To write a commissioned history of a prominent caste/community in this day and age is a highly tricky venture. First, in a social and political milieu where caste identity is entrenched and often militant in its claims for recognition, such an endeavour could serve an agenda-building and myth-creating role, thereby producing false history. On the other hand, it could also come as a let-down, injuring the self-image of the leading lights of the community, particularly those who commissioned the work.
Surendra Rao, a distinguished historian and author of Bunts in History and Culture, scrupulously avoids the pitfalls of commissioned history. (Indeed, he has said that the book under review is “sponsored” rather than “commissioned.”) “History should neither reduce itself to a panegyric, nor should it become a site of impeachment,” he notes in his Preface to the book. Writing a scientific and methodologically sound history of a community is no easy task. It involves piecing together and interpreting disparate historical evidence that is available about the internally differentiated social group as it evolved across time and space, while keeping the larger context of history and historical change in the frame. A zoom-lens focus on the community would not do, nor would the broad sweep of a wide-angled view that could dilute the specificity of the subject. And Rao has succeeded in avoiding both distortions, thanks to his clear understanding of history and its craft.
Rao's sources for the reconstruction of the social history of the Bunts, a successful and visible community of Dakshin Kannada, range from inscriptions and the rich folklore of the Tulunadu region for the early and medieval periods, to newspapers, public documents, colonial tracts, and contemporary writing for the colonial and modern periods. The Bunts emerged as landlords and later, as a prominent trading class (although “not an undifferentiated community in terms of wealth, power or influence to merit a single generalisation,” the author qualifies) that struck a rapport with the rulers of the region and often provided the fighting force for their armies.
A distinguishing and enduring aspect of the Bunt culture has been its indissoluble link with the non-Vedic religious cults of bhootas, daivas and nagas, and their places of worship. By the beginning of the 17th century, according to the Portuguese and other documents, the Bunts had become a powerful trading community, with the big players amongst them competing with the Portuguese and the Nayaka rulers of the region.
Rao has traced in some detail the centrality of the guttu — loosely translated as the feudal manor-house and its world — to the political and economic status of the Bunts. The Guttus linked the Bunts to the larger power structure of the region, but they were also the citadels of local power that controlled a network of relations amongst other castes in the locality. They also dispensed justice, with their authority to do so deriving strength from their ritual connection to the daiva and bhoota shrines. And, although the Bunt society was governed, not unlike the Nairs of Kerala, by a matrilineal law of inheritance, its head was the yajamana (master) and its control-system entirely male-dominated.
With the British takeover of the region in 1799, the old social and political structures of control established by the Bunts rapidly dissipate under the pressure of new land revenue demands, causing the peasantry to revolt. The Koot rebellion (1930) is led by the Brahmin and Bunt elite, with peasants joining in large numbers. The British respond with force, but alongside seek to buy the support of these influential groups by co-opting them as functionaries of the state.
Rao says the enterprising Bunts seized the opportunities thrown up by coastal urbanisation and soon came to dominate the regional grain trade, a “half-way house between landlordism and business.” They also controlled the transport sector, started the famous Mangalore tile factories, and even pioneered horticultural ventures.
Clearly, if there was historically one social surge that cut through entrenched community and caste consciousness it was the national movement, as the example of the Bunts would show. The author describes how the Bunts were drawn into different streams and ideologies within the freedom movement, both in the Congress and the Left.
The book is a valuable document recording the trajectory of an essentially agrarian community that emerged as a clan of successful entrepreneurs and professionals. It also provides an insight into how communities transform over time, swiftly adapting themselves to changing social and economic conditions.