This essay considers an important and enduring problem in the writing of Indian history: how do we historians approach precolonial narratives of the past? A rich and suggestive new study of South Indian modes of historiography, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600–1800, by Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, has positioned itself at the center of this debate. For a variety of reasons, precolonial narratives have been demoted to the status of mere information, and genres of South Indian writing have been dismissed as showing that South Indians lacked the ability to write history and indeed lacked historical consciousness. Textures of Time responds to this picture by proposing a novel historical method for locating historical sensibility in precolonial narratives of the past. The authors ask us not to judge all textual traditions in India, especially narratives of the past, on the basis of the verifiability of facts contained in them. Rather they suggest a radical openness of the text, and they argue that a historical narrative is constituted in the act of reading itself. They do this by examining the role of genre and what they call texture in precolonial South Indian writing.
This essay examines the strengths and limitations of their proposal. It does so by examining the formation of colonial archives starting in the late-eighteenth century in order to understand the predicament of history in South Asia. Colonial archives brought about a crisis in historiographical practices in India; they not only transformed texts into raw information for the historian to then reconstruct a historical narrative, they also delegitimized precolonial modes of historiography. A better understanding of these archives puts one in a better position to assess the insights of Textures of Time, but it also helps to highlight the problems in its solution. In particular, it reveals how the book continues to use modern criteria to assess premodern works, and in this way perhaps to judge them inappropriately.