India: Culture and Society Rowena Robinson Professor of Sociology Department of Humanities and Social Sciences Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Introduction



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Kanyadan, or the idea of marriage as the ‘gift of the virgin bride’, prevailed in almost all parts of the country, and does so even today. Among the higher castes, in particular, the bride was considered a gift given to the husband and his family and a great deal of stress was placed on her being a virgin. With the bride other material gifts were always sent to the husband’s house. These constituted the stridhan or what is called, in the literature, the ‘dowry’. The practice of gift-giving was largely unidirectional, from the bride’s natal home to her marital home. The nature and cost of gifts were largely decided by regional and caste custom and were related to the status of the families connected by the marriage.

Despite many similarities, the life-trajectories of women varied according to region, caste and class. Women of the lower social classes almost always worked outside the home, in the fields, as vendors of small goods or at other petty jobs. In particular, rural working women of the lowest castes could often be very vulnerable to exploitation – economic, social and even sexual – by their upper-caste, male employers. It should not be surprising, therefore, that upward mobility on the caste hierarchy was almost everywhere accompanied by the immurement of women within the confines of the home and their removal from outside employment. The gendered division of labour has been typically impacted by both norms of caste and kinship.

The literature on the Indian village has been plagued by several assumptions. Whether it was Marx who made notorious the phrase ‘village republics’ or some other historians and social scientists, for a long time a myth persisted that Indian villages were isolated, self-enclosed and self-sufficient units. The needs of the villagers were met largely within the villages and contact with the outside world was minimal. The villages remained untouched by larger political events or upheavals and, therefore, continued to remain more or less unchanged despite different kinds of political fluctuations. Of course, fieldwork and social history changed this view.

For one, it has been realized that villages were always connected with markets as well as with towns, especially those that were part of pilgrimage routes. Secondly, caste patterns were regional in character and caste and marriage ties created links between villages, at least within a particular range. In north India, the ideology of hypergamy and the custom of village exogamy ensured that daughters were married outside village boundaries, sometimes at quite a distance. Mendicants, genealogists, priests and others formed connections between village-folk and the towns. Local markets brought together persons from neighboring villages and, sometimes, from nearby towns as well.

Certainly, from the colonial period onwards, the development of infrastructure increased communication between towns and villages. The postal system and, especially the railways, opened up remote parts of the country, linking villages with towns and cities. Migration from the villages into the cities began to increase, as employment opportunities grew and some industries also started to come up. Village-dwellers who came to the city rarely entered a strange or anonymous world. They had contacts of caste or sometimes kinship. Even when these links were very nebulous or distant, kin and caste-members looked out for and helped each other. Early industrialists often engaged labor through middlemen – called jobbers. This increased the possibility that the workers came from specific areas or groups of villages and could well be kinsmen or caste-fellows.

Workers in urban areas sent money to their villages and went home to work during the busy agricultural seasons. They continued their patronage of village and clan deities and were present in their villages during major religious festivals. Marriages took place in the village and, sometimes, wives and children continued to reside there. Family members came to the city, in search of work or in pursuit of education and had to be put up and looked after. Someone might come to get treatment at a city hospital. Shared interests in land continued to hold patrikin together. Thus, village and city could hardly be considered separate worlds, closed-off to each other. One would have to speak in terms of a rural-urban continuum rather than a rural-urban divide, especially when it came to the maintenance of social ties.

There are many other aspects of Indian society that came to be focused on when anthropologists started doing serious fieldwork. The patriarchal bias of a lot of early writing came to be revealed and feminists as well as sociologists began to point out the gendered nature of society as well of sociological texts. Now there is a growing body of literature on women and on gender, whether with respect to the family or kinship relations, development or ideas about religion, sexuality and the body. It is true that women in traditional society did not have much say, but there were always variations. India is and has been home to some matrilineal communities, particularly in its north-eastern and south-western parts. In patrilineal communities, often caste as well as kinship rules operate to constrain women.

Traditionally, social identity was obtained from the father, but the boy was considered a permanent member of his father’s lineage, while the girl was only a transient member. Marriage and the transfer of a girl to her marital role combined with the rule of hypergamy and impermanent membership of a girl in her natal family had particular implications. Property passed down the male line and girls had only the right to marriage gifts and maintenance. In traditional families, women did an enormous amount of unpaid but valuable work. However, much of it was household labour and did not involve women leaving their homes. Among lower social and economic levels, however, women more often than not engaged in productive labour, in agriculture, craft work or even poultry farming. A woman’s income belonged to her husband and his family and she rarely retained full control over it.

The control of female sexuality was always a central concern for families and kin-groups. Girls had to be controlled until they could be handed over pure and unsullied into the hands of their husband’s family. Virginity was highly valued and this placed considerable restrictions on the mobility and educational and economic pursuits of young girls; they had to remain secure until marriage. The practice of the seclusion of women has been closely tied up with the need to control female sexuality. Seclusion became a particular matter of concern after a girl entered puberty. These concerns have always been greater for the higher castes because of their need to ensure that women did not enter into unsuitable, hypogamous unions with lower-caste men.

The bias towards the study of Hinduism in the early sociological literature has also come to be somewhat repaired. There is now a greater appreciation of the diversity of Indian society and the fact that it is made up of many religious and ethnic groups, which have complex and intricate, even if not always harmonious, relations with each other. Studies of Muslim, Christian and other groups show both similarities and differences with Hindu society. When it comes to ideas about caste, gender and the family, there are considerable similarities across patrilineal India, though some tribal groups, especially matrilineal ones, throw up some critical differences. On the other hand, there are differences in the extent to which such ideas prevail across groups; there are also differences of religious organization and patterns of beliefs.

There is a great deal of syncretism in south Asian religions: individuals and groups participate in shared cultures in which there is an engagement of practices and beliefs. One finds Hindus visiting Sufi Muslim shrines or dargahs (tombs) and making vows at the churches of important saints. Christians may also visit Hindu or Muslim traditional healers. Many medieval and modern saints such as the Muslim-born Shirdi Sai Baba consciously spread a message of inter-religious harmony. However, there has also been a long history of discord between communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims. The Partition of the country in 1947 into secular India and Islamic Pakistan cast another long shadow on Hindu-Muslim relations in the country. Muslims remain, to a large extent, marginalized and ethnic strife in independent India has been mostly between Hindus and Muslims, with the latter bearing the far heavier burden of loss – of lives and property.




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