Heart of the Orient

Bazaar India
May 19, 2000

One of the indigenous institutions that was most visited, described and subject to economic analysis by the former colonial rulers of Asia and Africa was the market, the bazaar. This attention is not difficult to explain. Flourishing markets were essential to the security of government revenue, especially in societies where peasant farmers and landlords paid their land revenues to the government in cash, as in India. Rural markets were the means through which European firms hoped to sell their manufactures to rural consumers. Rural markets were also places where colonial rulers sent police spies and snoopers in the hope of picking up early warning signs of peasant revolts or millenarian religious movements among country people.

But as Anand A. Yang reminds us at the beginning of Bazaar India , the bazaar was also a trope in the European imagining of the Orient, summoning up pictures of bustle and colour, of a disorganised mêlée of buyers and sellers working on principles markedly different from those of western economic rationality. In some interpretations, the bazaar was as much a measure of the strangeness and inaccessibility of the Orient as those more dramatic incubuses, caste, tribe and religious sect.

This is an excellent piece of social and institutional history, richly reflecting Yang's deep knowledge of north Indian rural society. Yang, however, does not really wish to be seen as an agrarian historian. The purpose of writing such a book, he states, is to use the bazaar as an heuristic device to interpret connections in Indian society. His is a story about meetings, travels, conversations, whispers and deals well done.

He begins with a very big market centre indeed, the city of Patna, which in the 18th century was not only a centre of subcontinental and even world trade, but home of Mughal noble families and a great centre of learning in Persian. He sees the city through the eyes of the historian Ghulam Hussain, whose History of the Moderns bewails the passing of the Mughal empire and the rise of grocers and drunken butlers under the patronage of the British. Moving from this Indian representation of the bazaars of the declining city to an attempt to find out what actually happened to Patna, Yang shows that, however grievous a blow Mughal decline had been for the city, it was the coming of the railways in the mid-19th century that consigned it to its present status in the eyes of many Indian as a benighted wild-west cow town.

Yang goes on to examine the large rural fairs that were such an important feature of 19th-century Bihar. At this level of society, the economic and political links between Bihar's high-caste landholders and the local commodity traders were forged that persist into the present day and are widely perceived as an impenetrable caste bloc by poorer and ritually inferior villagers. Around these central places often develop the contemporary caste wars that provide such good copy for journalists.

Some of Yang's liveliest writing is found in his chapter on rural markets as places of exchange and as political forums where nationalist volunteers,village activists and colonial officials struggled to direct or suppress the popular movements of the 1920s and 1930s. Yang provides a context for Indian conflicts and accommodations with the colonial state that takes us back to the late-18th century.

This is very much a book about Bihar, and the reader sometimes wonders how different things were and are in other parts of "Bazaar India". How, for instance, does the story of conflict and accommodation here in Saran or Hathwa differ from that which might be told of areas nearer Delhi where the powerful Jat peasantry - now tractor farmers, local policemen and professional people - gradually extended its local dominance during the 20th century? How, again, would the picture Yang paints differ from what one would find in the environs of one of the great port cities of the 19th century: Madras, Bombay or Calcutta? There is enough secondary work available to set out some preliminary markers for such comparisons. This book, nevertheless, represents a high achievement in basic research and as a sympathetic reconstruction of the past. It helps to remind us that historical writing can be archivally well supported and alert to current methodologies in the social sciences.

C. A. Bayly is professor of imperial and naval history, University of Cambridge.

Bazaar India: Markets, Society and the Colonial State in Bihar

Author - Anand Yang
ISBN - 0 520 21099 9 and 21100 6
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00 and £15.95
Pages - 305

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