ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

What It Is To Be a 'Chamar'

Retro-Modern India: Forging the Low-Caste Self by Manuela Ciotti (New Delhi: Routledge), 2010; pp 292, Rs 695.





What It Is To Be a ‘Chamar’ required of them to be modern in the present times, a large number of Chamar households suffer from several and acute
Badri Narayan forms of exclusion. Retro-modernity points to the mismatch between assimilating into

or dalits – the most downtrodden, deprived and exploited section of Indian Hindu society – acquiring modernity is like a double-edged sword. While it enables them to leave the shackles of their “polluting” caste-based profession and enter into the mainstream middle class society, it also brings about homogeneity since almost all of them aspire to become part of the State’s power structure by entering the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) or taking on other government jobs. Thus the dependence on the State increases due to the process of modernity and it also causes them to lose their indigenous skills and knowledge base and results in their transformation into “State beings”. Dalit women suffer doubly in the process of acquiring modernity as the rise up the socio-economic ladder causes them to lose their earlier liberty to leave their homes to share the economic burden of their families and confines them to their houses like the traditional upper caste middle and upper class women.

Becoming Modern

This process is what Manuela Ciotti tries to capture in the book under review. It is a study of the Chamar community, the caste group which occupies one of the lowest rungs in the traditional Hindu social hierarchy and whose traditional position has invariably led to its members being among the most economically disadvantaged as

Retro-Modern India: Forging the Low-Caste Self

by Manuela Ciotti (New Delhi: Routledge), 2010; pp 292, Rs 695.

well. For many years now this group has been in the process of leaving behind its socially inferior position and bettering its economic standards as well as raising the symbolic capital. Ciotti’s interest lies in the transformation of the self that occurs when members of this low-ranked caste aim at becoming “modern”. Through a detailed ethnography and analysis she tries to show how the Chamars create new modalities to liberate themselves from disabling structures, entrenched hierarchies, the shackles of patronage systems, and the trap of “unfit” personas in the religious/ritual systems. This they achieve not by mimicking high-caste customs but by subverting these disadvantages and by positively reformulating their own positioning within Indian society and their pasts.

According to Ciotti this is an important characteristic of what she terms their “retro-modernity”, which is a neologism coined by Ciotti to express the condition by which certain individuals and communities embrace a form of passé modernity while remaining at the margins of what it means to be modern in contemporary India. In the case of the Chamars, while the aspiring middle class sections are unable to adopt the high-speed permutations

august 7, 2010

a passé prototype of modernity through the adoption of distinctions and respectability believed proper of the 19th century middle classes and subsequently shaped by development and politicisation processes and the existence of a supralocal and inaccessible model embodied by the new m iddle classes. Ciotti tries to expose the social, economic and cultural histories that give content to this tension while foregrounding the class and caste of modernity and the particular forms of reflexivity it engenders.

The book aims to answer questions related to the trajectory of the Chamar retro-modernity like what is peculiar about it and what it tells us about the career of modernity in India. While seeking answers to these questions the book aims at building a more intimate connection between the debates and concepts of modernity emerging from post-colonial worlds and their actors. The idea of retromodernity is articulated along the entanglements between two main trajectories, both of which are viewed as the outcome of the generative impetus of modernisation in India and its unforeseen consequences. The first trajectory is one of reproduction of both practices and ideologies, and is marked by the Chamars’ return to the 19th century modernity of the Indian middle classes born out of their encounter with colonial modernity. The second is of subversion through low-caste movements for self- respect, and political

vol xlv no 32

Economic & Political Weekly


empowerment and the cultural production which has accompanied these processes.

Pushing the Class Boundaries

Ciotti’s study is based on a village called Manupur which is located in the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest and most populous states of India which is also the most problematic region in terms of governance and development with appalling indicators and unfavourable living conditions for its low castes and women. Manupur is situated very close to the city of Banaras, which was and still is the hub of pilgrimages and mass tourism in India. Although Manupur, which lies at the edge of Varanasi Municipal Corporation, reveals the signs and pressures of urbanisation, it actually resembles a village in terms of how the different castes reside, its architecture and fields. The Chamars, who constitute the main scheduled caste (SC) and account for about one-fifth of Manupur’s population (almost entirely Hindu), live in the Chamar basti (hamlet) in the south-east corner of the village. It is separated from the village’s central settlement by a wide expanse of cultivated land. They are fully integrated into the environment and make daily trips to the offices, wholesale markets, universities or temples of Banaras.

Most of the men rely on casual manual labour in the city and its periphery like construction work, rickshaw p ulling, autorickshaw driving. Around 15% of them are in government employment. It is this minority which has most visibly taken up strategies of socio-economic transformation which, in turn, had been initiated through an exit from exploitative village agricultural labour. This minority has pushed class boundaries in an attempt to socially ascend, investing in material and symbolic resources in the process. Ciotti feels that this aspiring middle class section apparently resembles the bureaucratic middle class of the Nehruvian period who held modern aspirations, signifying, in a way, another “return to the past” in contemporary times.

In Chapter 1 the author starts with an investigation of the Chamars’ experience of modernity with an analysis of their progressive disentanglement from the village economy and the occupational diversification that occurred among them as a result of the

Economic & Political Weekly

august 7, 2010

progressive decline in agriculture. In Chapter 2 she focuses on the ideological meanings associated with work, more significantly with “polluting work”, while providing a socio-economic micro-history of this community. Chapter 3 analyses the history of weaving in the Chamar community and its disappearance from the 1990s onwards, while Chapter 4 analyses education, in particular the ways in which it is deployed for self and community improvement. Chapter 5 analyses elements of the religious and moral universe of the Chamars as a reflection of the making of the “modern” in this community. Chapter 6 speaks of their involvement in the Chamar community’s transition from the long-standing allegiance to the Congress Party to the Bahujan Samaj Party. Chapter 7 complements the ethnography of male discourse and agency and explores the ways in which women have been a ffected in the process of socio-economic and political transformations described in the previous chapters. Finally, Chapter 8 offers reflections on the fault lines between the dominant icons of Indian modernity as embodied by the contemporary middle classes and the Chamars.

Different Classes of Women

The author convincingly shows the contradictory effect of education on the community. On the one hand, education is a unifying force vis-à-vis outsiders, on the other, it is an alienating experience and cause of upward mobility, resulting in the fragmentation of the community. An important section of the book is the exploration of the interplay between development, identity politics and middle class aspirations amongst different classes of Manupur Chamar women. Ciotti argues that this interplay has reinvigorated notions of women’s domesticity, education and modern conjugality as they emerged in the reform and modernising efforts of Indian society since the 19th century in their encounter with the colonial “civilising mission”. Through her study she shows how the long-term effects of this legacy have reached a historically marginalised community in its pursuit of middle class aspirations, and the ways in which this legacy is reconfigured through its appropriation by members of a low caste. She feels that this process epitomises the idea

vol xlv no 32

of “retro-modernity” and subsumes under it many of the themes discussed in the book and contends that the Chamar appropriation of the modernising agenda has resulted in a dual process: on the one hand a minority of women have embarked on an embourgeoisement trajectory predicated on education, suitable motherhood and aspirations to white-collar employment, on the other, underprivileged women with their “unfit” personas have become increasingly vulnerable to stigmatisation as a result of their menial labour. According to Ciotti, while the dialect between the two types of Chamar women is a particularly insightful lens through which the inner conflicts within low caste communities in contemporary India may be understood, this lens is also generally suggestive of contradictory trends concerning women, their development prospects and their membership in the nation.

From her study Ciotti concludes that Chamars and other subalterns are legitimate speakers of their times and they are a living answer to the fundamental question put by Ranciere about how “those whose business in not thinking assume the authority to think and thereby constitute themselves as thinking subjects”. She argues that if the appropriation of science and technology of western imprint was destined to become a hegemonic system of knowledge in India, then the nationalist imagination already had its own reservoir of minor, backward and traditional knowledge among native subjects and these were personified precisely by all those untouchables or low caste communities such as the Chamars and their world views. She feels that the eclecticism and richness of the Chamars’ knowledge and the processes of modernity which have produced such knowledge suggest that research is still lacking on the unfolding of the idea of modernity in India. The book is lucid in its analysis and distinguishes itself by its coherent perspective on the complex issues taken up for analysis.

A must read for all those who are interested in dalit studies, cultural studies, gender studies, anthropology and sociology. Ciotti compels the reader to think about what it is to be a “Chamar” in India today.


Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top