Book Review for “Renaissance State: The Unwritten Story of the Making Of Maharashtra”

Book reviewed by: Mr. Abhay Vaidya, Associate Director, PIC

Girish Kuber’s Renaissance State: The Unwritten Story of the Making of Maharashtra begins with a dramatic revelation. The author quotes the eminent socialist leader late Madhu Dandavate and says that Dandavate could well have become the 8th Prime Minister of India instead of Chandra Shekhar who dislodged Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Dandavate told the author that this offer was first made to him by a section of the MPs from his party because of his clean, non-controversial image and his acceptability to all. When asked what went wrong, Dandavate said, ‘I simply refused,’ and went on to explain that he did not wish to betray his leader.

Kuber, Editor of the prominent Marathi daily Loksatta, cites this anecdote to state that “history is replete with examples that show how the Marathi Manoos has been more comfortable serving as an able deputy to another leader than stake ultimate power for himself.”

He goes on to say that “barring three distant examples” – Chhatrapati Shivaji, Peshwa Baji Rao and Bal Gangadhar Tilak – the Marathi  Manoos has always played second fiddle to another master in politics – be it the Mughals, Rajputs, Pathans or North Indians.

This 240 page book covers a wide canvas and takes a massive sweep: It covers the history of Maharashtra since ancient times right down to contemporary times when the Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray became the Chief Minister.

It makes a fascinating read as an introduction to Maharashtra and to the immense contribution made by Maharashtrians right from the time of Shivaji and the Peshwas to the social reformers and progressive thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The book also offers numerous interesting nuggets of information, such as the genesis of the name ‘Maharashtra’ from the Maharashtri language, an offshoot of Sanskrit that was spoken in the region in medieval times. The author presents the reference of the 15th century poet Dimba who wrote of the people in the region “south of the Vindhyas, north of the river Krishna and west of the forests,” who speak the Maharashtri language.

The book presents a detailed account of the Satavahanas – the first Maharashtrian dynasty which ruled for four-and-a-half centuries from 235 BC to 225 AD. It presents an account of the other dynasties that followed, such as the Vakatakas, Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and finally the Yadavas, who ruled from 1187 to 1318. Quoting eminent historians such as V.K. Rajwade, Dr. D.R. Bhandarkar and Dr. A.S. Altekar, the author credits the Yadavas with creating the Marathi identity.

Kuber makes a passing reference to the saints of Maharashtra, notably Sant Dnyaneshwar, his magnum opuses, the Dnyaneshwari (commentary on the Bhagwad Gita) and Amrutanubhava, a treatise of his spiritual experiences, and his initiative to lead the warkari sampradaya, the annual pilgrimage on foot from Alandi to Pandharpur and back. Kuber says this period of the 13th century was a period of social inclusiveness when Brahmin dominance was challenged and this period may be compared to the 16th century Reformation Movement in Europe which challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. 

The rise of the legendary warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji, the expansion of the Maratha rule by the Peshwas and the downfall of the Peshwas to the British are covered and analysed in depth. Kuber underscores the point that while Shivaji fought against the Mughals, he was not anti-Muslim. He fought to establish his kingdom as ‘Hindavi Swaraja’ (self-rule of Hindus), not in the sense of a theocratic Hindu kingdom but as a kingdom of the indigenous people who were opposed to the Mughals who saw themselves as invaders. Kuber’s analysis of Shivaji as a progressive, pro-farmer, secular and enlightened ruler is far removed from Shivaji’s distorted anti-Muslim image that has been exploited to the hilt by political parties.

After discussing the phenomenal rise and the tragic fall of the Peshwas comes the chronicling of the series of social reformers, progressive thinkers, freedom fighters and other mavericks of the 18th and 19th century Maharashtra who contributed to the Maharashtra renaissance. Starting with Balshastri Jambhekar, the father of Marathi journalism, ‘Lokhitawadi’ Gopal Hari Deshmukh and Mahatma Phule, the book presents the entire galaxy of personalities, both men and women, who fought vigorously against the caste system, untouchability and crusaded for girls’ education, widow remarriage and contraception.

Undoubtedly, almost all of them were conversant with English and were inspired by western liberal thought. The period of the renaissance in the state saw the emergence of the tallest of India’s freedom fighters such as Tilak, Gokhale (who mentored both Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah), and Ambedkar, who coined the term ‘Dalits’ and gave a voice to the backward castes. Kuber notes that Maharashtra gave space to every shade of political thought; be it Communism, with Comrade S.A. Dange being one of the founders of the Communist Party of India or the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which took birth in Maharashtra, and the Hindu Mahasabha led by Savarkar.

Besides social reformers, freedom fighters and educationists, there were others like Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema and many virtually unknown people who contributed to the renaissance in the state. One of them was Shivkar Bapuji Talpade (1864-1916) who created his own unmanned aircraft, ‘Marutsakha’ and flew it briefly in 1895.

Critically, the European renaissance saw extraordinary advances in science and technology. This happened to some extent in Bengal but not in Maharashtra where the masses remained bereft of a scientific temper. The fact that the late Dr. Narendra Dabholkar had to crusade against superstitious beliefs and practices and ultimately pay with his life for his convictions bears testimony to that. Kuber acknowledges that notwithstanding the renaissance, the state is full of paradoxes and is home to some of the most socially backward movements. To that extent, one may say that the renaissance has remained incomplete.
Overall, this is undoubtedly the go-to book on the making of Maharashtra and the men and women behind its story.