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Updated: May 25, 2010 10:30 IST

Social patterns in early south India

K. M. Shrimali
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This is an extremely timely anthology of 17 essays on social formations of early south India (from the prehistoric beginnings to circa 1300 CE) which Rajan Gurukkal has contributed to leading publications since the early 1980s. Of these, two essays — “The Course of Social Historiography of Kerala” and “Semiotics of Ancient Tamil Poetics: A Methodological Consideration” — are published for the first time. Many of the already published ones have been revised/modified for this collection.

The essays have been grouped under four heads: historiography and method; early social formations (up to the ‘Early Iron Age'); social transformations (tracing the transition from the ancient to early medieval); and the new social formation (into which the ancient agro-pastoral social transformation had dissolved itself).

Marxist method

Given that the Marxian thinkers and practitioners in India are under attack all round, it is courageous of Gurukkul to have reiterated his strong conviction in the validity of Marxist methodology of studying the dynamics of Indian society through the millennia. His introductory chapter, “Conceptual Preliminaries” sets the tone and tenor by underlining the central thesis of social formation. It successfully demolishes the myth of homogenised uni-dimensional notion of the definitional parameters of ‘social formation' not only through Marx's own formulations but also by alluding to the more recent refinements of the theory of ‘mode of production' in the writings of such renowned structuralist-theorists and anthropologists of Marxian tradition as Althusser, Balibar, Godelier and Poulantzas.

There is a subtle semantic departure in the definition and framework of the concept of social formation adopted in these essays. Instead of being viewed as a combination of ‘modes of production', it is sought to be defined as an ensemble of a few unevenly evolved ‘forms of production' (emphasis added) interconnected to one another and structured by the dominance of one form that need not necessarily be superior to the rest in terms of technology and productivity. The defence offered is that, since the expression ‘mode of production' is widely used to mean a specific social totality of epochal identity almost on a par with ‘social formation', ‘forms of production' is found to be more appropriate and free of confusion.

Distinction

It is essential for a historian to bear in mind the distinction Marx draws between the universality of economic, political, and ideological practices, and the variety of determinate institutional forms, which can be located historically. It is heartening to see Gurukkal recalling D.D. Kosambi and seeing in him “a historian committed to anti-deterministic stance with ‘source first' approach.” Kosambi's contempt for the OMs (‘Official Marxists') and his deviations from the Marxian scheme of unilinear progression of historical changes in the context of India are well- known. No wonder his formulation “...no single mode prevailed uniformly over the whole country [India] at any one time...” is the most abiding influence in this anthology.

And yet, Gurukkal is not averse to speaking his mind fearlessly. To illustrate, he forcefully asserts: “in the absence of classical society in South Indian history, the direct application of the feudal model became difficult.” Recognising that the particularities of the ‘Indian feudal model' are not pan-Indian, he takes up the agrarian social formation in the Tamil south as a case study to bring out its distinctiveness. In the process, he goes on to critique the so-called ‘gradualists/evolutionists' (including his own peers M.G.S. Narayanan and Chamapakalakshmi — this anthology is dedicated to the latter). Accusing them of having ‘diffusionist assumptions', he argues that they simply critiqued Burton Stein's ‘Segmentary State Model' (put forward as an alternative to the ‘feudal' paradigm) to defend the feudal model without providing any alternative theoretical framework to suit the specificities of the region concerned (Tamilakam). Such formulations demonstrate Gurukkal's grounding in Marxian theory and firm grasp over empirical evidences.

Major changes

The major changes that the social formation underwent over time are presented in detail. For instance, the transition from kin-labour to non-kin labour; from thrust hoe to plough; from millet to paddy; from clans to hereditary occupation groups and caste; from chiefdom to monarchy; and from heterodox ideology to Brahmanism. In the process, illustrations have been drawn from the experiences of the Tamil macro region as well as of the Kerala micro region. There is a specialised study of the technology of irrigation and institutions of water management, particularly the cascaded reservoir system, and the community practice of prioritised distribution. This book fills a significant gap in the study of social formations in early south India.

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