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Relook those rigidities

Ashok Sharma  |  New Delhi 

Louis Dumont's distinct theoretical and methodological points of departure in the study of the Indian caste system have long attracted criticism in India, as elsewhere. If several Indian scholars were critical of him, a few were supportive, while many others were indifferent. This volume, edited by R S Khare, professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, offers a contemporary collection of assessments by Indian writers of Dumont's work on Indian society.
Divided into four sections, this book begins with some accessible overviews, summaries, and early reviews. The first three sections deal with Indian critiques of the work, but the last section is by Dumont himself.
In the first section, contributors T N Madan, R S Khare, Veena Das and J P S Uberoi apprise the new reader of Louis Dumont's work and methods, highlighting a couple of early Indian reviews. The opening selection by Madan introduces the work with an overview of the 1970 edition of Homo Hierarchicus in English, along with profiles of two scholarly symposia he had organised on it. Khare's excerpts drawn from the 1971 reviews of that work help identify Dumont's conceptual and methodological points of departure in general, as well as the India-specific cultural terms. Veena Das and Uberoi focus on the central hierarchical value opposition Dumont had posited between the "ritually pure" and "impure" to explain the entire Indian caste system. Madan reviews the comparison made by Dumont between India and the West.
The second section's essays look into Dumont's work closely, and make empirical, methodological as well as theoretical commentaries. A critical group, represented by M N Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Dipanker Gupta, takes a logico-empirical approach to Dumont's work. Srinivas critically examines it in both empirical and conceptual terms, while Gupta delves into the caste system to make a theoretical critical evaluation of Dumont's structural method.
A supportive group, represented by Arun Bose, and a follow-up review by Sudipta Kaviraj that contextualises Bose's interpretation, adopts a distinctly Marxist historical-cultural-political stance on Dumont's work. Bose, an economist, finds Dumont's structural study of India distinctly helpful""even refining the existing Marxist approaches to explain the ongoing changes in India.
The third section of the book highlights a general paradigm shift in Indian sociology and anthropology towards post-colonial discourse and debate. This part takes on the question of fully recognising India's changing social, religious and historical realities, and the resulting new agencies at work.
Partha Chatterjee locates major problems in Dumont's structural method, and formulates a criticism of caste within a historiography of the Indian nationalist argument. Arjun Appadorai criticises Dumont on both substantive cultural and methodological grounds, rendering Dumont's "ideology of the whole" untenable for India within mechanical conceptions of the system.
Clearly, the impact of Dumont's work on the understanding of Indian society is still far from over. It hinges upon a continued creative approach to the work, balanced by the rigour of academic application. This book is but a small nudge in this direction, and a fresh review is required, particularly of his work focusing on enduring cultural insights.
In fact, any meaningful revaluation of Dumont's work must now be based on some new issue-based research projects and field ethnography. The forces of globalisation are bringing their own dynamics to bear on Indian society, making it all the more urgent that Dumont's work gets what it demands: open, vigorous and reciprocal dialogue between Indian and Western schools of thought.
Edited by R S Khare
Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 575; Pages: xvi+262

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First Published: Mon, March 27 2006. 00:00 IST