Penumbral Visions

Making Polities in Early Modern South India
Sanjay Subrahmanyam
The latest scholarship on early modern India from one of South Asia's most eminent historians


Penumbral Visions explores how the political structure and political culture of the states of south India were transformed between 1500 and 1800. In Asia this period was characterized by a contest between European influence and indigenous political and economic processes. The book highlights the dynamism and resilience of indigenous societies and characterizes them as early modern. At the same time, it challenges the myth that India experienced an ideal social equilibrium, or Golden Age, that was ruptured by colonial rule.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam draws upon sources in Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and a variety of Indian languages and archives to enter into the lives of states like Mysore, Tanjavur, and Arcot that have been neglected by historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has also drawn upon literature dealing with the experience of colonialism in areas as far-flung as Latin America and the Ottoman Empire. The book therefore constitutes an important intervention in the interpretation of South Asian history in particular and--more broadly--in the history of Eurasian societies in the early modern epoch.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

Praise / Awards

  • "The book is engaging reading. . . . Through his close readings, Subrahmanyam reveals a dynamic, changing world of individuals and of agency. The book, then is a final reproof to anyone who might see precolonial India as an unchanging society needing colonialism to introduce it to modernity."
    ---Mattison Mines, University of California, Santa Barbara, American Historical Review, June 2002
  • "[Subrahmanyam] uses this mastery over an impressive range of Indian and European sources to embed a detailed analysis of local institutions and texts within the worldwide process of early colonialism."
    ---Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College, Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 61: No. 2 (May 2002)
  • "Subrahmanyam takes a fresh look at the historiography of South Asia and South India, exhuming narratives, tracking their fault lines, tracing the moment of seismic heartbeat so as to remap the movement of history's epochs, rendering visible underlying causes so that new approaches can more accurately model indigenous societies, their internal tensions, and their cultural shifts. . . . The book is a vast archive of happenings and events in the southern Indian states of Mysore, Tanjavur, and Arcot. Like a skeptical pilgrim, Subrahmanyam reinhabits province, empire, court, fort, and the tortuous terrains of trader routes, reconstructing fiscal details of dynasties, temples, and their local economies, and evoking a microhistory that stares the feudalism debate in the face. . . . Subrahmanyam's work raises several important issues: e.g., the need to define 'a prehistory of Orientalism' in the Indian context by looking at politics, power, and the establishment of colonial power in India. He looks for neglected sources to be able to piece together the missing links on Peninsular India, thus seeking to redefine the trajectory of South Indian history so that 'modernism' and 'early modernity' can be relocated and redefined in place and time rather than projected ad nauseum [sic] as being catalyzed by the forces from Europe." -
    ---Sixteenth Century Journal
  • "One passionate concern shines through much of what Subrahmanyam writes. He wishes to demonstrate that historical modernity did not flow from Europe but is a global and conjunctional phenomenon. . . . Subrahmanyam's point is that if historians can show the real nature of South Asia in the early modern period, they might 'shake historians of western Europe out of their long complacency, rather than comfort them in their slumbers'."
    ---Francis Robinson, Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 2002

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 312pp.
  • 3 maps.
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Sales Restrictions


  • Hardcover
  • 2001
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11216-6

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  • $89.95 U.S.