Pia Maria Malik
MODERNITY AND CHANGING SOCIAL FABRIC OF PUNJAB AND HARYANA
Edited by Yogesh Snehi and Lallan S. Baghel
Primus Books, Delhi, 2018, pp. 453, Rs.1295.00
SPATIALIZING POPULAR SUFI SHRINES IN PUNJAB: DREAMS, MEMORIES, TERRITORIALITY
By Yogesh Snehi
Routledge India, 2019, pp. 256, Rs.995.00
Snehi and Baghel’s edited volume is a compilation of papers presented at a conference at AIIS in 2010, on the topic of modernity and the changing social fabric of Punjab and Haryana. The essays in this volume are wideranging, and provide a contemporary perspective as well as historical context to many of the present concerns of the region. Some of the essays also provide possible correctives to contemporary problems, grounded in historical analyses of a variety of economic and cultural factors. The dimension of fieldwork based on economic and historical research is a valuable addition to the current debates about the social and political problems that the region faces today. Crucially, caste is a focal point for many of these essays.
The first section is concerned with the landscapes of modernity, and begins with Kumar Sanjay Singh’s overview of the relationship between the emergence of the modern nation-state and the manner in which regions have been prefigured into the ‘modernist project’ since the late nineteenth century, focusing on Nehru’s interventions and the culmination of regionalism as the guiding force in party politics. Navprit Kaur studies Chandigarh as a living artefact of Nehruvian modernity, particularly the manner in which class boundaries and physical geographies affected each other, with a lovely little excursion into the popular music that is produced in and about the city. Mahima Manchanda interrogates the manner in which ‘proper Sikh girls’ were constructed through the Sikh Kanya Mahavidyala, and how this was related to the creation of a distinct religious community identity.
The explication and interplay of caste identities through moments of crisis is evoked in various ways. Ajay Kumar and Bhupendra Yadav each attempt to understand the historical and socio-economic context of the Jat community’s interference in matrimonial relations through the system of Khap panchayats, and connect the rising violence to the desire for the ownership and inheritance of land. Manjit Singh and Steve Taylor study the social relations of debt bondage with reference to historically subjugated castes. The essay by Sukhpal Singh, HS Kingra and Sangeet is a rather dry but richly detailed study on the impact of the Green Revolution and the resultant agrarian crisis, with an economic explanation for the most visible outcome of this crisis, which is the suicide of farmers. Vishav Bharti’s paper describes the other social and cultural impacts of the crisis, such as the suicide of agricultural labourers, and the adoption of survival strategies like mass weddings by the new generation. The section on the state, institutions and inheritance comprises three essays. Jatinder Singh’s essay is about the legal avenues for the redressal of grievances available to scheduled castes, and the institutionalization of dissent as a result of which the mode of resistance is changing from mass movements to the individual filing of complaints. K Gopal Iyer describes the impact of globalization and certain governmental policies regarding land and housing rights on the status of scheduled castes in both States. There is also the interesting essay of Prem Chowdhry on the changing attitudes towards female inheritance in Haryana.
The last section is on identities formed at times of spatial movement and transformation. Radhika Chopra presents a rich and variegated picture of the making and claiming of Southall as home, which she takes as an archetype in the pattern of settlement and ethnic identity. Anjali Gera Roy contributes a compelling study of Bhangra and the global cultural sphere which it inhabits, as well as its interplay with the Jat identity, and the potential it contains for direct political intervention. Paramjit S Judge deals with the question of violence and identity politics in Punjab through the mobilization of a caste community. Finally, Diepiriye Kuku-Siemons presents a ‘fragmented biography’ of two Punjabi youths, relaying snippets gained from participant observation and interviews to conceptualize experiences of same-sex sexuality and consumerism.
The essays in this volume speak to a far wider scholarship than that concerning modernity and social change. This aspect of fieldwork in particular is very valuable, in that the essays deal with contemporary concerns and provide hard data about their origins, development, and possible solutions to problems. The introduction, the only shortcoming to this interesting and wide-ranging set of essays, focuses somewhat pedantically on the issue of modernity, which seems to have lost its temporality. Instead, the real value of these studies is that they provide an understanding of social change by deploying a combination of methods, theories, techniques, and disciplines to paint a vivid picture of modern Punjab and Haryana, especially the socio-economic context in which many contemporary trends emerged. The focus on caste identities is an important corrective to conventional studies about this region. As the editors themselves admit, the story they present is incomplete without taking into account the effects of Partition and contemporary Muslim identities. The volume would have benefited from a conclusion which foregrounded the importance of these interventions, or even indications to the construction of a new modernity as indicated by some of the essays.
The second book under review is Snehi’s monograph, wherein he explores the ‘organic’ lives of popular Sufi shrines in contemporary Northwest India, and by traversing the worldview of shrine spaces, rituals and their complex narratives, attempts to provide an insight into their rural and urban landscapes in post-Partition (Indian) Punjab. Snehi endeavours to historicize and spatialize these shrines in order to lay out crucial contours of the method and practice of understanding popular sacred spaces, bridging the everyday and the meta-narratives of power structures and state formation. He also attempts to offer a corrective to the scholarly tendency to study mainstream religions by recourse to their origins, conflict, secularism and syncretism, and advocates an alternate approach by which quotidian religiosities can be comprehended through historical anthropology.
In the introduction, ‘Situating Popular Veneration’, Snehi relays some intellectual debates between the Naths, Sufis and Bhaktas to argue that there exists a vibrant narrative thread between these three traditions which defines the contours of popular veneration in contemporary times. By looking at the ‘residue’—the rituals and symbols at the popular shrines in contemporary Punjab—Snehi observes how religion is received, interpreted, and practiced in the lives of the ordinary. Snehi argues that shrines are usually studied as agencies of pluralism and syncretism or as sites of competition and conflict over who gets to control them, and he wants to bring in ‘the trope of the everyday’ to capture the lived meanings and expression of religious practice.
The first chapter, ‘Historiography, Fieldwork and Debates on Sacred Shrines’ begins with a methodological excursus into historical anthropology, wherein ‘text’ and ‘field’ are used to enrich each other, revealing the realms of everyday life. It contains three case studies of popular shrines, including personal narratives and popular stories, and miscellaneous details about the rituals and practices of participants and custodians. Some interesting assertions are set up but remain unresolved, such as the comment that ‘we need to invent models of fieldwork that aren’t limited to meta-frames of historiography but frames that capture complex social reality’ (p. 56). The author argues for the method of ‘understanding the lived lives of Punjabis not as subsumed within dominant meta-narratives of Sanskritization and Islamization or syncretism/tolerance versus conflict’and instead recommends seeing Punjabi social history as overlapping layers of ruptures, change and continuities, rather than neatly defined vertical layers (p. 81, p. 83). He therefore processes this rich fieldwork somewhat simplistically, arguing that we need to look at the everyday rituals to understand the current dynamics of shrines, which amounts to a truism. While he reproduces a lot of scholarship on memory and history, it is not clear how Snehi himself comprehends the use of memories and legends as sources of history or historical anthropology.
The next chapter concerns ‘Shrines,Wilayat and Lived Landscapes’, wherein Snehi explores the popular wilayat (both space and territoriality) of a tradition through a shrine dedicated to the Panj Pirs at Abohar, and illustrates the ways it reconfigures the post-Partition environment. He argues that space plays a crucial role in the imagination of the sacred landscape, and that even after territorial demarcation, the popular imagination of the sacred territory transcends the limits posed by the nation-state boundaries. Space is particularly important to be able to understand such popular shrines that have no saint hagiographies or documented history of establishment and evolution, and Snehi contends that the power implicit in memorial spaces and graves gets legitimized through rituals which make the places sacred. Dargahs and popular rituals are ‘a significant articulation of saint veneration, mediated through the continuous flow of a saint’s power and sovereignty in the contemporary contexts’ (p. 124). The author applies notions of power and sovereignty without clarifying where they emanate from and how exactly they are articulated and instead concludes that the tradition of Panj Pir cannot be located within the domain of either major Sufi orders of Punjab, and that the conception of wilayat in this tradition constitutes a significant articulation of popular imagination and provides an insight into the organic interplay of popular tradition with the everyday lives of people in contemporary Punjab.
The chapter on ‘Dreams, Memories, Dissent’ analyses how groups and/or individuals negotiate their subjectivities with linear historical narratives through the sustenance and restitution of social memory by studying saint veneration, everyday commemorative ceremonies, and bodily practices at the shrines of popular Sufi mystics. This chapter also includes three case studies where dreams and vision experiences perform a central narrative function. Here, Snehi follows Richard Eaton’s explorations on Bengal and Punjab, and questions how, after Partition, people of diverse religions could participate in these shrines. Dreams are seen as elements of the dreamer’s past but also a projection into a culturally articulated future, with the relatively modest assertion that these dream narratives ‘have a considerable relationship with the contemporary social formation’ (p. 166).
The last chapter is about ‘Popular Art, Circulation, and the Visualization of Space’. This very interesting chapter explores audio-visual material and describes how different forms of media bring forth diverse articulations of piety. Carl Ernst has emphasized the importance of this approach, but Snehi’s research in this area is quite valuable as he demonstrates and substantiates how mass media is being used to construct religious identities.
The two books under review have little in common except an editor/author and a focus on fieldwork. In both books, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and the repetition of sentences create space for ambiguity of meaning in the narrative. In Snehi’s monograph, each chapter begins with a dense literature review in which there is no clear conceptual connection. There is often no clear distinction between a recollection or story from an oral interview, information taken from a secondary source, a historical text or artefact, and the author’s own assertions. It is therefore sometimes difficult to discern what Snehi himself has to say on a particular topic. Due to the author’s tendency to reproduce direct quotations, it is sometimes unclear whether the theoretical point of another scholar is also his own view. A lot of space is devoted to debates about syncretism, Islamization, the subaltern, and the articulation of power at these popular shrines, but besides claiming that their terms are inadequate, there is not enough positive engagement with these embedded concepts. On the question of how power operates at these shrines, there is no mention of Simon Digby’s work on tabarrukat, let alone the scholarship of the last four decades which has combined methods of fieldwork with the study of the social spaces of particular shrines. Essentially, Snehi claims to have connected the narratives and practices of shrines that were hitherto ‘peripheralized’ by Indian historiography to ‘notions of power and sovereignty embedded in shrines’ (p. 229). This power is however atemporal and ahistorical, and Snehi himself does not interrogate where it comes from or how it is articulated, though he often points to its existence. The question of how these shrines interact with each other, and the manner in which they articulate their relationships in this potentially competitive ‘lived landscape’ is overlooked. What are the sources of the power and sovereignty which these shrines access and deploy, and in what manner are the practices at these shrines related to the so-called mainstream religions and the state? Barkat, literally a blessing, is variously translated as power and prosperity, but there is no reflection on how this flows through the various stakeholders and participants of these shrines. Nevertheless, these stylistic and theoretical criticisms aside, at the core of this book is an extremely interesting study which contains fascinating stories about the current practices, imaginal vistas, and historical contexts of popular shrines in Punjab.
Pia Maria Malik teaches in the University of Delhi, Delhi.