Caste as capital

Print edition : February 15, 2019

Traditional silk sari weaving in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu. A file picture. Photo: V. GANESAN

The “Tirupati perumal vasthram” with a width of 72 inches and a length of 12 yards is made specially for the presiding deity of Tirumal-Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. A salesman displays the “vasthram” at Nalli Silks in T. Nagar, Chennai, which specialises in weaving it. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The book makes important observations on the relevance of caste affinities for minority caste groups, such as the Padma Saliyars, whose trade interests are protected not through class alliances but through the creation of a caste identity.

THE plight of handloom weavers in Tamil Nadu is marked by poverty, misery and distress leading to suicides among them. Two instances that conjure up an image of weavers in distress are the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-initiated community gruel centres for starving weavers, and the Tamil film Kanchivaram with a captivating plot on the sufferings of silk weavers.

The protagonist in the film, Venkatam, an impoverished silk weaver, despite generations of his family being involved in silk weaving, does not find a piece of silk cloth to wrap his father’s body with. The desire to weave a silk sari for his daughter’s wedding is thwarted by the horrid circumstances of poverty, a dysfunctional family and labour exploitation. The endless mental agony makes him poison his daughter, whose body he covers with the incomplete silk sari he had woven with silk threads stolen from yarn meant for making a sari for a temple deity. The film ends with a communist resolution of weavers’ cooperatives for ending the crisis.

The book under review, We Who Wove With Lotus Thread, neither offers such images of weaver vulnerability nor does it offer any resolution of class collectivism. Instead, it invites us to look at how caste serves as social and cultural capital in protecting the material interest of the Telugu-speaking silk weaving community of Padma Saliyars of Tamil Nadu under harsh conditions of economic distress.

The politics of caste mobilisation has been a major theme in writing the history of colonial and post-colonial south India. The centrality assigned to caste in colonial governance in south India resulted in caste and caste-based mobilisation gaining significance in politics, and it is not surprising that south Indian history, too, has predominantly focussed on the theme of caste. In post-colonial India, the politics of caste-based reservation, the Mandal Commission mainly, brought in fresh debates on the questions of silence and speakability in terms of caste, leading to renewed interest in studying caste identities and the interiority of caste.

The myriad ways of engaging with the caste question has also led to enquiries on everyday transactions of caste within the household and beyond, in terms of its production and reproduction, mainly in the context of labour and capital. An example of this is David Rudner’s influential study on the Nattukottai Chettiars (the banking caste) that tells us how members of this caste group intensely invest in caste as their social and symbolic capital through their close attention to ritual prerogatives, marriage alliances and gifts and endowments, which in turn enable capital accumulation, distribution and investment.

We Who Wove With Lotus Thread follows the above trend in nuancing the caste history of the Padma Saliyars, a minority caste group with a population of eight lakhs, that is, 1 per cent of the population in Tamil Nadu. While they are mainly weavers, a few like Nalli Chinnasamy Chetti and his sons and grandsons have entered the sari trade. Nalli Chinnasami Chetti Pvt Ltd, and the group’s various enterprises such as Nalli Silks and Nalli Next, are examples of a successful model of entrepreneurship in the silk sari trade across the world.

Interestingly, being a minority community, this caste group has no political representation and its mobilisation has been mainly as weaver-entrepreneurs at the service of capital.

However, as this book highlights, there have been interesting historical moments when this caste group did make a political representation to be included in the Backward Caste category and later in the Other Backward Classes. But until the late 1990s, the Padma Saliyars had no significant presence in public service or in professional courses in education. The author observes that there was only one male engineer from the community during that period.

This excellent monograph on caste and work makes important observations on the relevance of caste affinities for minority caste groups such as the Padma Saliyars, whose trade interests are protected not through class alliances but through the creation of a bounded caste identity.

Importantly, it explains how the consolidation of caste collective could counter effectively the internal differences among community members, whose vulnerability to class conflicts have been accentuated by neoliberal economic transformations.

The Padma Saliyars constructed their distinct weaver caste identity in terms of their hereditary talent of weaving with the fibre of the lotus stem thread. (The Padma Saliyars trace their ancestry to the mythical Bhuvanarishi. He embodies their work culture as legend has it that every part of his body represented the loom. Vishnu Puranam mentions weavers who wove with the lotus stem that emanated from Vishnu’s navel. The Padma Saliyars believe that Vishnu ordained them to weave.)

Auspicious weavers

This, according to the author, served the purpose of distinguishing their work practices from other weavers and producers of cloths by attributing a specific cultural value of auspiciousness to their weaving.

What is also distinct about the Padma Saliyars is their claim to upper caste status on a par with Brahmins through their adherence to Sanskritic Hinduism. However, such a claim by the Padma Saliyars, though not uncommon among the upwardly mobile caste groups in Tamil Nadu, was closely linked to their primary concern of protecting their work identity by distinguishing themselves as “auspicious weavers”. For instance, the thread ceremony performed for male Padma Saliyars , although resembling the Brahmin ritual practice, was not meant to assimilate the community into brahminism but to claim equal status for their artisanal work with the “mental labour” performed by Brahmins as preachers and interpreters of the Vedas. (“They have the Vedas, we have the weaving,” was their assertion to such a claim.)

Similarly, their claim to caste privileges as divinely endowed silk weavers who were ritually privileged to offer the temple flag in silk (for kodi utsavam, or flag festival) was also to overcome their status of numerical minority among other weaver communities and to improve their bargaining power with merchants.

Connecting the colonial history of such caste claims, Aarti Kawlra shows how the claims to ritual purity and high social status enabled this caste to avoid peasantisation of weavers and enabled them to become employees in the state-promoted handloom industry.

In independent India, the Hindu revival politics of the Padma Saliyars, as the book claims, enabled them to combat intra-caste class conflicts triggered by uncertainties in the handloom industry and served the interests of a few caste entrepreneurs, who had to ensure that the weaver-caste guild worked efficiently in order to enhance their silk sari trade.

As the book demonstrates, the Padma Saliyars’ claim as weavers of silk cloth for god enabled them to overcome their minority and “subaltern” status among the other weaving communities and caste groups and take advantage of the state’s programme for development of handloom weaving and promotion of craft heritage.

The neoliberal context of market volatility and the vanishing handloom industries revealing the community’s extreme vulnerability and the fragility of the caste guild, has pushed the Padma Saliyars to re-articulate their caste identity as ritually endowed work identity.

In the light of the above contexts, the book strongly recommends a re-reading of such caste histories in the light of how caste serves as social and economic security, mainly for artisanal and working caste groups. One may recall here Ram Manohar Lohia’s insightful observance about caste serving as social security for many in India: “Caste is presumably the world’s largest insurance for which one does not pay a formal or regular premium. Solidarity is always there when everything else fails.”

For Lohia, it is this system of insurance without any cost or premium that makes the system more resilient and durable mainly in the eyes of those “insiders”/members of caste groups. Caste as social solidarity, even when economic cooperation fails or fragments under the new market system, matters to the Padma Saliyars, and this matters to many such “minority” caste groups that are otherwise fragile and insecure in the political/public sphere. It is with such boundedness, these caste groups tended to practice segregation by denying similar social security to other “minority” castes from below, such as Dalits.

In recent years, learning about caste-based societies has got entangled in identity fixing, which has ossified discussions on caste, class and gender as relational categories.

“Who speaks for whom”, though very important, has contributed to the limiting of liberal knowledge practices and new enquiries in studying caste, as in the case of the Nadar caste protests against a historian’s account of colonial conditions of existence for this caste or in the controversy over the visual representation of B.R. Ambedkar in a political science textbook.

Such surveillance, boundary setting and policing of academic enquiries on caste and caste histories have contributed, in no small measure, to the freezing of caste into ascribed and embodied qualities without allowing us to investigate the relational aspects of caste as material and lived reality.

We Who Wove With Lotus Thread remarkably unsettles such tendencies of boundary setting or surveillance by caste groups with its sympathetic yet impartial enquiry into the Padma Saliyars’ consciousness of caste as an articulation of privilege as well as subalternity in their encounters with neoliberal production relations.

Anandhi S. is a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

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