Anyone who has ventured to study, understand and examine the struggle of the Mahars of Maharashtra for a better life and status could never do so without reading Zelliot. The book under review is one of the two volumes brought out as a tribute to the life and works of Eleanor Zelliot. The contributors to this volume are friends and students and other scholars whose intellectual life has been touched by her inspiring personality. As the title of this volume suggests, various contributions take stock of religion and caste in a historical context largely focusing on the western Indian social formations. Though the editors of the volume are right in characterizing the release of the first volume of Subaltern Studies in 1982 as ‘a watershed in scholarly inquiry’, yet it is important to mention that caste with specific reference to dalits was never a priority in the writings of the subaltern scholars.
Most of the contributions in this volume seem to be in agreement that in the life of the Indian dalits and other lower castes religion was central to the construction of rejection, revolt and ideology against the caste system.
There is also an underlying assumption that without the medium of religion, revolt against the caste system was neither probable nor possible. Or one may go with Barrington Moore Jr, to argue that the Indian subalterns were so divided along various lines, such as caste and religion to name a few, that they could not unite and wage a struggle. The issue becomes complex when we touch upon the issue of religion in relation to social transformation. Detailed discussion of each of the fourteen contributions in this volume may turn out to be too cumbersome an exercise, but an attempt would be made here to highlight the significant issues raised by each article.
While commenting upon the argument of some social scientists that caste is a colonial construction, Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar make an interesting comment: ‘All social phenomena are constructed not by one set of actors only, but by all the members of society. And they are constructed within a context with an outcome that is not determined by the intentions of any individual or set of individuals . . . in social analysis it is not enough to take into account the meaning of the action of the actor; the ‘material’ social structure must be analysed (p. 19). Their article focuses on the Varkari movement in which the authors have made an attempt to interpret Tukaram’s poems. Tuka belongs to the medieval Bhakti radicals most of whom came from the low castes. It is interesting to note the contention of the authors that Tukaram provides the foundation for human rights in a much broader term in comparison to the current narrow discourse.
The article by Christian Lee Novetzke on Sant Namdev is based on the analysis of two films. The most interesting aspect about the life of Namdev is that he spent a major part of his active life in Punjab, quite away from his homeland, Maharashtra. Namdev is seen in the light of humanism and ‘imagination of a Hindu secular nation’. Both humanism and nation are concepts that fit into modernist discourse. Obviously, the film media portrays Namdev as the symbol of both secular nationhood and humanism. In certain respects the article by Janet M. Davis on sacred cows and the gospel of animal kindness in India and America respectively and the connection between the two provides very interesting insights. The Bharatiya Janata Party as an inheritor of the Indian tradition of protectors of cows has constructed an exclusivist nationhood.
To use folklore for the construction of social relationships and hierarchy, Ann Grodzins Gold has taken four narratives that collected from her fieldwork in Rajasthan. These narratives may not necessarily be confined to Rajasthan society. For example the narrative of weavers who danced like peacocks is also popular in Punjab though it is not the weavers who do it. Ridicule of folly getting embedded in the narratives is, as the author has rightly pointed out, ‘not only moral vision but an ironic edge’; it is like ‘believing in the divisive constraints of social structure’. The article on the demon King Bali by Youngblood is important in understanding how hierarchy and identity are negotiated in rural Maharashtra. By elaborately describing the festival of Pola—which is the veneration of Bali via worshipping of Bull, the author concludes: ‘The more deeply we look at the myth of Bali and its varied practices and implications in Maharashtrian society, the more we recognize him as a vehicle through which these hierarchies are debated, challenged or asserted’ (p. 104).
The theme of gender hierarchy and its inversion has been taken up in four articles covering different social trajectories of Indian society, which is quite interesting. The first article by Donna M. Wulff takes up the issue of upper caste women performers of a semi-dramatic musical form known as padavali kirtan in Bengal. On the basis of their life story Wulff has shown how these two women subverted a religious institution that was under the control of men. Not only that, they also showed the way to the other upper caste women to take up a career that is prohibited by the caste. Gail Minault, in her article on the Zenana, has made an attempt to provide altogether different meanings to the visible social exclusion of Muslim women. Drawing extensively from two texts written by Muslim reformers—one by Altaf Husain Hali and the other by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi—she has shown how the autonomous world of Muslims could be constructed. Paula Richman’s analysis of Bama’s—a Dalit Christian novelist—two novels, namely, Karukku and Sangati, provides insight into how we should situate the dalit experience in the centre of the history of South Asia. She points out that the narratives help us to understand multifaceted relationships involving dalits, landlords and modern institutions. Laura Dudley Jenkins focuses her analysis on the narratives of the experiences of dalit women who converted to Buddhism. She also points out the influence of John Dewey’s thoughts on Ambedkar. The significance of conversion should be understood, as the author points out, in terms of the changes in the self-identity of the dalit women and the unchanged attitudes of the upper castes. Conversion to Buddhism did not empower the women nor did it solve their problems, yet they experienced transformation in their lives.
Special reference should be made to the article that does not seem to directly fit into the scheme of this volume, but it becomes completely relevant if we assume that Ambedkar could fit into a divine image. Gopal Guru’s article on the multiple images of B.R. Ambedkar is primarily a critique of middle and upper class dalits who have begun to evade, avoid and hide their dalit identity and, in the process, have distanced themselves from Ambedkar and his mission. Not based on any fieldwork the views of the author could very well be his own perceptions that could ultimately prove unfounded, yet there is something very interesting in the problematic that has been raised by him. According to Guru, there are three images of Ambedkar that are constructed by dalits, namely, ‘Ambedkar as Maha Manav (a Great man), as messiah, and as a perfect modernist’ (p. 207). He is also of the view that there is an overemphasis on his image as a modernist in the areas of iconography, narratives and folk literature. Interestingly, Gary Mickael Tartakov in his article on new Buddhist imagery has lucidly shown how it gives us a ‘genuine revolutionary art’. Ambedkar is situated in the centre of the new imagery. In this regard, Guru’s assertion that there is overdetermination of the modernist image is a little out of place, for the new imagery is also a reinterpretation of the Buddhist tradition. Guru takes a normative stand when he argues, ‘One hopes that the Dalit masses can come to elevate Ambedkar not in terms of static statues but as an organic statue, one that through his philosophy can move, both intellectually and politically’ (p. 220). Syed Akbar Hyder’s article on the devotional songs in the qawwali genre is insightful in connecting different religious traditions to make one composite tradition in which ‘subaltern gravitas kindred in the spirit’. The volume’s significance lies in the fact that it forges, to use Hyder’s concluding remark, ‘a spirit of solidarity across the abodes of literature, religion, history, gender studies, and anthropology’ (p. 230). Any intellectual venture that aims at situating the dalits in the centre of the discourse must take cognizance of the multiple voices of the subalterns to situate them at their rightful place. However, certain questions would always remain unanswered though it is not necessary that there will be questions and there are definitive answers. What material forces led to the emergence of the composite tradition in India is a moot point that remains unexplored. Whether it was a combination of Hinduism with Islam or various other pre-Islamic indigenous traditions should become the inseparable starting point for such explorations. Is there a coincidence that the arrival of Muslim rule in the early medieval India also witnessed the emergence of artisan classes’ assertion in religious idiom? Exploring the emergence of the Bhakti tradition in its composite form, construction of iconography, evolution of religious art, narratives of various kinds has been the need of the hour and the present volume amicably fulfils the requirement. It is a work that would be read across disciplines in social sciences, religious studies and literature.
Paramjit Singh Judge is Professor of Sociology, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.