I am a historian of South Asia, specialising in the experience of colonialism in north India. I was trained in the School of Politics at La Trobe University in the 1990s, where I learned to adapt a range of interdisciplinary methodologies to construct historical narratives. I completed a PhD on the history and politics of the Kumbh Mela in 2003. I developed an interest in political communication in colonial India in my work – this is the thread that links my two monographs. My first book, Pilgrimage and Power, was awarded an honourable mention in the AAS’s Coomaraswamy Book Prize in 2009.
In my second book, A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, I extended the use of visual materials, pioneered in cultural studies and anthropology, to the writing of Indian history. This was an essential methodological development in the study of a culture that has historically operated within and despite the constraints of illiteracy and linguistic diversity. My publications based on visual, archival and oral sources, but also on sound and ‘unarchived’ forms of evidence (slogans, rumours and other traces of voice), have argued for a sensitive and textured multisensorial interpretation of history that shifts its emphasis from the text, and especially the colonial archive, without actually eschewing it completely.
Using these methodological approaches, I made fresh contributions to the field of Indian nationalism, by explaining the role of violence in the anticolonial movement in India. In my 2015 book, A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, I demonstrated that the oft-averred dominance of Gandhian nonviolence in the historiography of the nationalist movement is not borne out by a close examination of a range of oral, material and visual culture sources. The book has been extensively reviewed in scholarly journals and praised in the Indian press, and I have spoken about the project at literary festivals and conferences. A Hindi translation is currently under negotiation. In 2016, I wrote a postscript to my book, reflecting on the extent to which the Nehrus – Motilal and Jawaharlal – collaborated with the revolutionaries of the HSRA.
I have also led collaborative projects with a collective of international academics working on revolutionary histories using a range of methodologies, which resulted in two edited collections, Reading Revolutionaries (co-edited with J. Daniel Elam in 2015) and Writing Revolution (co-edited with J. Daniel Elam and Chris Moffat, in 2017). I am currently scoping a project on a multi-sensorial analysis of the Civil Disobedience Movement, based on archives held in London and in Delhi.
In 2013, I began to branch into Australian history, seeking to align Australia’s contribution to global imperial history by focussing on Australia’s relations with India via Britain in the early twentieth century. This was the basis of an ARC-funded project, outcomes of which include a book on the history of the Indian diaspora in Australia, British India, White Australia: British India, White Australia: Overseas Indians, Intercolonial Relations and the Empire, 1901-1947 (2019) and several articles, in Postcolonial Studies and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.
As part of this project, while a Fellow at the National Library of Australia in 2019, I worked on the diaries of the Australian statesman, R.G. Casey, written during his tenure as Governor of Bengal. Casey served as Governor for only two years, from January 1944 to February 1946; but these were arguably the two of the most difficult years in the life of the province, leading to its violent partition in 1947. After the fall of Burma in 1941, Bengal lay exposed to the frontline of war; in 1943, Calcutta and its docks were bombed; and the population in and beyond Bengal was animated by rumours of a Japanese invasion. When the Caseys arrived in Bengal in January 1944, the province was still in the grip of a famine that would kill an estimated 3 million people; as debates about decolonisation began to intensify. I spoke about this in a public lecture at the National Library in Canberra, which you can see here.
Since 2010, I have been editor of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, which has been published since 1971, and is one of the most prominent journals in South Asian Studies.