Where Lies The Deccan? Notes on Vagueness, Persistence, and Possibility

By Satish Poduval. Satish is Professor of Cultural Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, India. His research interests include film and media studies as well as critical theory, focusing on connections and differences between Western and (South) Asian approaches. He is a member of the Maidaanam Editorial Collective.

As a concept, the Deccan strikes me as more remarkable for its linguistic persistence than its geographic, political, or cultural coherence. This vast plateau encircled by extensive mountain folds and forested valleys had, in the distant past, been viewed as a natural shield against “external” military incursions. Across the centuries, however, its immense rivers and bountiful mines expedited the accumulation of wealth in a clutch of opulent kingdoms—battling outsiders and each other for sure, but also trading extensively amongst themselves, as well as with the wider world across the seas surrounding the peninsula.

Manu Pillai’s popular history of the region’s rebel sultans documents how the pursuit of power frequently drenched the arid plains in blood, but also how parallel pursuits endowed the Deccan over time with an accommodative and syncretic—perhaps even cosmopolitan—disposition. This aspect has largely tended to get obscured in the early “nationalist” historiography hatched in the adjacent colonial presidencies, and the region cast in the monochrome light of “feudal” backwardness in need of brusque integration and modernization. 

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Now, we know that the imagined geography of the Deccan has shifted shape over time, in accord with the soldier’s sword and the historian’s pen. The name itself indicates a location as much as an orientation: the land lying to the south (dakshin) of what was once Hindustan, broadly congruent with the latter-day Hindi-heartland.

But this north-centred orientation gets somewhat unsettled when approached from other directions. Does it comprise of the terrain between the Narmada and the Krishna rivers, shaped by kingdoms where the demotic Marathi, Telugu and Kannada languages intersected with courtly Persian and Urdu to fashion a Dakhni-Hindustani cultural history? In other words, is the Deccan to be viewed as an imagined greater Maratha realm, as per Bhandarkar? Or rather, as per Panikkar, should we view it as the entire peninsular half of India, south of the Vindhya hills and the Narmada river? Who can say, or who is to decide, and on what basis?

Richard Eaton has noted the following about the deccan: “North Indians popularly conceive it as lying vaguely to the south of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, while Tamils and Malayalis just as vaguely locate it to the north of their native regions.”

Such beguiling “vagueness” is perhaps most clear in a site such as Hyderabad: viewed from the forests and valleys north of the Narmada, this city might seem like the beginning of south India (because a Dravidian language begins to predominate); from the western Konkan coastline, Hyderabad might still seem to retain capillary connections with the older Maratha realm (the young inter-caste couple in Sairat elope from a village in Solapur not to Mumbai but to Hyderabad, for reasons that need not detain us now); from the eastern Andhra coast, Hyderabad today seems like the found-and-lost “capital” of a once-unified Telugu-speaking state; from the southern coffee belt in the Nilgiri hills near Mysore, Hyderabad might seem an organic extension of a Carnatic-Islamicate culture; while from deeper south, along the Malabar coastline of Calicut and the cardamom hills of Munnar, Hyderabad  might seem like the beginning of north India because there is so much of Hindi and Urdu. And so on.

There might be some credence to each partial perspective; yet the sum of these parts surely do not today effectively add up to any organic whole. Besides as integral (or integrated) parts of the sovereign republic of India—in whose register the “Deccan” does not exist, either as a location or as an orientation.     

So then, what accounts for the persistence of “Deccan” as a term within other imagined geographies of peninsular India? Is there any undertow beneath the solid plateau evoked by Deccan as a name, an address, a sign?

Few in Tamil Nadu today (and none outside) nurture either nostalgia or hope about a Dravida Nadu united by some putative ethno-linguistic origin. “Regionalist” and “federal” sentiments in relation to the authoritarian Centre might occasionally surge, but rarely sustain and before long lapse into mutual hostilities over water-sharing or developmental funding from Delhi.

Nevertheless, one does sense a new inflection in how “South India” is spoken of today. Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, even Coimbatore and Kochi, are places where Indians from all over, and of all classes, come to study and stay on to work. Instead of an ideological battle against Hindi, there seems to be a willingness to adopt it for financial gain, riding on the new waves of migrant labour and roving capital.

Every now and then, somebody new from Mysore or Tiruvalla publicly articulates a concern over how long the disciplined, industrious and socially-inclusive southern states could keep subsidizing the ill-governed, under-developed, and socially-hierarchical north. With cooperative federalism under pressure like never before, these fissures might deepen if they are not politically alleviated. 

This might open up opportunities to integrate and advance in newer ways, and we at Maidaanam are interested in these open possibilities. Does the political metaphor of a maidaanam not suggest an “open enclosure” of civic debate and convivial togetherness, in a site reminiscent of fairs, bazaars, popular (and sometimes “vulgar”) forms of entertainment, subaltern politics, the frisson of unequal genders and sexualities bypassing traditional domesticity, the “beat” of the havildar and the reporter, religious processions, curfewed nights, and suchlike?

Maidaanam would also remain aware of the possibilities inherent in an aspect of Deccani space that the rest of the country has mostly lacked: the coast-with-harbour, variously named theeram, karai, revu… The south Indian coast-with-harbour signifies many historical ideas lost in the shadows of a domineering nationalism or neoliberal imperialism: the flow of goods, people and cultures; something “permeable” and “networked” in contrast to the fortified imaginary that is increasingly taking over the last refuge of scoundrels. We might yet make something appealing of the Deccan’s linguistic persistence.

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