Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: History as a Discipline

Kesavan Veluthat in Conversation with Manu Devadevan: History as a Discipline

in Interview
Published on: 23 August 2019

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.

Kesavan Veluthat in conversation with Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019.

Kesavan Veluthat is one of the most important historians of precolonial South India from his generation. A Marxist by conviction, adhering to a structural-functional method of history writing, he is best known for his studies on the brahmana settlements in Kerala and political structure in early medieval South India, besides earning recognition as the theorist of South India’s early medieval epoch.  

Born in late 1950 in the lower Bharatapuzha Valley in southern Malabar, Veluthat was trained at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, from where he obtained an MPhil degree, and the University of Calicut, where he was conferred a PhD for his thesis on South Indian political structure under the Pallava, Chola, Chera and Pandya states. He taught at a couple of government colleges before joining the Department of History, Mangalore University, where he taught from 1982 to 2008. He joined the University of Delhi as Professor of History in 2009, from where he retired in 2016. Veluthat has also been visiting professor at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and Jawaharlal Nehru University. He currently heads the Institute for the Study of the Heritage of Coastal Kerala, Kodungallur.

In the course of his illustrious career spanning more than four decades, Veluthat published 18 books in English and Malayalam, including two monographs and three collections of essays. His oeuvre consists of such monumental works as the critical edition of the Malayalam-Latin dictionary, Amarasimham: Dictionarium Latino-Historico-Mythologico Samscredonico Malabaricum, the eighteenth century Mahishashatakam of Vanchesvara Yajvan in English and Malayalam translations, and a revised critical edition (jointly with M.R. Raghavavarier) of the Tarisappalli copperplates. 

Signs of amazing originality and dissent with existing scholarship are hallmarks of Veluthat’s work. These were to be seen even in his earliest works. As early as 1975 (the year when, incidentally, the doyen of South Indian history, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri passed away), he carried out a study of the shalas that figure with great regularity in the inscriptions, and established that more than being institutions dispensing instructions in religious, scriptural or secular forms of knowledge, they were centres for military training. This was the second research paper that Veluthat had written. The first paper, which appeared in 1973, was no less important, for in this paper, he marshalled evidence from the Sangam Tamil songs that, as early as the first centuries of the Christian Era, there existed a brahmana settlement at Chellur (Perunchellur, now Talipparamba) in northern Malabar. 

Veluthat’s first major landmark was a 1978 paper (which he jointly authored with M.G.S. Narayanan) on the Vaishnava Alvar and Shaiva Nayanar Bhakti movements in South India. In this paper, Veluthat challenged the existing perspectives that Bhakti was an expression of an individual’s longing for god or that it represented a form of resistance against state oppression. He argued, instead, that Alvar and Nayanar devotionalism was a state-sponsored project that found expression through the temples established or supported by the state and its functionaries. He presented Bhakti as a feudal ideology through which the state sought legitimacy and through which diverse sections of the population were brought into the ambit of the state. 

Veluthat’s next major work was The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India, which was based on his PhD thesis. In this work, he argued that the early medieval state in South India was feudal in structure. The thesis was, in theoretical terms, far reaching. In Veluthat’s estimation, the early medieval state was also the earliest state in South India, for the state as an institution was unknown in the preceding early historical period. In this sense, the advent of the state in this part of the world was itself characterised by feudalism. It presented a picture that was at variance from the influential thesis of Ram Sharan Sharma that Veluthat otherwise admired. Sharma had argued that feudalism in India was the result of the break up of an already existing centralised state and its replacement by numerous regional states. Veluthat awakened historians to the fact that there existed no state in South India before early medieval times that could have undergone fragmentation. In more recent times, he has nuanced this position, arguing that one of these states, the Chera state, was marked by feudal as well as integrative and early state features. 

From a study of political structures, Veluthat moved forward to make a broader study of the early medieval period of South India, which led to his emergence as the theorist of the early medieval in South India. He made the first clear statement of his theory of the early medieval in his presidential address to the Medieval India section of the Indian History Congress in 1997, held in Bangalore. In his address, Veluthat argued that the early medieval in South India was characterised by the presence of the state, the veḷḷanvakai peasant settlements, eleemosynary settlements such as the brahmadeya and the devadana, and the temple with its ideology of Bhakti, which were all conspicuous only by their absence in the preceding period of chieftaincies, plunder, and gift-giving. The new world was a product of agrarian expansion and hierarchical patterning of landholding, in which the presence of the peasantry as a class that functioned on the principles of extra-kin labour was crucial. In fact, Veluthat recognised extra-kin labour as ‘the thin end of the wedge which brought about the eventual erosion of the earlier system of production and distribution based on kinship, reciprocity and patronage and the evolution of a new system based on the differential distribution of surplus’. This transition was, prima facie, a fundamental structural transformation in the mode of production. Labour—in the present instance, peasantry with its extra-kin form of labour—was the fulcrum of this understanding of the mode of production. This estimate of the mode of production and its categories was rigorous and marked by amazing clarity. They were not stained by eclecticism; nor were they diluted by flexible and endlessly malleable definitions. Few epochal transformations in Indian history have had the benefit of so rich an analysis.

Veluthat has continued to inspire awe by his unconventional approach to history writing that has constantly challenged accepted representations of the past. His interests and areas of engagement have expanded manifold, making occasional forays into early historical northern Indian history. His recent works on the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Manipravalam poetry of Kerala, the vishishtadvaita element in the devotional works of Kerala poets such as Ezhuttachan and Melpattur, and the influence, if any, of the Mauryan ruler Ashoka’s presence in South India break new grounds with their refreshingly novel analyses. But for his writings, the historiography of precolonial South India would have been more than a trifle poorer. 

Manu Devadevan

A poet and historian, Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Mandi. Devadevan writes poems in Kannada and is a prolific translator as well. A Marxist historian and political theorist, Devadevan specialises in political economy of precolonial South India.


Here is the first part of the edited transcript of a three-part video interview with Kesavan Veluthat conducted by Manu Devadevan in Delhi, 2019.    

Manu Devadevan (MD): Professor Veluthat, welcome to Sahapedia. You are one of the most distinguished historians of precolonial South India. You have been a practitioner of the historian’s craft for a long time, since the early 1970s, that is almost half a century now. And, you have taught history. You have taught history for about 40 years. Now, to be a historian, I think is not a very popular choice, in India as elsewhere. Can you tell us how you ended up making this choice?

Kesavan Veluthat (KV): I cannot quite say that I made the choice. I did not make the choice. My interest was in literature when I was a student in school. I did a little bit of science in my college, and after that I couldn’t continue my college education. So, I had to settle for a diploma programme in rural services where I had to do a little bit of economics and history. But after that I wanted to do a master’s in Malayalam literature. I went to Calicut University to inscribe my name for the master’s programme there in literature. But, when I got down from the bus, the teacher who taught me Malayalam literature in the undergraduate programme was there at the bus stop—it was fortuitous! He stopped me and asked me where I was headed to. I said I want to do literature, MA in Malayalam. Then he shouted at me. He told me, ‘You have a genuine interest in literature. Don’t kill it by doing a master’s in it.’ So, he literally hijacked me and took me to the history department where M.G.S. Narayanan was the head of the department at that time. M.G.S. tried his best to dissuade me but the more he dissuaded, the more adamant I was that I should do history.

There was another reason. Doing MA in history would have fetched me a handsome fellowship (because I was the topper in the qualifying examination) which I wouldn’t have got for a Malayalam M.A. So, that was a consideration. So, this pecuniary consideration of a fellowship in MA, together with the fact that M.G.S. Narayanan was himself a leading literary figure of Malayalam, made me compromise. And, I got into the history department. Then, I started doing MA in history. But when we progressed a little, I realised that the kind of history that they are teaching there was different from the kind of history that I was familiar with in school and college; there was less emphasis on wars, alliances, treaties, engagements, etc. There was less emphasis on empires, streets, their administrative system, the succession dates, etc. Things which horrified students of history were absent from the history department in Calicut. Instead, they emphasised more on culture, more on society, more on economy, etc. That was one feature.

Another very interesting aspect was that somewhere in the beginning of the ’70s, Calicut University had thoroughly revised the syllabus for the MA programme. It included a heavy portion of regional history. Regional history would mean doing Kerala history, and those days there was no recent textbook of Kerala history. (This is not to say that you have too many today: sadly, that is the story even today.) So, M.G.S. Narayanan was doing the teaching from sources, inscriptions, literary texts, some excavation reports which were available. With the help of this, he was teaching. I was able to resonate with that very well particularly because I had some smattering of Sanskrit which my father had taught me. So, with this I was able to communicate very well. I used to discuss things in the class which M.G.S. encouraged, unlike most other teachers. Usually teachers do not encourage students asking questions, but M.G.S. was different. So, in this way we progressed. That was one.

The other was an optional paper that we had. The first paper in the MA programme—we had eight papers—was what is called the ‘General Essay’. Without any preparation, [students] go to the examination hall [where] they give you five questions. [Choose] one of them and write, for three hours, an essay. So, this prospect of filling the answer book with so much of gas was there. The alternative was doing a dissertation which would involve going to primary sources, picking up strange scripts and archaic languages, doing hard work in the field, etc. So, nobody had traded the former for the latter. But I was foolish enough to go to M.G.S. Narayanan and insist that I would do it.

These two—one is a greater emphasis on sources in the courses that were being taught and also this practical training in the business of doing history—these two together really interested me. So, this is how I came to history, historical research, discipline of history, etc. And the training that I had after that in JNU, that also came in very handy. That stood me in good stead because I was exposed to different kinds of debates that were going on in the discipline. I was also lucky to have met a large number of scholars and practitioners of history both in India and abroad. And the acquaintance that I had with this body—Indian History Congress. So, all these together, I believe, were responsible for my finally accepting what was thrust on me as my own choice. Now, I will be proud to say, ‘If only I had chosen it.’ Although I did not choose it, it was actually my choice.

MD: You said you learnt Sanskrit from your father. Can you tell us a bit about your Sanskrit learning, the process of learning?

KV: This was a very traditional way in which you first pick up all the declensions of nouns, conjugations of verbs, etc. Then learning the dictionary by heart—Amarakosha. This kind of pedagogy is perhaps the wrong kind of pedagogy. This is the way in which I was taught. My father had employed a private tuition master to teach us Sanskrit. He was a great scholar. But his scholarship and his teaching abilities did not have any relationship with one another. He was an extremely poor teacher. And the result was that by the end of the third year of him teaching me, the only thing that the two of us gained was three years of age, nothing more! And so I developed a hatred for Sanskrit. And that continued for perhaps about four or five years after my initiation into Vedic Studies. A Vedic scholar used to come and teach me the Vedas. That was even more horrible. So, the horror of learning Sanskrit, the horror of learning the Vedas, etc., prevented me from doing anything seriously there.

But after some time, my father had a friend—a great Sanskrit scholar, a different kind of a Sanskrit scholar—who once chided me for not reading the number of books that my father had in his collection. I told him, ‘But sir, these are in Sanskrit.’ ‘So what? If it is written by a human being, a human being should be able to read it,’ he said. Then he suggested that I take the Mahabharata, read the first verse in the Mahabharata, go to Kunjikkuttan Thampuran’s translation, read the first verse there. Like that, if you read hundred verses, by the time you reach the 101st, you can dispense with the Malayalam translation. So, this is actually the way in which I had picked up a bit.

This happened before I had joined the diploma programme qualifying me for an MA. By the time I reached the MA programme, I could read and interpret Sanskrit texts all by myself. Now that ability I had.

MD: Would you say you fell from the roof into Sanskrit, the way Kosambi said?

KV: No, I did not fall from the roof because Sanskrit was there all over. It was not an accident. In fact, I was trying to escape Sanskrit which I could not do. And finally, I reached where I should. So, it is not, I find, the Kosambi way of falling into Indology.

MD: What do you think of the origins of history as a discipline in India? Do you think it has very rigorous academic backgrounds or does it have a popular element as well? Does it have popular origins as Dipesh Chakrabarty has very recently argued, because history, I guess, is the only discipline which is so closely intertwined with the question of identities—a variety of identities, national identity, regional identity, caste, linguistic identity, religious identity—and for that reason, evokes a lot of passion as well. So do you think there is a popular trajectory of origin for history as a discipline in India?

KV: I do not know. I haven’t read what Chakrabarty has written. But I am not very sure if history had popular origins in India. From the very early times when we had recorded evidence of historical consciousness expressing itself—for example, from Vedic literature itself, with all the gatha, narashamsi (songs in praise of human beings), etc.—there was a chief in a position where he can patronise bards and minstrels and he was being sung about . . . his praise was being sung about. Later, by the time we come to, for example, the Mahabharata, etc. it is the same tradition of bards and minstrels singing the praise of the chieftain trying to legitimise the person in power and that person reciprocating by giving gifts, munificent gifts, to the bard who is singing. Like this it goes on. We have the same tradition in the Buddhist tradition as the Jatakas and other historical consciousness. Then we have the Jain tradition. It goes on like that. And by the time we come to what historians have recently started calling the early medieval phase of history, we have the same expression in the prashasti (inscriptions in praise of rulers) literature, in the court chronicles, court histories, Rajatarangini, for example.

Then there are also dynastic chronicles. We have the historical biographies like Bana’s Harshacharita. So, in historical biographies, in court chronicles, in dynastic traditions, in prashastis, you have this expression. Again, by the time Turko-Afghans established their power here . . . it is again the same tradition of court chronicles although linked with the origin of Islam and other elements. It is this that we see. So, all through we see that the origin of history here is related to power, positions of power, those who are leading power and also those who are in a situation where they can provide patronage for those who are singing this praise.

Then a break comes around the eighteenth century. Behind this break we can see two factors. One is at the world level, you see history graduating as an academic discipline, as a branch of knowledge instead of just a tradition. So between the medieval kind of chronicles that we have in the West and the kind of history that was written in Berlin in the eighteenth century with Leopold von Ranke or Theodor Mommsen or Niebuhr, [there is] this kind of a change where history was now looked upon as a very, very rigorous discipline, as knowledge constructed by a critical analysis of sources, interrogation of evidence. Then perhaps joining together bits and pieces of information which is teased out of this evidence. So, history graduates into a kind of knowledge by the time we come to the eighteenth century. This is all over the world.

It is against this background that the English East India Company in India establishes its political power, that is, its political mastery, taking over the Diwani rights from the Mughal Empire. Now the officers of the English East India Company, they were brought up in the new tradition of enlightenment, new tradition of historical scholarship, etc. in the West and with that they were in a position to look into the past of India. It was a necessity also for them. When the English East India Company established itself in India, they had the necessity of producing knowledge about India which was a means of domination also. With knowledge in your hands, knowledge as power—I know this is well-known. Two factors were necessary. One is to reject the traditional knowledge. Whatever India knew about their past, this is nonsense, this is legend, this is absolute rubbish. So, rubbishing that on the one side and then replacing that with ‘proper knowledge’ which we have produced about you. So, we know better about you than [you know about] yourself. Now this fits into the pattern of the dictum that the master knows better. So, when the master pretended that he knew better, naturally the subjects accepted it. So, this is like in the pre-modern traditions starting from the Vedic gatha-narashamsi going through the prashasti dynastic chronicles, then the court literature in Persian and the Mughal documents, all through what we see is that this is a function of power. I don’t quite find any popular origin for history.

This is not to say that there is nothing popular. At the popular level in the folklore, etc., there is this appeal to the past. Now, for example, you have a large number of folk songs, folk stories which people go about telling and this has influenced some of the stories, for example, Chand Bardai. We have such tradition influenced by the folk tradition but when we look at history as a branch of knowledge, history as a discipline, the influence comes more from positions of power and patronage than from popular origin. This is my feeling.

MD: You refer to history as a form of knowledge. That is a more recent phenomenon, maybe about two hundred years old. Why do you think history as a discipline is so contested? A wide range of questions are asked about history. Does it constitute an epistemology? Is it a valid form of knowledge? Isn’t there an element of plot-making or story-telling or fiction in history? How do you respond to these debates?

KV: This is to be seen at two levels. One is when history was constituted as a branch of knowledge, there was less of interest in the storytelling part of it than in the analytical and critical part of it. At the same time, in recent years with writers like Hayden White and others, they see that this is another form of narration, this is another form, you have the emplotment. Now there is no difference between literature and history. In fact, it is said in a lighter vein that the only difference between literature and history is that everything except dates are wrong in history and everything except dates are right in literature! But here, what we see is that that kind of an understanding of meta-history like Hayden White’s, that kind of an understanding perhaps takes away the critical part of history. History has a very rigorous discipline, which is knowledge produced by the interrogation of evidence, critical understanding of evidence . . . [and] that is negated there. [History] has its own critical method. It has its own various levels, how information is gathered, how this information is woven into knowledge, this is very clear. That is also why there is so much of fear of history. Nobody fears literature. But history, people are mortally afraid of, particularly because history has this very great potential of standing in the way of people who are seeking to get to power and remain in power. That is why those who are in power have always feared history more than any other branch of knowledge.

MD: Since you referred to Hayden White, White was writing at the time when you had begun research in history. But your generation of historians, you or Subbarayalu or Karashima, they don’t seem to be producing narratives unlike Nilakanta Sastri. They are not giving us a chronological account or there is no emplotment in it, no storytelling. From that perspective, is it possible to have a different look at Hayden White, a different critique of Hayden White?

KV: That is precisely what I was saying. If you have a choice between reading an eminently readable book, for example, our good old Stanley Lane-Poole and a very thick kind of analysis of the agrarian system as in Irfan Habib, it is certainly better to read Lane-Poole as a bedtime book. But if you want to engage with history in a very serious manner, you will keep aside Lane-Poole and read Irfan Habib. So, my preference is always for the critical, the analytical part of history than the narrative, readable part of history. So, I don’t believe that history is just storytelling. History is rigorous knowledge.

MD: Your first work appeared in 1978. It was on the brahmin settlements in Kerala (Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical Studies). It was a landmark publication in Kerala history, a widely cited book. What do you think of the significance of this work four decades later? Significance in the larger context of the historiography of Kerala in 1970.

KV: Here, I will have to use the benefit of hindsight. I did not think of these things at that time. Now when I look back, I think one of the major factors which made it important was the historiographical background in which I happened to write that book. One is, there was this acrimonious debate—or quarrel is a better word—between Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai on the one side and Kanippayyur Sankaran Namboodiripad on the other. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai was basing [his work] on the analysis of data in inscriptions and literature. And Sankaran Namboodiripad was writing more from sentiments than from arguments. So, this was kind of a situation where the atmosphere was very vitiated. That was the background against which I started to . . . in fact I started working on this in 1972–73. I was telling you about the dissertation that we had as an option and it was there that I started looking at the Chera inscription for evidence on the brahmin settlements that we have, about the 32 settlements mentioned in the Keralolpatti, etc. What I was able to see there was that what Keralolpatti contained was not a series of stories which, according to Elamkulam, were an invention of Namboodiris sometime in the seventeenth century to justify the possession of the wealth [they] had. I was able to see that at least from the eighth or ninth century, this tradition was very widely there, very deeply entrenched in the psyche of people as we can see from inscriptions in Kerala, from inscriptions outside Kerala referring to Kerala, for example, in the tenth century. Rajaraja speaks about having conquered Kerala. But Kerala is described there as the country created by Rama who had taken this vow to destroy all the kshatriyas. Sarva kshatra vadha vradha pradayina Ramayana yennirmitam rashtram.

MD:  This is in the Thiruvalangadu copper plates.

KV: Thiruvalangadu copper plates. So, what I am saying is that it is not a seventeenth century invention. I also saw that all the 32 settlements that Keralolpatti speaks about are attested by evidence—either epigraphical or surviving brahmanical traditions or temples which are even today standing, temples where worship goes on. So, I was able to see that this was the case. A second thing that I was able to see in the inscriptions, [unlike] Elamkulam [who] believed that during the time of the Cheras, from the ninth century to the twelfth century, the local administration in the kingdom was centred on the brahmanical temples in bodies called uru, sabha etc. He believed that these were popular democratic organisations where you had brahmins and non-brahmins as members. But when I looked into the documents, I saw that members of these bodies were invariably brahmins. So instead of looking at them as democratic popular bodies, I was able to see them as caste corporations of an oligarchic nature, that is, corporations of upper caste, non-cultivating landowners placed above a cultivating peasantry. This changed the picture completely and (that) had implications for understanding the later periods of Kerala history. Elamkulam believed that in the eleventh and twelfth century, where he imagined there was a hundred years’ war between the Cheras and the Cholas, all the able-bodied men of the Nair and other communities went to the warfront leaving this land here. So, the brahmins started appropriating this land.

This question of brahmins appropriating land in the eleventh and twelfth century doesn’t arise since it was already brahmanical property. The whole land around the temples was brahmanical property, either as property of the temple, devaswom, or the private property of the brahmin families, brahmaswom. So, when this was the situation, where is the question of their appropriating it at a later point in time? So Elamkulam’s thesis about the evolution of the jenmi system—landlordism—loses its basis.

So, when I was able to see that, I was also able to show that Elamkulam was wrong also on the understanding of the matrilineal system. Of course, I haven’t written that in that book. But landlordism being a very major aspect, Namboodiri landlordism, Namboodiri jenmi system being a major aspect, I had to engage with that directly in this book.

So, in this way, I thought that the historiographical background of this very, very vitiated kind of quarrel between Elamkulam and Kanippayyur Namboothiripad was the background against which that book has to be seen. And I am glad that that was received well by academia, although it was written by a student doing his master’s programme. It received the attention that it deserved. I am glad that it did.

MD: I have a question related to the hundred years’ war that you mentioned. If you look at South Indian historiography, you find the hundred years’ war, you find Byzantine monarchy, you also find a War of Vettam Succession. What do you make of that?

KV: I used to say this in class. You can think only in categories which you are familiar with. I am never tired of telling this story in class. There was a school. In the second standard the teacher gave them an assignment—write ten sentences about a poor family. So, one of the students came back with an essay in ten sentences. There was a poor family. The father was poor. The mother was poor. The cook was poor. The gatekeeper was poor. The car driver was poor. The gardener was poor. Everybody was poor in the family. And therefore, this child is familiar with a family with all these constituents there. And if it has to be a poor family, all these constituents should be poor. In the context of Indian historiography, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Indian historians were trained by historians who had written European history. So when, for example, a historian like K.P. Jayaswal, or a historian like R.K. Mukherjee, or a historian like R.C. Majumdar, or a historian like Nilakanta Sastri or Altekar, all the prominent historians of the first generation of India, when they were writing history, the model that they had was the model of European history. So they invariably started thinking about empires, about republics, K.P. Jayaswal about republics, about local self-government; R.K. Mukherjee and then your friend G.N. Dikshit from Karnataka, all these could think about history only within these digits. So, naturally in order to be intelligible, you have to think in terms of the categories that you are familiar with. So, in the context of Indian history also, history will not be complete without a hundred years’ war.

We have read about the Hundred Years’ War in the context of European history—England and France getting engaged in this Hundred Years’ War. So, if Kerala and Tamil Nadu or the Cholas and the Cheras were at war, why not a hundred years’ war? And in European history, when the succession to the throne of Austria was such a contested thing which almost grew into the dimensions of world war, so this tiny principality of Vettam from which I happen to come, this tiny principality of Vettam which is less than a taluk today, there the successor to the throne, he took the assistance of the Raja of Cochin and that becomes the War of Vettam Succession! This is because of the way in which historiography . . . historians find it very difficult . . . not just historians, any understanding has to be through categories that you are familiar with.

That is why, for example, the Chola empire becomes a centralised empire with Byzantine royalty there. That is why, for example, you have this compromise between the federal and the centralised in the Chola empire in the writings of Nilakanta Sastri. That is why we have all these Mukherjees and Majumdars using categories like ‘Greater India’, ‘cultural colonies’, etc., because without colonisation, etc., what history are you talking about? You will not be able to understand unless you are using categories which you are familiar with. That is what I thought. Now I am more charitable than I used to be about 30 years ago. Now I am ready to give a greater concession to historians who use expressions like this.