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A Multilayered World


By Malavika Kasturi
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 286, Rs. 595.00


Malavika Kasturi’s book, Embattled Identities, is an insightful and compelling account of the making and unmaking of Rajput identity in colonial north India. Taking note of colonial ethnographic accounts of the nineteenth century that had been much influenced by bardic imagination of Rajput valour, as also more recent writings on lineage and descent theories, the writer makes a convincing departure by highlighting the role of long-term political, economic and social processes in restructuring Rajput identity and reconstituting social hierarchies, mainly caste and gender-based.   Scholarly writings as those of C.A. Bayly, Frank Perlin, Muzaffar Alam and Nicholas Dirks among others have shown how, compared with the political and economic dynamism of regional powers, the colonial state in the nineteenth century was based on very different set of politics, institutions and ideologies. The interaction between the two was thus bound to be tenuous. Demilitarization campaigns undertaken in north India, along with the framing of laws and making of new revenue policies, police and judiciary, brought the two agencies—colonial and Rajput—face to face militarily and on issues of economic and social concern. While the colonial state had to yield ground and accommodate the ‘native’ on several occasions, the world of regional elite groups was nevertheless crumbling. The author is of the view that as the British reordered the Indian landscape, the Rajputs faced ‘a systemic crisis’ when their power, rank and cultural conceptions of honour and status were weaned away from political culture and economy (p.29). It is in this context that Malavika Kasturi explores questions such as how the Rajput biradaris respond to change. How did kinship, gender and ritual hierarchies respond to shifts in Rajput power and status? And finally she delves into the bewildering world of rebellions, bhumeawat or collective violence and banditry that lingered well into the twentieth century. One of the outstanding qualities of the work is the painstaking research undertaken to trace the sharpening conflict between different groups within the Rajput quam on one hand and the Rajput and cultivating castes on the other.   More pioneering enquiry is made with reference to the impact of a receding ‘old world’ and depleting resources on matrimonial strategies and gender relationships. The author argues that as the traditional means of augmenting authority such as warfare, conquests and expansion were foiled by the English Company, lineage and domestic space came to play an important part in the ...

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