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Deep Time and the Colonial Present: A Prologue to the History Writings of ‘Kesari’ Balakrishna Pillai
October 3, 2017, 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm
How far back does one have to go back in time to trace a history of the present? Arguably, colonialism with its narrative of the distinctiveness of post Enlightenment epistemologies has abbreviated our notions of time in the writing of history and social theory. This paper is a preliminary reflection on the historical writings of “Kesari” Balakrishna Pillai (1889-1960), literary critic and intellectual from the then Princely state of Travancore in southern India, who embarked on two remarkable intellectual projects in the 1930s. The first was to steer the Malayali imagination away from what he saw as the sterility of English literature towards an engagement with literary modernism in Europe, psychoanalysis, and an affinity with Asian literature. The second attempted to write a history of Kerala outside of the categories inherited from the colonial writing of history and its limited temporality. Pillai’s writings on Kerala begin with the myths of the flood and the civilizations of Babylon and Sumeria. What does this leap across time and space mean as a theoretical and epistemological enterprise? Why does Pillai bring up the category of anubhavam or experience to redress the imperative of objectivity central to colonial history writing? How do conceptualisations of experience and the longue duree as much as grand espace help to create a counter-history to the history of the world presented as the history of European expansion?