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Document Raj

Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India

Historians of British colonial rule in India have noted both the place of military might and the imposition of new cultural categories in the making of Empire, but Bhavani Raman, in Document Raj, uncovers a lesser-known story of power: the power of bureaucracy. Drawing on extensive archival research in the files of the East India Company’s administrative offices in Madras, she tells the story of a bureaucracy gone awry in a fever of documentation practices that grew ever more abstract—and the power, both economic and cultural, this created.
In order to assert its legitimacy and value within the British Empire, the East India Company was diligent about record keeping. Raman shows, however, that the sheer volume of their document production allowed colonial managers to subtly but substantively manipulate records for their own ends, increasingly drawing the real and the recorded further apart. While this administrative sleight of hand increased the company’s reach and power within the Empire, it also bolstered profoundly new orientations to language, writing, memory, and pedagogy for the officers and Indian subordinates involved. Immersed in a subterranean world of delinquent scribes, translators, village accountants, and entrepreneurial fixers, Document Raj maps the shifting boundaries of the legible and illegible, the legal and illegitimate, that would usher India into the modern world.

Author Information

Bhavani Raman is assistant professor of South Asian history at Princeton University.


Document Raj is an outstanding book. Bhavani Raman explores, with depth and insight, the ‘small’ world of the Tamil cutcherry in the early nineteenth century. However, by so doing, she opens up large questions about the colonial encounter in India, the transformation of knowledge and learning, and the nature of the bureaucratic state. She uses a wide range of sources, many in the vernacular and several not previously available in the public domain, and writes with elegance and clarity. The result is a major contribution that establishes a paradigm around which scholarly discussions are likely to take place for years to come.”

— David Washbrook, Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Document Raj breaks new ground in South Asian history. Raman's imaginative investigations into the workings of the East India Company’s district offices in colonial Madras provide a powerful analysis of the critical role that scribal cultures played in enabling the Raj to operate as a vast writing machine. Original in its approach, this book will reinvigorate debates about the nature and consequences of colonial rule in the subcontinent.”
— Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago

Document Raj is a novel and compelling analysis of the role paper played in the formation of the early colonial state in India.”
— Hayden J. Bellenoit, American Historical Review

Audience: Professional and scholarly;