Bernard S. Cohn and Indian History in the American Academy: A Brief Note
Vinay Lal (October 2004)
  At a Glance.....



Ashis Nandy

Nandy: Select Bibliography

A. K. Ramanujan, 1929-1993

Bernard S. Cohn, 1928-2003

Bernard S. Cohn and Indian History in the American Academy

"Talking India": Ashis Nandy & Ramin Jehanbegloo

Review of Nandy et al, "The Blinded Eye"

Arguing with "Amartya Sen"
(PDF version)

Though the concerted study of Indian history in the American academy first commenced in the early 1960s, the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 is commonly viewed as inaugurating trends which have ever since been rather dominant, howsoever widespread the uneasiness and, indeed, resistance which Said’s ideas have increasingly generated.  While the central arguments of Orientalism are too well-known to require lengthy exposition, it will not be amiss, considering the developments that followed in the wake of Orientalism, to enumerate them briefly.  Said argued that, alongside their military triumphs and economic conquests of “the Orient”, Europeans created an entire body of knowledge which enabled them to represent the Orient; such representations, moreover, far from having any necessary relationship to the Orient, reveal more about Europeans than they do about the ‘natives’ and their social institutions, cultural practices, and the like.  Orientalism is, in short, a style of thought, the “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient,” [1] and by means of Orientalism Europeans sought to categorize, analyze, dissect, measure, dominate, rule, and instruct the native.  The capsule summaries of Orientalism, when undertaken in reference to the “Saidian” frameworks which have informed the study of Indian history, do not fail to mention that in Orientalism Said only very infrequently had occasion to refer to Indian history, [2] and that, notwithstanding Said’s enthusiastic advocacy of subaltern history nearly a decade later, [3] Said had only a peripheral interest  in Indian history or even India.  Nonetheless, Said became a figure of paramount importance for those who sought to understand British India not through military history, policy studies, and economic history, but rather through, in the language of Foucault, the ‘discursive formations’ that were put into place by the colonial regime and, subsequently, the nationalist elites.

From the standpoint of Indian historiography, Said’s work had at least one other, usually less commonly noted, consequence whose reverberations would eventually be felt deeply in the India study circles in the American academy. At least a decade before the publication of Orientalism, Bernard S. Cohn, then professor of history and anthropology at the University of Chicago, had already anticipated the arguments of Foucault and Said in his work on representations of Indian society. [4]   [For a biographical note on Cohn, see the companion piece on MANAS, Bernard S. Cohn:  Scholar, Democrat, Mentor.]  Said, to take one example, also described Orientalism as a kind of textualist fetish. [5] The Orientalist scholar, who generally began his career as a philologist, viewed the societies that fell under his gaze as easily appropriable through their texts, indeed as societies that perforce had to conform to texts, particularly those that, in the Orientalist view, were authoritative for native people.  In a lengthy piece entitled “Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture”, Cohn, pointing to the extraordinary importance that Orientalists attached to such texts as the Manusmriti as “accurate guides to the culture and society of the Hindus”, observed that “the acceptance of a textual view of the society by the orientalists also led to a picture of Indian society as being static, timeless, and spaceless.” [6]   In the same essay, Cohn adverted to the empirical and ethnographic knowledge that the colonial state and its functionaries developed about the Indian ‘village’, the ‘caste’ system, and tribal India, and showed how their ideas became part of what Foucault termed a “discursive formation”, [7] or what we might term a dominant style of thought that accommodated seemingly disparate elements  and dispersed forms.

Foucault published his Archaeology of Knowledge in 1969; the English translation appeared in1972; and yet Cohn had published his article in 1968.  Indeed, by the time that Orientalism appeared in 1978, Cohn had published a substantial body of work that offered a visible demonstration of how colonial knowledge produced a certain idea of India.  While it would be wholly inaccurate to describe Cohn as toiling away in obscurity, located as he was at the epicenter of American academic work on India, one effect of the wide circulation of Said’s Orientalism was that it focussed attention on Cohn’s work and brought scholars -- not only of India, but more broadly of colonial societies -- to an awareness of the seminal and brilliant nature of his insights.  If Cohn was to be the anthropologist among the historians, the scholar who uniquely brought history and anthropology into conversation with each other for scholars of India and beyond, Said would, much later, be the literacy critic among the anthropologists. [8]

In thirty years, Cohn produced nearly as many essays.  The bulk of them were collected in An Anthropologist among the Historians (1987); a second and much smaller collection, with a foreword by Nicholas Dirks, was published in 1996. [9]   In the introduction to Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, Cohn described systematically the various “modalities” by means of which the British established an account of Indian society.  The “epistemological projects” of the state extended to the creation of grammars and dictionaries of Indian languages, map-making and museum displays of Indian artefacts, attempts at thorough histories of the Indian past, the institution of the census, and the creation of such organizations as the Archaeological Survey, the Trigonometrical Survey, the Botanical Survey, and so on. [10]   Many of Cohn’s insights, for which he found the scholarly essay to be more than an adequate vehicle, were embraced by scholars and students who worked these insights into full-length studies, even when they did not agree with Cohn.  Mathew Edney’s Mapping an Empire is a work in this mode, [11] a study of the use of cartographic knowledge by the British in India to render their territories familiar to them, extend their hegemony over the natives, and frame an image of an India unified under the colonial dispensation. Scientific cartography was conceived by the British as a palpable demonstration of representational practices that would give rise to a “Modern India”.  In a similar vein, the work of Richard Davis owes much to Cohn’s enumeration of the “museological modality” and the manner in which images take on new meanings.  In Lives of Indian Images, [12] Davis offers a consideration of Indian art objects -- the gates of the famed Somanatha temple, Tipu’s Tiger at the Victoria & Albert in London, among others -- and the cultural politics of the display of such trophies of power.

Cohn went on to train nearly two generations of students who have come to occupy many of the leading positions in Indian history and anthropology.  Among his earliest students was Ronald Inden, who became Cohn’s colleague at the University of Chicago and has, in turn, guided a generation of students.  In Imagining India (1990), Inden offered a systematic account of how arcane representations of India were put into place by European and later Indian scholars. [13] One principal purpose that the construction of India as unchanging, static, and mystical served was to transplant agency onto the Europeans.  This knowledge of India -- of caste, village republics, Indian communities, Hindu superstition, Vedic ritual -- did not merely enable the British to know the natives and dominate them, but rather furnished the West, by way of opposition, with its own modern genealogy in which ideas of individualism, scientific reason, and the market economy reigned supreme.  Nicholas Dirks, who holds a chaired professorship at Columbia University, shows the imprint of his teacher in nearly all of his work.  In the Hollow Crown:  Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom, [14] Dirks showed the shifting position of caste, conventionally theorized as eternal and unchanging, in the small South Indian kingdom of Puddukottai.  The hegemony of the colonial state was experienced as its power to regulate temples and redefine this regulation as a form of religious emancipation, and to will its dispossession of customary land rights as the introduction of progressive property rights. The Indian sociologist G. S. Ghurye had as early as 1932 suggested that one consequence of the 1857 rebellion was the perception, among colonial officials, that “the safety of the British domination in India  was very closely connected with keeping the Indian people divided on the lines of caste.” [15]   This insight informed Cohn’s work on caste, which stressed the British role in the reification, solidification, and politicization of this institution. Dirks’ most recent book, Castes of Mind (2001), extends Cohn’s principal argument, one contrary to nearly the entire body of conventional Orientalist scholarship, namely the modernity of the institution of caste.  Under the British, as Dirks shows, caste became the totalizing feature of Indian society under which were subsumed the diverse forms of India’s social organization. [16]

It would, in short, be difficult to overestimate the immense influence Bernard Cohn came to exercise in the world of American scholarship on Indian history and society. His work, in its various phases, has not only has remained of singular importance to two generation of students, but also became, in a manner of speaking, the medium through which subaltern studies was introduced into the American academy.  In 1985, Cohn became the first American historian to write for Subaltern Studies, [17] a series of volumes that, since the inaugural volume of 1982, were destined to become the principal vehicle of expression of new histories of India being forged by Ranajit Guha and the younger British and Indian historians he had gathered around him, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman, and Gyan Pandey. [18]   Owing to a protracted illness, Cohn’s active contributions to the study of Indian history effectively ceased around the early to mid-1990s, and he passed away in fall 2003.

(Posted in June, 2006)

See also on MANAS:

Bernard S. Cohn:  Scholar, Democrat, Mentor


[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York:  Vintage, 1979 [1978]), p. 3.

[2] See, for example, Robert E. Frykenberg, “India to 1858”, in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. V:  Historiography, ed. Robin W. Winks (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 207, 211-12; Tapan Raychaudhuri, “India, 1858 to the 1930s”, in idem, p. 224; and Sumit Sarkar, “Orientalism Revisited:  Saidian Frameworks in the Writings of Modern Indian History”, Oxford Literary Review 16 (1994), pp. 205-224.

[3] Edward Said, “Foreword” to Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York:  Vintage, 1988); see also the discussion  in idem, Culture and Imperialism (New York:  1994), pp. 239-61.

[4] Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist of great distinction, has recalled that “Bernard Cohn, a the University of Chicago, was teaching us about the relations of knowledge and power, spaces  and colonies, long before I ever heard of Foucault.”  See his French Modern (Cambridge, Mass.:  MIT Press, 1989), p. x.

[5] Said, Orientalism, pp. 92-101.

[6] Bernard S. Cohn, “Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture”, in Structure and Change in Indian Society, eds. Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn (Chicago:  Aldine Press, 1968), reprinted in Bernard S. Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays  (Delhi:  Oxford UP, 1988), p. 143.

[7] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith  (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 38.  “Whenever one  can describe,” wrote Foucault, “between a number of statements, such a systems of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts , or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation -- thus avoiding words that are already overladen with conditions and consequence, and in any case inadequate to the task of designating such a dispersion, such as ‘science’, ‘ideology’, ‘theory’, or ‘domain of objectivity.’”

[8] See Said’s keynote address  to the American Anthropological  Association in 1988, originally published in Critical Inquiry 15 (Winter 1988), reprinted in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 293-316.

[9] Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge:  The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[10] The phrase  “epistemological projects” is from Vinay Lal, Committees of Inquiry and Discourse of ‘Law and Order’ in Twentieth-Century  British India (3 vols., University of Chicago, 1992), a Ph.D. dissertation  written under the supervision of Bernard Cohn.

[11] Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an Empire:  The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[12] Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1997; reprint ed., Delhi:  Motilal Banarsidass, 1999).

[13] Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 2000); idem, “Orientalist Constructions of India”, Modern Asian Studies 20, no. 3 (1986), pp. 401-446.

[14] Nicholas B. Dirks, Hollow Crown:  Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (2nd ed., Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1993)

[15] G. S. Ghurye, Caste and Race in India (5th ed, Bombay:  Popular Prakashan, 1969), p. 285.

[16] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind:  Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001).

[17] Bernard S. Cohn, “The Command of Language and the Language of Command”, Subaltern Studies IV:  Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Ranajit Guha (Delhi:  Oxford UP, 1985), pp. 276-329.

[18] For a nearly complete listing of the major writings of the practitioners of subaltern history until the end of 1994, see Vinay Lal, South Asian Cultural Studies:  A Bibliography (Delhi:  Manohar, 1996), pp. 198-214.

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