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Portraying the Evolution of a Community

Y. Vincent Kumaradoss

By Robert L. Hardgrave Jr.
Manohar, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 314, Rs. 895.00


This book came out in 1969, it was hailed as more or less a landmark. It marked a refreshing and most stimulating departure that defied the commonly prevalent notion that the caste system was overtly rigid with no scope for upward mobility. In mapping the rise of the Nadars in power and wealth from a lowly position just a shade above untouchability, Hardgrave weaves an interesting and fascinating story. Hardgrave’s portrayal of Nadars’ fanciful theories about their origin and their ability to convert the available resources to their advantages is lucid and immensely readable.   When history dawned on the Nadars, traditionally known as Shanars, they were found principally in the two districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. Palmyra-climbing and toddy-tapping were their traditional occupations. Treated as untouchables, they were forbidden entry into temples, denied access to public places like roads, markets, law courts and schools. They could neither carry umbrellas nor live in multi-storeyed houses. Worst of all, Nadar women had to go about bare-breasted as they were prohibited from covering their upper torso. The upward mobility of the Nadars of South India could only be described as phenomenal. Within a span of two centuries, they rose from near untouchability to a position of social and economic power.   The book travels into the past to unravel the methods, modalities and routes adopted in order to circumvent the hurdles in their attempt to become upwardly mobile. So much so, the detailed analysis of strategies used by the Nadars came to be identified as a ‘model’ for other aspiring communities. Originally placed in the lowest strata of the Hindu society, Nadars began their social and economic ascendance in the early nineteenth century, challenging severe disabilities imposed on them by caste hierarchy. Two distinct elements, mercantilism and Christianity played a crucial role in facilitating their upward mobility. The consolidation of British rule in the southern districts opened new frontiers of trade and commerce. Nadars were quick to take advantage of the opportunities including commercialisation of the economy and urbanization. Anxious to augment their trading and commerce, they established chain of fortified settlements along the main trade routes to extend comforts to their fellow Nadar merchants, to house their wares and to protect themselves from bandits and robbers. These settlements known as pettais served as a medium of cooperation among them and as an encouragement to economic mobility.   Local caste associations grew ...

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