South Asia

Roundtable Session

Reading the Economy: Harnessing Vernacular Diaries, Travelogues, and Other Literary Works as Sources of Indian Economic History

Saturday, July 7
2:40 PM - 4:10 PM
Location: Silveroak II, Ground Floor

This roundtable broadens the scope of Indian economic history by drawing upon overlooked vernacular literary sources: novels, travelogues, diaries, temple genealogies, and poems. By doing so, we complement and challenge longstanding narratives offered by an earlier generation of statistically-oriented scholars. Five historians will each introduce an unconventional primary source that has fallen outside of the traditional purview of quantitative economic history. In doing so, we expect to raise a lively discussion about the possibilities and pitfalls of translating economic values, concepts, and relationships depicted in primary texts dictated by literary conventions rather than documentary ones.

Dinyar Patel analyzes descriptions of markets in Aden, Cairo, and Malta in a Gujarati travelogue written by Dadabhai Naoroji in 1855. Manjiri Kamat examines Malati Bedekar’s 1950 Marathi novel Bali to question the role that colonial criminal tribes settlements played in the cotton textile industry of Sholapur in pre-independence India. Sudev Sheth reflects on the problem of coordinating and establishing the significance of financial data presented in sporadic personal encounters in the eighteenth-century Persian diary of a Mughal official. Rashmi Batchu reads Munshi Abbas Ali’s Gujarati-inflected Urdu masnavi Qissa-i-Ghamgin (1779) to reconstruct the function of spies, middlemen, and military mercenaries in the English takeover of Bharuch. Adhya Saxena reconstructs daily fairs and festivals at Odisha, Udaipur, and Somnath during the nineteenth century using temple genealogies written in Orriya, Rajasthani, and Gujarati Modi. Senior economic historian Najaf Haider will chair the session and offer initial remarks on each of the five mini-presentations before opening up the room to discussion.


Overall, this roundtable will provide new empirical grounds for analyzing markets, commodities, political power, and the social relationships that constituted the economic activity. It will highlight how vernacular literary sources provide us with new insights and perspectives on important moments in Indian economic history, such as the foundations of Company Rule or the creation of an industrial labor force in western India. After outlining the nature and significance of each primary source, members of the roundtable will identify and discuss specific methodological approaches and challenges. Finally, we will offer perspectives on how these sources can help us rethink wider economic trends across South Asia as well as the broader Indian Ocean world.


Send Email for Dinyar Patel

Najaf Haider

Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

Presentation(s):

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Rashmi Batchu

University of Hyderabad, India

Presentation(s):

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Manjiri Kamat

University of Mumbai, India

Presentation(s):

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Adhya B. Saxena

M.S. University of Baroda, India

Presentation(s):

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Sudev J. Sheth

University of Pennsylvania, United States

Presentation(s):

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