The dynamics of popular culture

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Situating Social History: Orissa (1800-1997) by Biswamoy Pati; Orient Longman, 2001; pages 182 (Hardback), Rs.380.

THE book under review brings together a collection of essays, which spans almost a decade of the author's pioneering work on diverse issues in the social history of Orissa. While the themes addressed range from collective action, popular culture, literary projects, and ecological and medical histories, what provides the unifying theme is the author's enduring interest in the study of popular culture and its dynamics, being shaped by the "interaction of the common people with the structure of domination, power and control"(page viii).

The first chapter, "Siting the Body: Perspective on Health and Medicine in Colonial Orissa", contributes to the expanding interest in the social and cultural history of medicine in the colonies. The attempt is to focus on the ways in which indigenous tribal communities located issues related to disease and medicine. But the argument against the idyllic autonomy of the indigenous drives the author to explore the complex interaction between tribal communities and of the non-tribal approaches and colonial systems, generating spaces for negotiation and contestation. The case of smallpox is a pertinent example, bringing out "hidden tensions and complexities in the sharpest possible way" (page 6). We see that a variety of smallpox deities (Joogah Pennoo, Dharma Pinnu and Mata, among the Kandhas, the Kuttia Kandhas and the Didayis respectively) have been invented by the tribal communities in the course of the 19th century to cope with the crisis. Linking certain diseases with the symbols or agents of colonialism brings forth such contestations more directly.

The Kandhas of Subarnaghurry, after refusing inoculation in the 1860s, held the Paikas (a caste group that had been steadily dispossessing the tribal people of their land) responsible for the problem of smallpox, since they were "the means of getting the sircar and causing smallpox to prevail among them" (page 7).

Similarly, the Sauras invented Sahibosum (probably a European as well as a touring official) as the carrier of cholera. Thus the colonial smallpox vaccination drive became a site of both contestation and acceptance. Refusal to get vaccinated on grounds of caste or religion co-existed with appeals to send the "sircar vaccinator". In fact, opportunists, who inoculated them, charged high fees and exploited the tribals.

According to the author, to a great extent the Oriya middle class and the upper-caste intelligentsia internalised the colonial discourse of science and denounced the indigenous system, although areas of acceptance of the same and an incipient critique of the colonial health system were not totally absent. The "discourse of science and colonial power/knowledge" as the author employs it seems too monolithic and free of internal inconsistencies and perhaps needs a more nuanced formulation.

Chapter two, "The High-Low Dialectic in Fakirmohana's Chamana Athaguntha: Popular Culture, Literature and Society in Nineteenth-Century Orissa," is an attempt at both contextualising a literary text and demystifying its author. Both the text and the author are located in the various changes under way in 19th century colonial Orissa, the premises being that "a writer and his/her creation are intrinsically related and not independent of each other or of forces outside the domain of both" (page 28).

The colonial urbanisation of Cuttack, the birth of an Oriya press, and, perhaps most importantly the efforts of the Oriya intelligentsia to forge a separate identity through the creation of a `standard' Oriya language was the milieu that was critical in shaping Fakirmohan Senapati's literary project. The shift to the "impure" spoken Oriya of the coastal region in Fakirmohan's Chamana was symptomatic of a search for an independent language. According to the author, the text of Chamana Athaguntha (Six Acres and Eight Decimals) captures overwhelmingly through the prism of the upper-caste/class Oriya intellectual the undercurrents of 19th century Oriya society.

Fakirmohan's humanitarian presentation of the weaver couple and the exploitative power structure in the countryside are overridden by upper-caste/class anxiety over upward social mobility, a fear of female sexuality and a fear of collective protest from the "lower orders" and the location of the Muslim "other".

In a similar vein we see a muted anti-colonial discourse in the text, walking a tightrope between an incipient critique of the colonial judicial-administrative system and an internalisation of the colonial classification of Orissa history into Hindu-Muslim-Maratha-British, with the British as the liberators of the Oriyas. However, questions regarding the formation of the Oriya identity receive a cavalier treatment, reducing it to an uncomplicated upper-caste/class affair.

In "The Murder of Banamali: Collective Action and Popular Culture" the "gruesome murder" of Banamali Pati in Balangana in 1928 provides an interesting entry point to trace back the configuration of events that lead to the murder. In the wake of this attempt we come across several aspects of the social history of Balangana. The author shows that the murder of Banamali, who played the role of the estate manager of his absentee landlord, had its roots in the region's agrarian structure. In the virtual absence of the landlord, the power structure in the countryside was firmly in the hands of Banamali Pati. It was derived from both his position as naib and his position in the caste hierarchy. The backing of the zamindar made Banamali decisive in all land settlements, official recruitments and distribution of service jagirs, and the settlement of land disputes. In his desire to expand his own landed property, Banamali resorted to a host of manipulative strategies, ranging from mortgages, the takeover of unoccupied land and its distribution to Brahmins, including his own relatives, and money-lending.

An ensemble of cultural and religious practices legitimised Banamali's position and was vital in the reproduction of his power. The peasants' protest moved through unheard petitioning to various authorities and a fruitless, direct meeting with the landlord only to culminate in a plan to murder Banamali. The act of murder exhibited carnival-like images symbolising the inversion of the naib's authority over his "subjects" and transgressing the boundaries of the dominant codes of peasant protest in colonial Orissa.

"Documenting the Peasant: Images in Oriya Literature of the 1930s" involves a study of the Oriya literature of the decade, taking five major literary figures as its signposts - Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, Ramprasad Singh, Bhagabati Charan Panigrahi, Sachidananda Routroy and Banchanidhi Mohanti.

The ways in which middle-class Oriya intellectuals made the peasant and the tribal people central in their literary agenda constitute the staple of this chapter. The author delineates the ways in which realism, as a literary mode, informed the works and how a sharper critique of the colonial/feudal system emerged through the writings. While the synoptic sketches of some of the representative works of the literary stalwarts make interesting reading, an attempt to present an ineluctable march of progress from Kalini Charan Panigrahi's Gandhian idealism and individual sacrifice to the later writers' endowment of a more radical agency to the peasants and the tribal people is perhaps unproblematised.

Chapter 5, "Tracing the social history of a Famine: Kalhandi (1800-1992)", through a study of Kalahandi, a name that has emerged as a metaphor for famine, chases the roots of a chronic crisis far back from the pre-colonial period. The steady withering away of the umrao system in which the tribal people, overwhelmingly the Kandhas, held common rights started in the pre-colonial times through a complex process of peasantisation of the tribal people, encouraging the Kultas to settle down in the area and by making land grants to Brahmins. The steady loss of land, desertions into the hills and forests and scarcities made the Kandhas resort to human sacrifice (meriah), for the appeasement of nature. The anti-meriah offensive in the mid-19th century brought about a feudal-colonial alliance and speeded up further the process of dispossession of the Kandhas.

The gradual incorporation of the region into the ambit of colonial market forces exposed the region to frequent price fluctuations. The two summary settlements of 1883 and 1888, after the colonialist had taken charge of direct administration in 1882, perfected further a system of exploitation through high rent demands, innumerable levies, forest restrictions and the mechanism of debt. By the last quarter of the 19th century the region was well in the throes of a systemic crisis compounded by a near-total ecological disaster owing to large-scale deforestation for building the colonial railway and reclaiming land for cultivation.

The author carries the grim story of Kalahandi well into post-Independence times in an effort to induce some "hard thinking on the nature of post-colonial development". The post-Independence account, we are told, relies largely on available statistics and the author's own field visits.

The statistics on food production for 1989-1990 show Kalahandi to be a food surplus district, highlighting the contradiction between production and distribution. But the author does not pursue the specific mechanisms through which this contradiction works. The author's account of different areas of Kalahandi tells a bleak tale of the precarious living conditions of the people in a region suffering from chronic agrarian crisis and of a situation marked by limited avenues of alternative employments, a failure of state relief and developmental projects and state complicity in perpetuating the crisis.

We are also offered a glimpse of the popular notions about the continuing crisis and the ways in which it seems to strengthen the system of patriarchy. Although the author rightly criticises the view that holds colonialism as a watershed in ecological catastrophe, his attempt to establish post-colonial continuities seems less substantiated.

Chapter six, "Between `Then' and `Now': Popular memory in Orissa", is an exploration of the dynamics of the formation of popular memory. It looks at the ways in which it is fashioned through the workings of dominant power relations and their contestation by the subaltern. It seeks to demonstrate the historical "rootedness" of such memories, and their importance as a "source material" for the social historian. It simultaneously underlies the various ambivalences within which these memories are mired.

One of the significant points that the author addresses is the "circularity" between the elite and popular spheres, demonstrating in very clear terms that it is impossible to assume an autonomy for the latter. The chapter gives us a synoptic overview of the beliefs and the legends that could serve as a glance into the much larger world of popular politics. It deals briefly with the popular memory regarding colonial intervention and modernisation, gender, caste, disasters, exploiters, and Muslims.

Perhaps the most fascinating beliefs that the author deals with are those regarding colonial taxation. Thus it was supposed that "taxes would fall on those who walked on the village path, who `swung' an arm, who carried an umbrella, or who fed Brahmins" (page 141). The example of the transformation of the popular attitude regarding the Mahima cult, from a reputation for "non-conformism" to an increased respectability in the more recent times (one index of this being the much greater following in the cities) and a consequent denial of its "shameful" past reinforces the point regarding the reciprocity between the elite and popular spheres.

Chapter seven, "Field Notes Koraput: Perceptions in a Changing Society" is a straight narration of the author's field visits among the tribal and non-tribal people in different areas of Koraput district. It tells a dismal tale of a region where the State development projects and plans have created more problems than solving any and are looked upon with suspicion by the tribal people.

The collection of seven articles written from an admirable combination of source material makes perceptive reading and shows the wide possibilities in the field of social history. The author's disclosure of continuities across colonial and post-colonial times is perceptive, but given the ambitious time span of the book, one feels that the post-colonial area remains sketchily worked upon. With the reliance on a couple of statistics and field notes, the drawing of parallels remains an effort in well-meaning but tenuous generalisations. Despite these minor shortcomings, Pati's volume certainly constitutes a significant intervention in contemporary Indian social history.

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