To those who have migrated to cities, the word ‘santhai’ can stir up memories of the village market in Tamil Nadu. And a redeeming development in recent times is the popularity of ‘uzhavar santhai’ or farmers’ markets in the suburbs.
“Not very long back, the village santhai, haat or weekly market was a thriving albeit quaint affair by present standards,” reminisces Samir Banerjee in ‘Notes from Gandhigram’ (www.orientblackswan.com).
He explains how the santhai served as one of the traditional systems to mediate economic relationship in rural communities, with the local artisans and other service providers as the main agencies: “The itinerant merchant (peddler) brought his wares to the village santhai or haat and provided a window for non-local products and commodities. Wants and needs remained within the local communities domain and constraints… This scenario was possible because of the partially monetised nature of the economy.”
People came together not only to buy and sell, but also to meet, talk, and make alliances. While most of the seasonal and annual farm and non-farm products would be kept at home for family consumption, or bartered with co-villagers for services, a part would be brought to the santhai to be exchanged for non-local products and cash, the author elaborates. “If the village specialised in some non-farm product such as an artisan item, the local santhai helped in marketing the product.”
He is, however, of the view that a fundamental weakness of the santhai was the absence of space for creativity and innovation. While it performed a crucial economic function – as an exchange house for information, offloading surplus in exchange for cash and procuring of essential non-local commodities – it preferred tradition to experimentation, finds Banerjee. Moreover, in times of crisis it has no mechanism to either foresee events or respond as a unit, he rues.
“Therefore, during periods of transition when rapid changes are occurring, the santhai remains painfully exposed to the manipulation of powerful outside forces.”