The Santal – A Study in Culture-Change

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Item Code: NAB740
Author: Nabendu Datta-Majumder
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata
Edition: 2009
Pages: 185 (38 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.7 inch X 6.5 inch
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Book Description

Two principal objectives have characteristically marked the work of scientists. The- first is to obtain, by means of a well-defined and constantly sharpened methodology and in terms of clearly stated hypotheses, the facts concerning the phenomenon under study, and to order these facts so as to reveal their nature, functioning and dynamic qualities. The second objective is to derive from the ordering of the facts, in the light of the stated hypotheses, those generalizations, sometimes called " laws," that express the broad principles under which the phenomena as observed are to be accounted for. These, in turn, permit an ever more accurate predication of the results that should issue when they are played on by differing forces under varying conditions-forces that, in the exact and natural sciences, are controlled through laboratory experimentation, or in the historic sciences, are manifest through circumstances of change outside the range of scientific manipulation.

The science of man, which like astronomy or geology, is an historic science, follows this tradition. Its development tells a story of the continuous testing of hypotheses through the search for data concerning the range of human behaviour as determined by social convention, and the particular historic circumstances that have brought into play the dynamic forces that have resulted in cultural change, the data being analyzed, in terms of increasingly well-defined conceptual schemes, into a series of ordered correlates. Out of this have come the generalizations as to the nature and functioning of culture that have yielded continuously greater insights into the unities of human experience that underlie the diversity of their manifestations. These generalizations, applied to given situations of cultural change, are now beginning to give leads toward prediction, as evidenced in the growing recognition of the contribution anthropology can make toward the resolution of specific problems faced by those concerned with practical affairs.

This study of Santal acculturation by Dr. Datta- Majumder is in the best tradition of modern anthropological science. Thus, at the outset of the book, we are given a clear statement of the hypotheses to be tested-that cultural borrowing is selective, that it is effectuated through the mechanisms of retention and reinterpretation, that contact, of itself, does not necessarily result in radical adjustment in the ways of life of the peoples concerned, and that cultural relearning in these situations is a function of incentive, and need not necessarily be disruptive. Or, again, we see how the use of those hypotheses to guide the analysis of the data in testing their validity is made • explicit by the statement of the spatial and temporal variables that have entered into the experience of the Santal in shifting their culture from its earlier "base-line " to its present focal orientations.

As good scientific procedure also dictates, Dr. Datta- Majumder builds on existing knowledge, using earlier research as a base on which to erect a structure of more refined analysis and deeper understanding. This is apparent from his bibliography no less than from his discussion, and is especially worthy of note since in recent years some anthropologists have tended to neglect the work of those who have earlier studied the peoples of their concern. That these earlier students employed less efficient techniques than are today available and were even sometimes guilty of quite in acceptable procedures, is not to be denied. But the effective use Dr. Datta-Majumder makes, let us say, of Bodding’s reports demonstrates how work by those who were not professional anthropolgists can give a firm texture to the observations of contemporary research. Where the present study differs from the earlier ones is in its more sophisticated frame of reference, both conceptual and theoretical, and in the integrated portrayal of Santal culture that results.

Another way in which this work makes a significant contribution is in its use of the ethno historical method. Culture-contact is essentially a dynamic phenomenon, studied by balancing acceptance of the new against retention of the old, through the employment of the mechanisms of reinterpretation and syncretism. To undertake the study of this complex interplay, it is essential that historic know- ledge, of any type and from all sources, be used as effectively ns possible. How, we may ask, can we study the dynamics of change under contact unless we know the patterns that preceded those that have developed and are observable at the present time. Has the current contact been preceded by others, so that traditions of adaptation are well developed among a people, or are we observing the shock of an experience new to them? These and many more questions can only be studied by that welding of historic evidence and observed ethnographic data which is the essence of the ethno historical approach. In- the use of Santal versions of the revolt of 1855, for example, or of the songs sung by the rebels at that time, it becomes apparent how historical data illuminate present-day attitudes and cultural orientations.

Implicit in this work lies the question of the applicability of the results of scientific anthropological research to the solution of practical problems. It should be clear that research such as that of Dr. Datta-Majumder has far-reaching implications for those everywhere who, in any administrative, educational or other capacity, must deal with situations where present or recent acculturation is involved. In a country such as India, as in others, such as the United States, where adjustment must be achieved between peoples of differing traditional norms of behaviour and systems of value, anthropological assessment of the factors entering into the situation can be of consider- able aid. Yet Dr. Datta—Majumder’s study, while it gives a basis for policy does not prescribe what that policy should be. In this, he is following a well-trodden path of science, one that is clearly established in the exact and natural disciplines, and toward which social scientists are gradually working, despite the pressures on students of man to mingle the ends of pure and applied science by attempting to achieve both at the same time.

This book is to be commended, therefore, both for its contribution to the scientific study of culture, and for pointing the way in which anthropological science can lay an assured basis for approaches to resolving the human problems incident on culture—contact. Given the ethno- logical complexities of the Indian scene, it is to be hoped, that this work will be widely read and its implications carefully studied.


Though the Santal constitute one of the largest aboriginal groups in India, there is no scientific monograph on Santal culture. However, a great deal of information about this people is scattered in various journals, official reports, and missionary accounts. Studies in Santal Medicine and Connected Folklore, written by P. O. Bedding, a Scandinavian missionary and published in three parts by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, form the most important source book today.

It is hoped that the present monograph will partially satisfy a long-felt want. Though the bulk of the materials for this book had been collected from a group of four Santal villages near• Santiniketan in the district of Birbhum (Bengal) in 1945, u. also contains the results of observation over a number of years in the two districts of Santal Parganas (in Bihar) and Birbhum. The manuscript had been completed in 1947. A subsequent visit paid towards the end of 1948 to the four Santal villages in Birbhum, previously investigated in 1945, enabled the author to check up the main conclusions arrived at by this study. No revision was found necessary.

But one significant development in Santal life had taken place in the meantime. A section of the Santal belonging to a few villages of Birbhum started, under the influence of some political workers of the neighbourhood of Bolpur, a new movement aimed at stopping the performance of their traditional dances at public fairs and festivals. The sponsors of this new movement thought that such dances in public places lowered the dignity of their women—folk and encouraged immorality. The Santal of the four villages studied in this book did not, however, support this movement. They, on the contrary, insisted on continuing the performance of their dances in the old-stabilized annual fairs held at Kankali—tola, (a village about live miles away) on the occasion of Siva-ratri, a Hindu festival. They argued that it was not these dances, but the employment of Santal female labour in the rice-mills of the district, that were really responsible for the growth of immorality.

Acknowledgment is made to the many authors whose names appear in the bibliographic and footnote material. The writer is particularly indebted to Professor Melville J. Herskovits, Chairman of the Anthropology Department of Northwestern University, U.S.A., for giving his valuable time to the tedious business of reading through and commenting on his successive drafts. The writer should also like to express his gratitude to Prof. A.I. Hallowell of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. W.R. Bascom and Dr. R.A. Waterman of Northwestern University, and Dr. W.N. Fenton (now Director of New York State Museum) for going through the manuscript and helping him with a number of valuable suggestions. Finally, thanks are due to Dr. P.N. Sen Gupta, Secretary, Publication Committee of the Department of Anthropology, for seeing the book through the press, to Mr. N.C. Choudhury of the Department of Anthropology, Government of India, for taking the trouble of preparing an index to the volume, and to Mr. S. Bhattacharya of the same Department for preparing a detailed ‘Guide to Pronunciation” of native terms used in this book.


Foreword vii
Preface xi
A Guide to Pronunciation xiii
Chapter I: Introductory 1
Chapter II: History and Distribution of the Santal 21
Chapter III: Santal Cultural Heritage 33
Chapter IV:The Impinging Forces 53
Chapter V: The Santal of Birbhum: Material Culture and Economic Life 65
Chapter VI: The Santal of Birbhum: Social Life 80
Chapter VII: The Santal of Birbhum: Religion 98
Chapter VIII: Santal Acculturation 109
Chapter IX: Conclusion 123
Bibliography 131
Map showing Santal Territories in India 140
Map showing the Distribution of Santal Population 141
Map showing Bolpur Area in Birbhum 142
Index 143
Plates 150
**Contents and Sample Pages**

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