The emergence of samaj: who is a Kumhar? On a late night in summer 2002, at a packed assembly (mahasabha) of Kumhar, a kumhar stood up and asked the audience of at least 250-300 whether a woman’s bangles must be taken off just before her marriage to make way for a new set of bangles? He was referring to the custom prevalent among Kumhar (and many other castes in Chhattisgarh) of taking off the old bangles of an unmarried virgin girl (kunvari ladki) just before her marriage and replacing them with new ones. It is also possible that the question applied to the fairly widespread phenomenon (again among Kumhar and many other castes in Chhattisgarh) of secondary marriages, which are customarily signaled through the woman “putting on [new] bangles” (chhuri pehnana) (Parry 2001: 788-789). Amidst the general buzz of other Kumhar talking about possible responses for
this question, some even mocking the questioner for asking what seemed like a simple question with an obvious answer, Hariram Prajapati, a high-ranking official of the CKS – its “chief advisor” (pramukh salahakar), who is a nonpracticing Kumhar, a lawyer by profession – got up from his chair on the dais and argued that there was no “tradition” of wearing bangles during Vedic times but that such a tradition (as well as the tradition of wearing a veil or ghungat worn by many, mostly upper-caste Hindu women) had been introduced upon the arrival of the Muslims. He also added that the matter (of custom) was a delicate one that needed to be contemplated upon by “wise and learned Kumhar since the giving of tradition to a samaj was not an ordinary task.” Hariram is an officiating member of the Gayatri Shakti Peeth (also known as Gayatri Parivar, a movement that is based on reviving Vedic teachings) in this region and his response was not surprising to some other leaders of the CKS who share his beliefs, although most ordinary Kumhar are not part of this movement. In previous mahasabhas, Hariram has been known to insist upon the “Hindu” identity of Kumhar as overriding any other identity, such as Chhattisgarhi or Kumhar. Some time later I had the opportunity to ask an ordinary kumhar, Bise, as to why kumhar women did not customarily work the wheel in this region. Was it due to their natural capabilities? Or was it something else? Bise’s matter-of-fact response was that although women were capable of learning the wheel (and indeed there were a handful of kumhar women who worked the wheel in Chhattisgarh), most women were already engaged in other activities, such as marketing and firewood, which are physically demanding. Then he added, “It is also because they wear bangles, which interfere when using the hands to spin the wheel and the paddle for shaping the pots.” The discussion in the mahasabha on “right” traditions for Kumhar is along the lines of what Marshall Sahlins has termed “cultural reasoning” (Sahlins 1976), with bangles coming to be viewed by people such as Hariram as indexical signs of marriage and group tradition (to distinguish them from cultural Others, such as Muslims), and hence an element of group identity.1 In responding to my question, Bise, unlike Hariram, did not attempt to justify the customary gendered division of labor (men to the wheel, women to the market) as hoary tradition. His response about custom pointed out the practical utility (in this case, the futility) of wearing bangles and spinning the potter’s wheel. For Kumhar such as Bise, customs were explained with what Sahlins has called “practical reason,” since the bangles were only narrated in their utility value, shorn of any symbolic content. I bring up the above conversations to raise a very different point from that of Sahlins, who, I believe, has demonstrated the limits of practical reason as explanations for human acts. Hariram and Bise occupy a shared social and symbolic space as Kumhar. At the same time, a world of difference exists between the two – only Bise is a practicing kumhar. When I asked Bise further about whether Kumhar women would be allowed to work the wheel were they to remove their bangles, Bise continued with his practical reasoning and asked me wistfully, “Then who would do the marketing?” My point, then, is that I have found
practicing kumhar to be far less prone than non-practicing Kumhar to claim “culture” as an explanation for their ways of being and doing. This difference will be underscored from time to time in this chapter, which focuses on how “culture” – the largely implicit but at times explicit process of production, organization, distribution, consumption of and struggle over meanings of objects / artifacts, nature, social relations and life itself – is invoked by Kumhar in the course of their everyday lives. That an explicit, codified and debatable entity called Kumhar “culture” (sanskriti) takes root within Kumhar life is indicated by the fact that a practicing kumhar stood up to pose the above question on bangles in the assembly. I argued in Chapter 1 that the paradox of castes without the caste system has been poorly explained by the ethnicization of caste thesis, which assumes that cultural difference has become the key marker of caste. This chapter calls into question the claims of caste to “culture.” More precisely, it calls into question the notion that castes are different from each other because they are culturally different. The epigrams to this chapter help spell out this objective – to show how, when and why caste parades as the “culture” of a group (Chakravarti); to recognize the deleterious effects of accepting caste as cultural “difference” (Geetha); and to highlight the social project under way of making a caste into a “cultural whole” in the face of immense internal heterogeneity (Benhabib – although this chapter will show that such a project of creating “cultural wholes” is not simply imposed from outside a group but is also carried out from within the group). Kumhar emerge in this chapter as a caste group animated by discussions around questions of “what distinguishes a caste from other castes,” “who are its members,” “where are the boundaries of a caste,” and “who speaks for the caste as a group” – all on the terrain of culture. By focusing on the “internal”2 dynamics of a caste group, I pursue a question not posed by the ethnicization thesis: Do individual castes signify independent cultural entities? In other words, is caste identity a cultural identity? Such questions reveal the constructed nature of both a “caste” and its “culture.” In doing so, I aver the need to attend to Crispen Bates’ methodological note that “Before asking ‘what is caste’, therefore, we must first ask ‘who wants to define it?’” (Bates 1995: 33). Before 1969, when the CKS formed as an association (sabha) of Kumhar, there was no official organization that represented all Kumhar, although the elders of each basti or more often a few bastis (called a panch) would get together regularly to resolve disputes around marital affairs, including divorce, alimony, childcare and the not infrequent cases of members marrying outside of the Kumhar caste. Some of the dynamics of the formation of the CKS were explained to me by Suraj Prasad Kumbhkar. According to him:
Before the CKS became an official organization, the elder Kumhar of every village in the region used to meet and make someone unofficially the Raja [King], the Divan [chief court council] and the Mantri [court minister]. The object of such an arrangement was to exclusively resolve the problems within the particular community of Kumhar such as someone’s wife running
away with someone else, a married woman going back to her mother’s place and remaining there, any man taking on more than one wife, etc. During those days there was no problem of clay and firewood and hence it was never talked about in the meetings. Then slowly some more educated and younger members of the community were invited to take part in the meetings. They were of the view that discussions restricted to resolving marital conflicts alone would not be useful to the community. It was then that the CKS became more organized, leading to its official status. Topics other than the ones mentioned above started being discussed. Nowadays, discussions around marital disputes have been reduced by about 75 percent. One of the main reasons [for this reduction] was the decline of child marriage within the community. Earlier the girl’s minimum age was set at 12 and the boy’s at 15 and anyone flouting these rules was subject to fines. Now the ages are 15 and 18 respectively. This increase in ages solved some chronic problems such as the running away of the child-wife, leaving her husband and returning to her mother’s place. Even now these child marriages may occur but they are very rare. The other reason for the [substantive] change in discussions was that earlier there were clear demarcations of market routes and territories in every village [for kumhar women]. People would sometimes flout these rules and that would cause problems, which would have to be addressed. Nowadays due to the coming of the “market” there were very few problems of “encroachment” on another’s market route.