From the 1980s, research in modern, particularly colonial, South Asian history has taken many new directions. While the writings of the Subaltern Studies’ school are internationally the best known, there has also been a rich and large corpus of publications not only on mainstream themes such as colonialism, nationalism and communalism, but also on gender, labour, medicine, carceral systems, theatre, film, and literature. The huge output of research has not always been matched with adequate and appropriate textbooks to enable students to gain easy access to scholarly research—given, especially, the range and complexities of themes and arguments. There are now a few textbooks, such as by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Barbara and Thomas Metcalf, and Ishita Banerjee Dube, which have supplemented Sumit Sarkar’s classic Modern India with which a whole generation of undergraduate students grew up. Harald Fischer-Tiné and Maria Framke’s new edited volume, the Routledge Handbook of the History of Colonialism in South Asia, is a timely and valuable contribution for those who need something a little more than an introductory textbook. As the editors have noted, there have been several “turns“ in the past few decades in the field of history, as well as related disciplines, which have transformed and enriched the field. There is now not only a diversity of themes but competing schools and contesting theoretical and political positions. The historiographical terrain is complex and can be daunting for the uninitiated. This volume, with forty essays (including the introduction) by different authors, is aimed to help students navigate the complex and sophisticated historiography but also access the state-of-the-field knowledge and understanding of a wide range of themes.
There are two remarkable features of this collection. It brings together well-known historians, leaders in their field, such as David Washbrook, Tanika Sarkar, Douglas Haynes, Ravi Ahuja and David Arnold, with a new generation of younger researchers, who are mapping out new themes and fresh directions. This combination enables the editors to offer readers a truly breath-taking sweep of themes, from political economy, state-formation, caste, war and the military, merchants, markets, medicine, science and technology, labour, law, religion, violence, environment, education, gender, and, most impressively, essays on the history of emotions (by Margrit Pernau), humanitarianism (Maria Framke), and famine relief (Joanna Simonow).
Despite this immense and innovative range of themes, the volume is not and does not claim to be “comprehensive”. As the editors explain in the introduction, the volume focuses on British South Asia; it does not include the colonising efforts of other European powers in the region. Equally, the geographical spread is somewhat restricted to the Indian subcontinent—there is not much on Ceylon, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. There are other thematic omissions too. None of this in any way detracts from the value of the book. It touches on a huge diversity of themes, most of the key areas, as well as the chief historiographical and methodological debates in South Asia’s colonial history.
The volume is organised in six sections: Overarching Themes and Debates (with sweeping essays on core themes such as caste, gender, political economy, state, nationalism and religion); The World of Economy and Labour (relatively self-explanatory, containing essays on themes such as industrial workers, merchants, business and revenue); Creating and Keeping Order (including themes such as science, religion, law, education and race); Environment and Space (with essays on environment but also transport, infrastructure and agriculture); Culture, Media, and the Everyday (including essays on physical culture, film, music, food, language and literature); and Colonial South Asia in the World (with essays on an eclectic variety of themes such as migration, citizenship, anti-colonial politics and the world wars). There is of course some overlap as is usual with boundary-drawing exercises; some of the sections are more heterogeneous than others; and some of the sections cohere and connect better. However, minor unevenness in a project of this scale is to be expected. There are also differences in scale and approach in the essays, some covering broad trends and long periods (almost all the essays in the first section, of course, but also exemplified by the essays by Sebastian Schweke, Claude Markovits, David Arnold, Arnab Dey), while others are more tightly focused by themes or periods (such as the essays by Aditya Sarkar, Nandini Bhattacharya, Bob van der Linden and Utsa Ray).
The volume will be invaluable for teachers and students, bringing together in very brief purview of each essay (approximately 7000 words), the wider debates framing a particular field. Many of the chapters have a helpful summary at the end. Each essay provides an outline of the historiography, but some also provide empirical examples from recent research. This combination adds to the readability of the volume as was intended, the editors write in the introduction. As I was reading the volume (with a fractured hand struggling with its size and weight), I could see how individual essays would slot into modules of various courses I teach. I doubt, despite the hope expressed by the editors, that there will be readers for a “cover-to-cover“ experience of such a weighty book (p. 518). It is a handbook rather than a textbook. Students at all levels will find the individual essays invaluable, when they are seeking an introduction to a new theme or to capture the lineaments of some debate in South Asian history. The volume will be useful also for teachers and researchers to have on their shelves as a “go-to“ for tracking recent trends and historiography. I see its role as a reference book and it will contribute greatly to making South Asian history more widely and easily accessible to students in different parts of the anglophone world.
Before I finish, two more thoughts. First, putting together a volume of forty essays with forty authors is no mean task at any time. The editors and contributors deserve especial credit and our thanks for having pulled this through the disruptions of the pandemic. Second, the dedication of the book is a reminder that we have recently lost two stalwarts in the field, who have contributed to this volume: David Washbrook and Satadru Sen.
 Sugata Bose / Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia. History, Culture, Political Economy, Abingdon 2018; Barbara D. Metcalf / Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, Cambridge 2012; Ishita Banerjee-Dube, A History of Modern India, Cambridge 2015; Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885–1947, London 1989, is now followed by: Sumit Sarkar, Modern Times. India 1880s–1950s, Environment, Economy, Culture, Ranikhet 2014.