Exploring the Historical Conjuncture
The problems encountered in exploring Third World History can best be illumined by referring to an experience I underwent some time ago. In the autumn of 1984,1 visited Canada, in response to an invitation from some scholarly bodies to give seminars on South Asian history. In the course of my stay in Ottawa, the capital city, I visited the National Gallery of Art. As I looked at the landscapes executed by Canadian artists in the 18th century, I was struck by a curious phenomenon. Here were distinguished artists, familiar with European traditions of visual representation, trying to capture an altogether different world. However, when they fixed their gaze on the Canadian scene, what they perceived—and painted on the canvas—was a European rather than a Canadian landscape! With the passage of time, however, this aberration gave way to a more faithful portrayal of what was around them on their canvases Indeed, as I traversed the Gallery of Art, it became obvious that it took Canadian artists about two generations to record 'faithfully* the characteristics of the landscape that stood before their eyes.
The problems of visual perception that confronted early Canadian artists also illumine the dilemmas of historical writing in Third World societies. For it is important to emphasize, at the very outset, that history is not a discipline which originated out of the evolving intellectual experience of such societies. Instead, history came to the Third World as part of the cultural baggage of imperialism. The discipline sought to explain the past of non-European societies through discourses which facilitated political control at the same time as they facilitated the appropriation of the material and cultural resources of such societies. It is necessary to emphasize this fundamental relationship between Third World history and imperialism because we shall have to deal with these issues later in this essay.
Before we dwell upon the character of history in the context of Third World, it is necessary to reflect a little upon the nature of the
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teetmnirti, New Delhi.
Socud Scientist, Vol. 19, Nos. 9-10, October-November, 1991