This book is a cultural history of western India from a fascinatingly new perspective: language use, writing practices, and relations of power. Its principal focus is the Modi script, a cursive form widely used for writing the Marathi language from the medieval era until quite recently. Examining the changing domains in which Modi flourished and declined over several centuries, Deshpande charts the interconnections of writing, script, language use, and structures of social and regional power in early-modern and modern South Asia.
Positioning the career of this cursive form within a cluster of scripts, documents, and language practices, Scripts of Power tracks changing meanings within literate groups, bureaucratic power, and linguistic identity. It presents a critical genealogy of diverse power relations that produced the “regional vernaculars” of the Indian subcontinent – many of which, including Marathi, are official state languages in India today.
Deshpande’s cultural history reveals multiple fractures in language at its sites of usage over time. It unsettles the notions of language as merely instrumental for communication, or as a primordial basis for identity, and makes us see language as history and practice.
In deploying script as its entry point for large reflections on the relationship of politics with language, identity, and power, this book will fascinate and absorb all who are interested in Indian cultural history.
Prachi Deshpande is Associate Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her research areas are language histories, cultures of documentation and multilinguality, historiography, and memory. She is the author of Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700–1960 (Columbia University Press and Permanent Black, 2007), and has taught previously at, among other places, the University of California, Berkeley. She won the Infosys Prize for Humanities in 2020.