[Extract] It is not the aim of this paper to decide whether “the gap between untouchables and non-untouchables has been reduced” (Deliège 1996: 69), or not. Rather, my aim is to suggest that studies of the current breakdown of caste prerogatives in Tamilnadu suffer from an inadequate conception of culture as something that has no tract, no compass, no gravitas—even no meaning. The lack of elaboration of cultural (as opposed to social, economic, or political) categories is evidenced in the lack of interest in the changing ritual practices that have resulted from Tamil untouchables’ new roles and relationships with the other castes. It is as if the untouchables had never had a part in Hindu rituals, a conjecture that would suit those who question the claims of Louis Dumont (1980) and Michael Moffatt (1979) that there is a pervasive “cultural consensus” between all groups in Hindu caste society. And yet, even if, as Kapadia claims, untouchables “have always interpreted their own identities differently from the way in which the upper castes have constructed them” (1995: 7), they nonetheless have served as drummers, singers, and dancers at village festivals and rites of passage such as funerals. In other words, they have played an important symbolic and performative role in Hindu ritual culture. The question, then, is what happens to ritual when untouchables abandon their “traditional” duties? This paper is concerned largely with answering this question, focusing on some of the changes that have recently occurred at Tamil funerals.
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