The Newsletter 84 Autumn 2019

India, modernity, and the great divergence

Caleb Simmons

Kaveh Yazdani. 2017. 
India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.) 
Leiden: Brill
ISBN 978004330788

Kaveh Yazdani’s India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.) is a thorough account of the social, political, economic, and technological innovations in Mysore and Gujarat during the period of inquiry. From the breadth of material and sources covered by the author it is a remarkable resource for examining the processes through which Mysore and Gujarat developed during this critical moment of the colonial encounter.

Kaveh Yazdani’s book covers a wide range of materials largely because of his approach to periodization (to which I will return and devote the bulk of this review); however, this approach at times becomes burdensome for the reader because of the book’s organization. The book is very large by contemporary monograph standards, an impressive 669 pages. This is divided into only an introduction and four chapters, one of which is the epilogue. The material on Mysore and Gujarat is divided into two massive chapters that make up the bulk of the book, 246 and 196 pages respectively. These chapters are subdivided into sections with further subsections and conclusions, but the overall argument and narrative are too easily lost amongst the many details and directions. Readers who are familiar with some of Yazdani’s other publications should not expect the same succinct argumentation, but for the reader willing to put in the time and effort there are many things they will discover of great value throughout its pages.  

India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence takes as its primary premise that historical periodization is flawed. This critique resonates with almost anyone who is working on historical issues, especially through a World History lens. Particularly, Yazdani takes umbrage with the periodization of modernity, which is at the center of his study. For the author, the rise of modernity was/is a process; a process that unfolds over a long period of time over several ‘historical stages and encompassed a number of core regions within Afro-Eurasia and beyond the 16th century, also the Americas’ (p. 23). He explains following the work of Sanjay Subrahmanyam that modernity slowly develops over a long process of transition. He continues by defining modernity;

To give a very condensed and abbreviated definition, it can be suggested that, in a very broad outline, modernity radically transformed the economic, social, political, judicial, military, epistemological, cognitive and techno-scientific structures of society, as well as the basis of energy consumption. Significantly, human social relations and the relationship between humans and nature, humans and society and humans and God/ Gods were transformed in a way unknown to ‘pre-modern’ humans (p. 23).

With this definition Yazdani attempts to provide a ‘holistic’ approach to modernity that will help us to understand the long process of transition better than a ‘reductionist definition of modernity that either emphasizes socio-economic, political or epistemological factors’ (p. 23). By broadening the definition of modernity to be holistic, the author sees modernity everywhere and far before most people date early modernity. Therefore, Yazdani creates a new periodization scheme in which modernity is contrasted to the ancient: ‘Indeed, modernity undermines the old and substitutes ancient forms with new ones, despite the continuity of an array of persistent traditional elements’ (p. 23). In this new periodization scheme that he proposes, modernity is pushed back in time to a new early modernity that could be called ‘nascent or budding modernity’ between the 10th and 15th centuries (see p. 35 fns 88 and 89 for other scholars who have taken similar approaches). Next comes ‘middle modernity’ that existed from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, which led to ‘late modernity’.

While I admire Yazdani’s attempt to rethink periodization, he ultimately undermines his own broader point about the transitionary process of modernity and a holistic approach by reifying periodization. Periodization can be a helpful heuristic to help historians think through broader trends, but periodization cannot be so rigidly defined. Especially if one considers the multiple and manifold processes of change that develop at different places and at different times and in different forms for each of these aspects that Yazdani includes in his definition of modernity and in this study. Certainly, if one looks hard enough there will be some elements associated with modernity that extend earlier than the 10th century; however, the author rigidly fixes the earliest form of modernity in the 10th century: ‘I am of the opinion that tracing back the advent of modernity to a period before the 10th century seriously undermines its analytical utility’ (p. 35 fn. 88). Logically, then Yazdani is falling into the same traps as those he critiques who do ‘not sufficiently acknowledge the significance of the era preceding 1500 in the formation of modernity’ (p. 36). So, why fix a date at all? Why not allow for the ambiguity that exists in the development of any of the ideas, economic structures and technological advances that are discussed?

The rigidity of the dating mechanism employed by Yazdani in his introductory chapter became even more perplexing for this reader when in the conclusion to the chapter on Mysore under Tipu Sultan the author claimed that Mysore was in a state of only ‘semi-modernization’ (p. 351). The author continues to explain this conclusion, which, to summarize and oversimplify, meant that the kingdom was modern in some respects but not in others. How is it that in ‘late modernity’ a major kingdom in international politics of the time could be considered ‘semi-modernized’ and moreover that its ‘semi-modernization had feet of clay’ (p. 354)? In the opinion of this reader, the author would have been better served to consider modernity as an ambiguous term that includes a myriad number of connotations that have roots in any number of traditional practices and beliefs and that each of these arose over time in different ways and in response to different stimuli. Otherwise, he falls prey to the same reductionist flaws for which he critiqued other scholars, just with different dates in brackets (i.e. the discussion in the epilogue regarding the transition from ‘middle modernity’ to ‘late modernity’ closely resembled many other writings that have called the same period ‘early modernity’).

To conclude this review, however, I must say that I admire the attempt by Yazdani to rethink periodization because it is always fraught with many snares. While I think that this attempt at re-periodization was ultimately unsuccessful, the process of thinking about our assumptions regarding historical periods is a generative process and was a welcome exercise. Additionally, this attempt in no way takes away from the wealth of information that the author provides on both Mysore and Gujarat.

Caleb Simmons, University of Arizona, the United States