Sudev J Sheth (University of Pennsylvania)

The Haribhakti Collection at the M.S. University in Baroda, Gujarat

My research investigates connections between elite banking households, financial capital, and regional state formation in western India from c. 1650-1800. I have chosen this periodization based on my research materials and my desire to connect scholarship on the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) and regional successor states (1721-1949) with scholarship on British colonial rule (1757-1947). During this period, sovereign geographies in India resembled a patchwork quilt. For example, even at the pinnacle of its powers after annexing India as a Crown colony in 1858, only three-fifths of India’s territory and three-quarters of its population fell under British jurisdiction. The remaining area belonged to hundreds of native rulers about whom we know far less than we do about Mughal and colonial rulers. The Gaekwad family at Baroda in Gujarat headed one of the largest of these Mughal successor states. I believe that these warlords consolidated political power by maneuvering capital advanced to them by an increasingly powerful class of indigenous financiers.

With the help of Professors Ramya Sreenivasan (Penn), Samira Sheikh (Vanderbilt University) and Adhya Saxena (University of Baroda), I have identified a set of untapped documents from the most important financier firm as the starting point of my research. The Haribhakti Collection housed in the archives at the University of Baroda contains revenue account books, loan ledgers, bills of exchange, pay orders, insurance contracts, dowry stipulations, divorce agreements, private correspondence, and personal notes exchanged between the Gaekwads, banking families across western India, British officials, and local residents. Dating from the mid-eighteenth century, these papers run into the several thousands and document a more or less continuous history of one hundred and fifty years. The materials are written in Persian, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, and English languages. The historian G.D. Sharma began preliminary work on these materials in the 1980s when descendants of the Haribhakti family first donated them to the University of Baroda. However, his untimely death halted any extensive study. Another reason why scholars have neglected these documents is that linguistic demands are a barrier to entry.

The materials I am studying are collectively known as the Haribhakti Collection and were donated by Mr. Arvind Haribhakti between 1983 and 1987. Hari and Bhakti were two brothers who created a powerful banking firm in the eighteenth century in western India. The firm was established in Baroda and Pune around the 1760s. Descendants of Hari and Bhakti continued the family business of money lending to the state, resolving local disputes, and honoring promissory notes (bills of exchange) from other bankers across western India.

Efforts are being taken by the Department of History along with the new Haribhakti Center for Historical Research at the M.S. University in Baroda to catalog, scan, and preserve these documents. When I began research in this archive in 2014, there was no catalog or systematic way of accessing the data. Today, scholars can visit the Department of History and seek permission to access the documents. They have setup a reading room, and scholars can consult a working catalog of the documents in the collection. For accommodation, researchers can stay at the M.S. University Guesthouse for a reasonable fee.

January 2018