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Monday, February 23, 2009

Workshop on “Perspectives on Caste and Gender in Early India” - Participation Report

National Workshop on “Perspectives on Caste and Gender in Early India

Participation Report

A visit to Forum for Contemporary Theory, Vadodhara (erstwhile Baroda) was a dream come true. I have been longing to visit it for the last eight years!

I participated in the Thirteenth National Workshop organised by the Forum on Contemporary Theory, Vadodhara during 2-5 February 2009. The general theme of the Workshop was “Perspectives on Caste and Gender in Early India” It was organised around selected textual readings, introductory and public lectures by the faculty and interactive sessions between the faculty and the participants. The workshop was conducted by Kumkum Roy, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi; and Jaya Tyagi, Reader, Dept of History, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University. The workshop was from morning 10 to evening 5. There were about 50 participants from different universities from History, literature, political science, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and art history.

Following is the write up on my expectations I had sent to the organisers

“As the workshop outline points out, a linear and stereotypical history of both caste and gender has been produced, circulated and consumed across academia and media. However, there have been recent alternative positions which challenge such a construction of caste and gender. These challenges, though significant, have not become a part of the mainstream academics. As a result there has been a significant information gap in understating many issues in social sciences in India. The workshop I am sure will address this need.

In specific, from this workshop I wish to know why and how the existing notions about caste and gender came to be constructed the way we perceive them; what social and political needs such constructions served; what necessitated the challenging of the constructions, the nature of newer questions on the constructions, the limitations of such questions, the way ahead; and the modes in which the newer questions could be integrated into the higher education curriculum.”

However, when I landed up at the workshop knowing history as a discipline became one of my primary concerns. Most of my questions throughout the workshop took this trajectory.

A fortnight before the workshop readings were sent to the participants. They included essays by BD Chattopadhyaya, Shereen Ratnagar, Romila Thapar, Aloka Parasher-Sen, Vivekanand Jha, Uma Chakravarthi, Thomas R. Trautmann, Allan Sponberg and Leonard Zwilling.

During the workshop all the participants had to make presentations based on the essays. I spoke on the Cultural Turn in Understanding Early History. In my presentation which primarily focused on the concerns of the first three essays in particular and all the essays in general, I observed Chattopadhyaya’s essay raised questions about the problem of material that historians engaged with early history had to address, and problem of material. My argument was that Chattopadhyaya asked for shifts in both. Ratnagar’s refusal and wholesale rejection of Tanika Sarkar’s work on tribal as the colonial construct was another important observation I made. I also mentioned the general problem in most essays where there was a conscious attempt to unpack the flattened concept of caste but the same attempt was not made in unpacking concepts such as gender, religion or community. In fact they were used quite unproblematically and as flat categories.

One of the crucial points that Kumkum drove home was how caste is studied without any reference to gender in early history, and consequently in other disciplines and the need to engender caste.

The workshop took the participants through the sections of Rig Veda, especially the marriage hymns, the Grihasutras, Manu Smriti, and Jataka Tales to trace the notions of caste and gender. There were also discussions on the structure and craft of these works. The rough age covered was 1500 BCE to 500 CE. In one sense the two concepts were explored both in Sanskrit and Pali or to put it in a problematic way, in Vedic and Buddhist traditions.

I made 26 pages of notes on the five days. And due to paucity of time (thanks to mid-sem evaluation and lecture preparations) I am unable to reproduce important points here, although I very much wish to.

Some of the issues that fascinated me:

  1. The saptapadi hymn does not occur in Rig Veda but in Yajurveda and not in the context of marriage but in the context of ritual sacrifice.
  2. Neither in Rig Veda nor Grihasuthras is woman given any equality with man either in rituals or running the household. She is more of means to achieve patriarchal goals.
  3. The Brahman and Kshatriya categories are not constant in the same hierarchy. In some texts the hierarchy is reversed.
  4. There are sections of Rigvedic hymns attributed (not conclusively) to women composers (I think it’s 2 and 7 mandala)
  5. There are multiple notions of Dharma. Different texts have different interpretations, or prescription of dharma. Also, Dharma is not a central term either in vedic or post vedic texts. It gets centrality only in Buddhist texts.
  6. The Buddhist philosophers called it Dhamma in Pali, which had a different understanding of it.
  7. Grihasutras only talk of two ashrams- bramacharya and grihasta. The other two get added in Manu Smriti.
  8. Neither in Rigveda (if my memory serves me right) nor in Grihasutra a girl child is an expected one. The prayers are constantly and only for the blessing of a son –male issue. I had humorously referred to it as ‘crisis of the male child’ during the workshop and wanted to know what could be the reasons for such a crisis. However, in the absence any study in this direction, we could not discuss much.
  9. The issue of male-male and female-female sexualities in Buddhist texts.
  10. The struggle within history and among historians working on early history to speak conclusively about the past due to lack of material and lack of corroborative evidence. I only sympathised with them imagining the enormous burden on them of giving a conclusive history which is only an impossibility.
  11. and many more….

I have benefited immensely from the following three

1. The reading material

2. The two resource persons

3. From the questions and interaction of my fellow participants.

The Forum

The origin and growth of the Forum fascinated me the most. It began as a discussion forum among social science and humanities teachers in MS University, Baroda. It was later registered as public trust and society. From 1996 every year it has been organising a national workshop in Baroda around different themes. In 1991 it launched Journal of Contemporary Thought, in association with International Lincon Centre, Lousiana State University, USA and Central Washington University. Currently this biannual journal is in its 27th number. The Forum is largely the vision of one man – P C Kar (now retired) with an active support of four-five teachers. But in terms of building scholars and academic culture it has done more than what any university can claim to. It’s primary focus is to build young scholars. In 2008, thanks to the generosity of the Balvantbai Parekh, Chairman of the company that manufactures Fevicol the forum has its own building, until then it functioned from Prof Kar’s house. Mr Parekh has given for free four large rooms – each for library, office and two for seminars – in the muti-storied building behind Baroda railway station. (May his tribe increase)

The Forum perhaps has the best library on theory in India. It also offers library fellowships to those who wish to make use of the library. They also have other research fellowships. For details, their website can be referred to. The most striking thing about the library is that it does not issue books to anybody, even to photocopy. Prof Kar said that that way they have been able to ensure that the books are read. I thought it was a wonderful concept.

I had nearly an hour and a half-long chat with Prof Kar. For me, he is a model to all the teaching fraternity to become academicians, with life long commitment to build academics, and not look at higher education as mere employment only to be stopped at retirement.

Is such a concept possible? To my mind there are five other such experiments each realised in different ways- CSSS, Calcutta; Subaltern Studies collective, Calcutta; CSDS, Delhi; CSCS, Bangalore; and the one in Bombay – the name slips my mind. However, the point to note is all these centres came out of universities and not colleges. Moreover they could conceive it in government institutions and not private. This leads me to a long-disturbing question – is there something in the structure of private institutions which does not allow such initiatives to emerge? We have not seen such initiatives coming from the staff of St Stephen’s, St Xaviers, Loyola, Lady Sri Ram and the like. Another point to note is that such initiatives have not come from science streams, but only from humanities/social science space. Question then is why?

To make the best of the journey – Sabarmathi +

Since I reached a day earlier due to limited train facilities, I visited Sabarmathi, which was also a dream come true. Gandhi had stayed here from 1917 to 1930 – the year of Dandi March. I spent nearly four hours going round the house where Gandhi had stayed and the Gandi museum. It was quite a learning experience.

I also visited MS University Fine Arts dept which is ranked no three in the world. It was an amazing experience. I also visited the University library. I found students making use of the library reading room a lot. It was full. But books were hardly updated. We have a far better and updated collection. But their journal section is better than ours.

For library

From Sabarmathi I picked three VCD’s on Gandhi. One of them has Gandhi’s audio. They are available for borrowal in the library. I also bought all the past issues of Journal of Contemporary Thought and quite a few other books. The entire cost coming to Rs 10,000. All of them should be available for borrowal this week.

What do I intend to do with the Workshop

  1. Use the insights to enrich the syllabi in the dept
  2. Try and put together the insights/training from this workshop and the Psychology conference on Intimacy and come up with a paper. I wish to work on the notions of intimacy in early texts. I wish to engage with sections of Rig Veda, Grihasutras, Manu Smriti and Buddist texts.
  3. Use the insights to build my PhD


I am grateful to the Mr Kennedy and Dr Krishnaswami for the permission granted, and the management for partly sponsoring the participation.

1 comment:

Agent M said...

Thanks sir :) Gives me a better picture now :)