Assistant Editor Cara Tejpal reviews Shifting Ground, edited by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan.
Published by: Oxford University Press
Seven days, eleven chapters and a copious quantity of notes later, I’m compelled to start this review with fair warning; if you are looking for an easy ‘wildlife’ read, prefer to eschew academic jargon, or are disinterested in delving into the complexities of environmental history, neither this book nor this review are for you. Yet for those who are keen to enhance their understanding of India’s environmental history through a historical, scientific and socio-political lens, reading Shifting Ground will prove to be a challenging but ultimately eye-opening endeavor.
With 10 chapters curated by eminent scholars Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan, the book’s corresponding 10 contributors present a slew of original case studies that urge the reader to deconstruct their own perceived notions of the relationship between humans and their environment through the ages. At its best, the book paves the way for critical thought and nuance, virtues that often fall by the wayside in current popular discourse on environment and sustainability.
In the first essay of the book, ‘Conceiving Ecology and Stopping the Clock’, Kathleen D. Morrison questions the idea of colonialism as the ‘ecological watershed’ in India’s environmental history, and asserts “the ‘pre-colonial’ past, (as) a problematic construct collapsing tens of thousands of years of history into a single term.” Dipping into the empirical histories of both the Gangetic plains and the Deccan peninsula, she destabilises tropes such as that of ‘pre-human (primeval) forests’ cloaking the land, and the effort to establish historical baselines.
While each of the various chapters deals with important environmental issues, wildlife lovers will find special significance in the essays penned by Shibani Bose, Divyabhanusinh, and Ghazala Shahabuddin.
For her part, through reams of records, Bose tracks the status, both cultural and ecological, of the Indian one-horned rhino in her essay ‘From Eminence to Near Extinction’. Once ranging from the Sind to the Brahmaputra Valley and into Nepal and Sikkim, it appears rhinos very much captivated human imagination. Referencing Neolithic discoveries, Harappan terracotta figurines, Mughal era documents, Hindu scriptures and more, Bose looks at the impact of human landscapes on wildlife ecology, and the gradual disappearance of the rhino from popular perception to the edge of extinction.
In ‘Lions, Cheetahs and Others in the Mughal Landscape’, Divyabhanusinh neatly categorises animals in the Mughal empire into those that were hunted, such as lions and tigers, and those of ‘imperial purpose’ such as elephants and cheetahs (with a third category for rare animals presented at court). This superbly riveting chapter delineates not just the idiosyncrasies of the Mughal rulers (Akbar is reputed to have had a menagerie of 9,000 cheetahs, and his favourite was carried around in a palanquin), but allows a portrayal of charismatic wild animals, their habitat, and their perceived importance during the rule of the Mughals.
In the last chapter of the book ‘Tiger Crisis and the Response’, Ghazala Shahabuddin uses the example of the Sariska Tiger Reserve to address the failures of the Forest Department in utilizing good science for wildlife and people management, and reiterates the historical trend of natural resource management being governed by the preset ideas and ideals of the politically powerful. Vikramaditya Thakur also explores this idea in an earlier chapter of the book, where he analyses the peasantization of the Bhil tribals of the Naramada valley.
I’m afraid that given my own academic limitations, the expanse of topics covered, and, of course, print restrictions, providing a thorough overview of this book is near impossible. While I do not have the luxury of space to give the remaining chapters their dues, it’s crucial to note that they will most certainly force the reader to recognise that environmental, cultural, economic and political history can not be viewed in isolation from one another. And thus though diverse in topic, the essays in Shifting Ground consistently allude to one another.
Given its heavy, academic disposition, this book is unfortunately unlikely to make its way onto the reading table of your average wildlife enthusiast. A shame really, because it cleaves open the loosely glued seams of conservation narratives that we take as a given. If you do get yourself a copy, I suggest you read it slowly, with concentrated intent, a pen in hand and an open mind.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 8, August 2015.