From The American Historical Review, December 2003
Review by Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College
In this study, Anne Hardgrove turns to an exploration of the processes of community formation among the Marwaris over the past century. She emphasizes the critical role of the social practices or "performances" in public life through which Marwaris have projected and contested the values of Marwari-ness, and by which they have constructed the group's symbolic boundaries. The book treats a wide range of very different kinds of performance contexts: the mapping of Marwari identity onto the South Asian landscape through such means as the writing of community histories, the fashioning of distinctive architectural styles in specific neighborhoods of Calcutta, and temple building over much of India; the construction (and later abandonment) of spectacular mansions in Rajasthan; the defense by early Marwari public associations of economic practices such as gambling and commercial speculation; debates over social reform (especially of women's roles); and satipuja (the worship of women who engaged in sati, or widow immolation). Hardgrove argues that these performances reflect a "familial cosmopolitanism," a discourse that reshapes the language of kinship and lineage in the context of an all-India and sometimes global public culture.
Hardgrove's work is truly multidisciplinary. While a number of scholars of South Asia (including myself) have represented themselves as "ethnohistorians," they often are either applying anthropological theory to material collected mainly from archives or stretching data gathered through ethnographic research in order to arrive at conclusions about change over time. In this book, Hardgrove develops a methodology that relies equally on historical documentation and anthropological fieldwork. Many of her chapters move back and forth between the two kinds of material. Her treatment of Marwari social reform, for instance, utilizes archival material on the development of voluntary associations in Calcutta during the early twentieth century alongside observations of very contemporary efforts to organize dowry-free community marriages (efforts in which the author found herself drafted as a somewhat reluctant participant). The result is a fascinating discussion of the ways in which debates over reform have been intrinsic to the creation of the Marwari community. Hardgrove's interest in architecture also adds a unique dimension to the study.
The results of this approach are not always seamless. The book might have included a more conventional historical chapter outlining patterns of Marwari migration, business developments, and the formation of political associations in order to provide essential background, especially for nonspecialist readers. Instead bits of context are scattered in chapters throughout a study organized on thematic rather than chronological lines. This structure also sometimes obscures the understanding of relationships between business or political developments and the shape of Marwari public culture at given points in time. Given the disparate nature of the individual chapters, a conclusion to tie together the various strands of argument in the book and to draw out its interesting wider implications would have been helpful.
The author's analyses throughout the study, however, are consistently stimulating and original. I suspect readers will find the discussion of satipuja especially intriguing. Marwaris often contest feminist and state perspectives on sati by holding in high reverence women who sacrificed themselves in the distant or mythological past, even as they condemn the practice in contemporary life as "inauthentic" and deplorable. Taken as a whole, the book develops an understanding of historical community formation that is critical for scholars working on other groups in South Asia to consider. At the very least, the book renders problematic the literature on Indian "business communities," which often assumes the importance of pre-existing social networks and values to the achievement of commercial success in new economic environments. Here those values and networks themselves seem to be constantly in the process of formation in the new contexts.
The electronic form of publication does have some drawbacks, and some technical problems need to be worked out to render it more friendly to scholars and general readers (the absence of self-evident page numbers and an index posed difficulties in my own reading). But Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association are to be commended for making this fine work available through this medium to a global audience.
From H-ASIA, February 2003
Review by Thomas A. Timberg, Nathan Associates Inc.
This set of concepts does not map directly onto those of "imagined community" and "invention of tradition" which she also cites but there is no doubt that she documents both of these processes, as well as the "modernity of tradition," how the Marwaris have done a pretty good job as traditional people, operating within a modern society and economy. One is reminded of Joseph Schumpeter's argument that capitalism destroys itself, because its rationalism eventually destroys the feudal and traditional classes whose existence protects it (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York, 1947). Perhaps the Marwaris anticipated this and find that their traditionalism serves them well in modern business.
The focus of this volume is more anthropological than the normal historical study and it tries to build up its case by looking at particular episode/topics the Rani Sati cult among Marwaris, the movement for simpler weddings, widow remarriage, foreign travel, education especially of women, movements against food adulteration, commodity and other speculation etc. The volume exhibits the anthropologist's commitment to participant observation, though because of Dr. Hardgrove's skills and orientation it is often also illustrated by well researched historic data.
Her familiarity with Hindi has allowed Dr. Hardgrove to study the records of the Marwari community organizations at some length as well as to interview many Marwaris. One particular feature is the interviewing of Marwari women and discussing their identity and the social changes which they accept and reject. Some of the most readable sections are accounts of her intimate relations with some younger Marwari women, the contrasting formal relations with older Marwari men, and the occasionally amusing stories of her participant observation in social clubs, temple worship including a Rani Sati temple, and in social reform occasions, like the mass, economy marriage promoted by one group. The picture is reasonably accurate on the whole, but exaggerates the uniformity of the Marwari community which is large enough to accommodate many exceptions Ph.D.'s married to leading industrialists, women who run speculative firms, radical socialists, and characters. The focus on women means, of course, that the men who are exposed to more varied change engineering degrees and MBAs in strange foreign schools are missed, but perhaps that will be her next study.
On the other hand, there is not a systematic attempt to place Marwari activity in Calcutta in the context of all India Hindi literature and Hindu social reform (to say nothing of the RSS or the BJP, the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha etc.) and that is perhaps inevitable given the terms of reference of the study. On the other hand, the focus perhaps undersells the cultural importance of Marwari efforts in Calcutta itself. Similarly, there is little attempt to relate the developments to overall Calcutta politics or even communal politics. Some Calcutta historians like Suranjan Das have tried to address the Marwari role in Calcutta urban communal riots in that respect (Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal, 1905-1947 Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991).
The last chapter considering the Rani Sati cult, which has been popular in the Marwari community for many years, is one where some of this situational analysis does occur. Rani Sati temples in general, and the temple in Jhunjhunu in particular have always been a Marwari focus, though I have to confess that no one I know had ever connected the matter to actual sati (widow suicide) before this became a marker issue for some traditionalists in the 1980s.
Now the temples are perceived by many as connected with Sati and thus are highly controversial, and those who are connected with them Marwaris or others find themselves having to redefine their position.