Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Imagining Caste: Nicholas Dirks' "Castes of Mind"

When people think of India, one of the first thing people pride themselves on is that they know about the existence of caste. Although caste has come to define a culture both outside of South Asia and within it, Nicholas Dirks argues that it wasn't always the defining feature of the region's cultural nexus. Dirks, a professor of history and anthropology at Colombia University and Dean of the Department of Arts and Sciences, argues that orientalist notions of Indian society were produced during the colonial encounter with British. His Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India – published in 2001 by Princeton University Press – argues that British scholars narrowly focused in on caste, pushing other sociological and cultural considerations aside.

This book is a dense description of the evolution of an idea, largely through the zone of contact between the Indian subcontinent and Western colonialism, both before and during the British colonial occupation of the region. Dirks carefully and distinctively gives the lowdown on the creation of caste in the imagination of Westerners as they came into contact with India. He begins with the Portuguese through the orientalists to Muller and ends with implications of the hardening of caste and its perception as the sine qua non in the minds of Westerners. His implication in such an outline is that Hindu culture has been reduced both in perception and to some degree in reality to this set of social structural relationships.

Dirks presents a complex dualism of problematic which cannot, to my dismay and elation, be essentialized. The notion of caste spread like wildfire in the discourses and imaginations of these Orientalists. Finally the last half of the nineteenth century, especially after the first war of independence in 1857 and the taking of direct control of the occupation by the crown in 1858 there was a rise of great concern over how to rule India. With the orientalist literature now thick in Western archives a great curiosity about India spread. Dirks argues from this that caste became a specifically colonial form of knowledge built on an orientalist vision of the Indian society. This disembodied idea, removed from the social, cultural, and political context of India came to stand in for the realities of the subcontinent's actual composition and eventually grew into a larger part of the composition through the imaginations of people within and without the region. Even the calls to ameliorate jati (caste) in Britain, Dirks argues, grew the phenomenon to its current proportions.

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