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This is a portrayal of the Maliks among the Kumars of Kumartuli in the Indian megacity Kolkata. The Maliks are the owners of the workshops and studios that make the images used in the numerous pujas – worship ceremonies – within and outside of Bengal, of which Durga Puja is the most important. In general, the Kumars work as makers of unbaked clay images, and in Kumartuli they form a caste- based neighbourhood. In fact, ‘Kumartuli’ means ‘the potters’ neighbourhood’ and is the last of Kolkata's larger neighbourhoods still dominated by a single caste working within their ‘traditional’ caste profession.
Thus, they might seem like survivors of a long- lost tradition, a secluded group untouched by modernity, a capsule that has resisted time and development (Fabian 1983, Wolf 1997 ). At least this is how they are usually represented (Banerjee 2004). It is as if time- travel is possible after all: ‘Just visit Kumartuli where time has stood still.’ This strange impression paves the way for a new understanding of caste in the twenty- first century: caste as a commodity. I establish this through a study of how Kumars understand and practise caste. Further, by means of empirical descriptions I seek to develop the theory of caste as both an analytical and a descriptive device.
In order to understand the world of the Kumars, it is necessary to understand the histories out of which contemporary Kumartuli emerges – histories that that Kumars of today use actively in their business. Based on the Maliks and their families’ own stories and recollections, I present and analyse the transformation of this group of Bengali caste- based potters from regular village artisans into highly esteemed urban artists. Emphasis is placed on how they constitute or present themselves through oral histories of their past and present lives as image- makers.
My major concern is to depict and analyse the meaning of caste in a society and context where caste has had a more hidden impact, while also exploring how this impact has changed (Searle- Chatterjee and Sharma 1994, Gupta 2004, Khare (ed.) 2006, Chandra, Heierstad and Nielsen 2015).
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