“KULI- A Tribe of Odisha” : A Review

Anjali Sahoo

“KULI- A Tribe of Odisha” - by Dr Meera Swain, Published by The Freelancers, Bhubaneswar, October, 2014, Price-Rs. 250/-

The present book “Kuli-A Tribe of Odisha” by Dr Meera Swain is a humble effort to combine and consolidate different aspects of the identity of the Kuli community of Odisha. It also depicts and takes note of their socio-economic, cultural and geo-political status with a broad viewpoint. ‘Kuli’, the community under our study, is a lesser known and yet an important weaving community of Odisha whose nomenclature and status as Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe were ambiguous. This book on Kuli resolves some of these issues and also represents the social, economic and cultural status of the community. Data for the present book consists of household census schedules collected from twelve villages covering four districts of Bolangir, Baragarh, Subarnpur and Sambalpur. Various tools used here for data collection include interview schedules, questionnaires, case studies and observation. Still photography, audio and videos are also quite helpful in gathering and analyzing the collected data afterward. The villages and one urban colony are selected to carry on the study. Secondary data are collected from a few literatures available on Kuli tribe in various libraries of our state. Generally the determination of the tribal identity of a community requires collection of detailed empirical data which is a time consuming process. Kuli community is one such community of Odisha which is much less studied and is surrounded by controversy due to its nomenclature and dual status as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In order to establish a distinct identity of the community, an in depth and extensive study on Kuli community and the establishment of its socio-cultural identity was found to be essential in the field of anthropological research. Pertaining to that it is a very vital endeavor in this direction and a step forward towards the congregation and preparation of empirical data base regarding this weavers’ community of Odisha.

The study on Kuli tribe is taken up to understand the community in detail, their socio-cultural settings, economic pursuits and the present status in comparison to existing other communities around them and the scenario of inter-community interaction. The study provides enough space for future research on this tribe, their socio-economic status and the comparative study with other communities so that a knowledge system can be developed on this less studied community. The confusion surrounding around their tribal status, their community occupation and the position in the social hierarchy are required to be clarified in order to ensure them their basic human rights. Therefore, this book aims at contributing the most towards the well being of this community making an addition to the present resources and knowledge base and also in making a worthwhile academic contribution for future anthropological study. Data for the present book consists of household census schedules collected from twelve villages covering four districts of Bolangir, Baragarh, Subarnapur and Sambalpur. Other components of the data include interview schedules, questionnaires, case studies, observations, still photography, audio and videos. The villages and one urban colony have been selected to carry on the study. Secondary data have been collected from a few literatures available on Kuli tribe in different libraries of Odisha.

In the context of diversity, each community has its own cultural attributes to be distinguished from others. This requires a holistic approach towards study and analysis of the community so that the socio cultural distinctions and their contributions towards the existence of the human community at large can be clarified and elucidated. The researchers and academicians have been contributing towards this with their tireless efforts. They not only contribute towards the socio-cultural analysis but also develop different theories to understand the uniqueness of the inherent principles of survival and their adaptation in each community. In this book, the present living conditions of the members of the Kuli community, their ritualistic observations are given with explicit elaborations. Case studies and the house hold census schedules are relied upon as the sources to gather the empirical data following the appropriate methods of the field research on folk songs, folk dances, description of the genealogies and explanation of the etymological meaning of the villages. The data furnished here include demographic details of the tribe in tabular formats, reflections on the facilities like communication, education, occupation, settlement pattern, water facility, hygiene and sanitation, medical facility along with religion and rituals, dress and ornaments, food habits etc. The special dialect of Kuli community in its Odia and English version is quite useful. The rare photographs on the material culture of the Kuli community inserted in the book are also very informative. Their religious life with different gods and goddesses, their social and political organization, life cycle rituals, marriage, kinship, economic life etc are given with specific details.

According to the author Dr Swain, the Kuli tribe is found to have experienced various stages of cultural transition from food gatherer to the present profession of weaving and cultivation. Being forest dwellers they had lived on the forest resources as subsistence but gradually they adopted various survival strategies as and when the material culture around them changed. They are found to have acquired modern equipments to facilitate their occupation of weaving and cultivation but majority of them are still continuing with the traditional method i.e. less costly and within their knowledge of operation.

The demographic profile of Kuli tribe across the sample villages provides insight into its current economic status. The age sex ratio in this tribal population is favourable for the female gender in comparison to other communities. But the ratio through out the different age groups is not uniform. The literacy rate is better in comparison to the state scenario except the fact that the female literacy is low among the adults. The occupational status shows that the members of the tribe are pursuing both the weaving and cultivation and a few of them are working in Government jobs. Female members are mainly confined to the household jobs and weaving. If required they also opt for the daily wages. Apart from this, females are also engaged in collecting firewood from forests, roots and tubers which is seasonal. Grown up children are engaged to assist the adult members both inside and outside the house.

The basic amenities like drinking water, roads to the villages, electrification, and schools are found to have been provided by the government in the studied villages. In some villages community houses are also provided. The medical facility is also available both at the Govt provided centers and private clinics. The people are more dependent on the home made productions on the basis of their indigenous knowledge system. The dress patterns, ornaments and other material culture are the reflection of the rich heritage of the tribe as well as of the cultural borrowings from other caste cultures over generations. The material cultures, particularly for the subsistence is exhibiting the evolutionary transitions necessitated by different stages of the economic activity. The etymological meanings also suggest the relation of the tribe to the wild animals and the forest areas which were cleared in the course of time to facilitate the villagers to occupy the same.

The culture of the tribe is full of celebrations and religious rituals surrounding different gods and goddesses. This shows their belief system and attitude towards the super natural beings. Analysis of the clan Gods and Goddesses indicates that most of them are animals and birds which suggest their bond of spirituality incarnated in living beings. Thus the organization of the belief system integrated the whole community and helped to perpetuate the religious and ritualistic tradition of this tribe. The priest and the shaman are the custodian of the entire socio-religious belief system with the inherited leadership and guidance.

The social organization of the tribe has incorporated several rules and regulations like other tribal communities. The life cycle rituals are systematically followed with the presence of the clan members, village neighbours and other kin members. The kin terminology indicates the use of classificatory system by the Kuli tribe. It also indicates the equal status they have given to more than one kin. The political organization at each level of hierarchy starting from the family to the Kuli Sabha is functioning in the community. The patriarchal system confers the authority on the male head of the family. The clan heads of the respective clans are the custodians of their clans by streamlining prescriptions and maintaining taboos.

As per the author’s views, the inter-community interaction for this community is a little complex in nature. Earlier generations of the community had to undergo the torture of untouchability. Presently though the untouchability towards the members of the Kuli community is absent in many villages, yet socio-cultural distance exists from other caste villager, they are denied the services of barbers and washer men. But there are some villages where untouchability towards them is still prevalent. The Kuli tribe is assigned with the responsibility of preparing cloth for the ritualistic use and the preparation of wicks to be used in temples for worshipping Gods and Goddesses. This indicates about the socio-cultural integration and assimilation of the tribe with other communities and thereby overcoming the stigma of untouchability. The marriages between the Kuli and other caste members lead to social ex-communication of and imposition of severe fines on the parties involved. Some of the case studies show how marriage between Brahmin girls and Kuli boys are facing social stigma for more than twenty years. The Kuli members are not dependent on other people to wash their clothes or to get their hair cut. But a barber from another village is engaged for the hair cutting. Being a tribal community, they are also carrying the features of egalitarianism or classlessness.

Looking into the present scenario, the Kuli tribe is at the threshold of a transition. Impact of education and progress of science and technology has more or less influenced the Kuli community as well. Both socio-cultural and economic aspects are changing, depending on the necessities of the community. Now the educated Kuli youths have become more conscious about their democratic rights and duties. The author Dr Swain avers that they require their identity as a distinguished community so that future research can be envisaged for betterment of the ‘Kuli’ community as a whole.