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The Kela: A Nomadic Caste of Orissa (A Study of their Conflict and Social Change)

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Item Code: NAN672
Author: Uma Charan Mohanty
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9788124608869
Pages: 258 (15 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 480 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This monograph provides a vivid socio- economic account of a nomadic community, the Sapua Kelas or the snake-charmers of Orissa. Of all the nomadic castes and communities of Orissa, the Sapua Kelas have, perhaps, a unique traditional social organization and interesting lifestyle. Amidst the sweeping social, economic and political changes, the Kela community has retained its features of traditional caste system and is undergoing a process of social mobility which is closely related to the traditional caste system where both endogenic and exogenic factors come to play.

The book meticulously deals with the social, economic, political and cultural facets of the Kela life, their problems in life and how they solve them. It uncovers the romantic life of the Kelas, their family organization, gender issues, the significance and impact of their leadership and caste panchayats, their harmless deceptive methods for earnings and their simple but unique lifestyle. It also delves deep into the perception of outsiders about the Kela life, especially their free love and of the non- hesitancy of the Kela women in divorcing their life partners.

This, once an untouchable community's struggle for social mobility, is still an ongoing process. From a nomadic and semi-settled lifestyle, with the advent of the democratic institutions, the Kelas have got a new scope for political and social participation, enabling them to look beyond their traditional occupation of snake-charming, and thus attuning their lifestyle to that of the surrounding population. The book is, therefore, an attempt to show how the nomadic folk society of the Kelas is marching towards the settled life of the Indian peasantry, causing their cultural traits vanishing fast, in favour of the neighbouring culture of the other castes.

About the Author

Prof. Uma Charan Mohanty (1931-2008) was born into a family of freedom fighters in the city of Cuttack. After his school education, influenced by Gandhian ideologies, he took up teaching in his village school founded by his father (Late) Dukhishyam Mohanty. He continued his education and took up postgraduate course in the newly opened Department of Anthropology at Utkal University headed by (late) Prof. A. Aiyappan in 1958. During 1961-64, he worked with Tribal Research Bureau, Government of Orissa. In 1964, Mohanty moved to the Department of Anthropology, Utkal University as a Lecturer and then to the Anthropology Department, University of Madras as a Reader in 1976. He became the Professor and Head, in the same department. In 1990, he was offered Fulbright- Scholar-in-Residence and visited several universities in USA and Canada. In 1991, he retired from the University of Madras and took up a prestigious project from Smithsonian Foundation, USA, on a study related to senior citizens of Tamil Nadu.

Even when he was a student, he was associated with eminent scholars like F.G. Bailey, Cora Du Bois, N.K. Bose and Surajit Chandra Sinha. He came into prominence with his first publication, based on the field data, in the first year of his MA in Economic & Political Weekly (erstwhile Political Weekly). He was known for his profound understanding of tribal societies in Orissa, especially the Saora, Kissan, etc. and has several articles published in national and international journals to his credit.


The present monograph is a descriptive account of a nomadic community, the Sapua Kelas or the snake-charmers of Orissa. Of all the nomadic castes or communities of Orissa, perhaps the Sapua Kelas have a unique traditional social organization and interesting lifestyle. They have retained the cohesiveness of the community with sincere efforts.

My interest about the Kelas goes back to 1958. In that year Anthropology Department was started in the Utkal University and since there was no departmental museum, Professor A. Aiyappan, who was heading the department suggested to all the first batch students to prepare a research monograph based on original field- work, in lieu of the museology and primitive technology paper. In that connection, while I was discussing with a prominent leader of milkman caste of Kalarahlang about their caste association, he incidentally narrated about the snake-charmers of Patia; how they had deserted their earlier settlement of Patia and set up a new hamlet near to his village of Kalarahlang. Seeing me curious, he further narrated how some of the snake-charmers were taking up agriculture, building stone houses and were changing rapidly to be well-to-do moneylenders within the nomadic community of beggars. The narration fired my imagination and under the abiding inspiration of Professor Aiyappan, I decided to take up the study of the snake-charmers as a paper for my MA dissertation.

My actual contact with the snake-charmers started in the summer vacation of 1959. It was rather dramatic and somewhat accidental; I was going alone in search of the new settlement of the snake-charmers. The first man, whom I met, was a prominent and effective leader of the Kelas, the snake-charmers, who was instrumental in introducing innovations in the Kela community. He narrated to me his efforts for adopting modernization and how another leader of the same caste was resisting at every stage of his efforts to raise the social status of the Kelas through adaptation of sedentary life. The very first day I could see how the Kela caste is divided into two factional groups, headed by two outstanding leaders of the community. Both the leaders were in a crucial stage of the transitional phase of the caste and were engaged in heated debate in their caste meetings whether they should adopt a sedentary life and adopt other occupations or should they continue their age-old nomadic life and retain their traditional occupation of snake-charming. This situation greatly inspired me and I chose this topic for my MA dissertation. But y interest regarding the Kelas did not end with MA dissertation. My involvement with the Kela culture and society continued throughout my life till date. I found that the Kela community retained the salient features of the traditional caste system and is undergoing a process of social mobility or change which is very much related to the traditional caste system where both endogenic and exogenic factors influence to bring change while the community or the caste adjusts and integrates both the internal and external forces that originate due to changing situations. The Kela caste provides an opportunity to see the working of traditional caste system and how it acts as a group and undergoes the processes of change. Indeed the Kela community provides the scope of a research laboratory where a social scientist can study caste dynamics through direct observation of the decision-making process in a small community, the competition for power and experiment for social mobility.

The study of the Kela community was interesting from another point of view. The Kelas belong to ex-untouchable caste and they were inhibited from social mobility by the usual social barriers found in a traditional caste society. But their tremendous efforts to raise their social status soon after independence revealed a dramatic situation that occurred in the lower rung of the social hierarchy. Though the story of such dramatic changes eluded the attention of enlightened upper strata of the society, such stories of their success and failures to achieve social mobility are no doubt valuable data for the analysis of change in present-day India.

Another interesting feature of the Kela culture is the practice of marginal deception associated with Kela economic life. As entertainers, they draw the attention of lay public and small crowds gather wherever they go. But this is not sufficient to earn their bread. They earn their living only with the skilful tricks that create a mystic environment and they both entertain small crowds and sometimes dupe the gullible folks who belong to both the urban and rural sector. Such practices may bring them their economic security yet it degrades their social status. Hence a section of people decided to give up traditional economic pursuits yet they were caught by the economic insecurities and therefore repeatedly returned to the traditional pattern in life.

The romantic life of the Kelas, their free love and divorce practices created some kind of hatred in the surrounding caste society. Hence the Kelas were trying to reform their social practices and were subjected to encounter new problems.

Even at the present situation, the struggle for their social mobility has not ended. With the new democratic processes, adult franchise and Panchayat institutions, the Kelas have got new scope for participation in the politicization process and are gradually attuning their lifestyle with the surrounding population.

The peculiarity of the Kela culture is caused perhaps due to two forces. Nomadism or mobility forces them to adopt one type of economic and social life while their close contact with sedentary people causes a friction in that adoption. Thus the Kela reference group is the neighbouring sedentary people while their very way of life is based on traditional custom, an outcome of nomadism. However, in this psychological friction the Kelas have almost reached a point where they have adopted the lifestyle of sedentary people. The Kela lifestyle is changing from nomadism towards settled life at a time when both urban and rural people of India are adopting somewhat mobile lifestyle under the impact of industrialization and modernization. Thus the lifestyle of the semi- nomadic Kela is at present not that peculiar as it was considered in the past by the neighbouring higher caste people. This situation facilitates the semi-nomadic Kelas to adopt the ways of life of the neighbouring people.

In this monograph, I have tried to describe the socio-economic life of the Kelas, their problems of life and how they solve them. Finally, an attempt has been made to show how the nomadic folk society of the Kelas is marching towards the settled life of the Indian peasantry. But they are very rapidly absorbing the neighbouring Oriya culture, as a result of which the Kela cultural peculiarities are vanishing rapidly. Since this micro-study of the Kela community helps to visualize the general process of social change in Indian society, particularly in its caste system at the macro-level, I was deeply interested in re-studying the Kela community, specially to observe and document the process of change within this community.

So long I was in Utkal University, Bhubaneswar; I was in frequent touch with my Kela informants. But after my joining the Madras University this informal contact became almost nil. To revive my early interest, I applied for a small grant of Rs. 5,000 to ICSSR, New Delhi and they were kind enough to grant the same immediately. This helped me to conduct my field studies in mid- 1980s almost after twenty-five years of my first fieldwork. I was extremely grateful to the authorities of ICSSR who liberally allowed me time to prepare my final draft.

My fieldwork showed how the Kela society has adopted sedentary life and struggling hard to adopt the modern methods of social mobility.


It is my pleasure to write a foreword for this fascinating book about the Kelas, a nomadic caste and the way their lives have evolved in recent times. Professor Uma Charan Mohanty's description highlights the social organization of the Sapua Kelas, the snake- charmers of Orissa, and brings clarity to their approach to life, their ways of living and the cohesiveness they build into their social structure. His exploration of their activities through personal experience has given us a firsthand exposure to their lives, which he has expertly captured in this book. A general background of nomadic life is followed by an insightful classification of nomads, in terms of their caste identities and regional locations. Professor Mohanty's meticulous approach has given us a definitive account of the Kela community in all its temporal and spatial spread. Most importantly, it demystifies both the various romanticized and demonized notions of nomads in general and gypsies in particular.

Citing linguistic research, Professor Mohanty shows how the place of origin of the gypsies who have settled in Europe and Africa is most probably India, and how they still retain some of their original features. He also highlights their interest in performing arts and their traditional beliefs about the natural and the supernatural. His description of how the great tradition and little traditions interact through the influence of epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata is quite fascinating.

The depiction of the variety of caste organization of the Naluakelas, Ahir Gaudas and various other groups of Kelas spread across Orissa will be of much interest to the sociologists. Also very revealing is the statistics accompanying the description.

Professor Mohanty follows the historical and cultural life of the Kelas of Patia (a small village near Bhubaneswar), through their movement out of Patia, and their reasons for not coming back to Patia. He shows how the solidarity of the group inspires their decisions about domicile and highlights the impact of lack of political authority and influence of psychological factors. Very interesting snippets of the annual, seasonal and daily life cycles of the Kelas bring Kela life alive to the reader.

Professor Mohanty's intimate account of the migratory movements of the Kelas, beginning with the preparation, and moving on to the actual departure, the day-to-day contingencies and how they sustain their lives through ingenuity and imaginative tactical moves during their travels is quite riveting. The social life of the Kelas- rituals connected with pregnancy, birth, child rearing and division of work among the members of the community for its economic and cultural sustenance - is described with rare deftness. The book concludes with the stark choice that the Kelas face today in the wake of modernity, development uninformed by deeper considerations of the human condition and the lack of appreciation of the richness that diverse ways of life bring to it.

The book will of much use to the scholar, general reader and the researcher.


  Foreword v
  Editor's Preface vii
  Preface xii
Part I: General Background
1 Nomadism and Indian Nomads 3
  Introduction 3
  Board Nomadic Categories 6
  Symbiotic Nomads 8
  India: The Land of Nomadic Communities 13
  Gypsies: Their Indian Origin 13
  The Place of Nomads in Indian Social Structure 14
  Nature of Nomadic Culture and Their Special Features 15
  Civilizational Process and Indian Nomads 17
2 The Kelas: A Nomadic Caste of Orissa 19
  Who are the Kelas? 19
  Documents on kela 21
  Caste Organization 24
  Ahiri Gauda 24
3 The People and their History 32
  History of the Origin of Patia Kelas 32
  Language of the Kela 34
  How they come to Patia 35
  Change after Coming to Patia 37
  Cultural Progress 39
  Padmakesaripur: The kela Village and its Population 47
Part II: The Traditional life of the Kelas
4 The Traditional Economic life 55
  Material Culture of the Kelas 55
  Health 59
  The Food of the kela 60
  Annual Rhythms 61
  A Day in the Village 62
  Minor economic Activities 65
  The Major Occupations 68
  Occupations of woman 79
  Picture of Migration 80
5 Social Life of the Kelas 106
  Birth and Childhood 106
  Curing the Disease 116
  Old age and Death 143
6 Socal Structure of the kela Caste 146
  The Kela Community 146
  Faction 149
  Clans 151
  Kandara Kela 157
  Lineage 160
  Family and Kinship 161
  Kinship Terminology 168
  Living Together: Council and its Code 171
Part III: The Revolt against kelaTraditions and Social Change
7 The kela Caste Panchayat: Leadership Pattern and Factional Conflict 179
  Case I 184
  Case II 185
  Case III 187
  Root of the Faction 188
  The Factional Conflict on post- Independence Era: The Process of Development and Decline 191
  Construction of Temple 194
8 Factional Conflict and the process of Social Change 197
  Economic Change: Efforts to Quit Traditional Occupation 197
  Social Change and Sanskritization 202
  Changing Birth Rites 202
  Sanskritization in Marriage 203
  Politicization and modernization 207
  Government Welfare Schemes 208
  Conclusion 211
  Bibliography 213
  index 216
Sample Pages

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