Odisha’s Political Anthropology in the SOAS Archive

Bailey SOAS archive

On 15 August, 1947 India not only awoke to freedom; but awaited tons of structural changes and policies in hope of a better life and governance. As the 1950s saw five-year plans being put into action and other shifts in power that changed the social fabric of the country, its hinterlands and remote areas – especially in the East and North-East – remained ignored by the capital. In fact years later, when a journalist visited a remote village in the North-Eastern part of India, he asked an old man what he thought about Independent India. The old man was astonished. He did not know that the British had left, and India was a free country. 

There were not just delays in relaying information, but also development schemes, the implementation of which often faltered through corrupt bureaucratic processes. The 1950s was thus an extremely interesting and crucial time to witness and understand a nation in the making–especially through its hinterlands that strived to adapt to the new economic reforms while holding on to their cultural sensibilities, and people realising their social and political identity with the linguistic division of states, universal suffrage and more.  

Resonating with this thought, there was one man who decided to conduct an intensive study of an East Indian state delving into the narratives of caste, power and social change. Frederick George Bailey, a British social anthropologist of South Asia, born in 1924, received Treasury fellowship to visit the Kondaman, now Kandhamal district in Orissa (now Odisha), a tribal-dominated region of the Konda (Kandha) tribe. Conducting his fieldwork through villages, Bailey developed rich ethnographies of tribal cultures, festivals and ways of life. For example, in one elaborate account on an inter-caste performance at a puja (worship), Bailey details peculiar traditions and descriptions of their god. He notes:

The visitors were all of Gauro caste, some being Tohola and some being Mogodha Gauros. They came from Arapaju and several other villages as well. The badi – the sticks – are the images of the Isto devata, i.e. the patron deity of the Gauros, whose name is Sommolai. She is the protector of Gauros, and it is normal to propitiate her from time to time for protection against the normal run of misfortunes and those to which Gauros are particularly liable such as attacks from wild animals while herding.

Bailey’s work was also often a commentary on caste that continues to be a strong dividing factor even though caste was constitutionally abolished in 1950. Untouchability resulted in a series of ‘normalised’ human rights violation of the marginalised. Studying the intersectionalities and the connections between caste and economic status and power, Bailey’s work presents an interesting account of the complexities and the ironies that formed the social fabric of Orissa in the backdrop of a new, diverse nation. His work in documenting the organisational politics of Orissa in the 1950s has been path-breaking and he is regarded as one of the pioneers of political anthropology in South Asia. 

Bailey archive SOAS

Bailey’s ethnographies in Orissa became the basis of his doctoral thesis which he completed at the University of Machester. In 1956, Bailey became a lecturer in SOAS. However, he left in 1963 to ‘pioneer’ the anthropology program at the University of Sussex, thereafter becoming a professor at the University of San Diego in 1971. 

He has authored 16 anthropological books and 6 monographs on Orissa. The first one, published in 1957 under the title Caste and the Economic Frontier details the ‘consequences of the new mercantile economy for land-holding elite’ through an understanding of the law, tax structures and social mobility within caste hierarchy. Bailey’s second book, Tribe, Caste and Nation (1960), delves into the ‘fight for political power and land between tribal Kond and caste Hindus and their understanding of the changing political structures of post-colonial Odisha.’ In his third book, Politics and Social Change: Orissa 1959 (1963), Bailey examines ‘the system of representative democracy in the new, post-independent state of Odisha.’

While Bailey’s books and work is accessible, SOAS holds unique access to his field notes with due permission, digitally archived under SOAS Special Collections. Comprising of 29 folders, these include roughly penned notes elaborating accounts of his conversation, descriptions of landscapes, traditions and houses; diagrams including charts detailing caste hierarchies, housing patterns etc.; old maps and photographs documenting tribal culture. 

This rich archive provides an interesting insight into Bailey’s mind, his speculations and immediate perceptions, some of which are re-visited, argued and differently formulated in his published work. Bailey’s anthropology has thus, in many ways, been crucial in understanding, not just the post-colonial changes, but also current movements and happenings in the complex state that has often remained at the fringes of the mainstream. 

Access the F.G. Bailey archive here.

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