Books

Raghubir Library, Treasure Trove of the Prince Who Became a Historian

The Raghubir Library and Research Institute is a must consult archive for historians of Malwa and Central India, for the Mughal-Maratha-Rajput interface of the 18th century and the British expansion thereafter.                          

Raghubir Library and Research Institute. Credit: natnagarsitamau.com

Raghubir Library and Research Institute. Credit: natnagarsitamau.com

Sitamau (Madhya Pradesh): Something very unusual happened in Sitamau in October 1934. The reputed historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his family paid a day long visit at the invitation of the then Maharaja Ram Singh. The invitation was extended and accepted with a purpose. The 24-year-old heir, Maharajkumar Raghubir Sinh, was keen to acquire a D.Litt in history and then devote his life to historical research. Sir Jadunath, the foremost historian of his time, was being persuaded to become his research supervisor.

As princely states went, Sitamau was not small. In its territory were almost a hundred villages and its ruler was entitled to a nine-gun salute. But it was then, as now, a little out of the way. To reach Sitamau, Sarkar broke journey at Mandsaur – he was en route from Chittor to Ujjain. At Mandsaur, cars sent from Sitamau waited for the rest of the 40 km journey. Much the same journey is required today and the favoured railhead now – Suvasara is about the same distance as Mandsaur. In any event, Raghubir Sinh measured up to Jadunath Sarkar’s estimation who supervised the research and dissertation at Agra University. Raghubir Sinh soon thereafter published Malwa in Transition in 1936 and it remains his best known work. 

Raghubir Sinh. Credit; natnagarsitamau.com

Raghubir Sinh. Credit; natnagarsitamau.com

The association with Sarkar continued and grew stronger. Jadunath Sarkar had around him a magic circle of dedicated historians and Raghubir Sinh was soon to be regarded as among the great historian’s most prominent students. Today’s jargon would term this group as comprising an epistemic community as they carried out a regular and voluminous correspondence punctuated by occasional meetings. They unearthed historical sources, prised out manuscripts from possessive or greedy owners, flattered civil servants to gain access to records in government custody, undertook long tours to visit forts, battlefields and trade and pilgrim routes as they sought to establish as accurate a chronology and detailed picture as possible of their chosen subjects of research.

The early 20th century in India was a period when interest in history was growing but archives and research libraries were few, and access difficult. For Jadunath Sarkar, conducting research therefore meant building up your own manuscript and book collection which would then also function as a research library for students. His was one of the great personal collections of its time but it was located in distant Darjeeling, and later shifted to Calcutta. Raghubir Sinh, too, desired to have a research library of his own and one which specialised on the history of Malwa and on Mughal, Rajput and Maratha history in central India from the 17th to the 19th century.

Jadunath Sarkar. Credit: Wikimedia

Jadunath Sarkar. Credit: Wikimedia

His collection began and depended in its early years on copies of manuscripts in the collections of Sarkar and Sarkar’s oldest and closest associate and friend, the Maratha historian, G.S. Sardesai. But as time passed, Raghubir Sinh’s library grew in size and scope – beyond possibly even the expectations of its founder and his mentors. For both Sarkar and Sardesai encouraged Raghubir Sinh to collect voraciously. Often Sarkar’s and Sardesai’s research, as they respectively wrote the epitaph of the Mughals and the Marathas, depended on acquisitions made by Raghubir Sinh. And this was no mere low cost mofussil experiment. Raghubir Sinh devoted enormous resources to his library. He embraced new technologies whenever they became available. The first microfilm reader to be used in India was the one purchased by him for his library. Finally, as heir of the Sitamau state he had access to networks of information and influence which yielded one treasure trove after another of medieval manuscripts in Marathi, Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit. All this was for Raghubir Sinh, Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai and many other in that circle, the bricks and mortar needed to construct and animate the history of India.

But acquiring or copying manuscripts was a long and laborious process. Persuading the owners to part with their family papers was often a delicate undertaking. If a monetary transaction was involved, then fixing the right price was itself an act of historical research. There were numerous sensitivities to be navigated through, especially since many of the major personalities of the mid and late 18th century – the Maratha leader Mahadji Scindia of Gwalior, Ahalyabai Holkar of Indore, Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur and the British rulers themselves – had equally important descendants in the 20th century, anxious, moreover, to protect the reputation of their ancestors. Lesser personalities too were anxious to see that their past was projected in the right way – not least because as competitive politics emerged, history, ancestry and reputation grew in importance.

Raghubir Sinh was the ideal interlocutor because he understood and sympathised with all these concerns but also knew that the nation’s historical record could not be allowed to rot in oblivion. Often the process of acquisition led to litigation and we then had the Maharajkumar pleading for the right of the public to know their history and for the historian’s right to access records regardless of who owned them or what they contained.

What makes the Sitamau collection so unusual is that the process by which it was put together is also carefully preserved in the form of correspondence with the original owners, the costs of acquisition or copying, the lengthy process to establishing the authenticity of the document collection, the occasional court case and litigation. The archive and the history of the archive thus become one.

The library soon grew out of the single room it was housed in to occupy the whole of Raghubir Sinh’s palace. It remains a must consult archive for historians of Malwa and Central India, for the Mughal-Maratha-Rajput interface of the 18th century and the British expansion thereafter. There is a great deal which is simply unavailable elsewhere. If an intimate history of India is ever written it will begin from here – with its collections of state and revenue records, personal correspondence of Maratha generals, Rajput princes and Mughal mansabdars, horoscopes, paper trails of what led to matrimonial alliances or breakdowns, pilgrimages, household accounts, collections of poetry etc. There is much here which only a historian steeped in his culture could have collected.

The Raghubir Library provides resources to historians and scholars. Credit:natnagarsitamau.com

The Raghubir Library provides resources to historians and scholars. Credit:natnagarsitamau.com

Raghubir Sinh died in 1991. He was a two-time member of parliament in the 1950s. He remained best known however as a historian of Malwa and a steady output of articles, books and monographs continued till his death. His legacy is the library and archive he built from the 1930s and his memory is honoured in an annual history seminar organised in Sitamau.

Since my first visit in 2002, the number of historians attending and the papers presented has grown exponentially. But then as now what makes its sessions unique is that the audience consists also of local townspeople and villagers. They come to honour the memory of the Maharajkumar but also to hear about the past and its mysterious ways. The seminar is a serious gathering and conducted as such. Jargon or excessive theorising unsupported by facts and evidence or lazy attempts at politicising history will be sharply and rigorously challenged and contested. Jadunath Sarkar and Raghubir Sinh would approve.

Today, visiting the Raghubir Library and the associated centre for historical research – the Sri Natnagar Shodh Samsthan – in Sitamau is a delight. When concerns are mounting about the preservation of records in many depositories in India, experiencing the archives in Sitamau is a refreshing contrast. The library and research centre have been lovingly and expertly tended by Raghubir Sinh’s family, his former associates and ably supported by the government of Madhya Pradesh. Visiting scholars and intrepid amateur historians are valued and bestowed attention and help which can only be because the spirit of Raghubir Sinh benignly watches over the collections he so assiduously put together. It is an exquisite jewel and an endearing story of the prince who became a historian.

T.C.A Raghavan is the author of Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim: Poet and Courtier in Mughal India (HarperCollins, 2016).  His next book The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan  is releasing in August also from HarperCollins. He is a former High Commissioner of India to Singapore and Pakistan.