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In Session: Representations of Kingship and the Political Sphere in Pre-Modern South Asia
4: Who is King of Bengal: Kingship and Temporality in Early Colonial Bengali Literature
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Chicago, United States
In 1776, during the preparations for the Permanent Settlement of Bengal, Phillip Francis complained in a letter about the overarching problem of the lack of definition of sovereignty in Bengal, an issue that haunted the Company's presence. Francis wrote: "I see a number of streams, but no fountain. I see Laws without a Sovereign. Does any man in England know, or think it worth his while to inquire, who is King of Bengal?"
This paper puts in conversation two early colonial ‘chronicle of kings' texts from Bengal— the Kṣitīśavaṁśāvalīcaritam written in Sanskrit and the Pratāpādityacaritram, written in Bengali prose—with Francis' description of what he deemed the vacuum of power in eighteenth century Bengal. My paper explores the confluence of the political and the literary definition and depiction of kingship to argue for the centrality of the figure of the king for the process of temporalization in Bengal, that is, for the process that divided the modern from the medieval/feudal age in Bengal. I explore how the idea of the decay of Mughal imperial authority in Bengal in colonial historiography, along with the depiction of Hindu Rajas as actually independent rulers during the Mughal period, as found in these two texts, became contentious sites upon which the idea of the medieval in Bengal was constructed. This paper poses Francis' question to different texts and traditions to shed more light on the process of temporalization of Bengal's history.