Donald, Nidhin, ‘Every Family Its Own Historian? : The Case of Syrian Christian Family Histories’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 57, Issue No. 28, July 09, 2022
Very few academic documents, other than ethnoreligious texts and hagiographies, have captured the lives of Syrian Christians or “Nasranis” — a privileged minority settled in Kerala. While The Christians of Kerala written by Susan Visvanathan explores the cultures and practices of Syrian Christians (Yakobas), Privileged Minorities by Sonja Thomas studies the privileges enjoyed by the community through oral histories and ethnographies capturing the history and socio-economic conditions of the community, their interactions and assimilations with other social groups in Kerala. Nidhin Donald’s article, ‘Every Family Its Own Historian? : The Case of Syrian Christian Family Histories’, draws attention to a different aspect of the community; the family histories documented by affluent families of the Syrian Christian community used to maintain a hierarchically prominent position in society.
Documentation of family histories
The study focuses on various aspects of the documentation of family histories, including the reconstruction of popular beliefs and myths, family histories backed by church genealogies claiming Brahminic and apostolic origins to establish the purity of race “vamshashuddhi” and blood “rakthashuddhi”, biographies of prominent family members used as proof of their family’s grandeur, descriptions of relationships with other social groups, family directories and the folklores about the community’s rich past among others.
The everyday history becomes the recollection of the “memory of things said and done,” used to make sense of the present and anticipate the future. The paper looks at the historical knowledge constructed and produced as family histories or “kudumba charitram” by the upper-caste Syrian Christian families to understand how they mobilise, conceive their histories and use them to position themselves in their society based on caste and religion.
In the recent present, many affluent Christian families have taken the initiative of creating family histories. The author explains how the digitalisation of church records, census returns, and land papers has contributed to this surge. Historically, though the rich have always maintained their genealogies or “vamshavali” using oral and written methods, the spike in the consumer historiography among affluent “Nasranis” is an example of propertied upper castes who benefitted from neoliberal capitalism attempting to maintain their elite status.
The author attributes modern family associations or “kudumbayogams” — a corporate body of households who share a common male ancestor to the transition or evolution of oral accounts and folklores to the printed texts of family history books, an attempt to maintain their blood genealogies. It is explained how transnational migration, post-liberalisation, and economic opportunities have given families new functions, with family history committees formed to collect financial and archival information. These family histories talk about social changes in society from the vantage point of individual families. Oral histories or “vaamozhi” is mostly used as an authentic method of data collection. Thus, family histories are shaped by the convictions of the past and are assigned academic value by family historians who place it under social history, a sub-discipline of history that emerged after World War II.
Maintaining social position
Due to the number of activities involved in the process of writing family histories including travelling to different parts of the country or interacting with church networks and establishments, the publication of such histories is only affordable to those with the social and economic capital associated with certain class and caste settings. Families that document their histories also endorse it to a readership beyond their families — to local researchers, scholars, and media in an attempt to authenticate the document. Church, politicians, and caste organisations are involved in these acts of publicity as it is a mutually beneficial process.
The study focuses on various aspects of the documentation of family histories, including the reconstruction of popular beliefs and myths, family histories backed by church genealogies claiming Brahminic and apostolic origins.
The everyday history becomes the recollection of the “memory of things said and done,” used to make sense of the present and anticipate the future.
Syrian Christian family histories have independent facts and pre-existing knowledge within the community, blended with historical accounts to create a cocktail of the family account.
Powerful families and communities relate to each other within modern hierarchies as co-decision-makers, sharing the same timeline of living through moments of historical significance. Promoting documents with tales of how “Nasarani” families worked along with other affluent castes in the States validates the relevance of both communities as co-operating ruling elites in the society. Thus, the cultural and economic capital became a prerequisite in permanently marking these families’ role in accounts of the church and the community, making them a ‘great family’.
Through the accounts from various family history texts, the author also explains how the documentation of the prominent role of their family ancestors in the moments of historical significance conveniently twists the events and their consequences. For instance, the humiliating experience of the Dalits and the question of labour and human dignity may overweigh the sympathy and intelligence of the “Nasrani” lawyer who fought a court case against Dalits in exchange for free labour which helped the community’s water crisis.
Syrian Christians and caste
Syrian Christian family histories have independent facts and pre-existing knowledge within the community, blended with historical accounts to create a cocktail of the family account. The Brahmin origin of the Syrian Christian family, a claim traced back to the arrival of St. Thomas (apostle) to Kerala, is an example of how the community justifies their dominant status and purity of blood, with the help of a story with minimal empirical evidence. In the Syrian Christian imagination, family is a class, caste, and religious institution. Family histories tend to narrate stories that assign meaning to their caste, yet claim a difference from the others. For instance, the master-servant relationships where absolute control over the slave was a ‘right’ and the benevolence of the “Nasrani” master is a theme seen across their family histories.
Further, three divisions mark the difference of the community from the others — the hierarchical separation from the lower castes, the competitive affinity with the “different in religion but akin in social standing” upper-caste Hindus and the almost filial affinity with Brahmins.
Thus, family history and its perspective about its position in society have pedagogic value as it is used as an instrument of social reproduction, which does not negate the official historical documents but finds a place of honour within them.
The paper outlines the amateur historian’s attempt to construct ideal family types, placing the family ancestor in a position of entitlement within the complex caste-class structures of society. This need to have a glorious past filled with family grandeur points to the present upper-middle-class families’ aspirations. Further, it shows the need for a superior caste and racial position within the milieu of social hierarchy among the affluent Syrian Christian families.