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Beggars of Kalighat Calcutta

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Item Code: UBF635
Author: Sumita Choudhury
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata
Language: English
Edition: 2010
Pages: 120 (B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 320 gm
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Book Description

Although poverty has been a recurrent and pervasive social phenomenon in the Indian subcontinent, anthropological studies on the people of India have rarely been directly concerned with a proper understanding of the social and cultural context of poverty. People of India have lived with the phenomenon of beggary over the millennia, but very few social scientists have moved into field of describing beggary as a social and cultural phenomenon.

Sumita (Ghosh) Chaudhuri became interested in the social situation of the beggars of Kalighat when she made a preliminary enquiry on them for her M.Sc. dissertation in Anthropology at Calcutta University during 1969-70. Later on from 1972 to 1974, with the support of a fellowship from the Anthropological Survey of India, she undertook a more detailed and intensive study of the beggars of Kalighat. She was interested in finding out the nature of corrosion and attenuation of social norms and cultural patterns among different groups of beggars who lived precariously at the margin of an urban society around the famous Kali Temple of Kalighat. The tradition of earning merit by offering alms to a Bhikshu (beggar) in a pilgrim centre provided the religious sanction for the perpetuation of beggar at the sacred centre of Kalighat. The author was also interested in describing the specific social, cultural and behavioural strategies by which the beggars managed to survive in their miserable socio-economic situation. She was interested in bringing into relief the way of life, the sub-culture of the beggars, in a situation of extreme poverty and social marginality.

Sumita has clssified the beggar population into two categories: those born in the state of beggary at Kalighat and those pushed from the countryside by poverty and other social reasons. The beggars of the batter category, who predominate in number are again grouped into three major social clustersthose from the 24-Parganas (mainly from Jainagar) and Midnapore districts of West Bengal and Darbhanga district of Bihar. The beggar from Jainagar and Midnapore continue to periodically maintain contacts with their natal villages. The Darbhanga group form the single largest ethnic category and maintain relatively greater degree of social and cultural cohesion. The born-beggars do not have any social roots outside their own group at Kalighat.

Fieldwork among the beggars in the crowded urban location of Kalighat is quite a different experience compared to studying remote tribal or peasant villages, where one can observe while participating in full-blown genuine cultures whose structure and patterns are clearly crystallized. I must record that in this pioneering work Sumita Chaudhuri has handed the very difficult field situation with great patience and skill. This will encourage other researchers to penetrate more deeply into the minds of the beggars though more complete and continuous immersion into their very strange and sad life situation.

As we go through the report it becomes apparent that there has been considerable attenuation and breakdown in the basic social institutions of family, kinship, marriage and caste, the conventional life cycle and other rituals have been drastically attenuated. The beggars, of all categories, have indeed a very thin impoverished culture. They indicate an apathetic state of mind with frequent indulgence in violence for settling quarrels, sexual laxity, alcoholism and addiction to narcoticism, connections with the underworld of bootlegging, smuggling, prostitution and other crimes. Their world view has little concern for the past or the future.

In the past two decades attention of Anthropologists have been directed towards the study of the urban poor, utilizing the technique of close controlled observation. Oscar Lewis has done pioneering work in the field of "culture of poverty" in his study of the culture of slum dwellers in Puerto Rico and Mexico (1959, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969).

Beggars and beggary in India have so far been the subject of enquiry of mainly municipal administrators and the department of vagrancy. Some social workers have also done imporfant works on the problems of beggary from the point of view of social welfare (Social Welfare, 1963). Most of the anthropological and sociological studies on the beggars made so far are brief reports. However, there are a few exceptions. Gore's study on Metropolitan Delhi (1959) and Misra and Mohanty's study on Cuttack (1963) and Moorthy's study on the beggars of greater Bombay (1959) deal with the subject in detail. The study by Misra and Mohanty is a purely socio-economic survey where the main emphasis has been given to locate the socio- economic background of the beggars, their migration history, age, sex variation, social status and caste background, reason for following this profession, technique of begging and nature of handicap, group life, income and expenditure and lastly, their aspiration. This study was made through schedules and the analysis was mainly quantitative. Little attempt has been made to observe the behaviour pattern of the beggars of different categories and levels.

The study on the beggars of greater Bombay by Moorthy (1959) is also, to some extent, a socio-economic survey but unlike Misra and Mohanty's study, it has a social-work approach where the problem of welfare and rehabilitation has been dealt with and some case studies have also been presented.

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