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People

Mosaic of communities

RAJA SEKHAR VUNDRU

British ethnographer Edgar Thurston's efforts are of relevance for the centenary of his work Castes and Tribes of Southern India.



Rare Variety : Inimitable. A Kapu marriage

I n the closing days of 2009, the Jawaharlal Nehru University concluded a two-day National Seminar which celebrated the centenary of the publication of Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909-2009). Edgar Thurston, the author of the seven volume work on the castes and tribes of Southern India, was a British museologist and ethnographer. He worked on Southern India while posted as Superintendent of the Madras Government Museum and was assisted by K. Rangachari of the Museum to produce the classic. The British colonial project of codification of various castes and tribes of India provided an extraordinary input to the understanding of the diversity in Indian society. Edgar Thurston appointed to the Museum in 1885 and on the ‘People of India' project in 1901, carried out surveys in southern India where he recorded the manners, customs, physical characteristics, including photographs of more than 300 castes and tribes representing 40 million people spread over an area of 150,000 square miles. But before the seven volumes, he had published Ethnographic notes on Southern India in 1906 on these castes and tribes with 40 photographs, most of them taken by K. Rangachari.

Nature magazine, reviewing the Castes and Tribes in Southern India in its September 1910 issue called the work “a monumental record of the varied phases of south Indian tribal life, the traditions, manners and customs of people. Though in some respects it may be corrected or supplemented by future research it will long retain its value as an example of out-door investigation, and will remain a veritable mine of information, which will be of value.” A re-visit of this classic that encased the life styles of every caste in South India, a hundred years later, shows how different the manners of various castes were then, and even now, what has been retained and what discarded in the shifting sands of change and technology.

Holistic approach



A Razu bridegroom.

The People of India project, which primarily aimed at understanding castes and tribes, which are so varied and confusing for the British, was initiated by the British after the resounding acclaim received for the ICS officer, Sir Herbert Risley's Castes and Tribes of Bengal published in 1891.While Risley rose to be the President of the British Royal Anthropological Institute, the British government in 1901 went for a holistic project to cover the entire country. As a result all of India's castes and tribes were mapped ethnographically and published in works. The list includes L.K.Anantha Krishna Iyer's Cochin Castes and Tribes in 1909, with H.V. Nanjunadayya's Mysore Castes and Tribesin 1931 ; Robert Russel and Hiralal's Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces in 1916; Horace Rose's Tribes and Castes of Punjab and N.W.Frontier Provinces in 1919 and R.E. Ethovan's Tribes and Castes of Bombay in 1922. So smitten were the likes of Nizam of Hyderabad by ethnography that, Syed Siraj Ul Hassan brought out The Castes and Tribes of H.E.H. The Nezam'sin 1922.Laura Jenkins, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati in 2003 compared the colonial project with the one started by independent India under the same title. Again it was an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) bureaucrat-anthropologist K.S.Singh(1934-2006) who spearheaded the mega-project, this time a study of4,693 castes in all of the states and union territories in India. In all 24,951 people were interviewed where most fieldwork was done between 1985 and 1994 and a total of 43 volumes were expected to be released. Most of the entries referred to in these volumes are Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes keeping in view the demand for the addition, deletion and classification of these castes and the renewed interest among Dalit scholars on caste ethnography.

The studies by Thurston showed continuity of Dalit castes across states like “Holeyas are the field labourers, and former agrestic serfs of South Canara, Pulayan being the Malayalam and Paraiyan the Tamil form of the same word”, giving a sense of unity among Dalits with the Malas of Andhra and the Mahars of Maharashtra.

Rare gems



A lingayat.

The 120 year old photographs available today in the seven volume series of Thurston are rare gems of wisdom about each caste and tribe and their life, dress (like the custom of leaving the upper torso bare among Kerala women), marriage, customs, and dances, something not captured even by the cinema of the early 1900s. Such works on castes and tribes and Census reports are often criticised, on the basis that they gave momentum to caste based assertions during the British period. It is also increasingly acknowledged that caste emerged as a major political force due to the colonial policies and the elite of India. One school of thought asserts that the concept and notion of caste were an imagined category and the invention of colonial academic discourse, and that it has been over-emphasized to underplay the dynamic extant cultural, economic and political change that was then taking place. But many scholars agree on the centrality of caste and varna in Indian society as the fundamental cultural value of Hindu society. And that caste is the one factor that configures social dynamics with hierarchy, conflict and competition. Caste since the British colonial period till today in the post-Mandal context has become a major political construct which works on identity and assertion. The works like that of Thurston were a mere reflection of the anthropological existence in India of so many caste differentiated ways with their varying customs and manners in every aspect of life.

Then, how could the likes of Edgar Thurston or Risley be responsible for the millions of divisions in India? It is proved beyond doubt that castes operate in every realm of India's economic, educational, social and cultural life. Risley wrote that the “peculiar” institution of caste would most likely prove to be a challenge for the development of Indian nationality: “So long as a regime of caste persists, it is difficult to see how the sentiment of unity and solidarity can penetrate and inspire all classes of the community”.

An anthropologist's words seem to come true the way India still grapples with deeply rooted prejudices of caste in the age of technology and modernity.

(The author is an IAS officer. The opinions expressed are personal.)

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