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A comparative study of two communities

Updated: May 31, 2019 3:54 pm

Women in matrilineal societies are seen as empowered to face the challenges of innovations compared to their counterparts in patrilineal societies. But no matrilineal society, at least in India, can be found where women enjoy absolute authority and power. There is a general notion that all the matrilineal societies are matriarchal as well. But matriliny and matriarchy are not synonymous. Matriarchy implies the dominance of women in decision making. Authority is vested in her, both in theory and in practice. She is the channel not merely for inheritance, but also for succession to positions of authority in the family. But there are several instances where lineality is not necessarily associated with power. Though the matrilineal system was much more widely distributed in India, the matrilineal communities and the communities bearing matrilineal elements are chiefly found in the north-east and south-west parts of India. The Khasi of Meghalaya is an important tribal group who follows the matrilineal system in the north-east part of India. The Nair of Kerala was a classic example for matrilineal society in south India. Though both the Khasi and the Nair communities fall in the wider category of matrilineal societies, they differ widely in its structure, function, and components. Still, a few parallels are observable.

Against this backdrop, this book is a comparative study of two communities, classically taught as examples of matrilineal societies, the Khasi and the Nair. Based on a first-hand fieldwork carried out with the members of both these communities, the author of this book is comparatively more privileged than the others, for he shares his consanguinity with the community of the Nair of Kerala. However, the autobiographical input, used rather sparingly, has been closely sieved through the lens of objectivity, so unless told, the reader would fail to know that this book’s author has an insider’s understanding of one of the matrilineal communities because of the fact of being raised in it. Objectivity triumphs over any subjective collapse, which is quite likely in an auto-ethnography account.

The author’s closed examination of matrilineal societies, with two detailed case studies, suggests the perpetual instability of matrilineal societies. The situation of equilibrium that the anthropologists had earlier noted in these societies was not only temporary but also at the surface level. Underneath were the currents of keeping contradictory forces together, which later became the prime mover of change. When ‘matrilineal men’ came in contact with the contiguously-situated patrilineal people, they felt ‘diminished in their manhood’, so said Patricia Mukhim, the Padma Shri awardee from Meghalaya, and it was enough to intensify the simmering which already was there because of the dissatisfaction that the members of a gender category had as a consequence of being excluded from the descent group. By examining the matrilineal society against the backdrop of the exteriorly-induced changes and inner dynamics, this book is a significant contribution to kinship studies, a field that should not remain ignored in the discipline of anthropology.  

By Ashok kumar

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