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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / biography


James W. Laine

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To purchase Shivaji

Title: Shivaji
Author: James W. Laine
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 107 pages
Availability: Shivaji - US
Shivaji - UK
Shivaji - Canada
  • Hindu King in Islamic India

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting look at how history is presented, and the changing ways of seeing an historical figure

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Asia Times . 9/10/2004 Piyush Mathur
The Tribune . 7/12/2003 V.N.Datta

  From the Reviews:
  • "Thorough in research and crisp in writing, Laine's history is above all smart -- and it thus beautifully transcends the typical academic history book as well as biography. And so -- by way of this detour -- it stands to reason why the book would appear at all on the public radarscope. Insofar Laine raises fundamental questions about a range of identities -- religious, linguistic, economic, caste, moral, regional, national and political -- relevant to contemporary Maharashtra, India and Hindus, his account has aspired and managed to be unsettling overall. (...) Clearly, Laine's prime commitment is not to an objective end-point as regards Shivaji's identity; quite to the contrary, he is committed to a searching skepticism of any fixed or objective identity-claims - and to their thorough historical and contextual illumination." - Piyush Mathur, Asia Times

  • "The author asserts that pre-modern Marathas did not understand identities and allegiances in terms of Hinduism and Islam. Hence, Laine concludes, that to regard Shivaji as an Indian is absolutely wrong and that myths woven round him give a distorted picture of the reality. (...) This intellectually stimulating and neatly textured book is disturbing. It questions the commonly held views and opens a new ground for fresh thinking and research." - V.N.Datta, The Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       James Laine's Shivaji is not so much biography -- of this seventeenth-century Hindu King in Islamic India -- but rather an examination of how this historical figure has been seen (and presented) over the centuries. A leader of Maharashtra who was able to assert considerable independence from the Mughals, Shivaji (who lived 1627 or 1630 to 1680) is venerated as a 'founding father' in India, and specifically in Maharashtra. (Maharashtra is India's second most populous state (with a population of about 100,000,000) whose most important cities are Mumbai (Bombay) and Pune, and where Marathi is the dominant language.) Enthroned as chatrapati (as Laine has it; the transliteration chhatrapati (for छत्रपती) is more common) in 1674, Laine notes that:

The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions.
       A leader that managed to consolidate control over much of what is now Maharashtra, despite challenges from both the Mughals and other local rulers, Shivaji became -- and remains -- an immensely important (Marathi and Hindu) symbolic figure. While Laine does cover the essentials of Shivaji's life and rule, he's far more interested in the Shivaji-stories, biographies, and myths that have arisen and evolved around this historical figure, and he presents his Shivaji-account through them.
       Laine notes early on:
Whereas the explicit purpose of Shivaji's early biographers -- the chroniclers, panegyrists, and balladeers -- was to celebrate his feats and victories, and the explicit purpose of twentieth-century historians was to find the historical Shivaji, the implicit purpose of all of them was to construct a coherent narrative not only of his life, but also of the cultural history of Hindu Maharashtra.
       Noting the many different accounts available, Laine also points to the fact that:
The number of sources has multiplied exponentially. So it is perhaps surprising to see that a certain common narrative emerges. In the very recent past, we see Shivaji as the subject of an explosion of websites on the internet. It is perhaps too early to see if this new global medium, with all its fluidity and anonymity, will produce a rich variety of interpretations of Shivaji's life. A future scholarly analysis of the internet's Shivaji sites will reveal a great deal about the future of the legendary life of Shivaji as it relates to a globalized narrative of Hindu nationalism.
       Meanwhile, there's the "most influential purveyor of the Shivaji tradition over the last thirty years", Babasaheb Purandare m whose specialty Laine describes as the: "Fictional enrichment of the historical account".
       What makes Shivaji such an interesting example for a study such as Laine's is that he remains such a significant figure -- and the myth that has been built and evolved around him one that has become increasingly influential. Unfortunately, this idolatry currently comes not tinged but rather steeped in a particularly nasty manifestation of Hindu nationalism.
       At the beginning of his book, Laine wrote that:
The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji's life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful mythmakers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji's life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge.
       It's an admirable goal, and one Laine respectfully works toward -- even as he barely scratches much of the surface (he could have dug much deeper). Nevertheless, he proved to be much more 'a disturber of the tranquility' than he possibly could have anticipated -- even as he only took the gentlest look at the 'Cracks in the Narrative' (so the title of the contentious chapter that is the cause of much of the opposition to this book; see here, at the cr Quarterly, for a summary look at the shocking reactions to the book upon its publication).
       It's a sensible ambition. As Laine explains:
     My primary claim is not that I have a truer, more objective history than the standard accounts. What I would prefer to do is look once again at the emerging narrative that we have considered to see those places where the authors themselves have carefully avoided saying something, or where they say something rather abruptly in order to answer some unexpressed concern. Such a pursuit will allow us not to see the "real" Shivaji but to better appreciate the ideological concerns of the many authors who have shaped the narrative tradition of Shivaji's legendary life. The real issue is what the authors are saying about themselves, about the dreams they hold, the dreams they see expressed in the tales of their hero.
       The 'cracks' Laine considers are perfectly valid questions that should well be considered; surely, also, there are many more. The Shivaji-story -- like any biography -- is not one that has been fixed over time, but rather that has evolved and been changed, depending on the times, the audiences, the tellers, the purposes to which it is put. Claims of absolute certainty simply can not hold. Meanwhile, even arguably sensitive subjects such as his family life (his mother and father separated early on, and most accounts gloss over his own children and his relationship with them) should be considered more closely -- who knows ? new findings and understanding might well throw a different light on Shivaji, and that light may well be a more positive one. Completely blind veneration of the sort that seems prevalent now serves little purpose -- except for for those ideologues who use it to further their own ends.
       Laine's small book is a worthwhile (if underdeveloped) look at how history is told and shaped over the centuries, and the example he uses is a particularly interesting one. It deserves to be read, not for any view of Shivaji it presents, but rather for showing how others present those views -- and for suggesting that a more critical perspective, in this and many other cases, should be embraced.
       It is others who have manipulated Shivaji's good name and story for their own ends, not Laine. Yes, Laine suggests a critical reading of history and myth; certainly that is preferable to the purely (and unpleasantly) ideological one that is all that is available to far too many Indians.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2010

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Shivaji: Reviews: James Laine: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       James W. Laine teaches at Macalaster College.

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© 2010 the complete review

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