The village anthropologist

An Indian Village through Letters and Pictures
August 29, 1997

The habitual reluctance of the academic to write for a general public springs partly from the fear that he or she may cease to be accepted by other academics. In Germany this fear of demeaning academic standards and "selling out" is perhaps more pronounced than in Britain and the United States. But Detlef Kantowsky, a German sociologist who has long worked in India, has always considered the need to reach beyond the confines of the university. He has written for the most distinguished German newspapers, explained Gandhi to the German public and, as a professing Buddhist, has published prolifically on issues raised by his faith in the German context.

This book, first published in German in 1986, is no exception. It unravels in clear and simple terms the complexity of Hindu society. Caste, family life, the agricultural cycle, the power structure of a community, the peculiar world view of traditional Hinduism, are succinctly explained and elucidated by examples drawn from a village in India near Varanasi (Benares).

Kantowsky and his wife, Ingrid, first entered this village, Rameshwar, in 1965, when he was beginning work as a scholar. His initial research developed into a large study, Dorfentwicklung und Dorfdemokratie in Indien (Village Development and Village Democracy in India), published in 1970. Alongside his field work, he wrote letters to colleagues and friends back home and kept a diary. Further, the "participant observation" of a sociologist evolved into a relationship with the entire village that has continued through 30 years of repeated visits.

This book chronicles the relationship up until 1986. It uses excerpts from letters sent and received and from the author's diaries, as well as photographs taken over two decades - all bound together by comments evaluating the material with the wisdom of 20 years' experience. The probably unavoidable repetitions in these excerpts are a minor irritant. Where a writer would have woven a beautiful and amusing tale, Kantowksy, being a scholar, has divided his material into several chapters ("Participation", "Approaches", "Orientations", "Descriptions", "Relationships") that attempt to relate his experience to the wider Hindu society.

In his "Personal document", Kantowsky outlines his efforts to win the confidence of the village's key figures, to open up "sources", and to analyse his and his wife's own, sometimes amusing, blunders in trying to adjust to caste traditions, religious ritual and family life. In this sense, Kantowsky's narrative is also a critique of what scientific research can and cannot accomplish, and the difficulties in the way of such accomplishment.

Fortunately, the author, even in his letters, is wary of making simplistic moral judgements of the orthodox social norms he encounters, although he never pretends to be anything but a European onlooker with his own set of norms. The last chapter, "Relationships", delineates the history of a friendship he has formed with three people in Rameshwar. From being "sources" for field research they have graduated to being persons into whose family the "Doctor Sahib" has become partially integrated. Participant observation has here mutated into active concern, advice and help.

The extensive photographs are much more than illustrations to the text. With their detailed captions, they provide as much valuable information as the letters and diary excerpts. It is a pity, though, that for the English edition, there is no preface taking the narrative from 1986 up to the present.

Martin Kampchen is a scholar and writer who divides his time between Germany and India.

An Indian Village through Letters and Pictures

Author - Detlef Kantowsky
ISBN - 0 19 563672 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 193

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