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Brahmans, Society and the State in Colonial and Post-colonial Tamilnadu by Professor Chris Fuller, London School of Economics

A CISA seminar. Brahmans, the traditional caste elite of Tamilnadu, who make up no more than 2.5 per cent of its population, are very well-represented in the IT industry...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009
2:00 PM - 4:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Brahmans, the traditional caste elite of Tamilnadu, who make up no more than 2.5 per cent of its population, are very well-represented in the IT industry and are now among the leading mobile service people of today’s global economy. Tamil Brahmans, however, have been unusually successful in the modern world of educated, professional employment from the nineteenth century to the present day, and this paper looks at why this has been so. It argues that a combination of factors, some more obvious than others, all have to be taken into account in explaining Brahman success; most of these factors have been discussed previously, but the literature has tended to focus on some at the expense of others. The first factor is actually anti-Brahmanism and the reservations system, which have encouraged or forced Brahmans to look for new opportunities, often outside Tamilnadu. A second factor is the legacy of caste traditions of education and learning, and the Brahmans’ modern educational success. A third factor is the unusual facility with which Brahmans migrated from village to city and further afield, and then became urbanised quickly. A fourth factor is significant change in the status of women among Tamil Brahmans over the last hundred years. A fifth factor pertains to the Brahmans’ position in the social structure and their relationships with other castes, in both rural and urban areas. All these factors, which interact with each other, are also constitutive of the Brahmans’ changing relationship with society and the state during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

About the Speaker:

Chris Fuller is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. His first fieldwork (1971-2) was in Kerala among the Nayars and the Syrian Christians, and his work particularly focused on kinship among the Nayars, famous for their matriliny. In 1976, Fuller started field research in the great temple of Madurai in Tamilnadu, which is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Minakshi. During the next twenty-five years, he periodically visited the temple to study the priests, whose lives changed radically during that time, although he also did extensive research on the temple’s highly elaborate ritual cycle. From 2003-2005, with other colleagues in LSE, Fuller worked on a major research project on regionalism, nationalism and globalisation in India, and his research focused on middle-class company managers and software professionals in the city of Chennai (Madras). From 2005-08, with Haripriya Narasimhan, he carried out a research project on a group of Tamil Brahmans, focusing on this traditional elite’s modern transformation into a migratory, urbanised, trans-national community. Fuller has also researched and written extensively on popular Hinduism and Hindu nationalism, the caste system, the anthropology of the state and other topics.

Selected publications

  • 2008 (with Haripriya Narasimhan) From landlords to software engineers: migration and urbanization among Tamil Brahmans. Comparative Studies in Society and History 50: 170-96.
  • 2008 (with Haripriya Narasimhan) Companionate marriage in India: the changing marriage system in a middle-class Brahman subcaste. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 14: 736-54.
  • 2007. (with Haripriya Narasimhan) Information technology professionals and the new-rich middle class in Chennai (Madras). Modern Asian Studies, 41 (1), pp. 121-150. 
  • 2005. (co-edited with Jackie Assayag) Globalizing India: Perspectives from below. London: Anthem Press. 
  • 2003.  The renewal of the priesthood: Modernity and traditionalism in a South Indian temple. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • 2004. The camphor flame: Popular Hinduism and Indian society. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Revised and expanded edition.)
  • 1984. Servants of the goddess: The priests of a South Indian temple. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Cost : Free Seminar

Juliana Espinosa

Sponsor(s): Asia Institute, Center for India and South Asia, Department of History

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