ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste and Ritual in a Rural Society

Caste and Ritual in a Malwa Village by K S Mathur; Asia Publishing House, Bombay; pp 215 Rs 26  

THE book begins with an excellent foreword by S. C. Dube who quickly surveys various aspects of caste as highlighted by anthropologists. He concludes by showing the importance of studying the force of ritual factor of the system in contemporary India, which is the subject of the book under review. The author has studied a village in Malwa in details where he focuses on the social structure and goes into the details of the role of ritual in one of the fundamental structures, namely, the caste.

The book is divided into four parts, which are again subdivided into nine chapters; a section containing detailed notes, a bibliography and, finally, the index that completes the book.

It is a pity that Mathur begins his introductory chapter with the statement "The former (i.e. Brahmoism — reviewer) is a Hindu version of Christianity" (p 2). The role of the Brahmo religion in shaping the thought of Bengal in the nineteenth century should be a subject worthy of study by anthropologists and social historians. Yet it is dismissed in a single and to me meaningless, sentence. Obviously, there is no place for a discussion of Brahmoism in this book, but that does not mean that loose references can be made about it. Again, on p 3 the author states that the regional sub-patterns of social structure are both influenced by and themselves influence the national pattern. But he does not attempt to justify this in his book later on. While generally it is accepted that local sub-patterns have a good deal to do with the Hindu Society at large, I feel that this acceptance is still in terms of a very probable hypothesis which needs to be tested many times before it can be taken as a thesis. From this point of view, one wishes that Mathur had been less emphatic in his statement. On p 7 of the same chapter the author, while discussing his criteria for selection states that he chose a village in the heart of Malwa, away from urban areas, because proximity to urban centres shifts the values from an emphasis on a ritual tradition to wealth, political power and education. Anthropologists have noted in both tribal and Hindu-Muslim villages in various parts of the middle and cast India the shifts in the values inspite of their comparative isolation and distance from urban centres. If such shifts have not taken place in Potlod. then it is unique to that extent, and perhaps it is attributable to what the author calls a "local sub-pattern". From this point of view too it was necessary to spend some time on this theme.

Economic, Not Ritual, Reasons

The second chapter is devoted to a description of Malwa region, its climate, soils and a historical account that begins, for some peculiar reason, from the period of the epic Mahabharata, and rapidly covers century after century to end on November 1st. 1956. We also get some information about the village after that. But unfortunately, considering the subject matter of the book, too little information is given about the temples, shrines and ritual positions of the castes. As a matter of fact, Table 1 highlights the obvious numerical strength of various castes and keeps silent regarding their ritual hierarchy except to point out which of the castes are "clean", which are "unclean" and, finally, which are "untouchables". There is, quite unnecessarily, a reference to Ambedkar and Ghuriye in this connection and Mathur rejects Ambedkar's theory regarding the reason why untouchable castes are made to live outside the village boundary "on the basis of intensive enquiries among the people of Potlod village" (p 188-189). The village map given on p 38 certainly shows that the untouchables' houses are situated at the edge of the village, but I am not sure whether this is synonymous with being situated outside the village boundary, as is the case with villages in south India. Unfortunately, this map is not to scale, but at a rough guess, some of the Kalis and Malis live within two hundred yards of untouchables' houses. Again, if untouchables have to stay away, what about the Muslims? In Potod their houses brush shoulders with those of Rajputs and Malis. It may be that the spatial distribution of caste and religious groups in Potlod has more to do with economic reasons than ritual. I wish the author had given us some details about drainage, the slope of the mound on which it is situated, the distance and nature of the river on its south and west which dries up in summer and so on. Then at least the readers may be able to understand the habitation pattern instead of being left to make guesses.

Chapter III tells us about kin groups and the village community. Here we get to know of such new terms as "household families", which may also be termed as "households" or "domestic families", locally known as ghar or kutumb. While discussing these households, Mathur tells us that there is one household having seventeen persons. This should make the total number of households 213 (see Table 2) instead of 212. Also, Table 2 gives the number of Muslims as 20, while in Chapter If (p 26) we had been told that there are 23 Muslims in Potlod. No doubt these are minor mistakes, but an abundance of even such minor mistakes right at the beginning leaves two options for the reader. Either he has to meticulously cross check whatever data he comes across, or he may quickly glance through the book without seriously reading it, as he cannot depend on the information he may glean if he reads it without referring to pages back and forth--an unusual and time-consuming way of trying to gain knowledge. Later on in this chapter, there are some intriguing absences of details. For example, a sonless man gets a gharjamai, i.e.. marries his daughter to a man who takes up residence with his wife's family of origin. When they have a son, he is adopted by his mother's father.  

Thus he is automatically raised in the same generation as his parents. One is left wondering how society adapts itself to this situation, for surely quite a few families in Malwa will have only daughters, and out of a number of daughters' children one is put one generation above his siblings and cousins. Again there is no mention of the Gharjamai's rights over property, either over his wife's father's or over his own father's. As a matter of fact, chapter III is full of such loose ends. Such terms as grandparents, spouses, etc., leave to the imagination of the reader the actual relationships, i.e., whether father's parents or mother's parents, whether husband or wife. Again whether a natra caste is one which allows remarriage or there is any other characteristic going with it is not mentioned. To give a third example, the difference between a second marriage and secondary marriage is not clear, and to top it all on pages 52 and 53 a paramour and a second husband seem to have been held as same. Perhaps this is due to the projection of the author's own values into the society he has chosen to study. His statements made in the Introduction (pp 10-11) seem to justify such a conclusion. It is unfortunate.

In chapter four, after several pages of a rather unnecessary general discussion about varna and jati we, at last, come to the castes in Potlod. There is a brief but interesting mention of the Rajput values which are opposed to Sanskritic values, while the Rajputs rank next to the Brahmins in the ritual hierarchy. But unfortunately, this interesting paradox is not taken up in any of the later chapters, although one expects it to loom large in a book that deals with caste and ritual.

Chapters five to nine contain a wealth of data, though the analysis is rather disappointing. As little attempt has been made to summarise the discussions and present the conclusions for the benefit of the casually interested reader, the book makes it difficult reading for anthropologists who are not specifically interested in Central India. The trouble with the book is that on the one hand there is quite an elaborate treatment of the Sanskritic model of varna and caste relations in India and on the other a good deal of material on caste practices in Potlod in terms of rituals. But there remains a big gap between the all-India model and Mathur's empirical data. No systematic attempt has been made to relate the two. Neither do we really get any insight into the inter-caste relations in terms of rituals in Potlod.

Extensive notes, the bibliography and the index are praiseworthy and the photographs are good. Perhaps it would have been well to use the word "girl" instead of "belle" in the caption under the picture facing p 96; the existing caption makes it a bit precocious.

The book will be useful to students of Indian rural society as well as to those who like to get initiated in Indian anthropology without wishing to spend time poring over old census reports and scriptures. 

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