Caste and Collective Memory in South India

Abstract : Since Cohn's landmark essay "An anthropologist among historians" (1962), the dialogue between history and anthropology has been particularly volubile and has shaped much of the methodological approaches and theoretical orientations of social sciences of South Asia. This essay engages in this disciplinary exchange by addressing an issue of crucial import for the understanding of the dynamics of social morphology in contemporary India, that is the issue of the uses of history in the formation of social identities. Since the late sixties, a number of studies by historians and anthropologists have examined the uses history by individual castes and subcastes especially within the context of social mobility and economic change which affected many castes from the second half of the 19th century. These studies have addressed this issue through the lens of 'caste histories' authored by new elites competing against each other in a public arena where criteria of ritual purity and traditional occupation were giving way to economical dominance and political representation. In this essay, I address the issue of negotiation between history and caste identity not through published caste histories but through a corpus of oral narratives which constitutes the collective, or rather, popular memory of a Tamil subcaste, the Pramalai Kallars. Before proceeding to the description of the narrative content of this form of popular memory, I will begin by sketching out the different regimes of historicity which structure this sub-caste's perception of the past and its present day usages. A typology of the past among the Pramalai Kallar subcaste reveals three means of transmission of the past -written, audio and oral- which differ from each other both in terms of content as well as in terms of their function in the re-production of the social identity of the Pramalai Kallars. By focussing on the body of oral narratives constituting popular memory, this essay examines how processes of production and transmission of local knowledge of the past serve to reproduce caste identities that are, in fact, not completely dependent on the tropes of the post-colonial predicament.
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https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00704281
Contributor : Zoé Headley <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - 10:28:22 AM
Last modification on : Monday, August 26, 2019 - 3:42:02 PM

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Zoé E. Headley. Caste and Collective Memory in South India. A Companion to the Anthropology of India, Blackwell Publishing, pp.98-113, 2011. ⟨halshs-00704281⟩

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