Saturday, September 12, 2009

A comment on 'sumatisatakam'

From the introduction to Colonial Lists, Indian Power by Michael Katten (available online):

"Long before a postcolonial, centralized Indian bureaucratic state arrogated to itself controls over the allowable uses of specific labels referring to groups in society, the Sumati Satakam and those who recited it changed the ways they depicted various sectors of that society. A number of the verses of the Satakam are not used today because they stereotype and denigrate a variety of Telugu játi communities. But the changes in a few particular verses, prior to the relatively recent center-imposed censoring, indicate the power of category and identity formation, and the ways in which epistemologies of játi in society were subject to changes introduced from below.
అల్లుని మంచి తనంబును
గొల్లని సాహిత్య విద్య,కోమలి నిజముం
పొల్లున దంచిన బియ్యము
తెల్లని కాకులును లేవు తెలియర సుమతీ

A good son-in-law,
A learned Golla, a truthful woman,
Rice produced by pounding the paddy husk alone,
A white crow: the wise person knows there are no such things.

This is the verse as it has been printed in the late twentieth century, amid what has become a standard ordering of the verses, and fairly consistent versions of each. But examination of a number of palm-leaf versions reveals that earlier versions of this particular verse used (Kómati, a játi name) instead of (kómali, "woman"), almost exclusively. The substitution of "woman" for a játi group name indicates the lack of control a dominant sector of society (Bráhmans)–certainly of literary society–had over the use of categories. In other verses we see such changes as the substitution of the phrase "bad person" for "Sudra" and ఖలునకు ("bad man") for (Velama, another játi name), as later versions of the Satakam were produced.

Of course, one counterpoint to this interpretation has been that ("Golla") is still in the verse. Bráhmans and those who continue to recite this verse explain that "Golla" no longer refers to the group that may have at one time lived as shepherds, but instead means someone who is a dullard–"golla" with a lowercase "g." In fact, the use of that word in this verse is now being contested in contemporary society, to the extent that the verse cannot be freely cited. The removal of "Kómati" early on (in the version cited here, and certainly by the beginning of the twentieth century) shows that meanings applied to terms referring to groups were becoming closed. This reflected the fact that labeling for communities had become a source of empowerment for those groups who sought to be referred to in particular ways, including those instances of the use of játi names. That there were political and power valences to the terms meant that those terms would no longer be open for use as disparaging labels in general. This is exactly the reason for the importance of categories that I will try to show throughout this work. It is also the reason that categories, and group identity in particular, are so important in our being able to see the flow of power from all sectors in society, while it is not usually evident in overt forms such as the records and other printed texts."

In one more note about this verse, here it is significant that "woman" can be substituted for a játi group name. This is consistent with Chatterjee and Mani (women became markers for control by men over the cultural domain), but mostly it reveals the general intent and structure of this verse genre. The Sumati Satakam is a means of reinscribing control over society in general. As a text of this sort it is one item in the larger set of discursive media available to Bráhmans. It is a normative text. And it performs its normativizing function through its existence as a satakam (a "traditional" literary form), and by locating–reifying the categories relating to–those whom Bráhman males, and other dominant groups who might recite such a work, would choose to contain. The changes in the text, including that of "woman" for Kómati or "bad man" for Velama, very likely represent the assertion of the power of the articulation of categories–játis–that made certain terms no longer available for use in such a set of signifying verses. Alternatively, Gollas as a group had not yet reached the point of being able to assert játi in the same way. So the printed twentieth-century versions of the Sumati Satakam represent intermediate steps in this particular reflection of changing epistemologies."

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