Seeing like a subaltern : historical ethnography of pre-modern and modern tank irrigation technology in Karnataka, India

Shah, E.


In various avatars the images of pre-modern knowledge and social organisations, also differently described as pre-colonial or traditional, are projected as alternative to the modern technologies and forms of governance not only in India but also elsewhere. I first review a few such representations of the idea of pre-modern invoked from politically diverse positions in order to demonstrate a unifying characteristic among them that form a 'view from the above'. I show how a situated position – seeing like a subaltern – can provide a way forward from the mutually opposing binary categorizations of the pre-modern and modern. Extensively referring to folk literature, I discuss here the historical ethnography of tank irrigation technology in Karnataka that covers both medieval and modern periods. I show how the technical designs of this thousand years old technology significantly transformed from the pre-modern to the modern times and how in each epoch the reproduction of the technology implied the reproduction of radically different social and cultural spaces and, most significantly, social and power relations