At the outset there is the issue of sources. Who wrote what about the person? There seems to be such as strong expectation by today's readers of history that a proper biography will yield the inner life or thinking process of the “biographee”. The best source for such a biography would be a self-reflective memoir or journal, which discusses fears, hopes, dreams, relations to family and friends. This sort of memoir is, however, mainly a European or “Western” phenomena. Oh it’s true that there are occasional examples of such a memoir outside of Europe. In South Asia, one thinks of Babur’s autobiography or the memoir of Mirza Nathan. In the broader Islamic world there are the reports of Ibn Fadlan or Ibn Battuta., but these sorts of memoirs are rare. There are a few in China. The memoir form seems to come to the rest of the world with colonialism in the nineteenth century.
So, one is immediately confronted with the question of what is to be gained by doing a biography in the absence of a juicy memoir that yields the pathos or aspirations of a common humanity. Such an expectation, indeed, begs an important deeper question of how much common humanity there is, that is, whether the reader's assumptions about common or shared values and culture are useful as an explanation of actions, feelings, and attitudes of the “biographee”, especially one from India or Asia. The opposite position, that people from Asia, are "other" and, therefore, are essentially unknowable, is, of course, untenable and long dismissed. A biography must tread the tenuous middle ground between contradictory reader's expectations, namely that the "biographee" will share much "common humanity" with the reader and, in contrast, because of great geographic distance or long-ago time that the "biographee" will be an absolute "other" to the reader.
Then there is the problem of literacy. In South Asia before the mid-twentieth century literacy was confined to Brahmins, the Persianate political elite that ruled the subcontinent, taxation and judicial bureaucracy, and traders. Just as a speculation, this entire group was probably less than 1% of the population. Any memoir would have come from this elite and is, therefore, in no sense representation of the lives of the vast majority of the population. Such a situation is, of course, true of the rest of the world as well, whether the memoir comes from the Renaissance Italy, Jacobean England, seventeenth century France.
Still, it is possible to construct a vivid biography without the central memoir, based on letters, writings of students and friends, judicial or official documents, or other information recorded by government. The possibilities and problems of memoirs and these sorts of sources is the subject of the next blog.