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A Reflective Scholar

Kumkum Roy

Edited by Aditya Malik , Anne Feldhaus and Heidrun Bruckner
Manohar Publications Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 409, Rs. 995.00


Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer passed away in 1992. His writings reveal an intensely reflective scholar, who provided us, amongst other things, with a definition of Hinduism that is remarkable for its apparent simplicity and inherent fluidity. His works were also informed by a concern with the marginal, especially pastoral peoples. Besides writing, he was a film-maker, documenting the lives of the peoples amongst whom he spent his most productive years. The volume under consideration incorporates the proceedings of two commemorative conferences held in 1994, as well as some additional papers. The anthology is divided into four sections, titled folk religion, bhakti, history and law, and epilogues respectively. Inevitably, these are not watertight compartments, and ideas flow across these divisions, enriching the contents of each section. A range of issues is explored in each section. Some of these engage with Sontheimer’s core ideas and methodological insights in implicit ways. For instance, in the first part, David Shulman’s perceptive reading of the shrine at Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh eschews a historical reconstruction in favour of a thematic analysis. He examines the sacred space as well as the complex ways in which its divine occupants are engendered. A similar strategy is suggested, in a different context, by Aditya Malik, who explores the possibility of understanding oral epics within a context of intertextuality instead of within a framework of ‘stages of development.’ To some extent, Alf Hiltebeitel’s analysis of Tulu and Tamil variants on martial epics involving brother/twins and a boar hunt also underlines the complexities of these narratives, which defy a neat plotting of diffusion from an epicentre to periphery. A more explicit engagement with Sontheimer’s concerns is evident in the exploration undertaken by Anne Feldhaus, who focuses on the multiple ways in which brahmans relate to folk traditions. These range from complete ignorance of such practices, to condemnation, to asserting claims to define the traditions. From a different perspective, Elisabeth Schombucher raises the question of the validity of the categories of ‘great’ and ‘little’ traditions, (or any other set of binaries that we might view as synonymous) in apprehending ritual praxis in a village. Her ethnographic accounts suggest that these binaries tend to get blurred when viewed from the perspective of the village. What is particularly interesting is her account of the processes whereby the ‘great’ deities are incorporated within the local pantheon. Equally fascinating is Alexander Henn’s documentation of religiosity ...

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