From the Field: Notes from a Qasba

-Contributed by Ann Grodzins Gold, Professor of Religion and Anthropology

As a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad fellow this academic year, I am approximately four months into an eleven month project in the provincial town of Jahazpur, District Bhilwara, Rajasthan. I have worked periodically in Rajasthan as a cultural anthropologist for over thirty years, always returning to a single village, Ghatiyali. There I studied religion, local history, folklore, environmental knowledge, gender roles and a lot more. Jahazpur —where my husband and I settled on August 5, 2010—is a qasba, neatly defined as a place which is "smaller than a city but bigger than a village. “ Exactly! In 2007, my close friend and research associate, Bhoju Ram Gujar, bought a house in Jahazpur's slightly suburban area, Santosh Nagar. During the last twenty years families such as Bhoju's moving in from nearby villages, and many others moving out from Jahazpur's congested center, settled in Santosh Nagar. On summer visits to Bhoju's home, I found myself attracted to Jahazpur: its rich legends and deep history; its storied landscape and cordial populace whose qasba lives offer a fascinating blend of cosmopolitanism and rurality.A liminal Spectator at Gaji Pir's Urs, Ann Stands between the women and the ever-present police

The municipality of Jahazpur is the administrative center of a sub-district (tehsīl), with numerous government offices, and a hospital. It is thus a regional hub for services unavailable in villages. Jahazpur's extensive and bustling market attracts shoppers from surrounding rural areas who come to purchase cloth and ready-made clothing, utensils, medicines, electronic goods, jewelry, cosmetics, staple groceries and much more. The produce market at the bus stand begins each morning with a lively auction of bulk fruits and vegetables from the countryside which individual vendors purchase. As far as I know, this lucrative endeavor —the brainchild of entrepreneurial ex-butchers — operates every day of the year, testimony to the priorities of commerce.

I am only 28 kilometers from familiar territory, but many aspects of life in Jahazpur —such as the availability of fruit which even today is missing in Ghatiyali —are entirely new for me. In Jahazpur, I keep my fridge stocked with papayas. Yes, my fridge! For me, this too is unprecedented. Although the power does go off anywhere between 5 to 10 times a day, and stays off from 15 minutes to several hours, it is far more reliable than village electricity; in my entire time here I have not once seen a serious outage after nightfall. Informally, fieldwork is nothing but life itself: laundry, cooking, shopping, complaints about the weather, juicy gossip. Lately, I have found myself sucked into one of the TV serials that Bhoju's daughters find irresistible—revolving around a spectacularly cruel mother-in-law's dark plots.

My formal research has taken two main forms: recorded interviews and participation in public events. I continue to work with Bhoju, a middle-school headmaster in his early fifties, who leads me to male and senior persons including temple priests, retired educators, shopkeepers, journalists, and those involved in community leadership. From them I have learned a great deal about local history, geography, politics and business. Bhoju's 23- year-old daughter Madhu, who has almost completed her teacher training, introduces me to young women, mostly our neighbors. Many of them, like Madhu, belong to the first generation of educated females in their families. From them I learn about the aspirations and tribulations of youth—working incredibly hard to succeed (against the odds) in the competitive examination system that can lead to desired, secure salaried jobs.

Interviews give individual perspectives. Public events both religious and social—in which Jahazpurites invest significant resources—show me society's collective faces. Since our arrival there has truly not been a dull moment. I have observed religious celebrations including Hindu, Muslim and Jain processions, rituals and fairs; and secular programs including Independence Day and victory parades after the local election. All such events are compelling and photogenic. I am probably the only person in Jahazpur to attend them all, except for the ever-present policemen who have begun to acknowledge with smiles our frequent proximity.

The most recent public event I followed concluded the day before I sat down to compose these notes. This was the three day 'Urs of Jahazpur's important Muslim saint, Gaji Pir. Gaji's 'Urs included a fair in the streets at the foot of his hilltop shrine; two imported urban qavali groups; the ceremonial procession and offering of gorgeous coverlets for the saint's tomb; gripping displays by malang -- Muslim ascetics from eastern U.P. who appear to pierce their eyes, cheeks and tongues with swords and skewers. Concerned for my sensibilities, kind local men assured me that these performers were artists of illusion. The closing prayers at Gaji's shrine included a request for his blessings to Hindus as well as Muslims, and an exuberant, liberal sprinkling of the happy crowd with fragrant rosewater.

As you can tell, I like it here. See you all in Fall ‘11.