Print edition : November 25, 2016

Paddy fields in Kodagahalli. Srinivas notes how agriculture was the main activity in the village then. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

1948: M.N. Srinivas in Kodagahalli with 10-year-old K.J. Chikkajavarappa. Photo: From the Collection of Lakshmi Srinivas

M.N. Srinivas. Photo: The Hindu Archives

K.J. Chikkajavarappa, the current headman of the village, in front of the "bullock house" where Srinivas stayed while doing his fieldwork in 1948. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

The Maarigudi temple, patronised by the Dalits of the village. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

The Basava temple. Its facade has not changed since Srinivas visited it in 1948. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

Patel Javari Gowda, the headman of the village in 1948. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

A visit to Kodagahalli, made famous as Rampura by the social anthropologist M.N. Srinivas in his book The Remembered Village, shows how caste relations have mutated in the 60-odd years since his stay in the village. A tribute to his legacy on the occasion of his birth centenary year.

THE death of M.N. Srinivas on November 30, 1999 marked a profound moment in the field of social sciences in India—an intellectual giant had passed. In an obituary, Andre Beteille, a distinguished sociologist who knew Srinivas well, wrote: “The passing of M.N. Srinivas marks the end of an era in the life of the social sciences in India. He dominated sociology in the country more than any other single person among his contemporaries or his predecessors, and it is difficult to think of anyone who can fill the place vacated by him” ( Economic & Political Weekly, January 2000). During his long career, Srinivas wrote a number of books and essays on a wide variety of themes, but, in this extensive corpus, it was clear that The Remembered Village, his monograph based on his intensive study of a single village, meant a lot to him.

In 1948, Srinivas, then in his early thirties, landed in Kodagahalli, a few days after the death of Mahatma Gandhi, to start his fieldwork. He writes: “After what appeared to me a long period of waiting, I moved into the village with Nachcha, my cook, and twenty-six pieces of luggage.” Srinivas was not new to fieldwork then. He had already published his first work, Marriage and Family in Mysore (1942), which was based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Bombay. He had also done extensive fieldwork in Coorg by this time, which would lead to the publication of the landmark Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India (1952). This book popularised his concept of “Sanskritisation”.

There was nothing in Kodagahalli to distinguish it from the thousands of villages in the subcontinent, but it fulfilled Srinivas’ requirements as it was a relatively large multi-caste village (it had 19 Hindu caste groups and one Muslim group with a population of 1,523) which was not “progressive” or “modern” and seemed ideally suited to an intense study. It was located around 30 kilometres from the city of Mysuru (formerly Mysore). Srinivas’ natal village was also not far away and his fluency in Kannada was another factor that influenced his choice of this village for his study. He would live in Kodagahalli for 11 months, collecting material for his academic study and going back for shorter durations over the next few years.

Rising from the ashes

Srinivas intended to write the much-postponed monograph of the village in 1970 while he was at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University, but the project was almost stillborn as he lost his edited notes in a fire set by student arsonists protesting against the United States’ war in Vietnam. Srinivas writes about this incident: “The arsonists had adopted a simple but effective technique, leaving Molotov cocktails in the glass-walled telephone booths outside the studies, and, as ill-luck would have it, there was a telephone booth just outside mine. In about two hours or less my study was burnt down.”

While he was in the throes of the deep depression that overwhelmed him after this incident, Srinivas was urged by the American anthropologist Sol Tax to write the book from memory. Srinivas did that in a phenomenal mental exercise, a fact that explains the book’s title The Remembered Village. Published in the 60th year of Srinivas’ life (1976), it went on to become a classic and endure as one of the most fascinating social anthropological studies of an Indian village. By this time, Srinivas had won the reputation as a leading institution-builder as well. He had already established sociology departments at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), apart from founding the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bengaluru along with V.K.R.V. Rao.

Prof. A.M. Shah, 85, former head of the Department of Sociology at the DSE, and Srinivas’ first student in India after he came back from the University of Oxford, described The Remembered Village as a “…mature work. It can be considered to be the novel that a writer writes after accomplishing himself as a short story writer.” The short stories in this case were the many academic papers that Srinivas had written about the village in the intervening period between his fieldwork and the publication of The Remembered Village.

Readers will find it interesting to note that the actual name of the village that Srinivas immortalised in his book is not Rampura, but Kodagahalli. Srinivas describes the geographical location of the village with tremendous precision but chose to use a generic name for the village. This subterfuge continues through the book as he uses pseudonyms to describe the various characters that populate the village. The strongest character in the book, the headman, who serves as the locus for the elaborate universe of the village, remains unnamed throughout.

According to Shah, it was a common practice for anthropologists to use pseudonyms considering the staggering amount of personal information that they collect during the course of their study. The risk of defamation cases from individuals was also a real possibility. Srinivas’ account is candid and he freely discusses the personal lives of his characters and customs, including the relative ease with which some of them were carrying on extramarital affairs and consuming cannabis. “What is important in anthropology is not that particular person but the ‘type’ of individual,” said Shah.

An ethnographic portrait

The book, an ethnographic portrait of a village, does not have a bibliography or the theoretical discussions that mark academic work and is accessible to a layperson interested in the multifarious world of an Indian village. An epigraph by Marcel Mauss, a well-known French sociologist, sets the tone for the writing that is to follow: “The anthropologist has ‘to be also a novelist able to evoke the life of a whole society’.”

The book is divided into 11 chapters. Perhaps the best chapter is the one on the “Three Important Men” of the village: the authoritative headman, his mate Nadu Gowda, and the unambitious Kulle Gowda. The manner in which Srinivas constructs these three characters would be the envy of an accomplished storyteller. In later chapters, he discusses the universe of agriculture, gender relations, caste, religion and factions in the village, social relations and the impact of modernity, and preliminary linkages with urban towns like Mysuru. His close study of Kodagahalli provided him with the intellectual resources to make inferences that stood him in good stead in the remainder of his academic career.

As an observer with a camera, Srinivas wrote about the village from his perspective and many of his observations remain germane to research even today. He writes with great warmth and humility. The writing is marked by a lack of indignation and polemical flourish. For a student of social anthropology as well as a discerning journalist, the takeaways are many.

Writing style

Part of the popularity of The Remembered Village comes from its writing style, which has been compared to that of a novel, a journal as well as a lyric. Sample this description of one of the characters: “Chenna had a big hooked nose, pointed chin, and his mouth was in a recess between the two. He had several teeth missing and as he laughed, he looked like a Walt Disney cartoon.” Srinivas’ descriptions of the villagers and their lives are a major draw of the book. Lakshmi Srinivas, daughter of Srinivas and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, commented on his writing: “My father’s writing style was his own and he wrote short stories when he was younger which were published in newspapers. He also loved literature and appreciated good and clear and unpretentious writing.”

It is hard to say now whether Srinivas’ great friendship with R.K. Narayan had any influence on his writing style. G.K. Karanth, Srinivas’ student and former professor of sociology at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) in Bengaluru, seems to think so. He said: “There was a strong intellectual bond between Srinivas and Narayan which went back a long time…. One could see a reflection of Malgudi in The Remembered Village which was Srinivas’ Rampura.”

Some social scientists have called out The Remembered Village for not presenting a coherent and consistent argument but nonetheless find it redeeming itself as an academic work. A review in Modern Asian Studies (1980), for instance, says: “ The Remembered Village has many fascinating details… but its lack of apparent point (and the lack of intellectual energy in its composition) is disappointing to the point of irritation.”

When Srinivas died in 1999, the village that he had studied so closely and from where some of his ideas about caste, especially the notion of the “dominant caste”, seem to have originated, was unaware of his passing. Conversations with Srinivas’ acquaintances give one a sense that while he maintained his ties with the village for some time, these weakened over the years and after the publication of his work, he consciously tried to dissuade people from visiting Rampura. “After the popularity of the book, people were curious about the village. Srinivas was aware that people’s lives could get affected because of this. It would be like reading Hamlet and wanting to go to Helsinger,” said Karanth.

Rampura now

Dr B.R. Vijayendra of the southern regional centre of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) in Mysuru says that he tracked down the village in 2004 by following the clues provided by Srinivas in his book. “We followed the description given by Srinivas in the book faithfully to reach Kodagahalli,” said Vijayendra. He has been doing an anthropological survey of the village over the past few years along with two of his colleagues, B.V. Raviprasad and Kanchan Mukhopadhyay. There has also been an effort at studying the changes in the village by a team from the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), which camped in the village for a month in 2007.

The current headman of the village, K.J. Chikkajavarappa, 78, remembers Srinivas’ stay in the village. “I was a young boy of around 10 years old then and hung around Srinivas. After his first visit in 1948, he used to come casually and often,” he said. Chikkajavarappa and his family currently live opposite the house where his father (the headman during Srinivas’ time, who died in 1974) stayed. The family has maintained the original house, diagonally opposite the “bullock house” where Srinivas stayed during his sojourn in the village. It is now slightly run down but still stands.

Chikkajavarappa was able to immediately identify the characters that Srinivas writes about when their quirks were mentioned to him. So, Karim, the faithful Muslim servant who worked as a conduit between the Vokkaliga and the Dalit parts of the village, was actually Qasim. The headman’s great friend, called Nadu Gowda in the book, was actually Putteswamy Gowda. The faithful assistant of Srinivas, whom he called Kulle Gowda, was Subbe Gowda in reality. The unnamed headman of Srinivas’ Rampura was Patel Javare Gowda, who remained at the helm of the village affairs until his death in 1974.

Kodagahalli remains a large village even now. It has a population of 2,851 according to the 2011 Census, with a sex ratio that favours females. The dominant caste is Vokkaliga. Many of the castes that were present in 1948 are still there. Srinivas writes that there were three Brahmin families in the village. The number has come down to one now—the family of the Brahmin priest looking after the Ram temple in the village. It is interesting to note that Dalits in the village are still referred to as Harijans, a term that Srinivas uses as well, but which has fallen into disuse across the country because of its patronising connotations.

Caste in Rampura

How does caste operate in the village? Caste continues to have a strong presence in the village. It is most starkly evident in the spatial segregation of households and in the access to places of worship. The segregation that Srinivas observed in 1948 continues in the village, with Dalit houses being divided from the Vokkaliga and other caste members’ houses by the main street that passes through the village. There are a few Muslim households between the Vokkaliga and the Dalit households buffering this divide.

The headman, a Vokkaliga, is not chosen through an election process but has some authority over village affairs. A resident of the village who did not want to be named said that some women were conscious of not taking food from the houses of the “lower” castes, but he was quick to add that compared with the neighbouring villages, Kodagahalli was far more “progressive” as far as caste relations were concerned.

There are two prominent temples in the village: the Basava temple and the Madeshwara temple. The small population of Lingayats in the village has traditionally been responsible for looking after these temples. The façade of the Basava temple remains unchanged from the time Srinivas visited it in 1948. The Dalits in the village patronise two temples, the Saalamma and the Maarigudi temples, where the deities and the rituals are different. In the ritual hierarchy of the village, three divisions can be discerned: the Brahmin and the Lingayats; other castes, including the dominant caste of the Vokkaligas; and the Dalits.

The headman gave an example of how he treated people of different castes: “The Brahmin priest is a soft man. I invite him home and give him milk in a silver tumbler. I can’t do that with the sweepers [Dalits], who are usually drunk when they come to visit me, can I? Otherwise, who will respect my authority and how can I resolve issues?” The headman’s authority stems from his traditional status and the wealth that has accrued to the family, both from agriculture and from their wise investments in Mysuru and Bengaluru. The headman’s family is truly globalised now, with some members living abroad as well. The rhythm of village life, which mainly revolves around agriculture, has changed significantly since Srinivas’ time, with strong linkages to cities.

Vijayendra’s 2004 study of the village, while still incomplete, provides several clues as to how caste relations have changed significantly over the years. Vestiges of the jajmani relationship (a system where the lower castes performed various functions for the upper castes and received grain in return) continues to be present in the village and while caste members are not linked to their traditional occupations (for example, the kurubas are no longer involved in sheep rearing but are agriculturists), caste identity still retains a strong hold on the people’s imagination. This mutation of caste is something that Srinivas had also discussed in his last paper, provocatively titled “An Obituary on Caste as a System”, which was published after his death.

In Kodagahalli, there is an easy hospitality that has come with the awareness of Srinivas’ work. The headman owns a copy of the Kannada translation of The Remembered Village and welcomes curious readers with enthusiasm. “The headman’s family continues the tradition of hospitality that Srinivas described in his book,” said M.N. Panini, nephew of Srinivas and a former Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who lives in Mysuru. On being asked whether he gets disturbed by people who come asking about Srinivas, Chikkajavarappa exclaimed, “Why would we get disturbed? Srinivas has made our village famous. People all over the world know Rampura now!” At some point during the conversation, Chikkajavarappa had unconsciously begun to refer to his village as Rampura—as Srinivas always had in his work.

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