Based on testimonies from the 1990s, this book stands as a polyvocal account of the radical political and environmental changes the region and its people have faced in the twentieth century. Not just the story of modernity from the perspective of a rural village, these interviews and author commentaries narrate this small rural community’s relatively sudden transformation from subjection to a local despot and to a remote colonial power to citizenship in a modern postcolonial democracy. Unlike other recent studies of Rajasthan, the current study gives voice exclusively to former subjects who endured the double oppression of colonial and regional rulers. Gold and Gujar thus place subjective subaltern experiences of daily routines, manifestations of power relations, and sweeping changes to the environment (after the fall of kings) that turned lush forests into a barren landscape on equal footing with historical “fact” and archival sources. Ambiguous, complex, and culturally laden as it is in Western thought, the concept of nature is queried in this ethnographic text. For persons in Sawar the environment is not only a means of sustenance, its deterioration is linked to human morality and to power, both royal and divine. The framing questions of this South Asian history revealed through memories are: what was it like in the time of kings and what happened to the trees?
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About the Author
Ann Grodzins Gold is Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Syracuse University. She is the author of several books, including Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims.
Bhoju Ram Gujar is Headmaster at Government Middle School in Maganpura village, Rajasthan, India, and lives in Ghatiyali, in the former kingdom of Sawar.
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In the Time of Trees and Sorrows
Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan
By Ann Grodzins Gold, Bhoju Ram Gujar
Duke University PressCopyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THE PAST OF NATURE AND THE NATURE OF THE PAST
These are small voices which are drowned in the noise of statist commands. That is why we don't hear them. That is also why it is up to us to make that extra effort, develop the special skills and above all cultivate the disposition to hear these voices and interact with them. For they have many stories to tell—stories which for their complexity are unequaled by statist discourse and indeed opposed to its abstract and oversimplifying modes.—Ranajit Guha, "The Small Voice of History"
There is good reason to believe vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful.—Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
This book relates some complex stories of a small place: the twenty-seven-village former kingdom of Sawar (Savar Sattaisa) in the modern state of Rajasthan in India. Differing from most accounts of the past in Rajasthan, our book describes conditions and events from the viewpoints of subjects, not rulers. We attempt to portray a critical and pivotal era—the 1930s through the 1950s—in the translated words of largely nonliterate farmers, herders, leatherworkers, and others who recollect the "time of great kings" (rajamaharaja ka jamana). Although occasionally we consulted persons who once held power, and also visited archives, the bulk and heart of our book is conversations with those who formerly endured a double oppression under colonial and regional rulers. Through these conversations we present not onlyappraisals of past autocracy but experiences of the sudden and radical transformation to democracy and modernity as these have been incorporated and interpreted "below" the realms of power.
Early in 2000, Bhoju Ram Gujar proposed seven possible titles for our coalescing manuscript. One possessed rhyme, rhythm, and economy in the original Hindi, but translates rather awkwardly as "The Rulers' Story, the People's Testimony" (raj kahani praja ki jabani). Although we ultimately chose a different phrase, I would like to stress here the importance of Bhoju's deliberate equation in this formulation of "story" (kahani) with "oral testimony" (jabani). We offer these stories, and they were offered to us, as a kind of testimony. By "story" we mean something that has been told, and that is worth retelling, with feeling. By "testimony" we mean something witnessed, stated, and affirmed to be true; another meaning given for jabani is "affidavit."
Urvashi Butalia evokes a similar conjunction of subjective experience with witnessed truth when she argues for the worth of her own work with memories in her book of oral narratives about India's partition. She considers any preconceived contrast between memory and historical fact as a misapprehension: "But to me, the way people choose to remember an event, a history, is at least as important as what one might call the 'facts' of that history, for after all, these latter are not self-evident givens; instead, they too are interpretations, as remembered or recorded by one individual or another" (2000:8). Each person's story has intrinsic value—not just as a crude source to be refined into data, but in the telling. Like Butalia, we do not weigh speakers' interpretations against supposed actuality. Rather, we layer multiple versions to achieve a textured, contoured narrative density.
In the epigraph to this chapter, Ranajit Guha exhorts his fellow historians not just to exert "extra effort" in attending to small voices, but to realize the need to cultivate a "disposition" for such attentiveness. Anthropologists—however maligned they find themselves at present—might be permitted a fleeting satisfaction in this regard. Has not such attention been their bottom-line métier from the beginning?
For me and Bhoju, listening has been a basic mode of operation, although our respective motivations and trajectories are disparate. For Bhoju these voices are after all from his own community; for me, as an ethnographer and a foreign guest, these voices are of people who have not only taken pains to educate me more or less from scratch, but have made me feel at home among them. Certainly, Bhoju and I differ from Guha's presumed audience of Indian historians educated in a predominantly European disciplinary tradition. For better or worse, our capacity to hear small voices has been unimpaired by grand visions. By this I do not mean to imply that either of us came to this work without plenty of preconceptions, but rather that by virtue of stumbling unaware and unprepared into history we had no sense of what the stories we gathered should reveal by way of the larger narratives in which they are, of course, embedded and by which they are to a degree controlled.
Our book is a product not only of our isolated and unique collaboration (a Jewish female cultural anthropologist born in Chicago in 1946, and a Gujar Hindu male schoolteacher, now headmaster, born in Ghatiyali in 1956), but of twenty years of sea changes in anthropology and social science that have filtered into our aims, methods, and styles. Three such changes are perhaps most relevant to this work. First is the shift from univocal to dialogic or polyvocal narration; from monologic claims for ethnographic authority to practices of co-production, whatever the (considerable) risks entailed. Our collaboratively engendered book gives pride of place to the words of elderly Sawar villagers who, as they sometimes put it, filled our tapes for us. These persons have lived through multiple, radical changes. Their memories include transformations from simultaneous subjection to both a well-known local despot and a remote colonial power, to participation as citizens of a modern, bureaucratic, and postcolonial democracy. Concurrently the Sawar elders have seen their landscape transformed from one rich in biodiversity of trees and wildlife to one where hillsides have been stripped of indigenous growth and are now dominated by a single alien species. Sawar residents experience and evaluate these and many other changes in varied, nuanced, and critical ways.
The second massive trend that influenced our work is the departure from assertions that each culture yields a coherent, systematic, elegantly chartable universe of ordered meanings and values. Some ethnographers now deny any such monolithic constructs, and replace them with sheer revelry in fraught negotiations, contested realities, and displays of cacophonous discourse. We have accordingly attempted to record individual Sawar voices with particular care, to situate persons as social actors speaking from unique life histories, and in general to avoid dissolving disparate identities and positions and to present multiple and sometimes conflicting versions of the same tales.
Finally, and most directly connected with the content of this work, are several strands rebinding anthropology with history and reworking ethno-history, oral history, and environmental history or landscape memory into the mainstreams of ethnographic knowledge. Originating separately from but eventually converging with and cross-fertilizing these efforts is the influential and vastly important work of the subaltern historians in the subcontinent. From their inspiration, accomplishments, and impact we gather confidence in the worth of our endeavors, while remaining well aware that our project is genealogically different from theirs.
I would argue that all the changes I have evoked here are healthy ones; they keep anthropology worth doing. I sometimes hear colleagues of my generation (trained in the 1970s) express nostalgic yearning for the era of certainties—whether the crisp visions of E. E. Evans-Pritchard or the calm detachment of Louis Dumont. For myself, I am grateful to be a seriously rattled, insecure ethnographer at the millennium rather than a complacent authority of fifty years past. Moreover, it is a pleasure to observe a slightly newer generation flourishing, many of whom themselves belong from birth to more than one world. Their theoretical edges are well-honed and multiple, and they are more at home camping on shifting sands.
Bhoju and I are in the middle. We are differently in the same middle—millennial anthropology; and we are similarly in middles that differ. That is, he in Ghatiyali and I in American academia are both between two generations, our seniors more sure of the terms on which life should be led; our juniors bred to swim in floods of change. Bhoju, too, sometimes sighs after consistency and laments the untamed multiforms of every story we hear. Yet ultimately he lives comfortably enough, as I too try to do, with double doses of multiple realities.
There might be a parallel here with the people of Sawar, who resoundingly prefer their unbalanced, slippery existence under the rule of votes (vot ka raj)—despite its dismaying disorders and massive disillusions—to the rule of great kings (raja-maharaja ka raj) with its firm hand. They maintain their conviction that the present is happier in spite of the genuinely tragic losses of wooded terrain sheltering biodiversity and of community solidarity (losses far greater than any that social science may have suffered in losing its cherished paradigms). This preference for the present counters nostalgia with something quite other than contentment; it is an important theme in much that follows. In the village, too, a new generation is maturing. This book will not tell you much about them, but the future is theirs.
Our framing question is straightforwardly descriptive: What was it like for poor farmers and herders and laborers during the time of kings (and empire)? All that we learned in this regard emerged from a prior inquiry: What happened to the trees? Our original impetus, then, was to learn the story of deforestation; in the process we found out a great deal about everything else, yet our expanded vision remains ecological in spirit. We seek to substantiate the answers to both questions through accounts of lived experiences located in space and time, often presented dialogically. Some of the qualities of these experiences—rendered as the exploitation and suffering of peasants in early-twentieth-century Rajputana—have been presumed to be generalized conditions for this region in many works of history. But actual recorded recollections are scarce, thin, and too often decontextualized.
Our conviction is that the stories or testimonies gathered here have their most powerful impact as human expressions. To theorize them is not to enhance their worth, but only to locate them in fields of knowledge in order to aid readers in situating and understanding their meaning. Our book's value, then, lies not in making new arguments about human relationships with nature or the course of environmental history; about power witnessed from below; or about the realities of a remembered past. Our claims are considerably more modest: to contribute a few thoughts and a greater measure of grounded substance to three currents of academic discourse—nature, power, and memory. I would characterize these more expansively as scholarship concerned with envisioning nature and tracking environmental transformations, with subaltern consciousness and struggles, and with the relationship between individual recollections and historical truths.
Floating in the confluence of these streams, our work—to pun rather badly but meaningfully—remains an ethnographic craft. It is fieldwork based, at heart an anthropological endeavor with all the baggage those terms have come to hold. In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I will briefly position our voices and labors as we navigate these fluid thought worlds.
Why Say "Nature"?
What is now an oral ethnographic history, made up of fragmented chronicles of dramatic change, began as a timeless study of value. Its impetus reflected my 1970s training at the University of Chicago permeated with romanticized visions of divine conservation (Gold and Gujar 1995), cross-fertilized over five-odd years by Cornell University's more pragmatic agendas in development sociology, natural resources, and environmental engineering. 1 set out for Rajasthan in December 1992 to research, what I called "cultural constructions of the natural environment." However, my original conception had been to look at "religious constructions of nature." I ran an early version of a research proposal past an advanced graduate student of my acquaintance, and received from him many supportive comments, along with some polite but pointed advice: the project was great, but it would be preferable not to say "religion," and not to say "nature." Fine, I thought; there is always virtue in less-loaded language.
I leave unexamined here the facility with which I was able to substitute "culture" for "religion" and never look back. But I shall have to tangle with the terminological dilemma surrounding "nature" because, having once docilely replaced it with "environment," I eventually returned to it. When in our interviews old people sketched past landscapes before our minds' eyes, we were stunned by the contrast with a denuded present. To understand what happened to the trees in Sawar we had to understand a whole passage in history. For this reason my research proposal for 1997 was titled, as is this chapter, "The Past of Nature and the Nature of the Past." And nature—with all its attendant perplexities—remains central to this book. From semantic issues I shall then turn to the intersections of our work with recent rethinkings of South Asian environmental history; that is, to the past of nature in the subcontinent.
In two often-cited meditations on the meaning of the English word "nature," Raymond Williams has argued both that it is "perhaps the most complex word in the language" (1976:184) and that as an idea it contains "an extraordinary amount of human history" (1980:67). Many other authors have explored the meanings of nature in Euro-American culture in far greater detail than did Williams, but none, to my mind, with greater economy or eloquence. To oversimplify radically the poetics, politics, and evolving historical meanings presented in multiple accounts, we may highlight two constructions that have dominated English speakers' understandings of this noun.
In one construction, nature is and by definition must remain "out there." It is separate from all that humans create and affect; it is, as Williams puts it, "all that was not man: all that was not touched by man, spoilt by man" (1980:77). The second view of nature, elaborated extensively in marxist thought but widely acknowledged, realizes that any pristine nature is only imaginary. Continuing to follow Williams's capsule imagery: "We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out" (1980:83). In other words, any nature that is possible for humans to know they have also produced, even as it has produced them. These two opposing but complementary views have generated many debates in environmentalist thought, and they hold serious consequences for environmental policy and the conflicted politics that often surround it. Both areas are, fortunately, well beyond our present scope.
As Bell's (1994) study of nature in rural England beautifully reveals, both of the views that Williams highlights coexist in commonsense, vernacular understandings—sometimes comfortably, sometimes uneasily. Every other year on the first day of my Syracuse University undergraduate course "Religions and the Natural Environment" I ask students to free-associate on the word "nature." After five or six responses, I invariably have written on the blackboard that nature is other than and beyond humanity, pristine and unspoiled; and that nature is a resource for people, but is endangered by their folly. Now and then the occasional Wiccan, or Buddhist, or, memorably, a Californian "raised by hippies" will help me to turn a corner by suggesting that spiritual life is inherent in nature, rather than garnered from it.
For anthropologists and historians of religions seeking to understand (and teach) cosmologies other than those posed in the three familiar monotheisms, both Euro-American paradigms are problematic. Whether pristine or imbricated in human labor and art, nature as an English term has—at least since the seventeenth century—been largely devoid of consciousness and agency. Both of these concepts are regularly located either in humanity or in a nonimmanent creator. But there flourish many other religious worlds where elements of nature are more often animate—spirited, emotional, and willful.
A second problem for cross-cultural meanings follows closely on any view of nature as devoid of conscious agency. Deeply embedded in the English semantics of nature is a presumed dichotomy with culture, a dichotomy of skewed value, often gendered. Marilyn Strathern, among others, has argued that one of the many assumptions implicit in the nature/culture dichotomy is "the notion that the one domain is open to control or colonization by the other" (1980:181). And it is culture that western humans have traditionally viewed as the proper and inevitable colonizer. That is, nature is to be disciplined, productive, and ornamental. In spite of many critiques lodged against any notion that such dichotomous and hierarchical ideas about nature and culture have universal validity, these ideas inexplicably continue to haunt social science.
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Table of ContentsNote on Language ix
Preface: "There Are No Princes Now" xi
1. The Past of Nature and the Nature of the Past 1
2. Voice 30
3. Place 53
4. Memory 78
5. Shoes 105
6. Court 126
7. Homes 162
8. Fields 211
9. Jungle 241
10. Imports 277
Appendix: Selected Trees and Plants Mentioned in Interviews 325
What People are Saying About This
This is an extraordinary history of postcolonial India as told through the
lives of peasants and pastoralists, artisans and housewives. Drawing on many
years of research, Gold and Gujar explore changing relations between state and
subject, changing structures of production and consumption and, most
innovatively, changes in the natural world in rural Rajasthan. Their research is
rich, their analyses subtle and empathetic, their writing uncommonly evocative.
This landmark study is at once a major contribution to environmental history,
political anthropology, and folklore.
Ramachandra Guha, author of The Unquiet Woods and Environmentalism: A Global History
A unique, densely textured historical and ethnographic account. Engaging scholarship on memory, environmental history, oral history, South Asian studies, and ethnographic experimentation, this book works on multiple registers. The authors' observations about the sweat, dust, tears, and delights of fieldwork are also remarkable in their evocative force.
Kirin Narayan, author of Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales