April 3, 2019
University of Toronto
Interview with Filippo Osella
Victoria Sheldon: Throughout your research, you have offered fresh perspectives on mobility, subjectivity and reform. Your ethnography, Social Mobility in Kerala, examines how an ex-untouchable Hindu community has sought to accumulate economic, symbolic and cultural capital, while negotiating ongoing social exclusions. More recently, your research has focused on Islamic religious practice, economic action and projects of ethical self-making. As you move across community forms in Kerala, have your approaches to practice and religiosity remained consistent?
Filippo Osella: I do continue to remain interested in the ways that religiosity and religious practice are produced and enacted in particular contexts, as well as the political, economic and social dimension of religions. While I remain interested in similar themes, inevitably you are thrown into different directions. This is partly because the whole field of anthropology of religion has changed over the years, and also because as you work within a particular religious tradition, you become related to debates which are taking place within that field of study. For example, if one looks at studies of popular Hinduism up to the mid-1990s, there was a strong focus on ritual practices. As a result of post-colonial critiques post-Said, this field of study has become associated with Indology and hence to a large extent has gone out of fashion. So nowadays when we think of Hinduism, we think about the political aspect of Hinduism – the ritual aspect has gone missing. When I more recently look at Islam in Kerala, I am still interested in the constitution of particular forms of religiosity and religious practices and in the everyday. And I continue to remain interested in social-religious reform movements – that is something perhaps inescapable in a place like Kerala.
Victoria Sheldon: To what extent are some previous approaches to ritual hierarchy and Hinduism, as articulated by Louis Dumont for instance, transferable to other community contexts in Kerala?
Filippo Osella: I think some of Louis Dumont’s insights on hierarchy in South Asia remain extremely relevant with the caveat that this is not some sort of ahistorical hierarchy, but as we know, has been produced historically in a particular way. That notwithstanding, I do believe that Dumont’s understanding of purity and pollution as constituting the basis of a particular aspect of social-religious hierarchy remains important. Yet, when you look at social-religious hierarchies within other communities such as Islam, you realize the limitation of this kind of approach. For instance, being Muslim in Kerala is seen as being about qualities of people – people are different by virtue of qualities and not by notions of purity and pollution. All of that is put alongside an idea of Muslim Brotherhood. This does not mean there are no status differences, but it does mean that there is an equally strong discourse or rhetoric on brotherhood. In this context, it becomes far more useful to think in terms of McKim Marriot or Valentine Daniel’s work on qualities.
Victoria Sheldon: Your work on Islamic reform has demonstrated how public articulations of Islamic ethics among Muslim entrepreneurs in India and the Persian Gulf facilitate neoliberal projects, while also setting moral limits on its pursuit. How does attending to the interplay between political projects and the making of ethical selfhoods help us to better understand the role of religion in shaping modalities of moral reasoning, political representations, and economic orientations?
Filippo Osella: The relation between religiosity, religious tradition, and political practice in a place like Kerala is both under your nose and yet at the same time contradictory. To an extent, everyday politics has always been a part of my research but was never something that I researched directly. I have been far more interested in looking at the relationship between religiosity and economic practice rather than politics. There are different levels to the correspondence between religiosity and political practices. For instance, in Kerala, you would have communist Muslims for whom religiosity is not part of their understanding of themselves and their politics. But in other contexts, it does become relevant. For instance, the Muslim League is a political party that represents Muslims, but it is not a religious organization. It clearly operates within Kerala secular politics. Now this at times becomes controversial. For instance, there are certain religious organizations such as Jamat Islam which now have constituted some political formations around ideals of religious reform. This is partly as a response to a criticism of Muslim League politics to which they said: “these are not Muslim politics, these are politics for Muslims, and these are different from what we want.”
While there are no direct relations between religiosity and politics, there has been a process of ethicalization of everyday politics in Kerala. It has taken the shape of discourses against political corruption, and also discourse about activist engagement with environmental issues. It has also had effects on public morality, at times in a very conservative way. So, the ethicalization of politics can go both ways – it is not something which necessarily leads to progressive politics.
Victoria Sheldon: You have written extensively on the role of migration in the constitution and reproduction of modern subjectivities in South Asia. Recently, you have shown how Malayali migrants in Gulf countries have become objects of “moral panic,” involving interventions by State and welfare organizations. In your work, how are discourses of moral transgression informed by class, caste and community perspectives?
Filippo Osella: Kerala is a state in which on the one hand there has always been a progressive politics since the 1940s if not earlier and yet, it has also been an extremely conservative state with reference to morality. One has to think with reference to gender and sexuality to understand how it is a very conservative state. Historically, this has not always been the case. There have been moments in which people could be freer to experiment in different social and gender positions, as well as intimate relations. I think to a large extent Kerala has not been so much different from the rest of India, where there has been a tension between modernization and modernity on the one hand, and social and moral conservativism on the other, with these two things work alongside each other.
As well, there is a definite connection between social mobility and the degree of moral and social conservativism. This is not necessarily only about gender. Within different communities, there are different registers of public and private morality. In public discourse, Muslims are framed as more conservative than other communities. However, it depends on a lot of factors, such as urban/rural differences, educational differences, and class difference. In Kerala, these are perhaps more relevant differences than religion or religiosity. Right across different communities, there are attempts to constitute a process of ethnical renewal on the basis of moralization of public and private life. This has involved a substantial double standard in terms of what it refers to for women and for men.
Victoria Sheldon: You have researched transformations of Islamic charity in both Kerala and in Colombo, Sri Lanka. How does these local contexts – with different historical configurations of caste status, kinship relations and political patronage – demonstrate the heterogeneity of gift practices and religious subjectivity?
Filippo Osella: There are similarities and differences between these local contexts. I do think that there is a pan South Asian understanding of giving and receiving is a very powerful event that not only reinforces social relations but can also undermine relations.
Of course, there are also big differences between different religious traditions, and that for me was very interesting for two reasons. One reason is that by looking at Islamic forms of charitable giving such as zakat, one is forced to look for debates and comparative material outside of south India. That is very important because as a South Asianist, I am always drawn towards the old issue that South Asia is seen to have a level of complexity that can only be understood with reference to itself. By looking at Islamic Charity, I was forced to look at similar practices elsewhere in the Muslim world. I realized that debates in Kerala or Sri Lanka are taking place elsewhere in the Muslim world. For instance, the issue whether Muslim charity should be given as an individual act; whether charitable resources should be pooled together through an organization; whether it is something that constitutes a particular relationship with the recipient; and whether it involves an obligation to transform the lives of the recipient. These wider debates are not just taking place within South Asia, so explanations cannot just involve reference to particular regional histories. Rather, one has to think about the wider debates and about the separation of religious ideas over time.
Having said that, a second reason is that in Kerala and Sri Lanka, different communities exist among each other within the field of secular politics. Because of this context, I have been forced to do something different: to avoid trying to understand Muslim charity as something that can be related only to practices within Muslim communities. For example, drawing on Saba Mahmood may predominantly frame charity as a form of piety emerging within the context of a particular religious tradition. In the case of complex situations like Kerala, where you have Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as a strong tradition of secular political activism, I was forced to look at the way in which ideas about religious and philanthropic giving circulate and constitute interconnections between communities. That is particularly true not only with charity, but also with instances with social activism and voluntarism.
Victoria Sheldon: To clarify, rather than prioritizing Islamic categories such as piety, it is important to also focus on how acts of charity are connected to local economies and religious heterogeneity?
Filippo Osella: What I am saying is that if charity might be understood as an act of piety that works towards the constitution of pious subjects, the way in which it works in a place like Kerala might be expressed through means that are shared with the practices of other communities. You engage in acts of giving in a particular way that are shared by particular communities. This occurs within a sort of wider field, in forms which are historically located and not the same every time. For instance, Jamat Islam has a substantial presence in Kerala and has influence well beyond its somewhat limited number of activist-supports. This organization has an approach to social activism on the one hand, and to the use of religious charity for social development on the other hand. This is not very different from Christian or secular organizations which do similar things. What is interesting to me is to look at the circulation of ideas and practices between different contexts and communities, and how they are moving in different historical periods.
Victoria Sheldon: Your upcoming fieldwork in coastal Kerala examines artisanal fishers’ attitudes toward risk, as well as the role of the Catholic Church in supporting their political and social mobilization. In comparison to your previous sites, in what ways do you anticipate the Catholic Church has shaped the contours of the public sphere?
Filippo Osella: This is not the first time that I do research in a Christian context. Although in my first field research, I wrote only about a Hindu community, it was in a village that was split almost equally between Christians and Hindus. There were no Muslims at all. However, the Christians were not Catholics – they were either Syrian Christian or Mar Thoma Christians. Being both a Christian and Hindu village, the big difference was the way in which the Church acts as form of social and political organization as well as providing the context of a support for economic practices and action. And, to a large extent, Christian churches are seen very much by Hindus and Muslims as something to be emulated for the way in which they provide certain guidance and support, which are very common English terms in Kerala. Very often it is said, “well that is why Christians do so much better than everyone else: because as an organization they are told what to do and given guidance.” There is a perception that they have been supported in a very cohesive community, as well as being wealthy and very well educated. To an extent, it might be true.
In contrast, the area in coastal Kerala where I will do research is predominantly Catholic fishers. These are fishers who were converted to Catholicism of a time with Saint Xavier, during the beginning of the Portuguese Colonial Conquest. At this time of the South Kerala kingdom, the Portuguese asked for the freedom to convert fishers in exchange of military and economic support. It was part of an original quest for expansion, and they were given almost complete sovereignty in these areas, effectively constituting a State within a State. They received freedom not only to convert fishers but also to administer the fishers politically, economically, and juridically.
Shifting one-hundred years forward and looking thirty to forty years ago, the Catholic Church has been extremely active in the political life of fishers, representing their interests and mobilizing them through social support, education, and more. Here, the Catholic Church is very much part of the fabric of the everyday. In fact, these coastal communities are constituted around churches and parishes, rather than villages or panchayats. And of course, there are substantial differences according to the religious orders. There is a very strong Jesuit presence and they act independently from the dioceses.
Victoria Sheldon: Recent scholarship on Kerala has interrupted the dominant popular rhetoric of the egalitarian “Kerala Model” of Development and its celebrations. In this movement away from developmentalist narratives that unquestioningly celebrate Kerala’s merits of education, health and religious heterogeneity, perceiving peace in the region, how do you hope emerging research on Kerala will ethnographically re-attend to these topics?
Filippo Osella: I have been very much skeptical about both the Kerala model of development as well as the rhetoric that underpins it. Having said that, Kerala is very different from elsewhere in India. If you think in the field of better education, even among those with limited means, the discussion is not whether to send your daughter to school or not. The discussion is as to where your daughter should go to university and what degree and type of further education she would take. Access to or even the way in which people think about health is very different. Again, there is no issue such as, “my wife is pregnant, should I take her to the doctor or not?” In Kerala, that issue doesn’t exist – one just goes to hospital as health is available.
A revisionist critique of the Kerala Model needs to recognize what has changed in Kerala. There is now the issue of the relationship between what is provided by the State and what is available privately, and who can access one or the other. These changes are not necessarily because of progressive and developmental politics. Migration has had a huge role in shaping Kerala before and after Independence. There was already migration in the 1920s to Ceylon, Malaysia, and to North India, and then migration to Iraq and Kuwait in the 1940s and 50s. After that, there was mass migration to the Gulf. The push for cosmopolitanism here comes from a very conservative society, where you had to go elsewhere to do something with yourself. This movement was influenced by caste hierarchies, untouchability, unapproachability, and a very conservative joint family system. And of course, education becomes a value in that because it is what enables you to take on migration and mobility.
What we have suffered for a long time in Kerala Studies is a lack of both historical and sociological research, compared to other states. This is problematic because as you do research, you lack comparative angles. You have very little to build onto. As a result, a lot of existing research becomes self-referential. So, the more the merrier in the case of research on Kerala.
However, it is already different from twenty years ago. Research is not any longer overdetermined by political scientists writing about the communist party, development scientists looking one way or the other to developmental projects of Kerala, or demographers looking at migration. What is perhaps lacking still is more accurate and substantial historical studies. There are very strong political or community narratives within historiography on Kerala. Political perspectives have become something that one has to acknowledge right at the beginning of a text, to stand and acknowledge your traditions. For example, classically, in the first two pages of a PhD or book, Muslim historians and sociologists have had to declare whether they are a reformist or an orthodox, and what follows is very much in that direction. This has changed substantially. There is a large number of very exciting junior historians and sociologists who are far more interested in novel scholarship than simply replicating what has been done for fear of displeasing patrons.
Victoria Sheldon: Going back to the Entangled Worlds project’s focus on “sovereignties, sanctities and soil” – how do you perceive your upcoming research will speak about the relationships between sovereignty and governance within everyday projects of self-fashioning?
Filippo Osella: There are many different strands to consider when thinking about Catholic fisherman. There is the relationship with the State, which is controversial, partly because they are stereotyped negatively as people who are ignorant, violent, drunkards and all that. The State has a repressive role, often cut off from main developmental interventions. And whatever happens is never done in consultation with fishers because they are seen as beyond repair.
Also, there is a controversial relationship with fishers’ organizations, which are made for fishers and by fishers. These organizations have as many detractors as they have supporters. And it is very much Catholic dominated – Hindu and Muslim fishers seem to be cut out of all of that. There is also the relationship with the Catholic Church and its hierarchies, as well as the cult of powerful saints. These saints don’t necessary map out with Church hierarchy, producing different types of allegiances and sovereignties.
Then, there is another layer: the relationship with the sea, which is something that I have to think far more about. I was speaking with a colleague and friend at Waterloo University a few days back, Götz Hoeppe, who does research with fishers in northern Kerala. He explained that when fishers think about fish in the sea, they don’t think of it as something that can be counted. Even when fish are in the boat, it is uncountable. The relationship with the sea also is associated with a degree of freedom. Fishers have hierarchies, but there is an extent to which relationships among fishers are less hierarchical. These artisanal fishing boats are powered by engines, three to four people on board, sometimes five. People choose not day-by-day but week-by-week who to fish with. Without romanticizing non-capitalist relationships, there seems to be something about the relationship to the sea, and how one depends on each other while on sea. The sea is also something which is utterly frightening as well. It is a site of possible terror.
Victoria Sheldon: It sounds like a sense of risk is shared between fishers.
Filippo Osella: I do not know enough right now, but yes, people are collectively frightened. You go to sea during monsoon and there will be four-meter high waves. Forty to fifty kilometre per hour winds, strong currents, thunderstorms, and sudden fog. We have collected many interviews from people who were affected by the cyclone Ockhi. They were shipwrecked and spent two days holding onto plastic containers in the middle of the ocean – how terrifying is that? You are there on your own, in the middle of the night, and you still find the wherewithal to keep it together and stay alive to be rescued. It is lovely to be at sea with your friends and all that, but there is risk and fear, and that is why you drink. In terms of the State, the Church and the sea, there are indeed complex relations to multiple forms of sovereignty.
Victoria Sheldon: Thank you for sharing your insights. I look forward to reading more of your work soon.