chapter  5
28 Pages


Gender and class of samaj: mamla-mukadma In the summer of 1992, Tejnibai, a Jhariya Kumhar woman from the Potter basti on the outskirts of Durg, was declared “missing” (lapata) from her home by her husband. For the next few days, Tejnibai became the object of an extended “search” conducted by her husband and other male members of his family, aided by a few other helpful kumhar from that neighborhood. Such searches for “missing” wives are not uncommon among Kumhar in this region. The following is my brief reconstruction of the events of Tejnibai’s story, based on two letters archived in the CKS office and conversations with Kumhar who were willing to talk about this case or what is referred to as mamla-mukadma (literally issue-case, almost always dealing with debates around conflicts in marriage, divorce, patrimony and childcare). The letters were from Tejnibai’s husband Akashram and her father Dasauram, respectively, and were addressed to the CKS officers. From Akashram’s letter one gets a brief overview of the sequence of events that make this case. Akashram’s marriage to Tejnibai took place at her father’s village, and one year later he went to her village and brought Tejnibai to his home. Soon after this (in keeping with regional and caste custom), Tejnibai’s father Dasauram came to take his daughter to her natal home to celebrate the festival of Holi – the Hindu spring festival of colors. After 15 days (again, in keeping with custom), Akashram went to bring his wife back to his home. At

that time, Tejnibai insisted on being accompanied by her father and her brother. However, upon arrival at Akashram’s home, Tejnibai asked Akashram for a divorce (talak) in the presence of Dasauram. When Akashram refused to accede to her request, Dasauram threatened to take his daughter back to his home. At this point Akashram challenged him to do so without facing “due consequences” – referring here to the community rules (niyamavali) that penalize families who were viewed as being instrumental in breaking up a marriage. Nevertheless, Dasauram took away his daughter, only for her to be “returned” to Akashram’s home the next day escorted by Dasauram’s younger brother Rajaram, who left soon after. The next day Tejnibai was seen by her neighbors and other kumhar as she set out to sell her basket of pots that Akashram had made. She was accompanied by her mother-in-law and her husband’s brother’s wife, who also carried pots made by Akashram’s father and brother respectively. A few hours later someone from the neighborhood reported finding Tejnibai’s basket with the unsold pots that she had apparently taken that morning lying on the side of a road. There was no sign of Tejnibai. Subsequently, Akashram and the male members of his family searched for Tejnibai in their neighborhood, and finally in her father’s village, but with no success. After some days of searching, Akashram wrote the letter to the officers of the community association and also appealed in that letter to the elders of the community, imploring them to help him find his wife. He ended his letter by saying how his life had been going along well but that his wife’s leaving him had sent him into a depression. He added that despite all this and the fact that he had spent a lot of money on marrying her, he was willing to take Tejnibai back into his home if she wished to return. After about eight months, during which time there was no news of Tejnibai’s whereabouts, nor any action taken by the CKS, Tejnibai’s father, Dasauram, wrote a letter to the officers of the association. He repeated the same chronology of events that Akashram had noted, without mentioning the detail of Tejnibai asking for a divorce. Instead, he focused on an exchange of letters that had taken place during the interceding eight months between Akashram and Rajaram, the younger brother of Dasauram who had escorted Tejnibai back to her husband’s home. According to Dasauram, this exchange was initiated by Rajaram, who had suggested that Akashram should seek help beyond the CKS, which in his opinion had done nothing to find Tejnibai, and take the matter of the “missing” Tejnibai to the legal courts. In his reply Akashram repeatedly asked Rajaram not to take the matter to the legal courts since he was of the opinion that the officers of the CKS and the community elders would help arrive at a “decision.” To Dasauram, such behavior raised the question of whether Tejnibai was indeed “missing” or was “made missing,” thus implicating Akashram’s family (including his sisterin-law and mother), with whom Tejnibai was last seen. Dasauram’s letter to the community association ended with a plea to the officers and elders, this time to start legal proceedings on behalf of him and his family, as they were very concerned about Tejnibai’s safety. In the course of my fieldwork and subsequent visits, I learnt that after waiting for another year, Akashram married another

woman, giving Tejnibai up for dead. The CKS officers and community elders authorized the remarriage of Akashram. Michel-Ralph Trouillot has noted that historicity is being-in-the-world as well as a telling of that world, and that life itself has some storylike features.1 The narrativized presence of Tejnibai was, however, not Tejnibai’s narrative. Tejnibai became known to me, as she was for the bulk of Kumhar, only through the words (spoken and written) of the men in (and around) her life. Building upon a re-formulation of narratives as “stories that tell people” instead of “people who tell stories” (Mines 2005; Liechty 2003), we could say that stories tell people, sometimes despite silencing them. In other words, silence can also signal many things, not the least among these being the character of subalternity (Spivak 1988; John 1996). The “running away” of wives is not uncommon among Chhattisgarhi communities (Parry 2001) and in this matter the lives of Kumhar women are not much different from those of women of other comparable castes. Yet following what Italian microhistorians call “exceptional-normal,” Tejnibai’s event could be treated as “a local event that interrupted the everyday only for a brief moment, but had been unusual enough to leave some traces” (cited in Sarkar 2002). As an entry point into the lives of a particular group of potter-artisans in India, Tejnibai’s narrative raises many questions: Why did she leave her husband? Why do Kumhar parents often become instrumental in the breakup of their daughters’ marriages? What does the narrative tell us about the community – its conditions of existence, production and reproduction as a community of artisans and a caste group? What are the community rules that Akashram uses as a threat to prevent Dasuram from taking back his daughter? How do community boundaries shift according to the needs of those who control its discourse? What does all this say about gender and class relations vis-à-vis caste as community? Throughout my fieldwork, whenever I had the opportunity to talk to a kumhar woman, she was doing some kind of work, inside or outside her home. Usually this happened when kumhar women set off to sell their wares with the basket of pots on their heads, initially as a group of two or three women, but quickly separating out individually. Occasionally, it was also when they went in a group, usually more than four or five women, to gather firewood from nearby forests. At other times, it was when they were kneading and mixing the clay (along with the men and children), or painting the pots or smaller items such as lamps before they were fired. I had a chance to speak with a few kumhar women in their homes when they were cooking. In contrast, although I also spoke to many kumhar men while they were at work at their wheels, they would often stop the wheel and have a seat with me to talk at some length. And then there were always the basti baitaks, or the panchs, and the mahasabha, where the mostly male kumhar engaged in conversation with me. Interestingly, for most ordinary kumhar, Tejnibai’s story was not extraordinary and the above narrative quickly became a localized tale (circulating among some bastis in Durg) of mamlamukadma, the regular content of many Kumhar council meetings usually dominated by the issue of “badly behaved wives” and “justice-seeking” husbands. For our purposes, I argue that Tejnibai’s basket stands out as a

preeminent sign of a potter woman’s speech, a speech that signals multiple movements shaping these women’s lives as artisans, as women of a particular caste, and simultaneously as politically conscious and agentive women. How is this so? There are at least two major moments that operate in constituting Tejnibai within the above narrative – a moment of suffering and a moment of domestication. Both moments can be read as a class-gender process and both are constitutive of, or overdetermine, caste.2 The first moment of suffering relates to the possibility that the act of Tejnibai laying down her heavy basket (a loaded kumhar basket can weigh anywhere from 8-12 kilos) may be read as a distress signal, a burden, of all potter-artisans whose current precarious condition in India is only overshadowed by anxieties of the bleak future and at times a longing for an imagined and irretrievable past. Such an act is emblematic of the increasingly marginalized and quaintly pathetic status of many artisans in a world dominated by a form of capitalism that does not fully destroy noncapitalist relations such as subsistence-level petty commodity production, and yet does not allow such relations to exist in any sustainable manner for those caught in its sweep. Artisans therefore appear disarticulated in today’s world; neither articulated with a village-based local economy that used to recognize “traditional” relations and rights of exchange and production, nor successfully articulated with the contractual relations and products demanded by capital. Transformative forces such as shrinking markets for clay items in the face of the onslaught of plastics and aluminum, technological obsolescence and the decline of the household as a competitive site of production vis-à-vis the modern smallscale firm, manifest themselves in the figure of the kumhar woman who walks increasingly longer distances in search of markets and buyers for her clay items. The second moment in the narration of Tejnibai is the attempted domestication of Kumhar women, which occurs in the discursive transformation of Kumhar women from being producers (along with their men) of means of subsistence and the units of production for petty commodity producers (that is, the household) into being viewed as instruments and sites of reproduction and domesticity alone. The playing out of marital tensions in the public domain reveals tensions between community officers, caste elders and ordinary potters – all men who seek (many times in vain, as in this case) to monitor and control a Kumhar woman’s actions as they relate to marriage and sexuality (for example, the choice of partners). What we observe, then, is a political process largely controlled by men (ordinary practicing kumhar, male elders and the male CKS leadership)3 of classification and gendering of community precisely by controlling and transforming the meanings of women (and men) and their relations in the community. Tejnibai’s basket thus also signals the existing terrains of power, capital, patriarchy and notions of caste boundaries that shape the rise of a sociopolitical collective, the samaj or caste-community which carries the marks of material and symbolic tensions as it is crafted into being. In this process, Tejnibai’s basket may also be read to signal the emerging, albeit ambiguous, movement of potter-artisans from being subjects of a local and regional cultural

economy to subaltern citizens of a regional, national and global cultural economy. Potter-artisans make their histories by reshaping relations with the Indian state, negotiating a space and place in the Indian nation and postcolonial civil society, and evolving new forms of representation and political practices within their own groups. Let us explore Tejnibai’s narrative further in the light of the above two moments. For all artisans, exchange (or marketing) is the complementary side to production. Unlike proletarian wage laborers, whose subjectivities as workers are primarily fashioned in the realm of production (a site of the exchange of their labor power) but who are alienated from the realm of exchange of their products, petty commodity producing artisans such as kumhar not only do not sell their labor power as a primary source of income, but sustain themselves primarily through producing and exchanging their own products. The basket, in other words, represents the need for exchange as much as the potter’s wheel represents the need for production in the lives of petty commodity producers. For potterartisans, these two spheres also appear separated temporally (the exchange of the pots as commodity takes place after production, whereas the factory is the site where both production and exchange of labor power take place simultaneously through the instrument of the wage), spatially (production takes place just outside the household, whereas exchange takes place in dispersed sites or markets, sometimes many kilometers away from home), and through gendering the labor process – the customary rule among kumhar for men to the wheel and women to the market. Now, Tejnibai had not thrown the basket away, nor had she taken the basket with her. She had chosen to place it in a spot where it would be found – right on the road where all the kumhar women from her basti passed while marketing. It is possible then that Tejnibai may have wanted the basket to be found by the other kumhar. The additional fact that she left not the empty basket but one with pottery items intact and unsold signifies, among other things, her integrity at not selling the products (which combined her husband’s and her own labor, not least since kumhar women perform many of the labor activities in terms of the preparation of the clay and the firing of the pots) and keeping the money. It could also signify her break or rupture with her basket as “burden,” the most labor intensive of a potter women’s work being the task of marketing. For, urban potter women like Tejnibai living near towns or cities sell door-to-door and tend not to come back with any unsold product in their baskets, even though this leads to the underselling of their products (towards the end of their rounds). The rationale given by the women is that they do not wish to carry the load both ways (going and returning). But they are also quick to point out the discrimination they suffer at the hands of dominating individuals and groups, including the state, which prevents them from getting secured spaces at urban local markets. In this regard, Dularuram’s wife, Dhileshwaribai, related the story of how kumhar women had tried many times to secure a space in the local marketplace in the town of Durg, jostling with vegetable and fish sellers, but to no avail. Since kumhar have fragile products and were afraid that they would break if fights ensued, she

sighed, saying, “Kumhar don’t have the strength [to fight battles such as these].” Occasionally, one does come across a handful of kumhar who pay for a market space. Towards the end of my fieldwork, it was revealed to me by some ordinary kumhar that soon after Akashram’s marriage, and almost three years since Tejnibai was reported missing, she was known to have settled with a Kumhar from a different phirka in her mother’s brother’s village. She had been “given bangles to wear” (a customary way of signifying the second alliance of a woman in Chhattisgarh; see Parry 2001) by a kumhar whose phirka had been “inducted” into the Jhariya Kumhar samaj only very recently by the leaders of the CKS, by inventing a new practice of expanding the community’s membership to other Kumhar castes in the region through payment of a sum of money. Interestingly this practice does not figure in the niyamavali and has given ordinary and elder kumhar the opportunity to criticize this practice by openly calling into question the financial integrity of the CKS leaders and those young Kumhar who support them. As it turned out, the man Tejnibai married was a practicing kumhar. The three long years in hiding came to an end and she had taken up her basket again. Does Tejnibai’s return to her basket signify the invalidity of reading the basket as a potter woman’s burden? Even if we were to take the above at face value – that Tejnibai had indeed returned, since I was somehow not able to physically locate Tejnibai (and this seems like a discursive closure to the case desired by the CKS) – it is useful to consider the following fact. Whenever I asked kumhar about the difficulties that they face in their work, I heard back two kinds of responses. Whereas all the men I spoke with worried about the increasing difficulties of procuring clay and firewood, they refer to this in broad terms as a problem of encroaching markets, the lack of state support for traditional artisans and the rapacity of some individuals who usurp land traditionally meant for kumhar to procure clay. They also simultaneously refer very positively to their daily life routines in terms of the distinctions between working for oneself (kumhari dhandha) and working for another (naukri), not unlike the work versus labor distinctions observed elsewhere (Comaroff and Comaroff 1987). Thus, Tijauram Kumhar, who worked the wheel, mocked another Kumhar in his basti who had a job with the Bhilai Steel Plant, pointing to him one afternoon and saying: “Look at him. He has to go for his night shift to work, where he will be followed around by his boss and told when to sit, stand and pee. But what can he do. He does not know how to do the wheel. I can sit and sing songs to you both [referring to my research assistant and me].”4 Tijauram’s valorization of potting work is not shared by the youth (his own son works at a local construction site as an itinerant laborer). It is also not shared by many women kumhar, who readily speak about the special difficulties they encounter when collecting firewood and selling pots, both of which bring them into contact with the state (police, forest department officials) and other potentially unsavory characters from the large unemployed and underemployed population that simply hang around street corners. Although working the wheel is a very difficult task and many kumhar

men suffer from breathing problems and regular knee problems, kumhar women feel the burden in some senses even more acutely, having little or no leisure time (relative to the men), and with their intimate knowledge of declining sales as evidenced by the longer hours and distances they need to cover in order to empty their baskets. Following Dorothy Smith, we can view community formation among Potters in Chhattisgarh as a problematic; that is, a context from where questions originate, but also a context that is “organized by social relations not fully apparent in it nor contained in it” (Smith 1987: 92). It is in the formation of their community that artisans make their histories, as subaltern figures, most clearly. One of the subtexts of this story is the fact that many kumhar men feel the customary pressures from other kumhar in the community to get their daughters married off before their first menstruation. Despite the injunctions against child marriage by the CKS leaders, such a practice continues among kumhar. Dasauram, Tejnibai’s father, could have very well been a victim of such pressures. It is not easy to get Kumhar to speak about such “illegal” and also “traditional” practices due to the moral ascendancy of modernity and the dominance of the developmentalist state over the lives of artisans. Therefore only subtle references are made to such episodes by other Kumhar. Once the child marriage is conducted (and the elders themselves are instrumental in pressurizing ordinary potters), the going away of the daughter (even after a year or so) who is still only about fourteen years is traumatic for both the girl and her parents. The further fact of the girl being treated as a woman in her husband’s home and being expected to do the laborious tasks that adult potter women perform, results in the complaints of the girl to her parents of “too much work.” It is at such times that fathers like Dasauram come back to protect their child and actively seek the breakup of the marriage they themselves conducted. The “modern” leaders of the caste association are aware of this and hence they link the practice of bihat (discussed in Chapter 3) to child marriage by saying that child marriage is the “mother” of bihat, since husbands such as Akashram demand their bihat when their wives go “missing.” Tejnibai’s basket becomes her own “burden” only when her own family views her as an adult and that happens typically when she “marries” for the second time. In the meantime, Kumhar men, including ordinary practicing kumhar such as Dasauram and Akashram, and the male elders and the all-male CKS leadership, come together on this issue of the gender and sexuality of Kumhar women and shape the field of discourse that constitutes women such as Tejnibai as belonging to the class of Kumhar women, precisely by constructing her as having “run away” from her husband or “has been made missing” (by her family). I note here that the CKS leadership, committed as they are to expanding the notion of caste to include all kinds of Kumhar within samaj, did not really have any problems with Tejnibai’s decision to marry another non-Jhariya Kumhar. Their focus here was on the issue of bihat and how that “backward” custom had to be reformed, a project that necessarily involved controlling samaj through shaping gender. Consider another example in which even when the CKS

leadership makes a powerful argument against the provincial jati-based thinking of elders and ordinary kumhar – a potentially “liberating” moment for many kumhar men and women – the progressive character of CKS leadership itself seeks to reinscribe women in very traditional roles and the continuing fact of the Kumhar woman bearing the burden of proof of “belonging” to the community, a role that interestingly also reveals the class differences within Kumhar samaj. A moment of minor crises among Kumhar arose back in 1987, when Suraj Prasad Kumbhkar, prime minister of the CKS, resigned from his position due to the differences on the issue of who are all Kumhar. His resignation acquired an added element of drama since he insisted on explaining his reasons in the form of two letters written to the samaj at large and read out by the other CKS leaders at the local meetings and annual convention. The context to this drama was the marriage between a young Jhariya Kumhar girl from Marri village in Raipur district and a boy from a non-Jhariya Kumhar caste belonging to a neighboring regional caste collective, called Champa-Raj, conducted in the summer of 1982.5 News about this marriage prompted the local elders to lodge a complaint with the CKS, calling for punishment through fines and the temporary ostracism of all “errant” Jhariya Kumhar families who had participated in the marriage ceremonies, including the bride’s family. The mamla-mukadma pitted the CKS leaders and the local elders directly against each other. While the former wished to exploit the opportunity to extend the parochial caste boundaries by welcoming the non-Jhariya Champa Kumhar into the fold of their Kumhar samaj, the latter stuck to their views of samaj as comprised only of the Jhariya jati and were not inclined to view such transgressions lightly. This impasse continued for two years, during which time the married couple had a child. It was then that the elders won a small victory at a community meeting and were able to decide, apparently against the will of the CKS leaders, to ostracize the errant families, annul that particular marriage alliance, and not accept the child from that alliance as a member of the Jhariya caste. This decision prompted the resignation of Suraj Prasad Kumbhkar and the writing of the public letter of resignation whose main excerpts – two enumerated points – I reproduce below:

1 Champa Kumhar are also a branch of the Jhariya Kumhar samaj, although we have not previously had links with them. [In the past] our Jhariya samaj has also made marriage alliances with other non-Jhariya Kumhar groups such as the Linga-raj, Chargad-raj, Kharaud-raj, Ratanpur-raj, and other Kumhar communities who are at our borders.6 Given this, the alliance in question is eligible to be viewed as a similar situation and does not call for excommunication from the Jhariya community.