Out of India

Contemporary South Asia (three times a year) - South Asia Research (two issues a year)
February 21, 1997

British neglect of South Asia is extraordinary. The term itself is unfamiliar to many people, being commonly confused with Southeast Asia, and the countries of the region are underreported by the daily press, except for terrorist outrages or tigers running amok. Yet the Indian subcontinent has enormously enriched our economy, language and culture, to say nothing of its special importance for a sizeable minority of our population. India alone has a well-to-do middle class of 150 million people, which is enough to be worth a few innings from anyone batting for Britain.

The existence of these two journals, one edited in Oxford and the other in London, might indicate that in the universities, at least, South Asia receives proper consideration. South Asia Research was founded in 1980 by a group of postgraduate students at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Their aim was to produce a medium through which new research could be published quickly by young researchers who had not yet found an outlet in well-established journals. The postgraduates formed the editorial committee while the school provided office space and printed the journal at cost price when its presses were free. But these arrangements were difficult to maintain. Printing deadlines could not be met when the journal had no official status, postgraduate editors came and went, and contributions from young researchers did not arrive in adequate quantities. Full-time academics moved increasingly into the editorial committee and into the pages of the journal itself and, in 1994, the printing and business arrangements were handed over to Oxford University Press.

Despite these changes, many of the founders' aims continue to be met. Publication times are relatively short. W. H. McLeod's controversial lecture at the school in October 1994, in which he defended the use of a sceptical yet friendly historical analysis in studying the Sikh religion, appeared in the autumn issue of that year. Four other papers from the same conference appeared in a special issue on the "Cultural heritage of the Punjab" in 1995. High-quality articles by research students or recent graduates appear in almost every issue. For example, Philly Desai gives as succinct an account as one could find of the differences between British town planning and the morphology of traditional Indian cities. He summarises the results of a survey of people living in the former Asian Games housing complex, which was designed to recreate the shaded lanes and social intimacy of the traditional mohalla. The yuppies who live there, however, think it dull, condemn the whole concept as "trendy" and "western" and want to move to detached bungalows elsewhere. This article is illustrated with maps and diagrams. Others, such as Todd Lewis's on "Sukhavati traditions in Newar Buddhism", contain photographs of sculptures and buildings.

The journal has a very broad coverage, ranging across history, religion and the social sciences, as well as language and literature, art and architecture, and occasionally even classical indology. Such variety is commendable, but it illustrates the increasing difficulty which South Asianists have in talking to each other, let alone to a wider public. Such is the complexity of the subcontinent, and the detail in which it is now being studied, that scholars write primarily for a select group of colleagues who specialise in a particular region or topic. While most contributors to South Asia Research try hard, and usually successfully, to locate their work for South Asianists in general, the fact remains that few subscribers will ever want to read the journal from cover to cover.

Contemporary South Asia was founded to address precisely this problem: to study the subcontinent as a region; "to cultivate an awareness that South Asia is more than the sum of its parts"; and to "address the major issues facing (it) from a regional and inter-disciplinary perspective". Early volumes tried to fulfil these aims with articles on military and foreign policy, a discussion of ethnicity and development and an emphasis on Kashmir, including a special issue in March 1995.

The journal has also been notably even-handed in its treatment of the nations in the region, giving as much space to Pakistan as to India and fair coverage to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The most recent issues, however, have lapsed into studies of particular topics in individual countries with no pretence of a subcontinental perspective, which, in the present state of South Asian studies, is probably inevitable. More serious is the uneven quality of the contributions; while some are excellent, many are brief and a few are hardly worthy of publication. It has to be said, therefore, that the subscription price is a scandal and ought to produce bellows of protest from those milch cows of the publishing industry, the university libraries.

Richard Newman is lecturer in history, University of Wales, Swansea.

Contemporary South Asia (three times a year)

Editor - Gowher Rizvi and Robert Cassen
ISBN - ISSN 0958 4935
Publisher - Carfax
Price - £48.00 (indiv.) £148.00 (inst.)
Pages - -

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