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The Kirtan of Resistance and a Divided Bengal: A Study of the Matuya Community

Sujay Thakur

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Vol. 1, No. 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/bp.v1n1.04


This research paper aims at examining ways in which Hari Chand Thakur (1811-1877), steered the low-caste Namasudras in the late nineteenth-century towards a distinctive social identity. It will also focus on how Hari Chand brought almost the whole Namasudra community under one Matua sect with the help of his simple namgans of Lord Hari – which, infused with social messages, bequeathed the caste subaltern a voice of dissent through devotional membership. But one hardly finds mention of Hari Chand’s kirtan and its attendant social regenerative agenda in studies of this form of cultural performance. Through my intervention in this field, I shall discuss the politics behind underplaying the contribution of Hari Chand Thakur’s cultural initiatives in popular and political discourse on social reformation in late nineteenth/ early twentieth century Bengal. To substantiate the argument this article takes the theoretical framework of John Rawl’s  A Theory of Justice. Since then many political philosophers and theorists have increasingly been concerned with the issue of ethno-cultural diversity within the ambit of secular state(s). That whether justice can happen at all when state’s decision is binding over that of an individual or sects. Some have argued that liberalism has neglected the importance of culture and ethnicity in politics of secularism. The difference-blind model of unitary citizenship that had been favoured by liberals was challenged by the emergence, both in theory and practice, of the recognition of minority sects’ rights and of a model of differentiated or plural citizenship that the Left government of West Bengal tended to espouse. On the other hand the govt of Bangladesh went more into religion based citizenship than just a fair Republic. The fact that this community departed from Faridpur, and other places in Bangladesh is a testament of the intolerance even after their philanthropy for the lower-caste Hindus of that country. Slowly and steadily the matuya community had to shift to the safety of West Bengal in order to survive. Kent Greenawalt measures such establishment of religion as an adverse affect on the standing of citizens, giving a lesser standing to people who do not embrace the officially supported religion(s) and makes these individuals feel like “outsiders”

In the same spirit, Habermas suggests that religious reasons may be introduced in political advocacy in the “informal public sphere”—newspapers, political talk shows, street demonstrations, town meetings, etc.—but that they should be translated into public reasons if they are to pass the institutional threshold of the formal public sphere including “parliaments, courts, ministries and administrations”. Thus it opens the door of public discourse to religious arguments supporting legal reforms, can be made by ordinary citizens within the informal public forum provided they are translated into secular public reasons when entering the formal public sphere of state institutions. For a country like Bangladesh which was formed on the principal of prevalence of a singular language amongst others, forming religious divide was a backlash for the Hindus who all of a sudden were the minorities just like the Muslims on the Indian counterpart. The problem, amongst many was a cultural cohesion that Bangladesh found diminishing soon.

In this light substantial research has been done on Hari Chand Thakur and the Matua sect while discussing colonial caste-policies, that of the Indian National Congress, Hindu-Muslim disparity, or the urban ideologies of social reawakening in early 20th century Bengal. Sekhar Bandopadhyaya has significantly contributed to the study of caste-based cultural communities articulating social resentment through his works titled Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: the Namasudras of Bengal; Caste Culture and Hegemony: Social Domination in Colonial Bengal and Partition and the Ruptures in Dalit Identity Politics in Bengal.  Research along developmental paradigms has also been done by Willem van Schendel and Abhijit Dasgupta in Development and Underdevelopment in Bengal: Castes, Communities and the State. Projit Bihari Mukharji has analysed the nineteenth century class-caste conflicts and consequent projects of communitarian identity-formation in his book Structuring Plurality: Locality, Caste, Class and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century Bengali Dispensary.

But none of these looks into how the tradition of kirtan becomes instrumental – by its perlocutionary potential – as an agent of communal consciousness and thereby leads to a solidarization of the Matua sect. My paper intends to focus on the performative politics of kirtan of Hari Chand Thakur – and how the democratization of ‘devotion’ through proximal collectivities within the ritual space of this bodily performance made way for a reorganization of the sect. I will try to show how his kirtan caused a ‘will to social ascent’ within this downtrodden caste.

My paper aims at depicting the ways in which Harichand Thakur, with the help of kirtan, steered the way for the Namasudras in the late 19th century, to make them a formidable part of the society. My paper will also focus on how Harichand brought almost the whole Namasudra community under one Matua sect with the help of his simple namgans of Lord Hari mixed with social messages, which in later years helped them forming a solid platform wherefrom they could make their presence felt. I also intend to discuss the reasons behind the politics of keeping Harichand Thakur at bay, though his work not only helped the Namasudra community to have their rightful voice, but also helped in making an egalitarian society by making the downtrodden stand up on his feet and make their presence felt in the society.

Kirtan existed even before Sri Chaitanya popularised it in the 16th century, and was generally practised widely and much more openly thereafter.  It was one the rare places where all social distinctions were forgotten and the listeners used to shed (unknowingly or knowingly) all the social inhibitions…Full Text PDF