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Updated: August 12, 2013 22:19 IST

Writings with a mission

P. V. Srividya
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Cultural Encounters in India
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Cultural Encounters in India

The Local Co-workers of the Tranquebar Mission, 18-19th Centuries: by Heike Liebau;

Translated by Rekha V. Rajan; Social Science Press, New Delhi.

Distributed by Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24, Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 750.

Beyond the ceremonial act of conversion, a religious mission encounter spawns cultural negotiations through processes of conflict, hegemony, engagement, and dialogue between faiths. Heike Liebau explores this ‘secular’ encounter on a religious turf by locating the local mission worker of the 18th century Tranquebar mission society as the protagonist of cultural meeting and social change.

The Tranquebar Mission, the first Pietistic protestant mission in India, was set up in 1706 by the Danish Royal House. Its 150-year-long existence birthed an intermediary group of local mission workers, primarily from backward castes — who as religious intermediaries were to eventually represent Christianity in the country. Liebau through rich biographical snippets draws a portrait of the local co-worker who straddled dual worlds — as a new convert to a foreign faith and as one who also yearned for acceptance in the former socio-cultural setting that shunned the new convert. Local mission co-workers served in the vast network of the mission enterprise as cooks, gravediggers, pastors, interpreters, language teachers, teaching assistants, catechists, preachers, prayer leaders, mission school teachers, porters, among others. They came to be the ‘national workers’ of the Tranquebar mission who as active agents sowed the seeds of social change in their own little ways.

The initial encounter and the native’s rejection of the European missionary came of the former’s perceived moral superiority vis-à-vis the cultural decay of the outsider. This is evident in the Malabarian Correspondence — an exchange of 99 letters on various questions posed by the first missionaries Bartholomaus Ziegenbaug and J.E.Grundler, to the locals. The author rejects linear attribution of ‘the material’ as the motive for conversion. If any, the initial process of conversion rendered the mission worker vulnerable, stripping her/him of social safeguards, dispossessed of inheritances, and earning them the wrath of the kin. Liebau writes, in the Tranquebar context, conversion was more of a ‘social offer’ than a ‘religious offer’. Individual experiences and desire for individual social mobility, promised by the structural equality of the new faith was the motive for conversions. But they did not bring about collective social mobility for a social group, unlike the mass conversions of the 19th and 20th century.

Yet, the mission structure, for all its claims to equality, could not escape entrenched caste hierarchies. In mission schools, there was careful segregation of lower caste children from Sudras, and local workers interactions were guided by caste affiliations even after conversion. Here, Liebau bails out the missionary, who was bound by compulsions of necessity.

There are many figures that stand out for their agency. Rajanayyakken, an outcaste, and employed in the Thanjavur army, was a Catechist for the Tranquebar mission in Thanjavur. Rajanayakkam represented critical enquiry towards the faith, and despite his ‘low-birth’, was venerated among all castes. Then, there is Clarinda, formerly Kohila, Brahmin Maratha woman, who on being rescued from becoming Sati on her husband’s funeral pyre by an English officer, later became his mistress. Clarinda — shunned for her liaison with the European officer and recast into the European world — laid the foundations for significant missionary work at Palayamkottai.

The study draws richly from biographies, obituaries, published by the mission board in Halle, and from the correspondences between the European missionary, and their sponsors and European scholars.

Local testimonies

The Danish-English Halle Mission, unlike other mission societies, had a significant corpus of documents (letters, reports and biographies) written by the local co-workers. These local testimonies helped avoid Eurocentricism in the study of an indigenous social group. Littered with sensitivity, the text is matched by the richness of footnotes that give insights into the contemporary society. However, the micro narrative is often set against the larger politico-socio-cultural — at times making it a tortuous read. But, this is justified in order not to lose sight of the template of the enquiry.

Like all histories, mission history too relegates the woman’s world to its footnotes. Here, the author has consciously reconstructed the lives of women mission workers by gleaning marginal references to the individual women in the mission reports published. Engagement of local women mission workers was driven by a strategic necessity than by a desire for women’s emancipation. What followed was the opening up of a hitherto nonexistent public sphere for women. Widowhood gave women the license to pursue mission work outside of the family, in return for the social security that mission work offered. The biographical snippets of the outcaste and sudra women, who came to be prominent mission school teachers, and catechists in the 18th century speaks of opening up of education during a period, where study of letters was an allowance for the Devadasi, and for the women of princely Muslim families and affluent Hindu households.

A cultural encounter, like a colonial encounter, involves an active recipient and participant, and not merely a passive one. Here, Liebau attempts to retrieve the local mission worker, who with motivations went on to shape the mission endeavour, albeit in a limited way.

(P.V. Srividya is The Hindu’s Nagapattinam correspondent)

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