Rural Society in Southeast India

August 22, 2022 [books] #india #ethnography #thanjavur

Book: Rural Society in Southeast India
Author: Kathleen Gough

This is a fascinating ethnographic study of two very rural, small villages in Thanjavur from early 1950s, one Brahmin dominated and the other mainly Non-Brahmin. These are Kumbapettai and Kirippur, respectively. It's effectively a snapshot of a society in rapid transition, a world that doesn't exist any more. There's horrifying feudal justice in Kumbapettai, with the parties preferring to not involve the police and the law. Kathleen Gough - a Marxist - chalks most of it down to class conflict. It's always the landed folks administering what passes as justice on the landless. When conflicts happen between the Brahmins and other landed castes, the Brahmins find themselves unable to enforce any sort of "justice". The police is bribed in all cases. It's interesting to note that there were more caste conflicts and aggression in Kirippur, because it was not a "traditional" village with a clearly defined caste hierarchy (half the families migrated to the village in the preceding century). This means that there was constant competition and bickering among the largest groups - the Padaiyacchis, Naidus, and Sengunda Mudaliars - for authority and status. Women in both the villages get a raw deal. Kumbapettai is mainly illiterate, but with a number of houses empty and the owners having transitioned to urban life in the city. Kirippur has a much higher literacy rate among both men and women.

The jatis, low or high, are not agency-less automatons carrying out their prescribed role. They are also not necessarily heroic transgressors of injustice they are subjected to. Fortunes change with arrival of modernity. The agents of change are both education and travel (migration correlates to less rigidity in some practices), and electoral politics - the Communists, DK and Congress. The landlords, unsurprisingly, prefer the Congress. As an aside, Kathleen Gough uses the quaint term "Harijans" to refer to the groups that now call themselves Dalits. Given the care with which she writes about various castes, I doubt that she would have used that term if she regarded it as patronizing. This makes me wonder, did these groups call themselves Harijans at the time of writing?

Kathleen Gough is unafraid of presenting her political opinions, and is a committed and concerned social scientist. As she says in the beginning of the book:

"Both there and in Kerala, I came to feel that the ruling Congress party would not make the radical, let alone revolutionary changes that were needed to improve the lot of common people, and that the Communist Party had policies that were more likely to bring these changes about . . . especially after living in Kirippur, I felt that the Communists were essentially correct in their analysis of agrarian problems and that they are the only party that truly sought the welfare of the most downtrodden.”

While I do not find myself persuaded by her analysis of an entire millennium of Thanjavur history through Marxist modes of production, this is an excellent ethnographic survey, with an overview of various castes involved in agriculture in two very different environments, and some insights on the influence of the environment on prevailing social structures.

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