Book Excerpt: The Cultural History of Bengal's Agrarian Economy

The everyday life of the peasantry was punctuated by festive occasions celebrating events that were mostly concerned with the agricultural cycle.

The Cultural Economy of Land: Rural Bengal circa 1860-1940 by Suhita Sinha Roy is situated at the two crossroads of agrarian history. The first is the cyclical seasonality of agriculture and the linear progressive time of technological innovation and political transformation; the second is that of the ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ meanings associated with land.

Land acquires various dimensions beyond property, tenure, revenue, and inheritance if maps are connected with knowledge systems; land productivity with food habits, gender relations and patterns of migration; landscapes with modes of irrigation and railroad construction; cropping patterns with festivals; village territoriality with social relations of power.

Drawing from a wide range of theories on the everyday life and extraordinary protest; from histories of formations of knowledge systems; and from archival documents, creative literature, and local narratives this book focuses on the past of one geographical space. And yet, those experiences do not remain isolated but rather become fragments of uneven but connected histories of attachment with the land.

Excerpt from The Cultural Economy of Land: Rural Bengal circa 1860-1940 by Suhita Sinha Roy follows:


Festival, Fair and the Carnival

As the everyday life of the peasantry was punctuated by different festivals and fairs, they can be taken as microcosms of the multitude of everyday relations, as well as an exceptional time and space where the regularity of everyday life could be subverted.

Festive occasions to celebrate were principally related to agriculture, and the cycle of fairs and festivals was largely determined by the agricultural cycle. These occasions also reflected how, with changing times, the crop patterns of the agricultural cycles affected the time of celebration. The traditional holding of Navanna (the harvest festival) in November refers back to the period before the reclamation of land when aus (harvested in November) was the principal crop of rice, not aman (harvested in December–January).

With the spread of cultivation in hitherto uncultivated (achasha) lands, sowing during heavy rain became a necessity, and the time of the Navanna festival related to the autumn crop lost time parity with harvesting. Navanna thus remains evidence of the spread of paddy cultivation and settled agriculture in the larger areas of the peasant society of Birbhum.

Worshipping Dharmaraj or Dharma Thakur in the month of Baisakh (May) marks the prayers for a generous monsoon to make the fields fertile. In Birbhum, this particular festival of the lower castes increasingly became an occasion for wider celebration of fertility among all the peasant castes.

Also read: Durga Puja – Bengal’s Cultural Magna Carta

The paddy became the mount of Dharma Thakur and this association with cultivation including its rituals around toddy- mixing indicates the process of redeployment of one myth to another, thereby creating a justification for bestowing the status of agriculturists to the lower castes.

Suhita Sinha Roy
The Cultural Economy of Land: Rural Bengal circa 1860-1940
Tulika Books, 2019

With the spread of Vaishnavism, an assimilation of typical Vaishnava festivals like the Rathyatra and the worshipping of older village deities like Dharmaraj or holding of fairs in Sakta peetha (sacred places of the Sakta sect) took place. Birbhum was dotted with peethasthan – most of which were Sakta and Saiva – many of which gradually became sacred places for the Vaishnavas too.

Centring on such pilgrim places, innumerable fairs began to develop. Village fairs held on the occasion of Kali worship for one day was also quite an old occasion for celebration. With the patronage of wealthy Vaishnava peasants, many of these fairs began to be held around Vaishnava festivals like Gosthastami, Rathyatra, Jhulanyatra, Janmashtami, Nandotsab, Radhastami and Dolyatra.

Most of the fairs of northern Birbhum, where the Brahmin and Sadgop settlements were relatively few, were nearly a hundred years old, and the main festival was usually associated with Sakta (including Shiva) deities. Though Vaishnava festivals were quite recent, their grandeur was quite spectacular and attracted a huge number of people.

The important pilgrimage sites and associated fairs led to an enormous population movement and economic activities. Two to five thousand people continuously roamed the different pilgrimage centres throughout the year, creating local markets. In most of the fairs, the local businessmen sold agricultural equipment, earthen vessels, furniture including readymade wooden doors and windows, and other necessities of everyday life.

Through rent collection, the owners of the fairground gained handsome amounts of money. The mobile economy also meant an end to the idea of single self-sufficient village societies in which members of every caste and community produced different articles of daily necessities. The sellers eventually moved from one fair to another, creating a peddler’s market as a substitute for an established local village market.

Also read: The Lives of Ordinary People Who Joined West Bengal’s Tebhaga Movement

If the growing economy was an important factor involved in the massive movement of populations associated with fairs, the opposite process was the emergence of a growing mendicant section – a roaming population not engaging in any economically gainful activity. Captain Sherwill, Revenue Surveyor of Birbhum (who submitted his report in 1855), mentioned that temples, fairgrounds and sites of pilgrimage had always been a space for ‘vagabonds and all sorts of bad characters’.

Fairs allowed them to call begging by the name of a more respectable practice – madhukari – an important part of living a life without material possessions, and being provided a space that they could inhabit without raising the suspicion of the grihastha. This subversive dimension of the fairs added to the enjoyment of the participating public.

The laughter generated by the carnival diffused the coercive official ideals that governed everyday life. The mechanisms used to release collective anger could also transform these practices into protests. The diffused character of protest, however, is of significance in this context.

For example, performances of women Jhumur singers, who came from the lower castes, retained a certain quality of frankly celebrating sexuality. Possibly due to their status as public performers, the singers came to be regarded as public women and upper and lower caste men enviously sought their favour equally.

It is, however, also possible to read this intermingling of the dominant and the dominated as a subtle way of maintaining the cultural hegemony of the upper castes. Since patronage was always a crucial factor in the establishment, renown and sustained popularity of a festival or a fair, the economically stronger sections of the society had an advantage in structuring the character of the festival and the fair.

The way wealthier Vaishnavite patrons adopted lower-caste deities and indirectly influenced the adaptability of lower-caste people to the new character of fairs and festivals, exemplify how the process of continuous cult appropriation could soften the edge of deviance and contain defiance.

Also read: Durga Puja – Bengal’s Cultural Magna Carta

By the early twentieth century, as the circus, magic shows, fireworks and theatre began to take up a bigger share than loto songs, kirtan and kabigan in popular entertainment, some fundamental changes began to happen in peasant culture. The organisers of the fairs began to express their loyalty to different official authorities – from the police, panchayat, zamindar and munsif to the sub-registrar.

Features of the older carnival became too threatening for the newly consolidated Sadgop caste leadership. Local newspapers, acting as the mouthpiece of the caste leadership, began to publish articles deploring the moral laxity of festival-goers, thereby trying to curb the deviant character of the fairs.

As the rural bhadralok began to settle in urban centres, the peasant culture also penetrated into urban life. It was richer and more vibrant than the urban culture which was yet to develop a character of its own and consisted of ill-assorted fragments of colonial British culture that was more of a mimicry. Tracking the life of the rural bhadralok will help us to situate this theme in the socio-cultural context of the early twentieth century – how the rural-urban distinctions, as well as the continuum, shaped the features of mofussil urbanity.

Suhita Sinha Roy (1949-2010) taught history in different colleges affiliated to University of Calcutta from 1979 to 2009 and was educated in Visva Bharati University and her research around everyday rural life in Birbhum district from the 1990s resulted in her PhD dissertation in 2006 at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.