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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: September 2017

7 - Commodification of Caste


The contemporary Maliks of Kumartuli live their life in this jati- based neighbourhood, making images of unbaked clay. While they might not work with the actual clay as much as their forefathers, they engage with it on a daily basis, supervising the process from making the wooden frame and the straw binding to the application of clay and painting. They represent themselves as both carriers of an ancient tradition as well as innovators and creative artists of a new type. And in contemporary India with its liberalized economy, the markets have not disconnected themselves from caste (Harris- White 2003: 196). In the case of Kumartuli the opposite seems to happen (Figure 7.1).

If the rundown, slummy workshops of Kumartuli are replaced by the new multistory building, the competitive, modern and capitalist realities of the Maliks might become even more visible both to themselves and to outsiders. The possible loss of a practical workspace in the new ‘murti- mall’ is rarely addressed, as ideas of development and modernity seem to have the upper hand among the majority. At present the Kumars and Kumartuli are understood and presented as archaic, as lost in time, both by themselves and outsiders. On behalf of the commenting outsiders, this allochronism, or displacement of others in the Third World to the past (Fabian 1983), is often based on an essentialist understanding of caste and modernity as oppositions.

An important question that this book has sought to address is: what is caste as practised by the Kumartuli Maliks, and how does this relate to the contemporary sacred art market that has developed in Kolkata during the last 150 years? In order to answer this question, the caste system is approached as historically and geographically situated, and not as defined by any unchanging structural basis of pure– impure oppositions. Moreover, the kinds of lived realities of the Kumars of Kumartuli is described with reference to a capitalist modernity that does not emphasise its specific origins in each case, as this often remains mere speculation.

Caste versus Modernity

Caste and modernity are not two randomly chosen concepts with relations established only by the anthropologist, mutually used in order to guarantee that this book does not appear ‘chance erected, chance directed’, to paraphrase Kipling's infamous description of Kolkata.

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Caste, Entrepreneurship and the Illusions of Tradition
  • Online ISBN: 9781783085187
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