May 25, 2020
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Vain Hero Isms

A multi-layered, sensitive account of the making of the heroic legend of Shivaji.

Vain Hero Isms
Shivaji: Hindu King In Islamic India
By James W. Laine
OUP Rs 295; Pages: 127
For all nations, history-writing seems to fall short of offering a satisfactory account of the rise to prominence of heroes. Especially non-religious ones, who inhabit real time and not the virtual, history-less time of gods, saints and prophets. To flesh out their biographies is to clutter these with the specifics of a time often different than the one when the Nation begins to ‘pedestalise’ them.

Scholars have begun showing how the worn fabric of a lived past is darned and stitched so as to appear almost seamless and of a piece. Histories of heroes, specially those claimed to have spoken of a nation in the name of a religion, are best written, it seems, as accounts of such fabric-ations. Was Shivaji a heroic Hindu king, who briefly established ‘Hindavi Swaraj’ in an alien Islamic India, only to be overtaken tragically by internecine squabbles and subsequent European colonisation? The evidence, argues James Laine, is not that straightforward. His is a multi-layered, sensitive account of the making of the heroic legend of Shivaji, from the earliest celebratory ballad, "written in a Marathi so Persianised that virtually no modern Marathi can read it with ease", to the textbooks and the internet sites of today. His task is not to knock the ground from under the pedestal, so to speak, but to offer a finely-textured analysis of how, with what elements, and in which contexts, Shivaji’s image has come to be shaped the way it has.

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