National Highway 6 runs in an east-west direction and passes through the commercial-industrial twin towns of Durg and Bhilai in the central plains of Chhattisgarh.3 Artisanal settlements or bastis dot the landscape of the commercial town of Durg and its outskirts. There are tamrakar (coppersmiths); lohar (blacksmiths); shoemakers; a large number of koshta (weavers), who are the only ones in this area to have formed cooperatives; basod (bamboo basket makers); stoneworkers who make seals, many of which adorn Indian highways as distance markers; and finally kumhar (potters) who make utility and ritual goods for the rural as well as urban population. The last two groups of artisans frequently live on the outskirts of any town, edged out by other residents but also due to the need for larger open spaces, for breaking stones and firing pots respectively. All the artisanal groups are also caste groups, being “traditional” artisans practicing their hereditary or ancestral family occupations (khandani pesha). Walking northeast from the town center of Durg, one passes through a crowded neighborhood dominated by the presence of a temple dedicated to the goddess Chandi. Beyond this point, one comes across many small ponds and creeks used by humans and animals alike to clean and wash. Shanties decorate the landscape from here on. About four kilometers northwest of the center of the town, almost on its outskirts, the ponds and the shanties form a corridor to a neighborhood called Nayapara (literally, “new side of town”). A neighborhood clearly poorer than those around it, Nayapara is home to 65 households of kumhar.4 Walking through the basti I saw a sign in Hindi painted on a wall:
“Give cleanliness, take tax. Give water, take rent. Remove exploitation.”5 Vindicating the presence of the sign were open and overflowing drains right outside doorways to homes. Narrow alleyways separated the homes. Most homes have mud walls and thatched roofs (straw on bamboo or wooden beams with clay roof tiles), with only two or three brick homes in this basti. The low doorways, usually open during daytime, allow passersby glimpses of kumhar men on their haunches at the wheel, rapt in attention to the rhythm of a turning pot or other clay item. Some of the homes have a small backyard where such work is done. Kumhar women can be seen carrying firewood, dried grass and twigs in bundles on their heads to be used for firing pots, or carrying baskets filled with pottery goods on their daily rounds of door-to-door selling or to the firing kiln (bhatta). A betel-seller shop, strategically situated next to a tea shop at the entrance of the street to the basti, was a regular place for onlookers curiously eyeing outsiders. Children play, loiter, lounge, gaze, cry and run, making the already narrow lane seem congested or cozy, depending on one’s mood. Often children too play their part in the labor process, transporting small bundles of firewood or dried grass for the firing kiln, or painting small clay lamps before firing. On my first reconnaissance visit to this kumhar basti in 1994, Ajay and I (and a senior anthropologist from the UK who was conducting a study on industrialization in this region) met with a few kumhar men and introduced ourselves as researchers interested in the lives of kumhar. I was introduced specifically as originally from Mumbai and a student abroad. We must surely have been a strange sight in the basti, but not as strange as I imagined. As we were being shown around by a couple of kumhar men, a kumhar woman who was passing by with a large bucket of water on her hips hailed us and said, “What we need here is piped water. Can you deliver that to us?” Before I could answer her, Dularuram Kumhar who was clearly some kind of a local leader and one of the men showing us around, curtly replied to her that I was not a government official but, rather, a researcher who wanted to study the lives of potters. The woman’s scornful reply even as she walked away – “What research is needed to bring water to us?”6 – has stayed in my mind ever since. Long ago, Clifford Geertz urged fellow anthropologists to look at their work as having a locus in a village rather than a focus on a village. Over time, the village has ceased to be either the focus or locus of anthropological study, partially as a response to the challenges of an industrializing and globalizing world in which village boundaries and their socio-spatial existence as distinct entities recede or are reconstructed to include the regional, national and transnational (Nash 1981; Kearney 1996; Breman et al. 1997; Burawoy et al. 2000) and in acknowledgment of the “hybridity” of human subjects (Lewellen 2002). This shift is also due to a rethinking of the epistemological status of fieldwork and the role of “space” and “culture” in constructing anthropological subjects and knowledge (Marcus and Cushman 1982; Gupta and Ferguson 1997). It is now axiomatic in anthropology that the method and experience of “fieldwork” constitutes the anthropologist’s presence even as he or she constructs the anthropological subject. This in turn reveals the social relations, imbued with power, that are
collectively known as the “field,” within which the anthropological subject struggles to gain coevality with the anthropologist in historical time (Fabian 1983), and they both create knowledge of an ever changing reality within which histories are made or blocked in ways that strive to do more than reflect their power relations. The kumhar woman’s urge for focus on the lack of water located our relative subject positions far more clearly than any self-explanation that I could give for my presence in the kumhar basti. Subaltern speech has a way of revealing power differences to always already be morally constituted and with practical possibilities. For I could not, innocent of power, come there to “study them” or even “live amongst” them when they remained convinced that such a basic need for living as piped water could only come from an “outsider” (like me) who looked like a person with some power (such as a government official) in their eyes. The anthropologist’s “field” and fieldwork cannot be viewed outside of this question of power, morality and utility. In one sense at least, my fieldwork and research have been doomed to “failure” from the start since they could never bring piped water to the kumhar basti. I went back to Nayapara the next year, this time as part of my fieldwork in August 2005. Sometime over the first month of our conversations, Dularuram recalled the words of the woman and laughed when I reminded him that he had dismissed her remarks as those of a “mad woman who does not know how to talk [to strangers].” He admitted this time, however, that kumhar in the basti did feel neglected by the state, pointing to the decrepit state of sanitation, growing difficulties in procuring clay and firewood, and the incursion of plastics that had led to a such a decline in pottery sales that many kumhar themselves used plastic containers in their homes. Dularuram’s admission contained a subtext, a more subtle critique that his own community (samaj) had also “failed to do much for kumhar.” I would explore his critique in the months to come. Kumhar in this region produce two broad classes of pottery goods: utilitarian goods, such as pots and pans, roof tiles; and ritual goods, linked to the local agricultural and Hindu festival cycle (Table 2.1). The entire household, including children, participates in the labor process, and each household works as an independent productive unit. Both adult women and men cooperatively dig and transport clay from river banks (commons land set aside by the local village council) to their homes, prepare clay with additives such as fire-ash, and fire them in the kilns. Men customarily work the wheel and use a small paddle to shape the pottery before firing. Men, women and children then paint them with a simple red paint before firing. The major means of production – the potter’s wheel (chak) and the firing kiln (bhatta) – are almost always owned by each individual household. The only exceptions that I came across were a few (usually relatively poorer) households in urban kumhar bastis such as Nayapara, Durg, who shared bhattas and even fire the goods simultaneously.7 Women customarily are in charge of gathering firewood (usually dried twigs or fallen branches) and other fuel (organic waste such as cow dung, squeezed sugarcane) and marketing the finished products which they carry in baskets on their heads. They go from
door to door to sell since they are unable to get a legally assigned space in the regular marketplace. It was in this context that Dularuram’s wife, Dhileshwaribai made the comment that appears as the first epigram to this chapter. All through our conversation Dularuram was putting finishing touches of paint to a four-foot statue of the elephant god Ganesh, which was placed just outside his home in the alley. Many onlookers (mostly children but some adults too) had gathered around him now and he seemed very comfortable with the attention. I noticed many other kumhar in the basti were engaged in making large and small Ganesh images. As we were chatting, a group of men came to Dularuram’s home and took the statue amidst singing of praises to Ganesh. Many kumhar such as Dularuram have regular patron-client relationships with particular homes or an entire neighborhood (such as the group who took away his statue) to supply them with ritual goods and statues/figurines of Hindu deities every year. Sometimes patron-client relations are preserved across generations. A few days later, I went to visit another potter on one of my regular visits. Baliram Kumhar lived in Sirsagaon, a large village about 12 kilometers northeast of Durg city. Spread over far more land than the urban kumhar basti in Nayapara, Sirsagaon’s kumhar basti was easily recognizable by the presence of rows of pots that are usually left to dry alongside the external walls of kumhar homes. Baliram had invited me to come to his home that day and hence quickly came to greet me. He was hosting another guest, a marginal farmer (owning 1.8 acres of land)
from a nearby village. Baliram introduced me to the farmer, saying that their families had known each other for generations. At that time Baliram’s wife, her eldest daughter-in-law and their youngest son brought in a number of pottery goods (pots, small lamps, toy plows and bullock carts) and presented them to the farmer. When he left I learnt from Baliram that a bag of rice had been left behind for his family, which would last for six months. This was the “bullock festival” of Pola when peasants and non-farm workers such as artisans celebrate their interdependence through the exchange of utilitarian and ritual goods, such as lamps and children’s toys. On another occasion during the harvest festival of Akti Tij (in April) Baliram was admitted to the hospital due to dehydration. When we asked Ramdas, his eldest son, about how preparations for Akti were coming along, he mentioned that many of Baliram’s “contracts” for a particular kind of lamp were pending. Since Ramdas himself did not make that kind of lamp, he had asked his neighbor to make 15 extra ones, which he would sell to one of their regular customers, the Sitala Temple Committee in a village near Durg. Festivals such as Akti keep alive a fast-disappearing context, in which potter-artisans and peasants have customary socioeconomic relationships. During this festival, kumhar transport red and black clay pots to peasants, who fill them with grain and water and symbolically throw five fistfuls of rice and perform water rituals to the gods in their fields. The popular belief is that on this day the land “menstruates” and so some land is symbolically plowed and seeds sown. In return kumhar get grain from the peasants. Over many generations, this relationship has acquired a customary character. Thus, Baliram has peasant-clients in about twelve villages with whom he engages in customary exchange during Akti. Most kumhar in his basti get such “contracts.” Peasants, on their part, tend to buy their pots only from their customary kumhar, saying: “When our pade [a Chhattisgarhi term for kumhar] is alive, why should we take from another? If he does not have [what we need] then he will procure for us from elsewhere.” According to Baliram he gets about 15 quintals of grain (1500 kilograms), and five quintals of pulses and wheat (500 kilograms each) per festival per year. He feels such exchange is better, since “money can be frittered away.” Speaking about the problems of not getting what is meant for them on the market, another kumhar, Tijauram, echoes Baliram’s understanding of the value of receiving grain instead of cash in exchange when he says: “In the government grocery stores (ration dukan) where subsidized groceries are made available to people below the poverty line, there is mixing or adulteration with bad quality products. We are never able to get the right quality things.” Kumhar also transact in this manner for oil with telis (members of the oilseed-crushing castes) and for forest products from adivasis (“tribal” or indigenous groups). Kumhar are embedded within a variety of productive inequalities8 that go far beyond their “traditional” occupation of pottery making. While most of them are independent petty commodity producers for the market – owning the means of production (wheel and firing kiln), buying raw materials (clay and firewood), selling on the market for cash to buy goods for family subsistence – as seen
above, most kumhar also barter with “customary” clients (peasants, “tribals”) for grain, produce, oil and forest products. Throughout the year, except for the rainy season or monsoons, kumhar also participate in a “putting-out” system wherein a kumhar is supplied raw materials for making roof tiles (clay, additives, and firewood), as well as grain and fuel for cooking, by a client in the countryside, and is paid cash upon delivery. Through the census of three bastis, it became clear that wage work is not alien to kumhar. Most kumhar bastis, especially those in small towns, also have a few potter households who have one or two male members not involved in pottery. While some kumhar work in small teashops, cigarette stalls, or small grocery shops, others work as unskilled labor in the informal sector industries such as construction. Almost all adult kumhar (men and women) do seasonal agricultural labor to supplement their incomes, although very few kumhar in the entire region have enough land to engage in subsistence agriculture on their own. There are a few exceptional kumhar who have been schoolteachers and legal advocates or lawyers. Out of the 178 households in three bastis that Ajay and I surveyed, only 38 owned any agricultural land whatsoever, with the average being around 0.5 acres. Almost all did supplementary seasonal work in agriculture to sustain themselves during lean periods, especially in the rainy months when firing pots is very difficult. Most kumhar have no more than eight years of formal education (women having far fewer years of schooling than men), with only few completing high school (twelfth grade) and only a handful with a BA degree. Some kumhar do own petty businesses (grocery store, tea or betel shop, small roadside restaurant, cloth store, tailoring shop) that often operate with family labor. These shops are typically within or near their own bastis. On the other hand, I came across a group of Kumhar who are owners of brick kilns run entirely on wage labor. Not surprisingly, whereas the former always had some member of the household engaged in pottery work, the latter (brick-kiln owning Kumhar) were completely divorced from a wheel economy. Finally, there are a handful of kumhar bastis in this region which have formed kumhar cooperatives. Here, individual kumhar households in a basti get government aid for raw materials to make and sell roof tiles to the cooperative society at a rate fixed by the state. The advantage of such an arrangement is that kumhar get a guaranteed demand, although the rate is fixed and sometimes below what kumhar may get in the countryside (with a putting-out contract). On the other hand, forming a cooperative requires a high degree of collective action at the basti level and demands a recognition of the difference between money (paisa) and capital (punji), a distinction that gets blurred in the cultural context of independent petty commodity production. This has led to most kumhar cooperatives in this region failing, largely due to financial mismanagement. In sum, it is noteworthy that kumhar are involved in a production-circulation-exchange cycle that involves the sale of their labor power in order to reproduce physically and socially since petty commodity production work seldom suffices. Thus, while the above productive inequalities are analytically discrete, actual kumhar combine many of them in their everyday lives.