The Oxford in India Readings in Sociology and Social Anthropology comprises a set of volumes, each on an important theme or sub- area within these disciplines. Along with authoritative and sectional prefaces each book brings together key essays that apprise reader of the current debates and developments within the area concerned, with specific reference to India. The volumes act both as introductions to sociology and social anthropology and as essential reference works for students, teachers, and researchers.
The readings in this volume are representative of the myriad dimensions of village life in India. The essays discuss both the analytical frameworks with which to comprehend the complexities of village life, as well as vivid ethnographic vignettes from villages across the country. This volume is essential reading for graduate and post- graduate students of sociology, social anthropology, and other social sciences.
Vandana Madan is Reader in Janaki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University.
‘This collection of readings on Village India will meet an important need among students and teacher of sociology and social anthropology in India and hopefully also outside India. It will also be of the general reader, including those preparing for the various competitive examinations … The editor has written a comprehensive and scholarly introduction which provides a well –balanced survey of the large and diverse literature on the subject that has grown in the last fifty years.
The reprinting of The Village in India provides me an opportunity to further elucidate its character and scope. As a volume in a series of readings on Indian society, the book is aimed at college and university students in India at the honors and masters levels. Its purpose is to bring together excerpts from seminal work on the village in India by well –know authors published over the last several decades. Part of the material included here may be familiar to some students , such as the work of Srinivas, Beteille, and Mencher. But there are other paper, such as those by Gould, Singh, and Dumont, which, as far as I have been able to find out, have not been reprinted or reproduced elsewhere after their original publication.
There are of course many other articles and book chapters that are as important as the ones included here – perhaps more so- but limitations of space have precluded their inclusion. Besides, what is being done today in the area of village studies does not stand on its own; it may not be separated from the classical works of the earlier decades in the growth of the subject, which must therefore be represented. It seems imperative to me that students should be familiarized with this growth and the changing foci of village studies. The reading thus come from three broad periods of time in ethnographic research-the 1950s and 60s; the 1960s and 70s and the 1980s and 90s. Needless to say, the last period was the most difficult to sift through for appropriate readings, due to the relative lack of ethnographic village studies such as were available earlier. A further consideration too came into play and I believe the selection does some justice to that .Each section ,excluding the first and the fourth ,has a reading from the 1990s, which explores questions of gender (Lambert, Kapadia, Baviskar and Chen, and Dreze)-a thrust that I was seeking. This is a concern that has grown in academic research, although development strategies continue to the rather myopic in this regard.
I would also like to say that although some of the readings attend to the problem of rural changes and development (such as Mencher’s, Dreze ‘s, and Dube’s) ,this is not a volume focused on themes .One hopes there will be other anthologies available that will supplement and make up for what could not be included here.
The selection of readings for this volume was completed in 2000. Since then a number of interesting and important books and articles have come out, many of which discuss significant transformations in different areas of life at the village level. There are new writings on the impact of development strategy and aid at the village level, with a pointed concern for health and education (see Vaidyanthan and Gopinathan 2001, on health, education, caste, and gender; and Ramachanden2004, on education, gender, and social equity). More important , gender issues have grown in significance and more women-focused work is now being published .A beginning which was made in the late 1990s with the story of Viramma (1998),a Dalit women from a village in Pondicherry, has been carried forward more recently in Smita Tiwari jassal’s book (2001),on women and land in Awadh, Arild Engelsen Ruud’s work (2003) ,on political and social circumstances that impact the position of women ,besides village transformation in rural West Bengal, and Sayantani jafa’s (2003), study of women ,patriarchy, and work in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Already mentioned in the list of further readings in this book, I may draw attention once again to Anand chakravarti’s (2001) exemplary book on agrarian transformation in north Bihar .He looks at the changing agrarian relations between a dominant Bhumihar class and an underclass of marginal cultivators and landless labourers, predominantly Santhal tribals , in the village of Aghanbigha . The importance of the work is that it brings out the response of a traditional agrarian society to a new capitalist market and reveals the nexus between class hierarchy and state power. The book based on extensive fieldwork is lucidly written and well documented.
I have pointed out in the section on caste, Kinship, and locality that sociologically the point of departure for village studies in the 1950s was the social structure of the village community. which of course meant a focus on the caste system .In fact, Louis Dumont and David Pocock (1957:25) in a much –contested statement denied sociological reality to the village, emphasizing instead the system of castes. More recently , historically nuanced work , notably that of Nicholas Dirks (2002),has asserted that the caste system as it existed in the mid –twentieth century ,was not more than a hundred years old, being a product of the colonial encounter ,and the archive that this encounter generated enabled maintenance of imperial control. This is an arguable position; it is, however, more a comment on the nature of caste in the post – colonial period rather than about its lack of importance as a significant factor in rural social structure throughout the twentieth century. To draw attention to its importance is not an assertion of the exclusivity of caste as a market of village social structure, or of its ritual basis. Indeed, as India has moved into the twenty –first century, the forces of secularization have gained momentum eroding the religious dimension of the caste system .But to believe that caste has lost its foothold in the lives of the village people, is a misconception and presents a sanitized version of ground reality. The unanticipated linkage between caste and electoral politics (via vote banks) after independence has indeed provided caste a new lease of life. This transformation has been called ‘substantialization ‘by Dumont and ‘ethnicization’ by Harold Gould and others. I re-emphasize, therefore, that even as we look at new work on the Indian village starting with the year 2000, we cannot ignore the deep roots that caste still has in rural life, governing behavior, influencing access to resources and basic rights to health and education, and of course strengthening gender discrimination. To site but one authoritative source, Susan Bayly (1999) in her major work on the subject of caste concludes. ‘If one is to do justice to India’s complex history , and to its contemporary culture and politics ,caste must be neither disregarded nor downplayed, its power has simply been too compelling and enduring (p.382)
Also noticeable is the growing corpus of literature on the syncretic role of religion and the use of oral history and narratives to understand the sensitive and topical issue of inter-community relations at the village level. Peter Gottschalk’s (2001) work, challenges prevailing assumption about the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and hatred between the two communities by examining the pattern of multiple relations that exist between them at the village level in western Bihar. He draws upon myth and historical narrative to understand how the communities define themselves, and describes the pasts of the village – somewhat reminiscent of Cohn’s seminal paper included in this volume. These narratives express group memory of the past in context of social relationship in the present, and allow for crosscutting allegiances to give rise to a local, regional, and national network of identities for the villages. Similarly, Jackie Assayer’s (2004) recent book examines relations between the two communities in the village and urban context in Karnataka. It looks at the process of historical acculturation that has allowed both communities to preserve their respective identities and yet at the same time creating what Assayag calls a ‘communal mosaic’. The book also considers how this dynamism is lost when it is contested by social agents involved in politics at the local, regional, and national levels creating an exclusivity not only of social life but also in the community memory .One more reason I mention Assayag’s book here is that it highlights the village –city continuum in the chosen context, which is surely true of other contexts too.
Equally important is academic work devoted to tribal life in India. Unfortunately again, as in the case of village studies in the more recent years, work focused on a single tribal village is no longer in vogue. Instead, snippets of village life in tribal India drawn from an overall description of a tribal community are more readily available, such as Narayan Mishra’s work (2004) that takes the reader across the tribal village from the north-east to central India, touching upon their lives as well as issues such as habitat and economy, tribal indebtedness, indigenous banking system, leadership patterns and so on. Also significant here are the varied writings on the tribal leader C.K. Janu. Interesting to read and readily available because of its increased importance recently, is work focused on participatory forms of development that have enabled change through sustainable development in different parts of the country. A good example is the excellent book by Nandini Sundar, Roger-jefferey etal (2001) which examines issues such as forest management , gender inequality , inter –village conflict and is based on village studies in Gujarat , Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh . Of similar significance is published work on watershed management such as that by Manish Thakur and B.K.pattnik(2002).
Last but not least I would once again like to invoke the richness and poignancy of other kinds of literature that directly or indirectly touch upon the trials and tribulations faced by villagers. I recommend here for instance Ashis Nandy’s (2001) original study that brings together politics, literature , social knowledge, and popular culture as he takes the reader on a journey from the village to the city through the event of partition, the cinematic genius of Pramathesh Barua and Mrinal Sen, and the mythological past of our tradition. Interestingly, Nandy draws attention to the fascination of the village for city –born or city- resident observers, whether anthropologists, creative writers, artists, or journalists. In this context, I mention the sociologist and social activist Amita Baviskar’s (2003), sensitive selection of writings from all over India about how rivers touch and shape the lives of people many of whom are villagers. In the same group of books are Manoj Das‘s(2004) story about growing up in an Orissa village and the simple and lovely collection of snake stories from Goa by Rahul Alvares (2003) . Even journalistic essays such as Gilbert Etienne’s on India ‘s villages (The Hindu,15 May2001), and the story of the devastation of India’s southern villages (The Hindu,15 May 2001),and the story of the devastation of India’s southern villages because of AIDS, by Kalpana Jain (Time of India, 7 March2002) , make equally poignant reading and may provide the student some food for thought and a wide ranging perspective on rural life . After all, India still is in so many ways a land of villages.
This book of readings attempts to present sociologically the way of life of the great majority of the people in India –about 74.27 per cent of the total population by present estimates, as compared to an 82.03 per cent in 1961- who make their home in her five hundred thousand and more villages. Needless to say, a way of life is not always chosen; often one is born to it. It is for each individual and each family, a heritage, a striving and above all. a personal experience .It is also an externally observable configurations social relationships that is, broadly speaking ,rule governed –whether by custom or by formal state made laws –and gives to the village a definable character. The village in India, it is believed, epitomizes the essence of Indian civilization as it is considered a repository of traditional mores and folkways. In being a currently lived social reality, it provides a framework for economic planning and social development, and other related efforts at modernizing traditional ways of life. It is thus also an appropriate forum for interdisciplinary research.
The objective of the present reader is to familiarize the interested student and general reader with the contributions made by sociologists and social anthropologists to the description and interpretation of village life in India .In what follows in this introductory essay, an attempt has been made to introduce the Indian village and this set of readings . A historical review of the village as a community, or of village studies generally, has not been attempted here. However, these themes have been touched upon briefly. Rather than focus on the caste system which is considered the defining feature of village life in India, and therefore a prominent feature of most village studies, I also examine some other basic aspects that make up village social structure and are common to most regions. These include aspects of kinship, polity, religion, and economy. I also look at the process of change and development taking place at the village and regional level .This is necessitated by the fact that village have always been subject to the vacillations of a modernizing environment.
The Village: From the Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century
Studies in social evolution have shown how nomadism was given up for village life once settled agriculture became a way of life. In India, the village (gram) finds mention in ancient texts and later epics. It is distinguished from the city (nagar) and the town or the fortress (pur), while all three stand in opposition to habitations of recluses in the forests (aranya). City life was not a major feature of the Vedic Age as the economy was mainly pastoral. Villages were, however, ubiquitous. According to Basham, the Indian village had not changed much from what it was like during the first millennium to what it was in the mid- twentieth century. Then, as now, ‘…..the villagers formed a self- conscious community’ (1954:150).
The Arthashastra (400BC-400AD) provides us with a classification of the king’s duties related to the administrative affairs of the village. For example, new villages could be brought into existence by enabling people to migrate from one place to another. These villages could be built on old ruin or at new sites. The size of a village and the composition of the population was laid down both in ethnic and occupational terms. Distribution and usage of land was also defined. The roles of the headman as the guardian of the village, and of the king as the ultimate protector were outlined (See Shamasastry 1967). The epic Mahabharata (400BC-400AD) similarly speaks of types of habitation and settlements, interrelations between and within villages, and identifies villages for purpose of governance. Manusmriti, the book of Brahminical laws (100AD-300AD) classifies villages in terms of their size and habitation (See Buhler 1886). Even the Kushan reliefs 200AD depict aspects of village life (Kosambi 1965 :16).
The fact that the presence of the village can be traced far back in India’s history creates a sense of timelessness and continuity. Al-Biruni’s celebrated Kitab-al-Hind (early- eleventh century) gives us an account of the caste occupation based village organization in the medieval times. These were seemingly times of great flux that resulted from population movements (Al-Biruni 1983; Chattopadhyaya 1990 ) Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the middle of the sixteenth century, commented on the rapid appearance and disappearance of hamlets and villages, and indeed of towns too (See Rizvi 1993:204-216). At the same time villages with growing populations and economic prosperity grew into towns.
A detailed study of the growth and character of the village from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries has been discussed by Habib (1999) in his book on the agrarian system of Mughal India. He relies on documents from practically all parts of India, and although his focus is peasant rights and tenancy, the information indirectly brings out the nature of social and cultural life in those times. He writes that the majority of the villages then were peasant, as agriculture was a commonly followed occupation, and caste identity was a qualifier. The role of the panchayat and the headman in everyday life is particularly emphasized. Relation, though primarily based on land, also found their basis in traditionally prescribed interaction between castes, giving rise to a system of specialized occupational service. There were also political relations that had their basis in the caste and agrarian system. This multiplicity of relations was an essential part of village life and emphasized that the village social structure was wider than just land- based relations.
A western bias in scholarship had tended to associate the village with stagnancy and the peasantry. This perspective changed once detailed descriptions of social life in rural India became available. As village studies became methodologically more sophisticated and theoretically better grounded, the role of caste, kinship, ritual and other such aspects in organizing village life came to be recognized. However distinct the villages were in their character, they were always a part of a wider social and civilizational matrix. No doubt a village was constantly adjusting to its changing socio-cultural and political environment, yet the customs and underlying its social structure, gave it stability and a sense of history.
By the late nineteenth century, an idealized image of the village as a self-contained community had been firmly established in colonial literature. This fitted in well with European descriptions of the peasant community based on the family farm (see Shanin 1971; Smith 1996). The peasantry itself was seen as a significant step in social evolution. Karl Marx contributed extensively to the making of the popular images of the Indian village in that period. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, he placed the village in Asia, just above the primitive and the barbican social forms, and described it as a self- contained community. For Marx, the Indian village was the mainstay of a stagnant oriented social system, where property was held in common by a whole village, and class conflict was absent. For him the Indian village represented a distinct autarchic economic system- the Asiatic mode of production-combining agriculture with manufacture. The uniqueness of the system, he believed also contributed to the unchanging and stifling character of society.
For Marx ‘…… these idyllic village communities ….retrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies…’ (1853 a: 94). The Indian village was for Marx, passive and unresisting to what was thrust upon it. While he was critical of the stagnant nature of the village economy, he also accused the British ‘intruder ‘of breaking up the Indian handloom and destroying the spinning wheel. Writing later in 1853 on European colonialism, Marx did, however, endorse the role of the empire as being the savior of the Asian masses, without whom there would be no emancipation. By introducing capitalist enterprise, he believed that the British would annihilate the old political economy (1853c) and lay instead, the foundation of a modern society and a new land holding system in India.
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