1837 illustrations of South Indian castes
April 12, 2010 6:35 PM   Subscribe

"Seventy two specimens of castes in India". This illustrated manuscript made in southern India in 1837 consists of 72 full-colour hand-painted images of men and women of the various castes and religious and ethnic groups found in Madura, India at that time. Search or browse (recommended) all the images, in very good resolution, from Yale's Beinecke Library.

Each drawing was made on mica, a transparent, flaky mineral which splits into thin, transparent sheets. As indicated on the presentation page, the album was compiled by T. Vardapillay, the Indian writing master at an English school established by American missionaries in Madura, and given to the Reverend William Twining.

Some examples:
Hindoo astronomer / Female.
Mussilman beggar / Female.
Hindoo milk man / Female.
Wood cutter (Malabar) / Female.
Mussilman jester / Mussilwoman
posted by Rumple (13 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
awesome post. that's all i have right now.
posted by reverend cuttle at 6:43 PM on April 12, 2010

Hmm. So this is the menu that the East India Company was ordering from, eh? 'I'll have a few of those... and a few of those... that should do nicely.'
posted by koeselitz at 6:49 PM on April 12, 2010

Well, the EIC wasn't itself involved in the slave trade, and slavery in India was illegal just after this was published (1843). I'm sure people involved in the EIC also owned slaves, though.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:56 PM on April 12, 2010

Very cool. Thanks for this.
posted by nola at 7:08 PM on April 12, 2010

No, I don't mean the slave trade. I meant the fact that the EIC was responsible for picking out a small sample from this vast and beautiful diversity in India at the time (and thanks for the excellent post by the way, Rumple) and codifying and enforcing five or six rigidly throughout the country, in order to 'divide and conquer' the Indian mainland to make it more susceptible to rule.

The biggest reason I think this is such a fantastic specimen is because, shortly afterwards, the number of 'official' castes in India shrank dramatically, and the whole system was forced to become much more concrete. These pictures are from a time when society there was relatively unmolded by the forces of colonialism.
posted by koeselitz at 7:13 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Reminds one of Mexican Casta Paintings:
In English, the term casta also refers to the colonial Spanish American system of social stratification based on a person's racial heritage that evolved along with the rise in miscegenation. A parallel system of categorization based on the degree of acculturation to Hispanic culture, which distinguished between gente de razón (Hispanics) and gente sin razón (non-acculturated natives), concurrently existed and worked together with the idea of casta.
Casta Paintings, which cataloged the system, generally depicted three individuals: a man, a woman and their offspring. Each would be dressed and accesorized according to their caste. A caption on each painting explained the rules of the system:

* "From a Spanish man and an Amerindian woman, a Mestizo is produced."
* "From a Black man and a Spanish woman, a Mulatto is begotten."
* "From a Mestizo man and an Amerindian woman, a Coyote is begotten."
* "From a Black man and an Amerindian woman, a Lobo is begotten."

And so on.

The whole thing was hierarchical, of course. However, as I recall the collection of casta paintings on view at LACMA a while back, at the end of the long chain of possible combinations and at maximum descent from white, the child born of a lobo (say) and a coyote was pure once again.

Unfortunately, the examples at wikipedia linked above and elsewhere don't support my recollection.
posted by notyou at 7:15 PM on April 12, 2010

Beautiful, but I'm cringing at:

Female and her child
posted by oinopaponton at 7:32 PM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Under the Sumptuary Laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony one was not allowed to wear lace unless one had a personal fortune of £200. Caste systems were alive and well all over the colonial world in the 1700 & 1800s.
posted by msjen at 8:06 PM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is great stuff. I would only see this sort of thing on metafilter.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks, various - that's a really interesting link.
posted by Rumple at 10:55 PM on April 12, 2010

I'm dismayed but unsurprised at the blatant bigotry of not including any of the Undrawables.
posted by orthogonality at 12:55 AM on April 13, 2010

What's interesting is that by looking at these early drawings and categories, it supports the commonly held belief (per my Brahmin ex) that "castes" originated from "worker classifications" --> the closest analogy would be medieval times where you had "weaver", "fletcher", "smith" and serfs were serfs and couldn't suddenly become gentry

seems as though at this point of history the british ossified these classifications based on their interpretation.

dunno enough yet, just started reading THE HINDUS, An Alternative History By Wendy Doniger and hope to discover more about this.

As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a “unified Hinduism.” And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
posted by infini at 1:34 AM on April 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

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