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The Political Economy of Craft Production: Crafting Empire in South India, c. 1350-1650

Author(s):Sinopoli, Carla M.
Reviewer(s):Parthasarathi, Prasannan

Published by EH.NET (October 2005)

Carla M. Sinopoli, The Political Economy of Craft Production: Crafting Empire in South India, c. 1350-1650. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiv + 354 pp. $90 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-82513-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Prasannan Parthasarathi, Department of History, Boston College

The lives and experiences of craft producers in medieval and early-modern South India have remained elusive to historians. More is known about these laborers from the mid-seventeenth century when the records of the Dutch and English East India Companies begin to contain material on the substantial communities of cotton weavers. For earlier periods, the temple inscriptions that form the chief source of historical evidence only rarely pertain to craftsmen, or laborers of any sort, for that matter. Nevertheless, from this epigraphic material, historians have made several noble efforts to reconstruct the craftsmen’s world, the most notable being several works by Vijaya Ramaswamy.

In this book, Carla Sinopoli, who is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, supplements evidence derived from the written word with that obtained from archaeological excavation to produce a political economy of craft production in Southern India. Sinopoli is best known for her work with ceramics in the area of Vijayanagar, a region that has witnessed growing attention from archaeologists in the last thirty years.

After an introduction to set the stage, the first substantive chapter lays out Sinopoli’s broad approach to craftsmen, which includes not only those commonly considered as such — potters, weavers, metal workers, stone cutters and carpenters — but also “producers whose products were in words, sound, or movement — poets, bards, musicians, and dancers” (p. 16). Sinopoli justifies this broadening of definition on the grounds “that all entailed the investment of labor by skilled practitioners who labor to transform potential into finished products that were in turn consumed by non-producers” (p. 16).

The next chapter, entitled “The South Asian State,” undertakes a systematic critique of much previous writing on the state in South Asia, with some focus on South India. While the old warhorses, Oriental despotism and Asiatic Mode of Production, get a good working over, more recent contributions such as Burton Stein’s segmentary state are not spared. Sinopoli concludes that universal models of the South Asian state must be replaced with the “acknowledgment of variability and recognition of a multiplicity of models for state organization” (p. 60).

The next two chapters focus on the Vijayanagara state and empire. The first surveys the history and historiography of Vijayanagara, including the precursors to the empire, its dynastic history, the geography of the empire, its political structures, religion, caste, and economy. The second is a detailed exposition of the sources and evidence on Vijayanagar that the work draws upon. These sources are predominantly inscriptional and archaeological, but also include travelers’ accounts, literary works, and even the reports of early colonial officials.

After this substantial background material — which comprises half of the book — Sinopoli turns to the political economy of craft production in South India. This discussion — the core of the work — is confined to two chapters and a conclusion. The first of these chapters surveys craft producers and their products, beginning with poets and bards and ending with potters, with textile manufacturers, metal and stone workers, and sculptors in between. Workers in textiles and in metal goods, two categories of manufacturers for whom there is a great deal of inscriptional material, receive the most detailed discussion. The second of these chapters examines artisans and institutions. Much of the chapter focuses on the relation of craftsmen to the revenue system, but there is also material on craft participation in temple life and a brief discussion of social protest in the fifteenth century. The conclusion recapitulates and summarizes the main findings of the work.

For those who are familiar with the writings of Vijaya Ramaswamy there will not be much that is terribly unfamiliar in this book. Ramaswamy has pretty much worked over the literary and inscriptional material that is available on craftsmen and provided surveys of technology, trade and the relationship of craftsmen to temples and states. Much of this work is repeated and summarized in The Political Economy of Craft Production.

In the final analysis, it appears that archaeology in South Asia has a long way to go before it can substantially add to written sources on craft production. Even with respect to the technology of metal working, an area where industrial archaeologists in Europe have contributed a great deal, archaeological evidence from South Asia has little to add. Sinopoli herself draws upon Francis Buchanan’s early nineteenth-century account of iron smelting to describe the technology that may have been used in Vijayanagara times! And that may be the sobering lesson of this work: the desperate need to expand the resources for archaeological work in the Indian subcontinent.

Prasannan Parthasarathi is Associate Professor of History at Boston College and the author of The Transition to a Colonial Economy: Weavers, Merchants and Kings in South India, 1720-1800 (Cambridge, 2001).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval