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Conflicting Constructions


Nita Kumar

LIFE ON THE GANGA: BOATMEN AND THE RITUAL ECONOMY OF BANARAS
By Assa Doron
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 239, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 12 December 2013

Assa Doron, Director of the South Asia Research Institute at the Australian National University, and formerly tourist, tour guide, then anthropologist in Banaras, demonstrates in this book the different, difficult, complexly interwoven feats that the discipline of anthropology is capable of. The setting of the book is Banaras. The book is partly about Banaras. Banaras is an ancient, religious, commercial, and ideological centre, as everyone knows, and as presented by academic literature. Banaras is also self reflexive in that it offers its very self up for consumption and gaze, and produces discourses on that; and it is academically reflexive in that many scholars include, in their various topical studies, a reflection on its self-constructions and constructions by others. Doron’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on these processes including that by Alter, Arnold, Bayly, Cohn, Eck, Freitag, Gooptu, Hess, Humes, Kumar, Lutgendorf, Pandey, Parry, Searle-Chatterjee, and Vidyarthi (going only by his own bibliography). Whereas only an ethnography located in Banaras would have been interesting, and only a discursive study of a facet of Banaras would have been fine, it is only fair to say that any research located in Banaras must today speak at both levels: have a tightly delineated, thick ethnographic focus, and be aware consistently of the textuality of the topic. This Doron does.   Let us ask, however: what is the significance of these coexisting levels, of Banaras’s longevity, and a reflexivity on the subject of its longevity? This is the coming together of what Cohn and, after him, others called ‘the (colonial) construction of tradition’ and of an ethno-sociological effort to understand what Marriott called ‘the Hindu way of life’. Why, if we are interested in colonial constructions, should we care how informants (imagine they) feel? Why, if we are interested in how they feel, choose and act, should we care what constructions were made in the past and what go on today? Doron gives a part answer, not didactically, but mostly through doing a two-faceted study. I am grateful for the non-didacticism. But it also means that he may not have the influence on the reader he could have had, and that many more theoretically inclined writers manage to wield through their sheer theoreticization.   Doron sketches for us a layered picture, one that is all too rarely drawn. In it we see boatmen negotiating with tourists on the riversides of Banaras. They ...


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