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The Artisans in Eighteenth-Century Eastern India: A History of Survival

Author(s):Singh, Vipul
Reviewer(s):Wendt, Ian C.

Published by EH.NET (April 2007)

Vipul Singh, The Artisans in Eighteenth-Century Eastern India: A History of Survival. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 2005. ix + 118 pp. Rs.250 (hardback), ISBN: 81-8069-235-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ian C. Wendt, Department of History, Washington State University.

The Artisans in Eighteenth-Century Eastern India is the product of Vipul Singh’s master’s thesis (MPhil) at Delhi University in 1996. Singh is a Lecturer of Medieval History at Motilal Nehru College (University of Delhi). His doctoral and later research has focused on topics related to the ecological history of eighteenth-century northern India. Artisans reflects the mass and quality of a competent master’s thesis. It is a modest, incremental contribution to the historiography of artisans in early colonial India. The reviewer regrets that he cannot wholeheartedly recommend it to a broad readership, but it will be of interest to social and economic historians of South Asia interested in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly textile production and trade. Sadly, the book does not seem to be available from vendors outside of India, so readers ought to contact the publisher at

Singh’s brief book focuses on Patna between 1765 and 1811. It is based on published primary sources, predominantly Francis Buchanan’s detailed survey of the region in 1811. Given the limited volume of historical scholarship on artisans in seventeenth and eighteenth century India, and the real paucity of such work on the Gangetic plain, this book contains a variety of interesting data and descriptions that contribute to our knowledge of the social and economic history of the region at the rise of English colonial rule. The analysis in the book is a standard narrative of British colonial aggression, monopolistic trade policies, and handicraft industry decline. The author shows an awareness of other historiographic debates over the complex historical experiences of Indian regions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But they do not shape his analysis.

The first chapter reads very much like a gazetteer, with a short description of the geography of Patna and a long narration of the political and administrative fortunes of Bihar, particularly Patna, under the Great Mughal emperors followed by the East India Company. It concludes with a summation of European competition in Patna during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leading toward English dominance after 1765.

The second chapter focuses on artisan communities, especially textile producers, in Patna and their production methods. In connection with this chapter, Appendix II contains a very interesting tabulation of the artisans of Patna from Buchanan’s 1811 survey. The chapter and these data show Patna to have been a very large urban area with surrounding suburbs and villages filled with artisans of all kinds. Textile producers predominated. Singh gives interesting descriptions of the various artisans. The reviewer was struck, however, by a common oversight the author shares with many historians. Singh describes spinners in an intriguing paragraph on pp. 34-35, but discounts them in this manner: “Since spinning was comparatively a lighter and less technical job it was quite often done by women.” Singh displays the common notion that South Asia’s artisans were predominantly professional men. To be fair, he does indeed note women contributing to a handful of artisan activities, and describes the importance of the entire household in production. But he overlooks a startling fact ? according to his own data, female spinners (numbering 330,396) constituted no less than 71 percent of all artisans in Patna in 1811. They outnumbered all other textile producers 4 to 1. Notwithstanding this oversight, the chapter contains useful descriptions of diverse artisan producers in Patna.

The third chapter briefly describes the caste organization of Patna’s artisans, noting jajmani commercial relations in rural areas. It concludes with a discussion of advances (dadni) made to weavers to produce cloth for commercial markets, with an argument about the oppressions placed on weavers by the monopolistic East India Company.

The fourth chapter is a disjointed outline of European trade in Bihar and Bengal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ? Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. It is based on secondary scholarship, primarily J.N. Sarkar, Om Prakash and H.K. Naqvi. It describes all major trade goods, focusing on cotton and silk textiles, saltpetre, opium and sugar.

The fifth chapter quickly summarizes the negative effects of English colonialism and monopolistic trade policies on Patna’s artisans. Unfortunately the chapter is too brief to conduct a systematic analysis of the topic, relying instead on brief anecdotal evidence. The chapter does however contain an interesting historiographic summation of the debate over deindustrialization in nineteenth-century India. He describes Morris’s arguments as well as the critiques of scholars like Thorner, Matsui, Habib, and Bagchi.

Singh concludes that colonialism was the cause of significant economic decline and immeasurable subjective harm to Bihar’s artisans as early as 1765 and continuing through the nineteenth century. Over the last couple of generations historians have produced a growing array of interesting scholarship on South Asia’s artisans, textile producers and international trade from the sixteenth through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Vipul Singh’s thesis is a modest contribution to that body, informing our knowledge of Patna.

Ian Wendt is currently revising his dissertation, “The Social Fabric: Textile Industry and Community in Early Modern South India,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 2005, for publication as a monograph.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):18th Century