A book on anthropology and history with Indian flavour

Even though I bought a copy of Bernard S Cohn’s An anthropologist among the historians and other essays nearly six or seven years ago, I had a chance to start reading it only this summer. I have completed reading nearly one third of the book. The book, being a collection of essays, is highly uneven. Having said that, it is an enjoyable, if slow, read; and, strongly recommended if you are interested in anthropology, history and India.

The first essay titled An anthropologist among the historians: a field study is the one that I enjoyed the most till now; almost the whole of the essay is quote-worthy. Here are a couple of  interesting bits:

One’s initial entry into the society of historians in the archives is likely to be through the circumstance that someone else has a volume that you need. Is he working on the same subject as you are? Will his work block yours? Or is his work peripheral to yours? Will his work in the records provide a path for you? You gingerly sound out the holder of the volume you want and usually find that he is working on a different but related subject. Most likely the difference is chronological; he needs the records because they cover the end of his period and you are planning to begin at this point. But a bond is formed. First the interaction consists of the exchange of irrelevant or widely-known citations. Someone working on a closely allied subject rarely tells you his best finds. You must wait until he publishes and you can trace the footnotes legitimately. Similarly, you may wait until he publishes and you review his book to hit him with an important but little-known document or reference that you have found.

Anthropologists are slightly uncomfortable in the classroom. Some pace to and fro; some sit on tables; some sit among the students. The anthropologist’s lecture notes are on scraps of papers and backs of envelopes. His lecture notes  don’t represent a fixed capital which he adds to from time to time. He is always short on lecture notes. He encourages diversionary discussion, and, no matter what the lecture topic, he can usually introduce some anecdotal material from his field work.

The other essays, even though they do not flow with the same ease as the one mentioned above, still are full of insightful facts/observations; here are a few samples.

In 1893 Tilak, along with Annasahib (an orthodox Brahman), organized as a public festival the worship over a ten-day period of the Hindu god Ganesh. The manifest reason for the celebrations was to prevent lower-caste Hindus from participating in the Mohurram festival of the Muslims as had been the custom up until this time.

The famous old division of Right-hand and Left-hand castes in South-eastern India is probably a result of an ancient juxtaposition of populations originally inhabiting different regions.

One way of looking at the history of the study of caste is as a history of the discovery of the levels of the system. This discovery is very much tied to the methods of study and presuppositions of those doing the study. In the Dharmashastras and Vedas studied by the orientalists one finds varnas. If one sends out assistants and surveys with questionnaires, as did the administrators, one finds jats, and jatis; if one does long-term, intensive fieldwork in one place, one finds brotherhoods.

I was not aware of the communal aspects of Tilak’s Ganesh festival nor did I come across the Left-hand and Right-hand caste classification till I read Cohn.

2 Responses to “A book on anthropology and history with Indian flavour”

  1. gaddeswarup Says:

    Cohn Omnibus ia available in Indian edition and it includes two more books. I found “colonialism and its forms of knowledge” very interesting.

    • Guru Says:

      Dear Swarup,

      Thanks; I also noticed the colonialism book while looking up Cohn online. I will try and locate the Omnibus.


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