Tag Archives: South Asia

The deviant girl and feel-good feminism: Channeling Margaret Mead in Bangalore

In my field site of Bangalore, south India, I found support among young female professionals for feel-good feminism—that is, messages of female empowerment in pop culture that do not seek to shift the status quo much. This kind of feminism is often used by advertisers to appeal to female customers, as in this much-talked-about detergent ad in which a father belatedly realizes the bad example he set for his daughter by not helping with housework, or this recent Nike ad featuring female athleticism in India, where few women participate in sports. The idea here seems to be that a general female empowerment can allow (middle and upper-class) women to push the boundaries of gender norms ever so slightly.

But how much deviance from gender norms is really possible? Deviance is a word not used in contemporary anthropology very much anymore. It suggests a rigid norm that can be identified and described with a certainty few anthropologists would agree with now. It is also a term loaded with stigma. Who are the deviants? Continue reading

Ephemeral Layers: Coffee, Snapchat, and Violence

For decades, ephemeral layers at archaeological sites have been the bane of my existence. The moment I read, hear, or have to confront it at an excavation, my soul does a smh. How can we reconstruct anything meaningful in this ephemerality? To be honest, that frustration is simply a privileged standpoint of archaeologists who work in ancient cities, towns, or any mostly permanent settled space – which is where my training and research has focused. Ephemerality is a challenge and requires me to contend with materials and surfaces in a way I am only starting to understand.

Continue reading

Vale Stanley Tambiah

It was with a genuine sense of loss that I read over the weekend that Stanley Tambiah had passed away. Tambiah was a model anthropologist, a person whose personal life and work exemplified everything that our discipline can and should be. He was an area studies specialist whose monographs on life in rural Thailand expanded our ethnography of this area. He was a theorist who knit together British and American theories of symbolism and ritual at a key point in anthropological theory. And he also became a public intellectual who published substantive work on pressing issues of the day in books and articles about ethnic violence in India and Sri Lanka. Above all, he will be remembered by his colleagues as role model of the generous scholar and human being. His generosity, kindness, and humility seemed to combine the best of all the different cultures he lived in, from English gentleman to humble Buddhist to Sri Lankan Christian. His loss gives us a chance to reflect on the values he lived and that we, in turn, ought to continue to follow. Continue reading

On Profiling in India and the US

In describing the subject of our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! we often tell people that the situation of India’s Denotified Tribes (DNTs) is very similar to the kind of profiling that happens against African Americans or Muslim Americans. Recent examples from the states include Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker getting stopped and frisked leaving a Morningside Heights deli, and the “Stop and Frisk” program of the NY City Police Department (NYPD) which was recently ruled unconstitutional, as well as the news that the NYPD was “engaged in a massive surveillance operation on the city’s Muslim community.”

In fact, it turns out it is exactly the same. Indian papers recently broke the story that police officers in Ahmedabad have “prepared a dossier on 207 men and women” in the Chhara community – the very community where we shot our film.

Continue reading

Castes of Crime

With the appointment of Nicholas Dirks as the new chancellor of UC Berkeley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, something that comes up whenever we show our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!. During post-film discussions, people often ask about why it is that when the actors (the members of Budhan Theatre, who, along with their families, are the subjects of our film) introduce themselves they use “Chhara” as a surname: “Dakxin Chhara,” “Sandeep Chhara,” “Kalpana Chhara,” etc. We explain that this is not their real last name, but more of an affirmation of their formerly stigmatized identity. Having been labeled by the British as a “Criminal Tribe” in 1933, the members of Budhan Theatre now proudly declare that they are “born actors” not “born criminals.” But this naturally leads to the next question: are the Chharas are a “caste”? This is where Nick Dirks comes in, because to answer it requires understanding a little bit about the history of caste in India.

One of Dirks’ most important books is Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in which he argues that India’s contemporary caste system was largely a colonial invention. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t something called caste before colonialism, just that caste in its present form was shaped by the colonial process. Nor was this shaping of caste purely a top-down matter, but something that happened through a process that heavily involved the Indian people themselves. Both the Brahmins who worked closely with the British to encode the caste system in the new bureaucracy, as well as the ordinary people, many of whom organized politically to ensure that their caste status was listed favorably in the census. While the “invented” nature of caste is still a matter of considerable academic debate, much of the debate is over how extensive and how formalized caste was in pre-colonial India. Most scholars accept Dirks’ argument that caste was profoundly altered as a result of the colonial encounter. (Well, OK, maybe some of his detractors wouldn’t use the word “profound”…)

Where this connects with the history of “Criminal Tribes” (now known as “Denotified and Nomadic Tribes” or DNTs) is with the following account from his book: Continue reading

After Oak Creek: A Roundup

“On August 5, 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with a single gunman killing six people and wounding four others. The gunman, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, shot several people at the temple, including a responding police officer. After being shot in the stomach by another officer, Page fatally shot himself in the head.” [via Wikipedia]

Below I’ve gathered together some of the reactions to the tragic Oak Creek shooting, presented without comment. Feel free to add your own links, or leave comments below. (Respecting our comments policy, of course!)

An American Tragedy, by Naunihal Singh:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora… Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim.

Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others, by Juan Cole:

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

Continue reading

Illustrated Man, #8 – Sita Sings the Blues

The history of womankind is a broken record as the same damn things keeping happening over and over again. At least that seems to be a major theme in Sita Sings the Blues, an incomparably unique animated feature that combines ancient Hindu mythology, a 1920s blues singer, and one artist’s failed marriage to tell the story of a every woman who lets a man walk all over her.

This is a true labor of love, rendered mostly in Adobe Flash, by the artist and cartoonist Nina Paley. Paley has made the complete feature available for free under a Creative Commons license. Now that the music rights have cleared for Annette Hanshaw’s soundtrack the film is also available on DVD and if you like what you see there’s merchandise for sale so appreciative audiences can support the artist.

The story unfolds in multiple layers, each taking place at divergent moments in history and represented with its own animated style. We begin in present-day San Francisco, portrayed here in squigglevision, with the couple, Nina and Dave, in domestic bliss. Dave’s sudden departure for a new job in India foreshadows the impending end of their relationship. Paley juxtaposes this with the epic myth of Sita and Rama, presented as gouache paintings come alive. Interrupting or narrating the story is a third form, a trio of shadow puppets commenting on the myth. These characters exist out of time. Finally the signature sequences are done with computer animation as a cartoonish Rama and Sita act out their story with Sita singing the words of Annete Hanshaw’s blues. Although visually set in the myth the audience is experiencing creative expressions from the early twentieth century America and encouraged to note the similarities between the two.

“I never knew how good it was to be a slave to one who means the world to me,” she sings.

Continue reading

Two or three things I know about corruption

I wanted to say a few words about corruption, a topic much in the news these days, especially in India. For those who haven’t been following, the big news last weekend was, as reported by the BBC, that “Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare… ended a high-profile hunger strike in Delhi after 12 days.” Hazare’s campaign has been a topic of much debate, with some of the most interesting discussions taking place on the Indian blog Kafila.org where even the likes of Partha Chatterjee and Arjun Appadurai have seen fit to jump in the fray. This link, to their Anna Hazare tag, will give you an overview of all their posts on the topic. It makes for fascinating reading, and I encourage everyone to take the time to dig in.

There are a couple of issues dominating the discussion. The first is whether the protesters who supported Hazare are dupes of right-wing parties — a claim which echoes similar debates about the Tea Party Movement in the US? The second is whether the bill being proposed by Hazare will make India more democratic by cutting down on corruption, or less democratic by creating a government body with too much power over elected representatives of the people? And the third issue is whether or not ridding the nation of corruption will make for a more just society, or whether corruption offers the disenfranchised important wiggle-room in dealing with state power, wiggle-room usually preserved for the elite?

I don’t have much insight into the first two questions, although I’ll admit that my sympathies usually lie with writers like Arundhati Roy who has been very critical of Hazare and his supporters. I do, however, have some small insight into the issue of corruption in India, having recently completed a documentary film in which corruption was one of the central themes. My wife, Shashwati Talukdar, and I have spent the past five years making frequent trips to an urban ghetto in Ahmedabad, in Western India, where we filmed a troupe of young actors who use street theater to protest against police brutality and corruption. I have also published two academic articles about the history and ethnography of the community. Continue reading

Consider Donating to Kerim’s Film

I think Kerim is too much of a gentleman to shill for his own project here on Savage Minds, so I’ll do it for him: consider donating to help him wrap up production of his film Please Don’t Beat Me Sir.

For just about as long as I’ve known him, Kerim has been working on PDBMS, about a stigmatized Indian tribal group who try to forge a future for themselves be performing street theater dramatizing their plight and other social justice issues. He’s been going on about the project for years, and most of the time I nodded my head politely and was like: yeah whatever street theater blah blah South Asia blah blah. I mean: some guy get a perfectly good Ph.D. from a respected university, moves to job in the ass-end of Taiwan, and then spends most of this time ranting on the Internet about Gramsci and editorials in the New York Times — and now he’s got some ‘documentary film’ he’s making. Really, what’s the chances of it being any good?

Except a few months ago I managed to get a sneak peak of the film and was pleasantly surprised that it is not just good, but actually very very good — which made me feel a lot better about asking my students to sit through the thing for extra credit. I repeat: it’s good. By any standards. To me the greatest part of the film is that it managed to convey on screen the immediacy and power of live theater, something that it is almost impossible to do. The ethics of the film making project are equally fascinating: it’s a film about Chharas not by them, except that they are performers so in a sense it is by them. It’s something less than ‘collaborative anthropology’ of the Lassiter mold, but also something more in its willingness to experiment with a form that goes beyond the usual cliches of sharing and caring with your host community.

Plus also there is a point at which someone puts a hand over the camera and you get to hear Kerim go all Michael Moore on people and demand in his New York accent “no you tell us why we have to stop filming.So, you know, it has that going for it.

If you go to the movie home page and donate US$35 you can get to watch the film. But really, if you’ve ever appreciated all the work Kerim has done for Savage Minds, I think the donation site will accept way less than thirty five bucks. The money will be used to burnish up the final edit so that it can be shown in prime time at the Busan film festival.

As a policy we don’t make announcements of this sort on SM but I wanted to make an exception in this case so that Kerim can feel some of the SM love that he’s accrued over the past couple of years and his excellent film gets the support it deserves.

Engaged Anthropology and Academic Freedom

“Is it not amazing that in this day and age, serious scholars get death threats?” asks Notre Dame anthropologist Cynthia Mahmood in a shocking, graphic, account of how she “was assaulted, beaten and raped by a gang of hired thugs or rogue police in a north central Indian state during fieldwork in 1992.” I’ve heard many stories of death threats from academics in India who study the “wrong” topics, but this is the first account I’ve read of actual violence. Mahmood mentions some other scholars who have been threatened:

Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright and David White have also been among those academics who have been targeted by the Hindu right because of their intellectual work on the religion. Doniger, a senior scholar of the Hindu tradition, regularly receives death threats; a letter-writing campaign tried to prevent another young scholar’s tenure at Rice University.

Certainly India needs to do more to preserve academic freedom, including ensuring that “that other actors [besides the state and the university], including the media, political parties and the citizenry do not by their actions undermine academic freedom.” And, as the example from Rice University shows, this issue is not confined to India. The US needs to protect academics from coordinated attacks of the sort William I. Robinson is facing from the ADL.

Washing dirty linen in public

I’ve never been in a country more obsessed about how it is represented abroad than India. There is a TV show I saw there devoted to how the international media was talking about the country. Many of the Indians I’ve met are so incredibly embarrassed by any failure to live up to what they imagine my Western sensibilities to be that they are constantly apologizing for things I haven’t complained about. Not all Indians of course. This collective symbolic violence seems to be felt most particularly by the new upwardly mobile urban middle classes. The members of the elite I’ve met seem protected by their own erudite pride in India’s intellectual, historical, scientific, and artistic traditions. They see nothing to apologize for. And the poor whom I’ve had the privilege to meet are equally proud. They are proud of their clean homes (or in some cases roadside shelters), their few possessions and their children – all of which they’ve struggled for.

So I’m not surprised to read about the uproar surrounding Slumdog Millionaire. I happened to like this film, for many of the same reasons David Bordwell does; namely, its creative re-imagining of tried-and-true movie clichés. He also provides an interesting historical view:

Indian criticisms of the image of poverty in Slumdog remind me of reactions to Italian Neorealism from authorities concerned about Italy’s image abroad. The government undersecretary Giulio Andreotti claimed that films by Rossellini, De Sica, and others were “washing Italy’s dirty linen in public.” Andreotti wrote that De Sica’s Umberto D had rendered “wretched service to his fatherland, which is also the fatherland of . . . progressive social legislation.”

I would be much more sympathetic to such complaints if the Indian middle class was more concerned about the actual poverty surrounding them than the appearance of that poverty to Western eyes.

Continue reading

Gujjars: OBC, ST, SC or DNT?

I’ve been trying to make some sense of the recent violence which have left at least 36 people dead in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is indirectly related to my research in the neighboring state of Gujarat since the Gujjar protesters are one of India’s estimated sixty million Denotified Tribes (DNTs), although that fact is left out of most news stories.

I have not been able to figure out the reason for the silence on this topic. One possibility is that it is simply too complicated for newspapers to explain the category of DNTs – a category which is not well known by most Indians. Another is that the Gujjars are themselves resistant to being thought of as DNTs. The “Gurjar’s Community Online” website refers to the Gujjars as upper caste Kshatriyas, which they may have been in Rajasthan, although many Gujjars are Muslims and Sikhs as well. In fact, it seems they specifically rejected a move by the Rajasthan government to have them listed as DNTs.

The question of categorization lies at the heart of the current conflict. The Gujjars are agitating to have their official status changed from “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) to “Scheduled Tribe” (ST). These are two broad categories in India’s complex system of “reservations.” As the BBC explains:

Continue reading


The subtitle of Mike Dash’s best selling book Thug, “the true story of India’s murderous cult,” has a sad irony to it, considering that it takes as its main source the documents and testimony collected by William Sleeman and the Thuggee and Dacoity Department of the East India Company. [See update below.] To get a sense about the reliability of these documents it is worthwhile taking a look at how they were collected.

Parama Roy does just that in the chapter on thuggees in her book Indian Traffic:

The lack of independent witnesses, the unavailability in many cases of both bodies and booty—the sheer paucity of positivist evidence, in other words—could only be resolved in one way. The most important criminal conspiracy of the century (of all time, some of the authors claimed) could be adequately engaged only by a new conception of law. … Since the law as currently defined made the complicity of individuals in particular crimes almost impossible to establish, specific criminal acts were no longer punishable as such. Instead, it was … enough to be a thug, without actually being convicted of a specific act of thuggee, to be liable to the exorbitant measures of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department. … It permitted the arrest of entire families, including women and children, as legitimate means of entrapping active (male) thugs; since thuggee was supposed to be a family affair anyway, transmitted in the genes and passed on from father to son, wives and children were also fit targets for the colonial state’s punitive and corrective measures. The act admitted the testimony of approvers [convicts who confessed in exchange for a pardon] in lieu of the testimony of independent witnesses (which had been disallowed under Islamic law), a move which created a remarkable mechanics of truth production and conviction.

… All those identified as thugs by approvers’ testimony were automatically guilty, even if no specific crimes could be proved against them and even if there was no (other) evidence of their ever having associated with other thugs.

Of course, the British where themselves a little worried about the quality of such evidence:
Continue reading

Colonial Ethnography

Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.

When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.

They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:

Continue reading

Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping Spree.

So over the years that I have been trying to become more of an anthropologist (not having been through any of those anthropology cauldrons so lovingly described in the pages of SM), I have often found myself looking for articles and books that I can give to undergraduates. Books that will “speak for themselves.” The obvious elusiveness of what makes an ethnography good, or what makes for good ethnographic writing, make it hard to find such works. I sigh every time I have to recommend the Cockfight again–especially since I don’t think Geertz is (god rest his soul) any longer a very good guide to what anthropology can do today. This year however, I have found two books that I feel confident using in just this way: as sterling exemplars of what anthropology is and can be today.

Xiang Biao Global Bodyshopping, Princeton, 2007.

The first of these is Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007 (I’ll tell you the other one in the next post). Xiang’s book is phenomenal in the way that Chauncey Gardener was phenomenal in Being There; it has that naive charisma and perfect timing born of simpleness. Of course the genius behind Gardener was Peter Sellers, and I think Xiang might have some of the same going on: it is an honest book, and the introduction (which is worth the price of the book alone) lays out the author’s own tortured attempt to make concepts like “diaspora” and globalization work before realizing that a bizarre, un-explored phenomenon was right under his nose.

Continue reading