Anthropologist Chris J. Fuller talks about his research on the social transformation of Tamil Brahmans — from a conservative landowning rural elite to a migratory urbanised transnational community

Waves of modernity and its ensuing times have left their impact on our society in more ways than one. This effect of the changing age has been noted particularly in some communities more than others. Anthropologist C.J. Fuller from London School of Economics, during a lecture at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi the other day, drew out this aspect pretty well, offering food for thought to a roomful of listeners at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, his host in the city. Professor Fuller, considered a credible voice on India chiefly for his seminal work on the Nayars and Syrian Christians of Kerala, and also for noting the radical changes — based on research spanning 25 years — on the priests of the revered Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu, focussed his talk on the social transformation of Tamil Brahmans in general. From a conservative, rural landowning elite to a jet-setting, urban upper middle class. Along with Chennai-based academic Haripriya Narashimham, Professor Fuller researched on the community between 2005 and 2008, the results of which will be turned into a book soon.

The trigger for this, as Fuller mentioned in the lecture (“The Modern Transformation of an Old Elite: The Case of the Tamil Brahmans”), was an ethnographic research the duo carried out in Chennai in 2003-05 “on the city's middle class, especially among information technology professionals employed by the leading software companies and engineers working in manufacturing industry.” In an interview here, the well-known academic touches upon this joint research sponsored by the U.K. based funder Economic and Social Research Council, primarily delving into the causes behind this social makeover. Edited excerpts:

Why did you choose to study the social transformation of Tamil Brahmins?

Between 1976 and 2002, I studied the Brahman priests of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, so I became well acquainted with many aspects of the Brahman way of life in Tamil Nadu. After Haripriya and I studied the IT professionals and manufacturing engineers in Chennai in 2003-5, among whom there are many Brahmans, we decided to make a special study of the community, which has actually been little studied in Tamil Nadu during the last few decades. In the final analysis, there are so many upper-middle-class Tamil Brahmans in these professions not because they were born as Brahmans, but because they were born into the upper middle class.

What are the factors that have caused this transformation in the community? Can this be seen somewhat differently from other Brahmans of India?

The Tamil Brahmans' transformation, from an old, mainly rural elite into a modern, predominantly urban middle class, is largely explained by a combination of interacting factors. The first factor is the Brahmans' position in the social structure and their semi-autonomous relationship with the other castes, which partially separated them from the rest of Tamil society, especially in the villages. A second factor is the Brahmans' detached or even disdainful attitude to agriculture and land. These two ‘push' factors help to explain why the Tamil Brahmans' urban migration has been unusually rapid and complete.

A third factor is the Brahmans' tradition of education, learning and scholarship, as well as their positive attitude towards new types of professional employment.

A fourth factor is the greatly improved position of women since the early 20th Century, particularly in relation to marriage and education, which is also an important aspect of the Tamil Brahmans' modern transformation.

Both Brahmans and their non-Brahman critics have persistently tended to explain disproportionate Brahman success in education and employment in caste terms only. Nonetheless, the most critical development in the past was that the Brahmans in Tamil Nadu started to become members of the urban middle class earlier and faster than people from any other caste, a process that has continued. This does not make Tamil Brahmans unique in India, but in the near completeness of their transformation, from an old rural elite to a modern urban class elite, it surely makes them extremely unusual.

How has this phenomenon affected the caste hierarchy in Tamil society?

I have no particular expertise on this problem.

When is your book on the subject getting published?

I hope the book will be published during 2013 but I cannot be sure, given the delays that are common in the book publishing business.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012