Gods, gardens and the odd cow

Cultural Atlas of India

September 15, 1995

Not the least of the many problems in compiling a popular work of this sort on India is the need to include those platitudes without which an account of the country would be incomplete. Could one avoid including a photograph of cows obstructing the highway together with an explanation of their sacred status and ominous predictions about the angry crowd that will gather should one collide with these noble beasts? This Cultural Atlas succumbs to such an inevitability on page 19. In other respects however the book, compiled by a leading Cambridge historian with the assistance of several other leaders in their fields, struggles to escape from such constraints.

Gordon Johnson constructs a well-crafted and readable narrative synthesising an enormous range of sources. There are particularly strong sections on "People, Religion and Society" and the Mughal period and the Marathas. The volume is handsomely illustrated and benefits greatly from a series of wonderful colour maps. While presenting a conventional history in a manner that the general reader will find easily digestible, reference is also made to recent scholarly debates: the reader is left in no doubt about the complexities of caste and important recent changes in its practice; the Brahmanic orientation of early British understandings is clearly stated and the simulatory power of various colonial categories is noted. Johnson draws welcome attention to Edmund Leach's critique of the "Aryan myth" and the clear articulation of such important scepticism in a popular work is unusual and admirable.

There are over 30 "special features" ranging from general comments on "Weather" and "Mughal Gardens" to summaries of the Ramayana and descriptions of Chandigarh. These are excellent pieces by experts but often little more than fragments. The editor strives to pre-empt the inevitable carping but some of the other text might have been pruned to permit these learned fragments to assume a fuller shape. The location of these fragments within the text is sometimes surprising: the feature on Sikhism appears after that on Tipu Sultan, and that on chess (origin 6th century ad or earlier) appears juxtaposed with the section on the "Making of Modern India".

There is an extensive discussion of Shivaji (over seven pages) but no reference whatsoever to the much later Tilak, an omission which is curious in view of Johnson's own specialist interests. Conversely, the generally excellent bibliography rightly recommends almost everything of note published by Cambridge University Press in recent years but important works by Freitag, Gold, Hansen, Raheja, Haynes and Harlan are strangely absent.

Inevitably there are a few minor mistakes. For instance, the pots of young wheat shoots held by villagers in one photograph are surely embodiments of the Devi grown during Navratri and do not have anything to do with the "transplanting of a new corn crop" as is claimed in the section on festivals.

Although there are welcome sections on drama and cinema, in the main the "culture" delineated here is very much one encoded in forts and palaces. It is a culture of monumentality, a static record of great events rather than evanescent popular forms. The beautifully illustrated feature on Kalighat painting records its losing battle with lithography in the 1930s but these lithographs are never shown. There is an image of Ganesh by the artist Badri Narayan but none of the many millions of chromolithographs of this deity that have circulated over the last century. Such images might also have been used with effect in the sections on other deities such as Shiva and Vishnu. Elegant drawings of sculptures are provided but apart from one still from the television Mahabharata one has little sense of how deities are manifest today in India in all their technicolour brilliance.

This may well be one of the compromises made when addressing a general audience. The exact nature of the audience is something of a puzzle but they are assured of learning much and having their preconceptions challenged; Johnson succeeds well in reconciling accessibility with wide-ranging scholarship.

Christopher Pinney is lecturer in South Asian anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Cultural Atlas of India: India, Pakistan, Nepal,Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

Author - Gordon Johnson
ISBN - 0 7054 0872 8
Publisher - Time-Life Books
Price - £22.99
Pages - 240

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