Maharashtra’s history and culture has long been characterised by the movement of people and ideas across networks of many different kinds, local, regional and subcontinental. Maharashtra’s geographical position has helped shape this history. Its long coastline provides links to the cultures and trades of the Arabian Sea, and its strategic location in the Deccan has brought its peoples to engage not only with the worlds of northern and southern India, but also of the wider Indian Ocean World, linking it to the Eastern Mediterranean. Mobility has always underpinned the livelihoods of many in Maharashtra. Traders have plied on the Maharashtra coast and hinterland for over two millennia. Pastoralist communities, with their own forms of circulation, lie at the heart of agrarian society. The kind of mobility that these circulatory movements brought about in the social order of Maharashtra has been a focus of attention of many scholars of religion, anthropology and sociology. The colonial centuries saw the emergence of a newly mobile working class labouring in the mills and construction industries of Bombay. In our own times new technologies have facilitated different kinds of diaspora, enabling many to seek new opportunities in the tech hubs of India, Europe and the USA.
Over the centuries, broad horizons have also characterised Maharashtra’s political culture. The emergence, rise to eminence and circulation of indigenous communities has shaped the political landscape of Maharashtra ever since the age of the Satavahanas. In the medieval period, the circulation of religious ideas and the debates and ramifications borne out of them shaped the socio-religious landscape of Maharashtra. A clear consciousness of the all-India political stage characterised the career of Sivaji. The eighteenth century saw military men, diplomats and political leaders from Maharashtra forging political and military links across India. This all-India experience informed the politics of the colonial era and after, when so many leading nationalists hailed from Maharashtra, and influential political ideologies of many different kinds developed within the region came to shape the national scene.
Circulation has also been a key theme in Maharashtra’s religious cultures across the centuries, themselves a blend of Saivite, Bhagavat and Sufi elements. The region’s important bhakti traditions rest on the idea of a common annual journey of the faithful to the shrine of Viṭṭhal at Pandharpur. Many other and older sects relied on the movement of their leaders around Maharashtra and beyond to find new disciples, while Maharashtra itself lies across important pilgrimage networks linking Andhra and Karnataka to Banaras and north India. These elements of religious culture have helped inform another kind of mobility in the region, the possibility of social mobility across class and caste which has always been a feature of Maharashtra’s society.
A similar mobility has also marked the rich oral and literary traditions of the region. The oral forms of the pavāḍā, lāvani and kirtan have typically been sung by travelling specialists. There was a powerful interplay between such folk and deśi literary forms, and all-India Sanskrit and Persian poetic traditions, which enriched both. India’s intellectual life in the pre-colonial era underwent a major revival, led in part by scholars from Maharashtra whose works circulated widely across the courts and cities of the subcontinent. Much more recently, Maharashtra’s Dalit literatures as well as its post-war modernist poetry have drawn on indigenous local as well as global influences, producing new syntheses capable of reflecting new social realities. Maharashtra has also been one of the regions at the forefront of India’s digital revolution, the digital world ushering in wholly new levels of circulation of ideas, stories, images and human connections.
If ‘circulation’ has seemed important theme across the centuries, what does this tell us about Maharashtra’s history and culture? What institutions – family, sect, community, patterns of property rights, forms of the state – have made this remarkable mobility possible? Should we see mobility as a broad societal asset in our own age of rapid change, or as an asset only for those who are already advantaged? How has the material culture of Maharashtra been influenced by circulation of ideas and people and what are the evidential underpinnings of material culture within the broader theme of circulation?
We hope that these broad themes and questions might be of interest to scholars across the disciplines, and within a wide time frame.