Serendipity

The idea of this project is born out of two accidental encounters…

The man and the box

The Pramalai Kallar Headman and his wooden box, © Zoe E. Headley

In 2005, I was doing final fieldwork for my PhD dissertation on the Pramalai Kallar subcaste in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. I decided to pay a visit to the traditional headman to take a few snapshots of a copperplate in his possession. I knew of the copperplate through Louis Dumont’s monograph, who had visited the headman’s father in the late 1940s. Besides the copperplate, he had several historical artefacts, royal gifts, from the same period, mid 17th century. These items were kept in a room at the back of his house. The sole content of this room was a large wooden box and numerous family photos, including one taken by Louis Dumont of headman as a child sitting beside his father in full regalia amidst the royal gifts. The box also contained bundled up papers and notebooks as well a number of damaged palm-leaves. When I asked about them, the headman answered that they were old documents having belonged either to his great-grandfather or grandfather. He was not too sure. With the help of V.Krishnasamy, we started to examine them and it appeared that they were a miscellaneous set of documents dealing broadly with conflicts of all sorts: theft, divorce, rape, murders, adultery, etc. They appeared to contain a wealth of information on the nature of the disputes brought to the headman’s forefathers, the judgments passed by the local panchayats as well as commentaries on the social or political consequences of different fines and punishments. These documents were roughly bundled up in some newspapers and in a rather poor condition. At the time, I made (bad) photocopies of some of the paper documents. However, I was absorbed by the pressing need to finish my PhD and did not take the time to study these documents further. I told the headman that I would try to find a way or some funding to preserve his documents though I realized I had probably created an expectation which I would not find the time or money to fulfill.

The paragraph in the book

A couple of years later, I came across a short paragraph in a book indicating that the headman’s documents were not one of a kind but part of a wider corpus of documents on judicial rural history that might, or might not, have survived the passage of time . Indeed, the late M.N. Srinivas had witnessed similar documents elsewhere in South India and had appealed to the scientific community to search for more documents:

In the summer of 1952, I […] finally obtained loan of over seventy documents, some of which referred to the settlement of disputes which had occurred here in Kere Hobli during the years 1900-40. The documents referred to a wide variety of matters, and I am convinced that where such documents exist, they are invaluable for the study of rural social history. […] I do know that such documents exist elsewhere. The people with whom these documents exist do not take enough care to preserve them, and white ants, cockroaches, and the monsoon are steadily diminishing the quantity of documents available to the anthropologist. […] Documents (such as these) have, somehow, failed to attract the attention of historians in spite of their obvious importance.

M.N. Srinivas (2002) [1959] “The study of dispute in an Indian village”. Collected essays. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pp.98-99.

It seemed that, a half a century ago, M.N. Srinivas had written out our project proposal…

Zoe E. HEADLEY

CNRS-CEIAS

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