In Kolkata’s traditional potter quarter of Kumartuli, a modern and a competitive market oriented approach to life is concealed behind tradition. Among the potters inhabiting the dirt-floored workshops of this caste-based neighbourhood, the history of a modern and economicly neoliberal-minded India unfolds. To these contemporary potters, caste is in their blood, caste is about being a creative and independent artist, and caste is about business as they engage in a competitive market to sell their artworks. This ethnographic study presents an analysis of these potters’ lives and the related commodification and instrumentalization of caste. An important insight is that Kumartuli consists of a group of artisans turned artists who do not display passive responses to colonial and capitalist encounters. On the contrary, this monograph unearths an ingenious and business-minded group that engages actively with the modern and economic developments of society at large, and, in the process, redefines the concept of caste identity. This study suggests a new academic direction for the study of modern India, and of caste in particular, through an empirically grounded portrayal of the synthesis of traditional categories and contemporary realities.
Geir Heierstad is research director of international studies at the Norwegian Institute of Urban and Regional Research, and former associate professor in South Asia studies at the Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, Norway. Heierstad is co-author of Indiske utfordringer (Indian Challenges, 2014), and coeditor of The Politics of Caste in West Bengal (2016), India’s Democracies: Diversity, Co-optation, Resistance (2016) and Demokrati på indisk (Democracy Indian Style, 2010).