The potter, the Brahm, and the butcher's ghost: Caste and family dynamics in north India

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan Wadley


Caste and family dynamics in north India

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Sociology


Three major threads run through this dissertation like the three dhaga (threads) featured in the potters origin story to follow. The first thread is about how members of a potter community near Banaras construct their own identities, different from higher caste ideologies, through myth, images, and stories. It illustrates multiple uses of self image. Potters create themselves anew within different interactions using the same tales and images. Epic and myth do not merely explain or illustrate; they also serve as generative forces of identity and community. They are used to uphold family honor, to justify actions, or to defend against accusations of wrong doing. The same images are used in different ways by both factions of a feud. They are used to make alliances with groups outside the caste and to negotiate more recent class differences within the caste community.

The second thread tells the story of a feuding family who has overstepped boundaries of normal family behavior and incurred scorn and isolation from their community. This family's inter-generational is explored in depth from differing view points. An indigenous concept of family dynamics is introduced and analyzed: hay, is an inherited family sorrow that is shouldered by every member and cannot be transferred to others. Hay is expressed and explored in the community through witchcraft accusations. It is akin to evil spirits and may be used destructively. I see it as a systemic "dysfunctional" or destructive accommodation to the changing forces of world. This family's story can be read many ways, like a "living epic" of brother against brother and of men and women risking everything in life and death struggles for a shred of power and dignity.

Finally, the third thread, intertwined with the first two, re-examines the relationship between the individual and the family, the caste and the community. Scholars of South Asia have defined familial-self of the attended family and see honor and identity as intimately connected to that of the family over the individual. But here, strong individual identities emerge and wield their power for personal ends as well as familial goals. The relationships between individuals of gender, kinship, and honor may always have been different for potters than for higher castes. They are shifting as people of this caste come to terms with the global economy. The differences in power and wealth found within the community itself demand that these notions change. ftn$\sp1$A brahm is the ghost of a Brahman


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