When was Caste? Some reflections on early modern South Asia

Caste purports to be a key component of India's ancient present, a definitive feature of the unchanging quality of Hindu society.  Social and cultural historians, who know better, link the construction of caste to modernity-and especially to the rise of the obsessively ethnographic state otherwise known as the British Raj.  Philologists, meanwhile, learnedly point out that the word caste comes to us from the Portuguese, who arrived in southwest India the late fifteenth century and used the term to describe the welter of hierarchically inflected social relations that confronted them.  World historians tell us, stroking their beards in a sagely fashion, that the Portuguese arrival coincided, more or less, with the beginning of what is now usually referred to as "the early modern period".  So when was caste?  Clearly it conjures up multiple time frames.  The lecture reflected on the contradictory temporal signals sent by caste.

This lecture was part of the conference on ‘The Caste Question and the Historian’s Craft’. 

William R. Pinch is Professor of History at Wesleyan University and associate editor of the journal History and Theory. His current research focuses on the emotional world of Company soldiering in mid nineteenth-century north India, though he is also working on a joint translation of two eighteenth-century Brajbhasha poems that celebrate Himmat Bahadur. His books include Peasants and Monks in British India (1996) and Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (2006).

Thursday, 27 February 2014, 6.15 pm
CSDS Seminar Hall