependent variable i.e., “the city as the result of change in the society of which it is a part” (ibid) including at times an intervening variable “a rather vaguely conceived factor that affects the development of certain types of social relations (ibid).”

Here, we remember the late S. Muthiah, the chronicler of Chennai City and author of ‘Madras Discovered’ and ‘Madras Rediscovered,’ who possibly studied the city of Madras in all three ways. Muthiah always spoke of Madras as the first city of erstwhile British Empire, “where Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Wellington and Elihu Yale started their careers, where the foundations for the school of Engineering and Survey began”.

Muthiah’s work, as Narasiah recalled, traces the story of Madras city before the European period, showing that parts of the city existed before the establishment of Fort St George. “Crucially, S Muthiah’s work shows us the wealth of historical knowledge embedded in the stories about a city’s architecture and the life of its people and therefore highlights the importance of social history in the Indian context,” Narasiah added, paying tributes to the man, who had passed away a few weeks earlier.

This report is prepared by Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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