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Dangerous Marginality (Rethinking Impurity and Power)
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About the Book

Dangerous Marginality focuses on village festivals invoking the Matangi, an outcaste clan goddess in Andhra Pradesh. It explores the ambiguous category of outcaste priest and priestess whose intriguing presence appears in fleeing images in colonial archives and missological accounts. These striking personae challenge the assumptions predominant in the discourses of caste.

As we delve deeper into this domain it becomes apparent that the constraints in engaging with such seemingly inscrutable sites lies not only in the paucity of sources but also about the dread that comes with the loss of secure ideologies, as also from having to deal with an idiom that is beyond modern reasoning and worldview. The compelling evidence of this ritual space suggests the need to move beyond the frame of pathos that has come to define not only the past of outcastes but their very being. Based on field data and historical sources, this volume offers a framework to critically examine the ways in which outcastes in definitive ways shape caste culture while also signifying a deeper tension in historical processes.

This study deploys the notion of dangerous marginality to analyse the multivalent notions of pollution, competing caste ideologies, alliances, intimacy between caste ad outcaste communities, as epitomized in the exceptional state of being of the outcaste priestess.

 

About the Author

Priyadarshini Vijaisri is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

 

Preface

THIS STUDY, MUCH like the ritual domain, drew me into the vortex of unpredictability, chaos, unfolding the spectacle of life and destabilizing the certitude of many preconceived notions and calling for a different mode of intellectual engagement to approximate the many meaning in this realm. Such an endeavour would not have been possible without the sustained support of Nagaiah Baini, Goplaiah Paru, Muniswami Panduri (who passed away recently), Venkataratnam Panduri, Balaiah P. and Subramanyam Panduri who guided me through the sacred cosmologies; Manjula, Veena Akka, Mala Sane, vijaya Akka, and Hajamma, who patiently explained many details concerning rituals and shared experiences in their lives. To all of them I am deeply grateful. Their gentle demeanour and infectious effervescence, facilitated long conversations stretching past midnight with the discursive site shifting from the hamlet, canopy, and the temple as temporal time dissolved, synchronizing with ‘their’ time and space. To Laxmi, for being the feeder and the caretaker, and the warmth of the villagers where the field-study was conducted, I am grateful.

I owe immensely to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for its intellectually stimulating ethos, for infinite possibilities of creatively engaging in research. I am deeply grateful to Suresh Sharma whose encouragement was valuable, and for inspiring me to look for deeper meanings. For enduring insightful conversations, I remain in debt to Narendra Bastar. This study was conceived at the centre and presented in parts over the years, and benefitted from critical appreciation and intellectual support from colleagues and friends especially Dhirubhai Seth, Shail Mayaram, Madhu Kishwar, Awadhendra Sharan, Mahua Sarkar, Aditya Nigam, Rajiv Bhargav, Yogendra Yadav, Ravi Vasudevan, V.B. Singh, Hilal Ahme, Bimol Akijomai, Ravikant and Ashish Mahajan. My thanks to Jayasree Jayanathan, Sujit Deb, Avinash Jha and Hemalatha Gulati for their ready help and assistance.

I have had the privilege of discussing the issues dealt herein with T.N. Madan, Ganantha Obeyesekere and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; their insightful comments and suggestion on the manuscript instilled confidence to further pursue some of these ideas. All of them have been extremely patient with the many inconsistencies, drawing my attention to the central issues and flaws—I cherish their kind appreciation with gratitude. To Declan Quigley whose critical suggestion, through seemed to destabilize the very order of thought, enabled me to ruminate and give concrete shape to some very rudimentary ideas, I am ever so thankful. To Devadutt ji who have been candid, and often challenging many of my certitudes, albeit with much appreciation I am grateful. I acknowledge with gratitude S. Anandhi and Vijaya Ramaswamy for their constant encouragement and much-valued appreciation, and support of Brigitte Volyvoskowitch, Rajasekher Vundru, Y.S. Alone, Savi Savarkar, N.D. Kamble, Satyamala, Vijay Pratap, Grace Nirmala, B.Ramachandra Reddy, Adapa Satyanarayana, Raj Sekhar Basu, P. Sadanandam, T. Manoher, Satyanarayana Patnaik, Anita and Kiran Bharadwaj, Sukhinder Kaur, K. Srinivasulu and Rudi Heredia at various stages and in myriad ways.

Through the period of study I have had the opportunity to present parts of the manuscript at different forums and conferences. Such occasions provided me an opportunity to rethink several aspects, particularly, the Single Women in History 1000 to 2000 conference at the University of West England, Bristol, 2005; Subaltern Healing, CSDS, Delhi, 2009; the Yogini: History Polysemy, Ritual conference, NTUL, Norway, 2010 and workshops on Oral History, Caste and Gender held at IIAS, Shimla in 2008 and 2010 and, at a special panel on Dalit History and Historiography at the Indian History Congress, 2010, Delhi. I deeply acknowledge the Institute d’ Etudes Avancees de Nantes with gratitude, where endless hours were spent in provocative intellectual company with the serenity of the Loire making it possible to give final shape to the manuscript. I cherish the kind appreciation and wonderful company of all the fellows whose presence made such an experience possible. Anna Maria Zahariade, Huri Islamoglu, Anu and Akhilesh Varma and Geetanjli Shri for being around in joy and melancholy my heartfelt gratitude. I owe special thanks to Ibrahima Thioub, Alonso Barros, Jean Godefroy Bidima, and Dany Dufour for drawing my attention to critical issues, and for inciting the search for ideas on a splendid scale. Thanks to Constance Cournede for ensuring a steady supply of books and for helping with the translations. I am thankful to Jacques Weber for generously sharing his voluminous wok. My thanks to Rona Wilson, Ben K., P. Jayanathan for their editing several versions of the manuscript. I am thankful to the Indian Council of Historical Research for supporting this research, which is part of the project On the Margins of the Periphery: The Left Hand Caste of Dakkalis during the early Twentieth Century in Southern India and Ishrat Alam for his kind support.

For my father who may not find this a worthy substitute to his expectations, the unconditional love of my parents-in-law, affectionate support of Prabhakar I owe much. To my son, Siddharth, who does not know how much his ceaseless love, was a source of boundless energy and joy that enabled me to endure moments of loss, disenchantment and hopelessness, I remain much humbled. Yet again, whose idea it was to write this book well knowing what that would entail, and without whom it would not have been possible. I dedicate this book to Chinna.

 

Prologue

THIS HISTORICAL ETHNOLOGICAL, study focuses on the vibrant and effervescent ritual tradition centred around the outcaste clan goddess Matangi, also known as Matamma, across villages in Andhra Pradesh, south India. What began as a research project to study modernity and the identity of the women dedicated to the goddess in the post-colonial context eventually took the shape of an ethnographic exploration of the Shakti tradition. Prolonged field-visits, formal and informal interactions with scores of people at homes, offices, marketplaces, and temples eventually led me to the actual tumultuous ritual space—the village goddess festival. I found myself at the threshold of a dynamic space where outcaste ritual specialists were awe-inspiring, feared, and at the same time revered as representative of the goddess. Inhabiting a specific village or as itinerant groups, they possessed a distinct religious status and power antithetical to the Brahmin priests. The village ritual space and the dramatic events that unfolded in this space during these festivities were bewildering. The haunting array of events, the fuzzy and seemingly chaotic acts, as also the terrifying and almost unnerving, dangerous persona of the outcaste that had been narrated earlier, had to be retold in a new frame. While this study is a result of that inescapable spell, it is not an attempt to romanticize the past or to mystify the existential being of the outcastes. Despite the cultural embeddedness of this tradition and its deep connections with diverse social groups, its invisibility in cultural discourses is indicative of the relentless omission of many dimensions of experiences that orient caste and outcaste cultures and the cultural signification of outcastes. The study focuses on the ritual traditions in this domain which necessitated a critical reframing of issues of religious power and the nature of cultural relations between the touchables and the untouchables. To preclude uncritically relegating these aspects of culture as static, unconnected do historical processes, or to the whole, an attempt was made to discern the meanings of these practices within a broader historical context. An effort was made to not only connect the histories of discursively—excluded communities as connected to caste societies in a very distinct mode but also to deduce a possible explanation for the transmutation of proto-caste to outcaste communities, so to say, within a meta-historical notion of time, to think about the possible shifts in this overarching historical context. However, it makes no pretensions to any absolute meaning nor to a concrete historical account of such transition but simply hints at the possibility of transition by unfolding the meanings within the rituals, cultural values, practices, and the oral sources. The scattered accounts and references to outcastes in historical, missiological and colonial accounts and the meanings within the ritual domain provide clues to the historical shifts conjured in the study.

During the study period (2004-9) I visited several villages in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But intensive fieldwork was carried out in villages around Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, where I witnessed the annual kolupu celebrations associated with the Goddess Matangi, also known as Matamma, for these years. Recording of the rituals was facilitated due to in-depth field study over the period. Apart from the traditional historical sources, the study drew largely from the highly systematized oral narratives, especially Telugu legends. The translation of narratives posed a huge challenge, given the many versions as also the sheer complexity of the mythic structures. Also, though major legends like Jambava Purana and Katamaraju Katha are available in Telugu, translating and relating those published versions with the narrations of the ritual specialists was challenging. Similarly, the set of oral narratives that constitute what is popularly known as Adishakti or Renuka Mathamma Katha or Gamata Puranam, Gonekatama Reddy Katha are highly complex and were narrated personally by the ritual specialists over a long stretch of time. I did not have the requisite expertise for a critical interpretation. However, listening to the sacred narratives has been a extremely gratifying experience for the sheer realization of having come across a valuable body of legends that have not been transcribed and have so far evaded the attention of scholars. The unstructured and informal interviews with the ritual specialists, both priests and priestess, unravelled the many layers of meanings of myth and ritual as also their personal histories. While the conversations were generally sustained through the period of study with the ritual specialists, information was also sought from activists, community elders of touchable castes like the Gollas and Balijas, who were closely associated with the arrangements for the celebrations, and NGOs. The primary aim of the interviews was to garner information on the ritual roles of the outcastes in this space, the flow of reciprocity, and cultural relations between the communities inhabiting the village. However, the study greatly draws on the celebrations over the years in terms of design and narration. The connecting links in historical shifts was gleaned from a variety of sources, especially from the ambiguous and scattered references in colonial ethnography and the available scanty historical insights. The primary concern of the study was to historically map one dimension of outcaste experience as active subjects within frame of inclusive critical history.

The caste system has, for centuries, brazenly normalized values and practices that cannot be sanely valorized, dismissing the ontological reality as profane. This euphoria has continued to immunize us from the everyday images we are confronted with, of violated naked bodies, of horrifying practise that have inexplicably dissipated the moral essence of the space we inhabit, evoking the brutality of caste order. Yet, this work is a quest to recover the saga of the outcastes, to celebrate the insurmountable human spirit of those who have courageously retained the human essence, though for the touchables as hovering spirits who were indispensable for their very well-being. Trekking the obscure past it also readdresses a moot question, how do the stigmatized and excluded communities survive? What are the resources available to them and the power they subscribe to themselves in their seemingly meaningless existence? It is an endeavour to shift from the history of pathos, to recover a past that recognizes their critical role in history. It is within this space that a protestant ethos can be recovered through which a more cultural liberative ideology can be produced as it uncovers the dialectical progression of the outcast ideology and acknowledging the underlying significance of their ritual status, an issue that has not received the attention it deserve unlike their ‘secular status’. While this study does not address the manner in which these two statuses are connected, mediated, impinge or define their being, it attempts to broaden the discursive space by addressing issues that have escaped academic attention.

During the course of this exercise the realization for the need to reformulate available frameworks became more evident. This meant a substantial reformulation of the understanding of caste, sexuality and ritual practices, as the available paradigms repressed the fluidity, practices that seemed to invert or transgress and yet remain embedded in the cultural space and continued, through the persona of the priestess, to erupt in the ritual domain. These traditions provide evidence for the deep interconnectedness between public and private spaces leading to a further exploration of caste identity, communal alliances, village ritual traditions, and eventually, rethinking the very structure and the boundaries itself. The contesting ritual edifices, the locus and antinomian points of religious power and indeed the limitations of the four-fold structure that permanently externalizes specific castes thus demanded reconsideration. The ritual space offers us several imageries of outcaste consciousness. To engage with historical constructions on issues of resistance and alternative visions, it would be worthwhile to evoke these often devalued sites.

One of the challenges in writing on outcastes seems to be deconstructing the myth of outcastes as external to the structure. The textual Brahminical model of caste has emerged as the fundamental legitimate model for any serious analysis of caste as a system and ideology. Understandably, any critical investigation of caste needs to acknowledge the hegemonic impact of the Brahminical model of social order. Though scholars have criticized this model of understanding caste as textual, Brahminical, superficial and synthetic, this has meant a reification of the ideal order to look in for its regional variations. However, the historical development in south India offers an interesting variation that has received little attention in the analysis of the caste system. South India, specific regions within it, was organized on a very distinct regional social scheme, the right- and the left-hand models until about the eighteenth century. The ambiguity of this model as also the general misconception as regards the invisibility of outcastes in historical records has led to a great deal of anachronism and general bias in historiography. The persistence of cultural imagination of a parallel social order along with the four-fold varna model, however, reflects the dynamism and competing social ideologies of the region. Within this parallel dualistic model, the right-and left-hand castes, the structural alliances and power, especially religious, manifests in contradistinction to the varna model. Despite this crucial distinction, the model seems to have suffered a rare anonymity in historical studies. It would be worthwhile to probe further into this parallel imagination of social bodies in southern India. However, in this parallel scheme, the outcastes, despite scant information, offer a possibility to explore the restructuring of communities, their identification with a larger kindred social group, a locational identity determined by opposition to the other block and with shared fraternal, economic and cultural bonds. So also, given the devolution of ritual power to outcastes, in the dichotomous blocks, this varying social network of communities needs to be engaged to understand set of relations and ideas and the loci of religious power in contradiction to that in the varna system.

Part of Andhra Pradesh, that the study covers, was organized on the dualistic model comprising the two antagonistic competing blocs. It was in this structural dynamism and difference from the parallel varna structure that the persona of the outcaste unfolds. Indeed, what has been faintly acknowledged as reversals and transgressive elements signified a very different locus of religious power, and thus the narrative through the chapters is woven around the fundamental opposition between the Brahmin and the outcaste, the priest and the high priestess and the nature of religious power itself. This meant then a need to redefine marginality itself that was substantially distinct from the profane notion of bodily impurity or untouchability and a very different conception of purity and pollution. The present study delineates nature of religious power and employs idea of dangerous marginality to further explore this opposition manifesting extraordinarily in the ritual domain. Thus, this study seeks to offer a different locus from that expounded by the frameworks that continue to mystify the outcaste as being one infinitely entangled in his/ her own inferiority. It is also an attempt to reclaim the outcaste subject in her/his powerful being. It is within this context that the Kolupu tradition, wherein the outcaste ritual specialists emerge in their powerful selves, becomes meaningful. Though the focus is exclusively on a predominant outcaste community in the region, the Madigas, it probes further the nature of priesthood.

Reconstructing outcaste pasts is beset several methodological and ethical issues. One of the fundamental challenges is the need to creatively evolve categories if one is no affect a shift from frameworks that mystify outcaste pasts. Rather than uncritically applying given categories the narrative or the framework should generate creatively enabling critical categories, reflection on the exceptional being of the outcastes. The positioning of the outcastes is paradoxical, at one level extremely powerless and the other in their most powerful being. While the former state of being of the outcastes has been exclusively privileged in cultural analysis, the latter recedes as an amorphous and irrelevant fragment in general understanding. In this study, outcaste specialists emerge as powerful beings in the ritual domain and unlike the other ritual specialist categories (across castes) indicate, by virtue of being exceptionally positioned outside the hegemonic ordered space, a dangerous marginality. This duality of their being, and needs to be perceived not simply as a ritual state of being. Such destabilizing, uncontrollable and unnerving religious behaviour has a crucial ontological dimension. Engaging with this cultural undercurrent may enable us to acknowledge the reproduction of power and how then counter-consciousness, in dialectical progression, builds in its moral critique against the hegemonic order. This would necessitate not only a methodological sensitivity to the everyday experiences of caste culture but a paradigmatic shift to analyse these issues within historical framework.

 

Contents

 

  Preface ix
  Prologue xiii
I. In Pursuit of the Virgin Whore: Towards Recovering Outcaste Ritual Traditions 1
II. On the Boundaries: The Goddess and Her Chosen People 32
III. The Ritual Domain: Outcaste Priest and Priestess 75
IV. Vertical Alliance: Structural Alliance and Fictive Kinship 160
V. Moments of Recall: Tensions Surrounding Permanent Impurity 185
  Epilogue 222
  Plates 233
  Glossary 265
  Biblography 267
  Index 273

 

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Dangerous Marginality (Rethinking Impurity and Power)

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About the Book

Dangerous Marginality focuses on village festivals invoking the Matangi, an outcaste clan goddess in Andhra Pradesh. It explores the ambiguous category of outcaste priest and priestess whose intriguing presence appears in fleeing images in colonial archives and missological accounts. These striking personae challenge the assumptions predominant in the discourses of caste.

As we delve deeper into this domain it becomes apparent that the constraints in engaging with such seemingly inscrutable sites lies not only in the paucity of sources but also about the dread that comes with the loss of secure ideologies, as also from having to deal with an idiom that is beyond modern reasoning and worldview. The compelling evidence of this ritual space suggests the need to move beyond the frame of pathos that has come to define not only the past of outcastes but their very being. Based on field data and historical sources, this volume offers a framework to critically examine the ways in which outcastes in definitive ways shape caste culture while also signifying a deeper tension in historical processes.

This study deploys the notion of dangerous marginality to analyse the multivalent notions of pollution, competing caste ideologies, alliances, intimacy between caste ad outcaste communities, as epitomized in the exceptional state of being of the outcaste priestess.

 

About the Author

Priyadarshini Vijaisri is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

 

Preface

THIS STUDY, MUCH like the ritual domain, drew me into the vortex of unpredictability, chaos, unfolding the spectacle of life and destabilizing the certitude of many preconceived notions and calling for a different mode of intellectual engagement to approximate the many meaning in this realm. Such an endeavour would not have been possible without the sustained support of Nagaiah Baini, Goplaiah Paru, Muniswami Panduri (who passed away recently), Venkataratnam Panduri, Balaiah P. and Subramanyam Panduri who guided me through the sacred cosmologies; Manjula, Veena Akka, Mala Sane, vijaya Akka, and Hajamma, who patiently explained many details concerning rituals and shared experiences in their lives. To all of them I am deeply grateful. Their gentle demeanour and infectious effervescence, facilitated long conversations stretching past midnight with the discursive site shifting from the hamlet, canopy, and the temple as temporal time dissolved, synchronizing with ‘their’ time and space. To Laxmi, for being the feeder and the caretaker, and the warmth of the villagers where the field-study was conducted, I am grateful.

I owe immensely to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for its intellectually stimulating ethos, for infinite possibilities of creatively engaging in research. I am deeply grateful to Suresh Sharma whose encouragement was valuable, and for inspiring me to look for deeper meanings. For enduring insightful conversations, I remain in debt to Narendra Bastar. This study was conceived at the centre and presented in parts over the years, and benefitted from critical appreciation and intellectual support from colleagues and friends especially Dhirubhai Seth, Shail Mayaram, Madhu Kishwar, Awadhendra Sharan, Mahua Sarkar, Aditya Nigam, Rajiv Bhargav, Yogendra Yadav, Ravi Vasudevan, V.B. Singh, Hilal Ahme, Bimol Akijomai, Ravikant and Ashish Mahajan. My thanks to Jayasree Jayanathan, Sujit Deb, Avinash Jha and Hemalatha Gulati for their ready help and assistance.

I have had the privilege of discussing the issues dealt herein with T.N. Madan, Ganantha Obeyesekere and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; their insightful comments and suggestion on the manuscript instilled confidence to further pursue some of these ideas. All of them have been extremely patient with the many inconsistencies, drawing my attention to the central issues and flaws—I cherish their kind appreciation with gratitude. To Declan Quigley whose critical suggestion, through seemed to destabilize the very order of thought, enabled me to ruminate and give concrete shape to some very rudimentary ideas, I am ever so thankful. To Devadutt ji who have been candid, and often challenging many of my certitudes, albeit with much appreciation I am grateful. I acknowledge with gratitude S. Anandhi and Vijaya Ramaswamy for their constant encouragement and much-valued appreciation, and support of Brigitte Volyvoskowitch, Rajasekher Vundru, Y.S. Alone, Savi Savarkar, N.D. Kamble, Satyamala, Vijay Pratap, Grace Nirmala, B.Ramachandra Reddy, Adapa Satyanarayana, Raj Sekhar Basu, P. Sadanandam, T. Manoher, Satyanarayana Patnaik, Anita and Kiran Bharadwaj, Sukhinder Kaur, K. Srinivasulu and Rudi Heredia at various stages and in myriad ways.

Through the period of study I have had the opportunity to present parts of the manuscript at different forums and conferences. Such occasions provided me an opportunity to rethink several aspects, particularly, the Single Women in History 1000 to 2000 conference at the University of West England, Bristol, 2005; Subaltern Healing, CSDS, Delhi, 2009; the Yogini: History Polysemy, Ritual conference, NTUL, Norway, 2010 and workshops on Oral History, Caste and Gender held at IIAS, Shimla in 2008 and 2010 and, at a special panel on Dalit History and Historiography at the Indian History Congress, 2010, Delhi. I deeply acknowledge the Institute d’ Etudes Avancees de Nantes with gratitude, where endless hours were spent in provocative intellectual company with the serenity of the Loire making it possible to give final shape to the manuscript. I cherish the kind appreciation and wonderful company of all the fellows whose presence made such an experience possible. Anna Maria Zahariade, Huri Islamoglu, Anu and Akhilesh Varma and Geetanjli Shri for being around in joy and melancholy my heartfelt gratitude. I owe special thanks to Ibrahima Thioub, Alonso Barros, Jean Godefroy Bidima, and Dany Dufour for drawing my attention to critical issues, and for inciting the search for ideas on a splendid scale. Thanks to Constance Cournede for ensuring a steady supply of books and for helping with the translations. I am thankful to Jacques Weber for generously sharing his voluminous wok. My thanks to Rona Wilson, Ben K., P. Jayanathan for their editing several versions of the manuscript. I am thankful to the Indian Council of Historical Research for supporting this research, which is part of the project On the Margins of the Periphery: The Left Hand Caste of Dakkalis during the early Twentieth Century in Southern India and Ishrat Alam for his kind support.

For my father who may not find this a worthy substitute to his expectations, the unconditional love of my parents-in-law, affectionate support of Prabhakar I owe much. To my son, Siddharth, who does not know how much his ceaseless love, was a source of boundless energy and joy that enabled me to endure moments of loss, disenchantment and hopelessness, I remain much humbled. Yet again, whose idea it was to write this book well knowing what that would entail, and without whom it would not have been possible. I dedicate this book to Chinna.

 

Prologue

THIS HISTORICAL ETHNOLOGICAL, study focuses on the vibrant and effervescent ritual tradition centred around the outcaste clan goddess Matangi, also known as Matamma, across villages in Andhra Pradesh, south India. What began as a research project to study modernity and the identity of the women dedicated to the goddess in the post-colonial context eventually took the shape of an ethnographic exploration of the Shakti tradition. Prolonged field-visits, formal and informal interactions with scores of people at homes, offices, marketplaces, and temples eventually led me to the actual tumultuous ritual space—the village goddess festival. I found myself at the threshold of a dynamic space where outcaste ritual specialists were awe-inspiring, feared, and at the same time revered as representative of the goddess. Inhabiting a specific village or as itinerant groups, they possessed a distinct religious status and power antithetical to the Brahmin priests. The village ritual space and the dramatic events that unfolded in this space during these festivities were bewildering. The haunting array of events, the fuzzy and seemingly chaotic acts, as also the terrifying and almost unnerving, dangerous persona of the outcaste that had been narrated earlier, had to be retold in a new frame. While this study is a result of that inescapable spell, it is not an attempt to romanticize the past or to mystify the existential being of the outcastes. Despite the cultural embeddedness of this tradition and its deep connections with diverse social groups, its invisibility in cultural discourses is indicative of the relentless omission of many dimensions of experiences that orient caste and outcaste cultures and the cultural signification of outcastes. The study focuses on the ritual traditions in this domain which necessitated a critical reframing of issues of religious power and the nature of cultural relations between the touchables and the untouchables. To preclude uncritically relegating these aspects of culture as static, unconnected do historical processes, or to the whole, an attempt was made to discern the meanings of these practices within a broader historical context. An effort was made to not only connect the histories of discursively—excluded communities as connected to caste societies in a very distinct mode but also to deduce a possible explanation for the transmutation of proto-caste to outcaste communities, so to say, within a meta-historical notion of time, to think about the possible shifts in this overarching historical context. However, it makes no pretensions to any absolute meaning nor to a concrete historical account of such transition but simply hints at the possibility of transition by unfolding the meanings within the rituals, cultural values, practices, and the oral sources. The scattered accounts and references to outcastes in historical, missiological and colonial accounts and the meanings within the ritual domain provide clues to the historical shifts conjured in the study.

During the study period (2004-9) I visited several villages in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But intensive fieldwork was carried out in villages around Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, where I witnessed the annual kolupu celebrations associated with the Goddess Matangi, also known as Matamma, for these years. Recording of the rituals was facilitated due to in-depth field study over the period. Apart from the traditional historical sources, the study drew largely from the highly systematized oral narratives, especially Telugu legends. The translation of narratives posed a huge challenge, given the many versions as also the sheer complexity of the mythic structures. Also, though major legends like Jambava Purana and Katamaraju Katha are available in Telugu, translating and relating those published versions with the narrations of the ritual specialists was challenging. Similarly, the set of oral narratives that constitute what is popularly known as Adishakti or Renuka Mathamma Katha or Gamata Puranam, Gonekatama Reddy Katha are highly complex and were narrated personally by the ritual specialists over a long stretch of time. I did not have the requisite expertise for a critical interpretation. However, listening to the sacred narratives has been a extremely gratifying experience for the sheer realization of having come across a valuable body of legends that have not been transcribed and have so far evaded the attention of scholars. The unstructured and informal interviews with the ritual specialists, both priests and priestess, unravelled the many layers of meanings of myth and ritual as also their personal histories. While the conversations were generally sustained through the period of study with the ritual specialists, information was also sought from activists, community elders of touchable castes like the Gollas and Balijas, who were closely associated with the arrangements for the celebrations, and NGOs. The primary aim of the interviews was to garner information on the ritual roles of the outcastes in this space, the flow of reciprocity, and cultural relations between the communities inhabiting the village. However, the study greatly draws on the celebrations over the years in terms of design and narration. The connecting links in historical shifts was gleaned from a variety of sources, especially from the ambiguous and scattered references in colonial ethnography and the available scanty historical insights. The primary concern of the study was to historically map one dimension of outcaste experience as active subjects within frame of inclusive critical history.

The caste system has, for centuries, brazenly normalized values and practices that cannot be sanely valorized, dismissing the ontological reality as profane. This euphoria has continued to immunize us from the everyday images we are confronted with, of violated naked bodies, of horrifying practise that have inexplicably dissipated the moral essence of the space we inhabit, evoking the brutality of caste order. Yet, this work is a quest to recover the saga of the outcastes, to celebrate the insurmountable human spirit of those who have courageously retained the human essence, though for the touchables as hovering spirits who were indispensable for their very well-being. Trekking the obscure past it also readdresses a moot question, how do the stigmatized and excluded communities survive? What are the resources available to them and the power they subscribe to themselves in their seemingly meaningless existence? It is an endeavour to shift from the history of pathos, to recover a past that recognizes their critical role in history. It is within this space that a protestant ethos can be recovered through which a more cultural liberative ideology can be produced as it uncovers the dialectical progression of the outcast ideology and acknowledging the underlying significance of their ritual status, an issue that has not received the attention it deserve unlike their ‘secular status’. While this study does not address the manner in which these two statuses are connected, mediated, impinge or define their being, it attempts to broaden the discursive space by addressing issues that have escaped academic attention.

During the course of this exercise the realization for the need to reformulate available frameworks became more evident. This meant a substantial reformulation of the understanding of caste, sexuality and ritual practices, as the available paradigms repressed the fluidity, practices that seemed to invert or transgress and yet remain embedded in the cultural space and continued, through the persona of the priestess, to erupt in the ritual domain. These traditions provide evidence for the deep interconnectedness between public and private spaces leading to a further exploration of caste identity, communal alliances, village ritual traditions, and eventually, rethinking the very structure and the boundaries itself. The contesting ritual edifices, the locus and antinomian points of religious power and indeed the limitations of the four-fold structure that permanently externalizes specific castes thus demanded reconsideration. The ritual space offers us several imageries of outcaste consciousness. To engage with historical constructions on issues of resistance and alternative visions, it would be worthwhile to evoke these often devalued sites.

One of the challenges in writing on outcastes seems to be deconstructing the myth of outcastes as external to the structure. The textual Brahminical model of caste has emerged as the fundamental legitimate model for any serious analysis of caste as a system and ideology. Understandably, any critical investigation of caste needs to acknowledge the hegemonic impact of the Brahminical model of social order. Though scholars have criticized this model of understanding caste as textual, Brahminical, superficial and synthetic, this has meant a reification of the ideal order to look in for its regional variations. However, the historical development in south India offers an interesting variation that has received little attention in the analysis of the caste system. South India, specific regions within it, was organized on a very distinct regional social scheme, the right- and the left-hand models until about the eighteenth century. The ambiguity of this model as also the general misconception as regards the invisibility of outcastes in historical records has led to a great deal of anachronism and general bias in historiography. The persistence of cultural imagination of a parallel social order along with the four-fold varna model, however, reflects the dynamism and competing social ideologies of the region. Within this parallel dualistic model, the right-and left-hand castes, the structural alliances and power, especially religious, manifests in contradistinction to the varna model. Despite this crucial distinction, the model seems to have suffered a rare anonymity in historical studies. It would be worthwhile to probe further into this parallel imagination of social bodies in southern India. However, in this parallel scheme, the outcastes, despite scant information, offer a possibility to explore the restructuring of communities, their identification with a larger kindred social group, a locational identity determined by opposition to the other block and with shared fraternal, economic and cultural bonds. So also, given the devolution of ritual power to outcastes, in the dichotomous blocks, this varying social network of communities needs to be engaged to understand set of relations and ideas and the loci of religious power in contradiction to that in the varna system.

Part of Andhra Pradesh, that the study covers, was organized on the dualistic model comprising the two antagonistic competing blocs. It was in this structural dynamism and difference from the parallel varna structure that the persona of the outcaste unfolds. Indeed, what has been faintly acknowledged as reversals and transgressive elements signified a very different locus of religious power, and thus the narrative through the chapters is woven around the fundamental opposition between the Brahmin and the outcaste, the priest and the high priestess and the nature of religious power itself. This meant then a need to redefine marginality itself that was substantially distinct from the profane notion of bodily impurity or untouchability and a very different conception of purity and pollution. The present study delineates nature of religious power and employs idea of dangerous marginality to further explore this opposition manifesting extraordinarily in the ritual domain. Thus, this study seeks to offer a different locus from that expounded by the frameworks that continue to mystify the outcaste as being one infinitely entangled in his/ her own inferiority. It is also an attempt to reclaim the outcaste subject in her/his powerful being. It is within this context that the Kolupu tradition, wherein the outcaste ritual specialists emerge in their powerful selves, becomes meaningful. Though the focus is exclusively on a predominant outcaste community in the region, the Madigas, it probes further the nature of priesthood.

Reconstructing outcaste pasts is beset several methodological and ethical issues. One of the fundamental challenges is the need to creatively evolve categories if one is no affect a shift from frameworks that mystify outcaste pasts. Rather than uncritically applying given categories the narrative or the framework should generate creatively enabling critical categories, reflection on the exceptional being of the outcastes. The positioning of the outcastes is paradoxical, at one level extremely powerless and the other in their most powerful being. While the former state of being of the outcastes has been exclusively privileged in cultural analysis, the latter recedes as an amorphous and irrelevant fragment in general understanding. In this study, outcaste specialists emerge as powerful beings in the ritual domain and unlike the other ritual specialist categories (across castes) indicate, by virtue of being exceptionally positioned outside the hegemonic ordered space, a dangerous marginality. This duality of their being, and needs to be perceived not simply as a ritual state of being. Such destabilizing, uncontrollable and unnerving religious behaviour has a crucial ontological dimension. Engaging with this cultural undercurrent may enable us to acknowledge the reproduction of power and how then counter-consciousness, in dialectical progression, builds in its moral critique against the hegemonic order. This would necessitate not only a methodological sensitivity to the everyday experiences of caste culture but a paradigmatic shift to analyse these issues within historical framework.

 

Contents

 

  Preface ix
  Prologue xiii
I. In Pursuit of the Virgin Whore: Towards Recovering Outcaste Ritual Traditions 1
II. On the Boundaries: The Goddess and Her Chosen People 32
III. The Ritual Domain: Outcaste Priest and Priestess 75
IV. Vertical Alliance: Structural Alliance and Fictive Kinship 160
V. Moments of Recall: Tensions Surrounding Permanent Impurity 185
  Epilogue 222
  Plates 233
  Glossary 265
  Biblography 267
  Index 273

 

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