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India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.)

Author(s):Yazdani, Kaveh
Reviewer(s):Wolcott, Susan

Published by EH.Net (July 2018)

Kaveh Yazdani, India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.). Leiden: Brill, 2017. xxxi + 669 pp. $179 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-33078-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Susan Wolcott, Department of Economics, Binghamton University.

In India, Modernity and the Great Divergence, Kaveh Yazdani, currently at the Center for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand, attempts to find middle ground in the debate over India’s potential to industrialize in the late eighteenth century. In sketching out the opposite positions in the debate, Yazdani characterizes one group, a prominent member being Prasannan Parthasarathi (2011) as giving a “more or less exaggerated picture” of India’s comparability to Europe, and states that those of the other side “rather undervalue the sprouts of capitalist and industrial development” (p. 560). Tirthankar Roy (2013) is an exemplar of the second group. In contrast to these two poles, Yazdani finds significant “sprouts,” but also recognizes the limits facing early capitalist initiatives. His book details both the sprouts and the limits.

The book begins with an extensive review of the overall literature on India’s socio-economic potential before the British occupation, and then delves deeply into the literature on two of India’s most advanced precolonial areas, Gujarat and Mysore. Gujarat was under Mughal control for most of the period considered, until it became part of the Maratha Empire late in the eighteenth century. The Kingdom of Mysore was ruled independently first by Hyder Ali and then by his son, Tipu Sultan, until the latter was defeated and killed by British forces allied with the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1799.

This is an ambitious work. In addition to the thorough discussion of secondary sources, the author reviewed material in European archives, and the very limited remaining material from the Mysore Kingdom. At over 600 pages, it is also daunting. However, it is organized by subsections, such as: Military Establishment, Education, Foreign Relations, Caste, and the Status of Women. Thus it would be easy to read just the sections of interest. That is one potential use of the book, as Yazdani has produced a thorough, critical review of the literature organized thematically.

I enjoyed the book. The individuals populating Mysore and Gujarat in these years are fascinating characters, which makes good reading. The book is also a nice corrective to anyone who persists in believing that India before the British was ruled by uninformed despots, and populated by other-worldly spiritualists. Tipu Sultan in particular was very curious about his world, including the Europeans who were in India, and all things mechanical. The merchants of Gujarat were both as capable and as greedy as any in Europe.

Yazdani takes great effort to present both sides of every argument and attempts to keep a balance. I would still argue, however, that he presents too optimistic a view of India’s economic standing. Because of the lack of data, scholars examining this period either use European statistics, which largely pertain to European trade, or must argue through the evidence of anecdotes. The presence of actual data has a disciplining effect. There are multiple occasions where it appears Yazdani’s enthusiasm for his argument makes him willing to make too strong inferences based on limited information. Thus, to argue yields were as high in Mysore as in “advanced areas of Europe,” Yazdani relies on a few European travelers and soldiers who comment that the land is as prosperous as any they have seen in Europe. In a more extreme case, Yazdani notes Tipu Sultan invited European workmen to his kingdom to expand industry. The ruler later kept them there by force. He also forced prisoners of war to share technology. By the time he was killed, the factories were still run by Europeans. If this is “a path of semi-modernization,” it did not appear to be a propitious one. To take a final example, Yazdani argues that women were treated differently, but no worse in India than in Europe. His support for this is that women could hold property separately from their husbands in India, but not in England, as well as some comments of a Muslim traveler to Europe on European women requiring chaperones. I am uncomfortable with Yazdani’s conclusion. From the earliest available statistics in the mid-nineteenth century, it appears that marriage for women in India was universal and their age at the birth of their first child was about fifteen. Women left the house of their father and entered the house of their husband. Women were not employed outside of the house unless they worked alongside their husbands. Many married women were employed as spinners, as Yazdani writes, but there is no evidence they controlled the income from that activity. If so, it would be unlike the modern period. Women in England faced shocking legal restrictions. But many lived separate lives and controlled their own incomes. When we have data, those data indicate virtually no women in India did the same.

The question of India’s readiness for industrial development at the end of the eighteenth century cannot be fully resolved because there are almost no data. There are population data for 1600 for the immediate Moghul regions from the one volume of information on economic issues left from the empire, the Ain-I-Akbari, and no other data until the first British census. Wage data are limited to a few tiny scraps from either the Ain-i-Akbari, or the records of European factories. I believe all trade data come from either the British East India Company, Dutch East India Company (VOC), or Portuguese records. Price data are best, but are also limited to a few randomly left records, again, many from European sources. The lack of organized records must say something about the culture, which failed to keep an account of itself. Yazdani wants to argue that the policies of Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan “manifest a historical juncture that was neither dominantly traditional nor modern, but resided in a transitory phase” (p. 286). He makes similar arguments for Gujarat. This is appealing. India was not England or Holland, but the most economically dynamic regions of India were, the argument goes, roughly similar to the less dynamic parts of Europe. Yazdani writes that a German missionary “compared Haidar Ali favorably to the Prussian King Fredrick the Great (1712-86)” (p. 176). Given that we believe that living standards were more similar before the Great Divergence than they are today, that comparison has some plausibility. But consider. There are a lot of data to assess the living standards of common people in Frederick’s Prussia. There are court records. Records left by landlords. There are letters, some dictated, left by the individuals themselves. It was not just central governments. European town governments, churches, firms, and individuals all made and kept detailed records (Hagen 2002). Despite guesswork in all other areas, we can be certain that early modern Europe was unlike early modern India in that characteristic. Yazdani allows himself to speculate at one point about what would have happened if the various Indian powers had acted cohesively and forced the British to leave India. Would any of the resulting Indian states have industrialized? More than anything else, the lack of systematic record keeping is what makes me doubt that India was as prepared as Europe to industrialize in 1800.


William W. Hagen, Ordinary Prussians: Brandenburg Junkers and Villagers, 1500-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011.

Tirthankar Roy, An Economic History of Early Modern India. London: Routledge, 2013.

Susan Wolcott is Associate Professor of Economics at Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY. She researches the development of India. Previous work focused on labor markets before Independence. Current research focuses on the transition to formal banking post-Independence.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century