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Six The Text in a Changing Society
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The New Patrons

I have referred several times to historical changes in the patronage of Manas performance; these changes may be summarized as follows:


principal patrons

seventeenth century

lower classes and mendicants

eighteenth century


nineteenth century

rajas, large zamindars, (later) urban merchants

twentieth century

merchants and industrialists

Of these developments, the most significant for contemporary performance genres was the shift from aristocratic to mercantile patronage during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and it will now be worthwhile to take a closer look at some of the causes and consequences of this shift.

The historian C. A. Bayly has argued that until the nineteenth century the influence of merchant groups, even in cities such as Banaras, Faizabad, and Lucknow, was subordinated to that of the land-based gentry, which represented the dominant local power and exercised considerable control over trade. This pattern began to change as the economic impact of the colonial presence became more pronounced. The British attempt


to standardize the revenue system and promote a cash economy began to threaten systems of local taxation, local mints, and the pattern of (what the British termed) "idle consumption" by aristocratic society, "acted out in forms of relationship between orders of people, and gift-giving, feasting and display."[192] These changes were augmented by a widespread economic depression in northern India between roughly 1830 and 1850, probably worsened by a series of poor harvests, which altered the economic standing of key segments of the population.[193] The gradual recovery that followed, helped along by the construction of the railways, was characterized by a steady reduction in courtly consumption and by the growing importance of trading and adminstrative centers and (by the end of the century) of manufacturing cities—notably Kanpur, strategically located on the new railway line. One consequence of these developments was a change in the role of the merchant, who had always functioned as both trader and moneylender (baniya ).

In the Indian states the usurious role of the merchant had often been offset in part by lavish royal expenditure and investment which the merchant community also helped to finance. Merchant, peasant, artisan and ruler had been part of a system in which it was not in the interest of one element to reduce any of the others to complete dependence. Many of the negative features attributed to the Indian Baniya in more recent times do not seem to be a product of inherent viciousness but of particular historical circumstances. In particular, his role changed in the absence of the lavish local elite expenditure and intrusive political authority which had once put limits to the consequences of his commercial ruthlessness.[194]

The stereotype of the "commercially ruthless" Baniya is most often applied in contemporary North India to the Marwaris, a group of mercantile castes that migrated from the princely states of Jodhpur (Marwar), Jaipur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer in a diaspora to the rising commercial towns of northern and central India. These castes had formerly served as bankers and brokers to the Rajput houses of their home regions and had also participated in overland trade with western Asia, which declined with the coming of the British and the rise of maritime commerce. They represented what some economists have termed a "resource group," a far-flung network of closely knit family firms joined by ties of marriage and religious affiliation, which seems to have put them in a uniquely advantageous position to exploit commercial opportunities.[195] Their di-


aspora had begun in the eighteenth century, when Marwaris served as bankers and contractors to some of the Maratha kingdoms; during the early nineteenth century, large numbers of Shekhavati Aggarwals (a trading community from the Jaipur region) became prominent in the opium trade out of Malwa, while other groups of Marwaris established themselves in the grain markets of the Doab and the Ganges Valley. By 1832 James Tod could write (perhaps with some exaggeration) that "nine-tenths of the bankers and commercial men of India are natives of Maroodes [Marwar]."[196]

The cohesiveness of the Marwaris contributed to their success. During the period 1840-60, when Marwari merchants began to establish themselves in Calcutta in competition with indigenous Bengali and Khatri trading communities, prosperous Marwaris set up subsidized boarding houses to attract other members of their community, whom they employed in their growing firms. By 1864 roughly half the bankers in Calcutta were Marwaris, and by the 1880s they had begun to beat out Khatris and Bengalis in the battle for coveted appointments as chief brokers to the leading British import-export firms. By 1921 the diaspora had grown to an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 persons spread throughout India (in addition to some 600,000 community members in Rajasthan), who controlled an increasingly disproportionate percentage of the nation's commerce.[197]

Even more significant for India's subsequent economic development was the entry of Marwaris into manufacturing following World War I. The Birla family, which had quadrupled its assets in the profitable trade of the war years, opened a jute mill in Calcutta in 1919 and textile mills at Delhi and Gwalior in 1920-21; during the 1930s the family added sugar refineries and cement plants. Such family conglomerates continued to grow during the post-Independence period, buying up many of the British firms they had previously served as commercial agents; by 1964 the "Birla Group" had become the largest private conglomerate in India, controlling 151 companies, the majority of which were headed by brothers, cousins, and nephews of the pater familias, Ghanshyamdas Birla.[198] The family's success was signal but not unique; the Marwari community as a whole is estimated to control 60 percent of the assets of Indian industry.


Great success often arouses jealousy; such folk sayings as "If you meet a snake and a Marwari, kill the Marwari" reflect the popular stereotype of the community as unscrupulously self-aggrandizing. The merchants' rise to prominence was paralleled by the decline of the landed gentry and the traditional economy in which the Marwaris themselves, back in Rajasthan, had once participated. The colonial government's increasing demand for cash revenue, coupled with cycles of bad harvests, the repeated subdivision of inherited estates, and the enforcement of uniform and inflexible commercial laws, resulted in the old rich getting poorer throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The merchant was the beneficiary, and for commercial castes the period might be characterized as one of semiinvoluntary upward mobility. Put into varna[*] terms, Vaishyas were being turned, by historical circumstances and their own commercial ambitions, into Kshatriyas. One Gokuldas, for example, of the banking firm of Sevaram Khushalchand of Jabalpur, acquired numerous estates in forced sales for tax defaults and ended up owning 158 villages and having the title "raja" prefixed to his name.[199] Such success was financially desirable, but it was also threatening, since it challenged the traditional order to which the Marwaris, like other pious mercantile communities, implicitly subscribed:

The area of the greatest and most pervasive social risk, however, was for Hindus, like Jains, the boundary between the inward, frugal life of the merchant and the kingly manner which involved constant giving and receiving. Merchant families might find themselves trapped in the limbo between these two styles of life, unable to command the power and respect of the ruler yet "expensive" enough to forfeit credit in the mercantile sphere.[200]

Power in the rising cities was increasingly concentrated among "bodies of entrepreneurs and property-owners who were not well accommodated within the older relations of ranking and precedence."[201] In other words, the merchants faced a crisis of identity that reflected the classic tension in Hindu society between upward social aspiration and downwardly imposed order. In the special circumstances of the period, the interaction of these forces in the assertion of new identities helped fuel both nationalism and religious revival.

Despite their legendary wealth, the great Marwari families of Calcutta avoided the kingly pattern of luxury consumption and instead


concentrated on patronage of religious and cultural institutions. Among the most lavish activities of these pious Vaishnava familes were funerary observances, entailing the feeding of huge numbers of Brahmans and guests.[202] Enormous sums were also given to charity, and such largesse benefited both religious and nationalist causes. The Marwaris were reckoned to be one of the most conservative and "backward" mercantile communities; the census of 1921 reported that whereas their male Hindi literacy rate was high (this being essential to the conduct of business), their rate of English literacy and involvement in higher education was low and their female literacy rate was almost nil—evidence of continued adherence to rigid rules of female seclusion (parda ).[203] Marwaris were active in Sanatani organizations and in the cow slaughter agitation of 1917.[204] The prominent Marwari families of Allahabad at the turn of the century "dotted the town with temples and rest houses, patronized the Ramlila Committees, and became presidents of orthodox religious bodies in the neighborhood."[205] Yet at the same time Marwaris were active in the Nationalist movement and became committed Gandhians, devoted to such causes as women's rights and Harijan uplift; indeed the community—and especially Ghanshyamdas Birla, a close personal friend of Gandhi's—was the major financial power behind the Indian National Congress, donating an estimated Rs 100,000,000 to the movement by 1947.

Like other Marwaris (and like Gandhi himself), the Birlas continued to identify themselves as Sanatani Hindus; Ghanshyamdas's elder brother, Jugal Kishor, retired from the family business in 1920 (after cornering the market in opium futures) to devote himself to religious activities, constructing a chain of temples and rest houses at major pilgrimage places. As he grew older, Ghanshyamdas himself manifested similar interests. Patronage of the Manas , as we have seen, was often synonymous with Sanatani activity, and as a community the Marwaris have become so active in this respect that they may rightfully be regarded as heirs to the princely patrons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Swami Karpatri's religiopolitical activities were underwritten by the Marwari community of Banaras, which also organized, with his blessing, the Gyan Vapi Manas Festival. The Poddars (the name means "treasurer," and the clan was originally said to have served the nawabs


of Fatehpur in this capacity) founded the Gita Press of Gorakhpur, which became the preeminent North Indian distributor of the epic. The Birlas, through their Academy of Art and Culture, sponsored mass recitations and Katha performances, published Atkins's two-volume English translation of the epic, and spread the fame of Pandit Ramkinkar, the family's favored expounder. The example set by the most powerful families was emulated by lesser Marwari clans, and the exodus of top-ranking Katha performers to the industrial cities of Kanpur, Bombay, and Calcutta noted earlier is essentially a consequence of Marwari patronage.[206]

The identity crisis to which I referred above was not unique to the mercantile community, for other groups were also affected by the economic and social reshuffling of the late nineteenth century. Rajas and zamindars themselves, though in overall decline, tried to hold on to their perquisites and continued to patronize their traditional clients as long as they had the means; the conspicuous patronage of religious performances was one of the more visible ways in which to uphold a public image. The Brahman and Kayasth service communities dependent on these patrons likewise promoted orthodox religious causes in order to retain their own prestige. Moreover, it must be remembered that the landholding class, despite a dominant Rajput ethos, was far from monolithic in caste constitution; during the late nineteenth century as several of the "marginally clean" agricultural castes, such as the Ahirs and Kurmis, rose in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they too manifested a desire to assert an upper-class life-style and identity. The fact that British census takers in 1901, convinced of the relevance of the varna[*] system to Hindu social organization, classed the Ahirs as "Shudras," produced an immediate reaction in the formation of a caste association to press for recognition of Kshatriya status. Thousands of Ahirs began wearing the sacred thread and appending "Singh" and "Rai" to their names; this effort also propelled them into the forefront of cow slaughter agitation and other Sanatani causes, and hence into an unlikely alliance with Brahmans and Rajputs, who often did not recognize their claims.[207]

The "new men" of the late nineteenth century faced the need to assert their identity and status by participating in a perceived Great Tradition-in a process as old as the historical record in India. But other


factors specially relevant to this period and to these men help explain the appeal the Ramayan tradition exerted for them. The Birla family has remained in the forefront of the progressive wing of the Marwari community; its sons and nephews today have no qualms about "crossing the black water" to earn M.B.A.s at foreign universities before taking over their assigned portfolios, and they then operate with considerable autonomy within the conglomerate. Yet close-knit family structure is still regarded as essential to the corporate success of the Birla Group. As the family dharmasastra par excellence, the Ramayan presents a paradigm of the loyalty, cohesiveness, and hierarchy that the Birlas and other leading Marwari clans recognize as one of their greatest strengths—hence its obvious appeal to a family-oriented business community. Then too there is the factor of diaspora: the Marwaris achieved their success in areas remote from their homeland. They carried with them a revered text and, in the typical manner of the émigré, sought to promote it in their new regions, bringing renowned pandits from Banaras and Ayodhya to Calcutta and Bombay to publicly expound it.[208]

The decline of the princes and zamindars in the late nineteenth century was not simply another of the periodic dynastic fluctuations of the past; it had a finality that even the most conservative merchants must have sensed—the world was changing in fundamental ways and there would be no going back to the old order. The men who rose up to replace the princes did so in a new milieu of nationalism; they spoke of something called "India," of concepts of democracy and equality that challenged the traditional structure of society. The interplay of order and transcendence, of real and ideal, within the Manas made this epic, to troubled and uncertain "new men," a source not only of orthodoxy but also of "peace of mind."

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