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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 46, November 6, 2010

Absorbing Narrative of a Community on the Move while being in Confrontation and Crisis

Wednesday 10 November 2010, by Dipak Malik



The Warp and the Weft: Community and Gender Identity among Banaras Weavers by Vasanthi Raman; Routledge, New Delhi; 2010; pages 384; Rs 795.

The Warp and the Weft is a serious attempt in building blocs in study of ‘the invisible’ in the mainstream social science discourse. Admittedly the dominant group of watchers of Indian society invariably, because of the perception bias, seem to ignore questions of plurality embedded in the scene, where distinct identities of minorities like Muslims are conve-niently forgotten and the minorities become a missing link as well as a missing discourse. Social science discourses somehow or other treat Indian society synonymous with Hindu society partly because of a strange amnesia gripping it. Prof Raman has made an attempt bold enough to bring this ‘marginalised forgotten’ under the limelight of mainstream discourse.

Times have seen historical constructs of this benign neglect which is mentioned so eloquently by Peter Van Der Veer who points out that the orientalist emphasis on a higher ‘Sanskritik civilisation’ as the core of understanding Indian society affects even the most recent and avant-garde post-colonial discourse. The Warp and the Weft is, as a matter of fact, not a study of the “other Banares” but the lifeline of Banaras wrapped in the sarees churning out from its looms. This makes the ‘real Banaras’ tick as Banarasi saree and silk are the oldest as well as the most pervasive vocation of this ancient town even after the global economic crisis. This apparently sustains an ancient mode of production as well as large part of its superstructure too. Besides it is a great relief to find the study of a real, live, material Banares as opposed to myths, mythologies and rituals gripping the likes of Dianna Eck and a score of other scholars on Banaras.

The author has done her work in a period marked by globalisation making inroads into the small world of handloom in the lanes and by-lanes of Banaras and surrounding villages sapping out its life. Similarly it takes up the study of Banaras Muslims under the impact of communal violence which has firmed up and deepened the structures of communalism and the identity question. The author dwells upon the genealogy of Hindu Banaras which was largely a construct out of the colonial project of governance, the Hindi-Devnagari script versus the Hindustani-Urdu usage in government and courts becoming handy in the communal agenda as well as targeting Banaras to turn it into an inflamable communal project by the saffron brigade along with its convenient and inconvenient allies in the post-independence period.

COMMUNIAL Banaras is largely an aftermath in the post-colonial era. Mythological Kashi to pre-modern Banaras to colonial and post-colonial Banaras informs us of the history of this town. The Kashi of Hindu mythology pre-existed colonial Banaras, but it was later on embellished with colonial artefacts of modern higher education blended with the ancient past-yet it stood at a distance from ‘Savarkarian’ Hindutva. It was a curious mixture of innocuous Hinduism with intermittent sting of reactive Hindutva. Whereas “communalism” is conspi-cuously absent in the otherwise interesting study of ‘Artisans of Banaras’ by Nita Kumar, Vasanthi Raman has put the “communalism syndrome” prolificly as the lives of the Banaras Muslim Julahas (weavers) cannot be adjudged without this essential variable.

It was problemetic for Hindu communalism to locate “the aggressive other” in Banaras, due to the almost notional presence of the Muslim League and the visible Momin Ansari politics which was well defined within the periphery of nationalist polity in the pre-independence period. Besides, though Banaras was not very active yet it was surrounded by the rebellious psyche left by the 1857 insurgency. Incipent nationalism had a role to play. As a matter of fact after the first major riot of 1809 at Lat Bhairava, there was a gap of 121 years. The second major riot took place in 1931 only, whereas the rest of United Province had moved in the “communalism mode” immediately after the termination of Noncooperation-Khilafat Movement, which continued unabated around in towns of the UP. But Banaras was relatively immune from it, the reason being a settlement with the overwheling presence of Momin Ansaris on the one hand and the incipent Left in the avatar of the Congress Socialist Party, peasant movement in East UP and a young Nehru’s experimental ground making Banaras and Allahabad a diffident target for communalism. The priests, the travellers, the pilgrims, the Sanskrit tols remained a humming crowd engrossed in their own world of rituals, salvation and Moksha, “innocuous Hindutva” rather floated in its stratosphere.

However, by the seventies the saffron brigade had surreptiously captured the vantage points in the city and political-aggressive Hindutva with obvious agenda of overall communalisation sneaked into the body politic of Banaras, its social milieu and electoral politics. The communal profile of Banaras was largely an artefact of Hindu communalism gathering strength at times. Though it was not always a cake walk for the Hindu communal forces to disfigure this polyglot city, yet it remained a very vulnerable soft spot for communalism because of its distinct Hindu identity.

THE ethnographic input of the Muslim neighbourhood of Madanpura as well as other lesser neighbourhoods marks a new initiative in studying the society and polity of the inner city and its rather invisible citizens.

Identity formation is inevitably part of indigenous modernisation, particularly when perceived in crafting relationships and interactions necessary for its own sustenance and its overtures outside the community. The bigoted Julaha’s stoic world is getting changed in two ways, the first through intensification of various Muslim religious movements right from Deobandies, Wahabis to Barelvis and others. This makes ‘identity postures’ more articulate compared to the past of the bigoted and Jahil Julaha. The other route is what the author poignantly puts “we speak English but observe Purdah”. A modernisation process which lies outside precincts of community incites ever more acute sense of identity. As modernisation does not necessarily dismantle identity, but rather emboldens it the process comes either as a response or by incorporating in the course of modern class formation.

The gender question is also enmeshed with the identity profile. Though spread of classical Islam and its teachings have equipped Muslim women to be somewhat vocal about their rights, yet it has tended them to go for purdah voluntarily—purdah is primarily a sign of identity-cum-status symbol in the Muslim community of todays Banaras. Prof Qamar Jahan’s memoires of Shia girlhood and notes from a score of Banares Muslim women right from Shamim Begum to Firoza Bano presents a narrative of candour and courage.

The author has struck the right chord when she observes that Islamisation is not a teleological journey towards fundamentalism. It is more of a process that emanates from modernisation and even more importantly formation of a new elite and middle class in search of a distinct identity after the exit of a large part of Ashrafs in 1947 to the other side of the fence. But simultaneously we have to understand that dogmatism also sneaks in: while the post-Ashraf elite wants to rebuild the social mores, in spite of the initiative being contemporary, it hardly resonates the syncretic traditions so long incubated in the villages and Qasba India in North India. A similar process is taking place in the Hindu community too and this brings a rupture in the Ganga-Jamuna tahazib (composite culture).

Partition, the resultant exit of the elite, communalisation and promotion of handicrafts, formation of new classes in artisans and emergence of a small section of entrepreneurs from amongst the minority community frames the dialectics and dynamics of the community. The aggressive posturing of majoritarian communalism led by the saffron brigade has further exacerbated the wounds left from the past. But at the moment it is being swamped over by the economics of globalisation and the Indian ruling class’ subservience to the agenda of globalisation at the cost of the handicrafts.

Prof Raman’s book reveals the inside story of the Muslim community as well as the profile of a minority community. Further, the work is definitely a step forward in understanding the sad plight of the handicrafts world, crisis in the artisan world and identity, assertion of gender posture in the larger context of
reform and response to communalisation and globalisation. Late modernisation in the artisan community in the post-independence era, sops to handicrafts and cottage industries starting from the industrial policy of 1948 and a gap left by the departing Ashrafs for new class formation, education and Islamisation in the newly independent world of artisan sans the Ashraf is a story of an artisan community’s increasing assertion as well as the needs of a superstructure for the community which is rather filled by religious reforms within the periphery of Islam’s varied stances in South Asia. This is a narrative of a community on the move as well as in confrontation and crisis, retold very consummately by Vasanthi Raman.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.

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