C. Blaser u.a. (Hrsg.): Itineraries between Switzerland and India

Interweaving Histories. Itineraries between Switzerland and India (1900–1950)

Blaser, Claire L.; Bornet, Philippe; Burger, Maya; Schreiner, Peter
Basel 2023: Schwabe Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
336 S.
CHF 64.00
Rezensiert für infoclio.ch und H-Soz-Kult von:
Amal Shahid, Centre of International History and Political Studies of Globalization, Institute of Political Studies, University of Lausanne

Amidst the growing interest among historians in the global history of Switzerland, Interweaving Histories comes as a welcome addition. A co-authored volume by four scholars with distinct interests, the book adds to the historiography on Swiss historical connections with the rest of the world, in the context of colonialism and since then.1 These connections were spearheaded by individual actors, companies, mission societies, or social organisations, and spanned the fields of religion, health, trade, education or arts. Organized using the heuristic of ‘encounters’, the book comprises seven chapters, six of which follow individual trajectories to different places in India, mostly during the first half of the twentieth century. These case studies challenge the image of Switzerland as an isolated, landlocked country. Instead, they present Switzerland as significantly involved in (late) colonialism and globalization processes, including the exchange of ideas and cultural interactions.

Chapter 1, by Philippe Bornet and Maya Burger, sets out the above arguments. Besides justifying the relevance of the geographical choice and time period, both of which were informed by historiographical gaps, this introductory chapter sets the scene by providing context on early twentieth-century India. The following four sections are devoted to different themes, including the importance of print media, the role of women, actors and objects on the move, institutions and knowledge exchanges. The explanation of women’s migration and Christian missions, as well as the circulation of the knowledge of yoga, provide necessary background for the rest of the book. However, the relevance of the rest of the sections to the forthcoming chapters is less clear. Many factual details (on p. 19, 29–31, 33–39, 43–45) provide a distant backdrop to the theme of Swiss-Indian connections. Nonetheless, the authors’ knowledge of the subject is clearly thorough; various examples substantiate their point that there were rich exchanges between India and Switzerland.

As a whole, the book takes the global microhistory approach, focusing on specific ‘itineraries’: that is, case studies dealing with circulation of knowledge and objects. The inquiries rely on historical and philological methods, the latter being especially important in examining the implications in Switzerland of translation of key publications (p. 11–12). Indeed, the chapters rely on multilingual sources such as correspondence, newspapers, reports, books, and pamphlets drawn from online repositories, as well as archives in Switzerland and, to an extent, India.

The first case study, presented in Chapter 2 by Claire Blaser, is of Frieda Hauswirth Das, an artist and anti-colonial activist. Blaser follows Hauswirth’s life trajectory from her early life in the canton of Bern to her travels in California and eventually India. For her time, she stood out as a woman from rural Switzerland who defied social expectations by migrating to the US in search of education. While in California, she became interested in Hindu philosophy, and encountered feminists and the South Asian diaspora. Interactions with the latter paved the way for her involvement in ‘the cause of Indian (cultural) nationalism’ and support of anti-colonialists in and around Switzerland (p. 68–69). After marrying her anticolonial activist friend Sarangadhar Das, Hauswirth fulfilled her dream of moving to India in 1920. Hauswirth’s case is particularly interesting due to her complicated positionality in India and Switzerland. Not only was she hesitant to impose Western ideals on Indians during her time in the subcontinent, she also had to confront disapproval of interracial marriage in Switzerland. Blaser convincingly argues that Hauswirth’s approach to female education reform and the anticolonial movement differed from that of her contemporaries, who often came to India as part of mission societies with fixed ideas of modernity.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are authored by Philippe Bornet, each touching upon different stories. Chapter 3 brings to light the case of the Kanarese Evangelical Mission (KEM), an organization which was formed in Lausanne in the aftermath of the expulsion of the Basel Mission Society from India at the end of the First World War. Bornet argues that the KEM attempted to present itself as ‘Swiss’, distancing itself from the Basel Mission and its German connections. Moreover, KEM’s attempts at evangelization in India, as well as its missionaries’ imposition of ideas in the management of the Indian society, had to be continuously negotiated and adapted due to the changing political situation in India. This chapter is a first systematic attempt at writing the history of the KEM and the process of the Basel Mission’s negotiations with the British to continue its socio-religious activities in India.

The next chapter explores the lives of two female doctors, Eva Lombard and Elisabeth Petitpierre, from Geneva and Neuchâtel respectively. Both spent time in South India as part of the KEM, and later the Basel Mission when it had returned to India in the late 1920s. Bornet contrasts their experiences in south-west India in the towns of Udupi and Betageri, in particular regarding their approach to Indian society and to medical care. He shows that Petitpierre’s attitude was more nuanced; she was open to learning about the functioning of Indian society, whereas Lombard was more rigid about her beliefs regarding the position of Indian women.

Similarly, chapter 5 follows the peculiar case of a Swiss missionary, Jakob Urner, who came to India as part of the KEM. Urner became interested in the texts of the Lingayat community (a religious subsect mainly based in Karnataka). Bornet also illuminates the role played by Urner’s Kannada language teacher, Channappa Uttangi, and the potential influence of Urner on Carl-Albert Keller, a missionary-turned-professor of South Indian religious movements.

The following two chapters continue the discussion on ‘encounters’ through the prism of yoga. In chapter 6, Maya Burger explores Selvarajan Yesudian’s influence on the spread of yoga in Switzerland, and the role of Elisabeth Haich. Yesudian, a hatha yoga teacher from Madras in South India, met Haich, a Hungarian interested in esotericism, in Zurich. The publication ‘Sport und Yoga’ popularised yoga and its health benefits in Switzerland. The narrative follows the lives of Yesudian and Haich, and goes on to compare different versions of the publication as a way to understand the developments in yoga and the reasons for its popularity in Switzerland. The chapter’s rich content extends to about 70 pages with rather elaborate footnotes, and tends to get entangled in the details of the protagonists’ publications.

In a similar vein, Peter Schreiner’s final chapter examines the life of Lizelle Reymond, a woman trained in Tai Chi who spent time in India in the late 1940s, where she met her spiritual master, Shri Anirvan. The chapter first describes how Reymond encountered Anirvan during her time in India, and later delves into her book ‘To Live Within’. Later in the chapter, Schreiner also explains Samkhya, a branch of Indian philosophy that Reymond’s book contained as a major theme. Overall, while both of these last two chapters offer a valuable analysis of the respective texts, they stray into drawn-out discussions that depart from the core of the book’s topic.

The strength of the book lies in the way it deals with the lives of women. Chapters 2, 4, 7, and to an extent 6 meticulously engage with the question of gender in a male-dominated world. The struggles of women traveling and making unconventional choices are highlighted as central to the possibility of Swiss-Indian encounters. The book also focuses on how individual experiences shaped larger discourses in Switzerland – whether in relation to India’s complicated social structure, the position of women, or health and religious practices.

Nevertheless, the framing of the book that fixates on particularly ‘Swiss’ connections to ‘India’ at times appears to be a stretch, since not all actors discussed in the book were Swiss, and their trajectories spanned various other geographical regions besides India that were key in shaping their lives. At the same time, the focus on ‘Swiss’ actors inadvertently detracts from the importance of the Indian subcontinent, which appears at times to be presented merely in relation to Switzerland. Additionally, given that the book provides a broad context for India’s history – implying that it has an unfamiliar audience in mind – Interweaving Histories would have benefited from a glossary of vernacular terms. All in all, however, the use of new sources and the nature of the material show the authors’ commendable knowledge of both Indian and European languages.

1 Some examples of English-language publications: Bernhard C. Schär, Switzerland, Borneo and the Dutch Indies. Towards a New Imperial History of Europe, c. 1770–1850, in: Past & Present 257, 1 (2022), p. 134–67; Patrick Harries, Butterflies & Barbarians. Swiss Missionaries & Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa, Oxford 2007; Pierre Eichenberger, Swiss Capitalism, or the Significance of Small Things, in: Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 3, 1 (2022), p. 215–52; Linda Maria Ratschiller Nasim, Medical Missionaries and Colonial Knowledge in West Africa and Europe, 1885–1914. Purity, Health and Cleanliness, London 2023; Christof Dejung, Commodity Trading, Globalization and the Colonial World. Spinning the Web of the Global Market, New York 2018.

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