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The Jajmani System - A Sruti Report

SRUTI | |

This paper discusses the jajmani system, the centuries-old system in which manufacturing activity in rural India was done exclusively by hereditary artisanal castes bound to the dominant agricultural castes by traditional ties. It also explores the changes and adaptations this system has undergone in more contemporary and 'non-traditional' contexts, especially involving monetisation. According to the SRUTI survey, 'a watered-down version of the jajmani system still exists.'

For centuries, manufacturing activity in rural India has been done exclusively by hereditary artisanal castes bound to the dominant agricultural castes by traditional ties. Known as the jajmani system, this reciprocal arrangement existed through the sub-continent, through it was more clearly articulated in some areas such as Maharashtra than in others, such as Bengal. An important economic rationale for the prevalence of the jajmani system seems to have been the security it provided during times of scarcity, especially the recurrent famines: "those who, like the weavers in the Surat area during the 1630's famine, left the relatively secure shelter of the rural community to produce more gainfully for the market, were among the first to die of starvation whenever food became scarce."

The jajmani was fairly flexible, in that it combined features of subsistence and commodity production. Based on studies of nineteenth century Maharashtra and Gujarat, scholars "came to the conclusion that in the jajmani system were included mainly those kinds of work of the community artisans which were directly complementary to agricultural production." But other goods were produced by the same artisans for a separate piece payment.

Although greatly eroded through the operation of a monetised economy, a watered-down version of the jajmani system still exists. The SRUTI survey revealed that many artisans, particularly potters, cane and bamboo workers, blacksmiths and wood workers, still retained ties with their traditional jajmans, or patrons. But a number of them resented the peripheral obligations that they had to discharge vis--vis the jajmans. Some of them also felt that the jajmani system had no place in a monetised economy, where cash is required to meet everyday requirements of shelter, clothing, food and consumer durables.



The jajmani system is a reciprocal arrangement between artisanal castes and the wider village community, for the supply of goods and services. Even though the system probably came into existence in the first or second century A.D., the term 'jajmani' was coined during the British period. The jajmani system derived its philosophical and religious sanction from the Laws of Manu, which defined and governed social and economic behaviour of Hindus through the institution of caste. The caste system was based on a vertical structure, in which the occupational functions for each caste and sub-caste were defined. The upper castes, or dvija (twice-born) castes, were forbidden from practising certain occupations. These occupations, which included a number of essential production functions and services, were assigned to the lower castes and outcastes. Social intercourse of various types, including marriage, between the upper and lower castes was also taboo. Within the jajmani system, the lower castes produced goods for, and provided services to, the upper castes, in return for a fixed payment. Those who provided the services or goods were the purjans, and their patrons, the jajmans. The purjans clientele became their jajmani. Typically, the purjans included the cultivators, carpenters, metal workers, barbers, shepherds, grain parchers, tailors, potters, weavers and oil pressers (all Sudras), and the washermen, mat-makers, leather workers, sweepers and cesspool cleaners (all outcastes). In addition to fixed payments in kind, the purjans, while Kshatriyas were to protection. Thus, there was some element of reciprocity, through it was clearly unbalanced. The concessions usually took the form of free access to various resources including residence sites, food, clothing, fodder for animals, timber, dung, rent-free land, credit facilities, tools, hides and other raw materials. Since the Brahmins and Kshatriyas were also landowners, in practice, the jajmani system provided them with a stable supply of labour. As the mobility of the villagers was limited, the system acquired a hereditary character.

Pocock makes a distinction between services of a rituals/religious nature and those which could be coded as properly artisanal. In the first, compensation followed certain norms and traditions. In the second, the modicum of compensation had to take into account factors like availability and price of raw material, and cost of design development and product innovation.

Even though the jajmani system was widely prevalent in the subcontinent, detailed records are available only of the form which it assumed in Maharashtra. Here, the term bara (twelve) balutedar was used to refer to village artisanal and service groups. These included the carpenter, blacksmith, potter, leather worker, rope maker, barber, waterman, astrologer, and watchman form the Mahar (an untouchable caste) community. Apart from these ten, according to regional requirement, an additional two would be chosen from among the goldsmiths, bards, butchers, and carriers of load. Occasionally, in larger villages, there could be an additional grouping called alutedars. These included the priest, tailor, water-carrier, gardener, drum-beater, vocalist, musician, oil-presser, betel-leaf seller, watchman (other than Mahar), bearer of burdens, goldsmith or bard. Weavers and dyers were not included.

Balutedars, and perhaps, also the alutedars, were divided into two classes: watandar and upari. Watandars were those who enjoyed the permanent right to work, known as watan, and to receive remuneration in the village. It was heritable and saleable. The village could grant rent-free plots of land to watandar balutedars. Uparis were landless tenants, and enjoyed no such rights. However, they could become watandars when they bought the watan from its former incumbent. The balutedars were not employed by particular families, but by the village as a whole. Artisans were provided with the necessary raw material and received regular payment, balute, from all the villagers. The amount was usually fixed in kind per watan, and paid twice a year.

Records show that in a western Deccan village, towards the end of the 18th century, the amount paid in cash for the potter was five rupees per annum per watan, the same as that for the blacksmith, but half that for the carpenter. These variations depended more on the importance of the service, rather than the ritual status of the artisan. In addition, they were entitled to a customary share of offerings made to village temples during festivals, and many of them held plots of inam, or rent-free lands. The productive activity of these artisans was not projected towards commodity production on competitive lines, but towards maintaining the community life of the village as a whole. In times of scarcity, it provided a buffer, absent in the case of cash transactions between producer and consumer.

Watandars could sell their watan to fellow caste members and move elsewhere. Since they were also free to work for nearby markets in their spare time, this posed a threat to jajmani system. In fact, by the time of the Mughal rule, certain rural artisans, over and above what they made for their jajmans, had begun making goods for the market. Major disintegrating forces developed during the British colonial period, in the form of better communications, competition from industrially manufactured goods, and the introduction of new civil laws. But the jajmani system weathered many of these changes, and still operates in parts of the country.

CATEGORIES: Hereditary Artisanal Systems; Traditional Systems of Production; Traditional Systems of Manufacturing Activity

KEYWORDS: Jajmani System, Hereditary, Artisanal System, Production System, Manufacturing System, Artisanal Production



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