Humane Journey into the Nature of Human Culture: A Personal Narrative
- Part 3 -

Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti *

This article is the lecture delivered by Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti , Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India ; General Secretary, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata, on the 2nd Gangmumei Kamei memorial Lecture

The cultivators' socio-economic and cultural domain may be captured on two settings- natural and super natural. Natural setting in composed of three elements physiographic, organic and super organic. Physiographic elements include land, climate etc. The land is really the mother to a cultivator. They show moral and cultural obligations to land while cultivating their crops.

Even during sale or purchase a piece of land they perform many obligatory rituals. They have developed their own perceptions about climate, rainfall and other geographical eventualities base on generative knowledge and practical experiences accumulated through proverbs, folklore, myth, rhymes and oral traditional handed down to them through generations.

The organic elements include plants and animals as well as human being. They have developed a set of notions guiding their optimal operation for growing various crops from selection of seed to the harvest of produce. Similarly they have stored in their knowledge pool the ideas about milch animals and drought animals. They look upon themselves significantly as a moral community vis-a-vis the outsides, specially the urbanites so far their own cultural core of rural living is concerned.

The super organic elements have both endogenous and exogenous categories. The former includes micro socio-cultural parameters, such as traditional technological know-how for labour intensive production, self-consumption and internal redistribution. They show the capability of rationalising as to what to produce, when to produce, where to produce, how to produce and why to produce.

This approach is equally applicable to their choice and decision regarding the pattern of self consumption and mode of internal redistribution of the produce. The latter i.e. the exogenous category includes macro politico-economic parameters, such as the management of modern techno-economic inputs for capital intensive production, surplus mobilisation and external commercialisation. Most of the average cultivators more often than not feel threatened by these emergent factors and forces slowly thrust upon them by the encroaching agents of the penetrative market network.

This is somehow beyond their control to check, therefore, they have no option practically other than to be subjected to such an unbearable condition form which they cannot even afford to withdraw themselves immediately. The internalization of the modern inputs of agricultural production (improved seed, fertilizers, pesticides etc) and the externalization of the output i.e. the produce (not only the surplus production, even the quantity kept for self consumption) take place through a chain gradually built into the operative system.

The supernatural setting is composed of two types of elements namely, gross and subtle. The cultivators by and large participate in a number of observable ritual performances which are connected at each step of cultivation. These rituals are believed to have protective, prohibitive and promotional effects of the expectations of the cultivators for good harvest and well being of all kinds of livestock as well as safe human life. The gross element is super natural setting assumes all mundane aspects.

The subtle element assumes supra-mundane aspects which are not immediately observable but based on a perennial belief system transcended across the generations. There are specialists, priests or others, who mediate between the cultivators and the invisible outer domain through worship, prayer and so on.

The whole country has undergone a systemic adoption of agricultural development programmes since the first Five Year Plan period. Occasional shifts have been effected depending on the priority for improving a target group. Thus, for the improvement of production and income of the small and marginal farmers, agricultural labourers down to the specific poverty stricken rural families, lot of occasional programmes have been launched during each plan period.

Conceptually, the use of 'appropriate technology', 'balanced growth', 'inclusive development' and so on have been the idealized emphasis in each induced programme. In spite of all these measures and efforts towards the desired target the neat observable result has been questioned and debated by the academics, administrators, planner and the social activists. I am not going into any technical details or statistically based assessment or counter assessment at the moment excepting making a mention that the question of poverty in India has basically a rural dimension.

Therefore, in order to grapple with the ground reality we have to fall back upon the micro-level data base usually generated by the researchers in specific field situations. This approach in a sense help us understand how, despite the advance of technological development in agricultural production, a substantial number of the rural people engaged in cultivation have perpetually remained below the so called poverty line.

Further, and interestingly enough, how all the possible constraints notwithstanding, the cultivators of different descriptions manage to maintain in a village situation the internal social relations and sharing of common cultural values embedded in the very structure of a particular mode of production. Once these grass root realities are retrieved with a dependable data base it will automatically drive us towards taking correct initiative based on macro politico-economic considerations inherent in all major development programmes, specially in the agrarian sector, including a review of the various Land Reform measures and Tenancy Acts in different states of the country.

My narrative began with the journey among the so called backward primitive food gathering tribes. Eventually it passed through the villages of the settled cultivators both in dry and wetland cultivation regions. Now the narrative will enter into my journey in the urban towns one is situated in West Bengal and the other is island town of Port Blair, Andaman. As a student of Anthropology we had to take course in human evolution. This included both biological and cultural evolution of mankind.

One could perhaps notice that while the narrative proceeded through the sections as used in the preceding pages it has taken an evolutionary approach starting with food gathering communities, passing through the peasant communities, and landed into the urban communities. Our basic concern has been to understand human culture from the relatively simple stages of societal development that still exist. Then we have moved gradually to the complex stages.

These stages are normally determined by the social organisations where the respective communities are encapsulated along the tradition that they inherit through the ages. In order to get in to the root of human culture for a comprehensive understanding my task as a student of cultural anthropology has been to depend primarily on close and intimate observations on these communities as they express themselves through their performances in various activities social, cultural, political and religious.

In the process they combine or recombine their mutual interpersonal or intergroup relations. Perhaps this journey is not that easy into the human terrain, because it entails lot of complicated entry points. As a researcher in the field one has to evolve differential strategy during any field journey and adopt certain techniques in eliciting required information from the people. It is relatively easy to observe a Jaroa or a Kadar, but difficult to communicate with them.

The constraint is not only language but the nature of their movement in the jungles during day time. It is nearly impossible even now to stay close to them in a camp in the evening. The rural cultivators are rather accessible within reach but one has to care enough for all kinds of social and economic divides that constitute the village life. In urban centres it requires a different strategy to capture the realities of life contextually diverse in nature.

The basic approach in taking up two different small urban centres was to pick up an immediately observable and directly accessible spatial unit. The management size of the population in such a given universe normally remains rooted in a common mode of social and economic interactions. The most question that haunted us initially was what happens when a land space (cadastral unit) changes its character in terms of the basic modes of production.

It is assumed that with the changes in land use pattern the concomitant social relations and cultural responses will be certainly affected. In view of this I led a team of cultural anthropologists and human geographers in a field work in Barnipur town under the district of 24 Parganas (south) in West Bengal. This small town in situated within easy access to Kolkata by road and rail transport being the hinterland of an encircling rural milieu.

Originally an enlarged village, which stood by the side of an important stream (Adi Ganga) and a life line for trade and transport, Barnipur carries with it number of important historical events. It is known, from available records as well as from the peoples' responses to our queries, that SriChaitanya Mahapravu stayed here about 500 years ago. The Barnipur area had the first municipality in 1869.

The famous litterateur Bankim Chandra Chattopdhyay became the Deputy Magistrate in the local court here between 1864 to 1868. The historical Hindu Mela, known for its link with India's struggle for freedom, was organised here during the late nineteenth century. A high school was established here way back in 1858. Large scale migration of rural population had taken place for seeking opportunities in advanced education, various employments, business and so on.

The place initially known for production of betel leafs, gradually turned into large scale plantation of different fruits, and finally turned into urban agglomeration with the establishment of modern buildings for dwelling and office accommodation of various institutions, extension of road and modern transport network and so on.

The changes in the land use pattern was recorded from the Land Revenue and Settlement offices and visibly reflected on the cartographic maps that were prepared based on 1932, 1962 Survey records and compared with the data collected during 1998-99.

(To be contd......)

* Dr. S. B. Chakrabarti wrote this article which was published at Imphal Times
The writer is Former Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Government of India and General Secretary, The Asiatic Society, Kolkata
This article was webcasted on March 29, 2019.

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