I am from Kammari Jati…we were Mudda Kammaris. Now we don’t do that work so we only do Kammar-pani (blacksmithing). We’re also Viswabrahmin caste. we are BCB (Backward Classes Category B)–Kammari, Kanchari (bronzesmith), Ausala (goldsmith/silversmith), wadla (carpenters) and the stone workers.
The above quote by Desaradi Bakkaiah (pseudonym), the son of an iron-smelter-turned-village blacksmith, represents the complex (and often confusing) layers of identity of the iron-workers in present-day northern Telangana. Although the iron-smelters of northern Telangana I met during my Ph.D. fieldwork suggested that they belong to the Kammari (village blacksmith) community, which in-turn was a “sub-caste” of the Viswabrahmin caste, their claims to a mainstream Kammari identity was often disputed by the traditional village blacksmiths of the area.
Kammari is a generic term for blacksmith in Telugu and many other Indian languages. However, to the Telangana blacksmiths, the term Kammari has a far deeper social meaning attached to it. As a stand-alone term, Kammariconnotes the families of rural blacksmiths who traditionally forged agricultural implements for the peasant families of their village. The farmer families that they served for generations pay them a share of their harvest, the amount of which is fixed by age-old cultural conventions for each village. It is crucial for the Kammari to function efficiently in this traditional prestation system of exchange. The Kammari are required to abstain from producing for the village or urban markets. Cash transactions are perceived as unclean and are avoided when possible.Various terms are traditionally prefixed with Kammari to distinguish between groups of iron-workers involved in other kinds of specialized production and economic networks. Hence, the iron-smelters are known as Mudda Kammari. The prefix Mudda literally means lump, and possibly indicated the iron-bloom obtained after smelting the iron ore. Their work is perceived as unclean by the Kammari, since they worked in the heat to smelt iron from “dirt” and sold the bloom for money to the Sahukar or middle-men. A similar account coming from north Karnataka (then in Hyderabad State) can be identified in Thurston and Rangachari’s Castes and Tribes of Southern India(1975:Vol III). In this colonial-style ethnographic encyclopedia of South Indian communities Thurston and Rangachari recorded a group of iron-smelters in the Bellary region of northern Karnataka, who were known as Baita Kammari. Baita literally means “outsider”, and in this account Thurston and Rangachari noted:
“The term Baita Kammara, meaning outside blacksmiths, is applied to Kamsala [the group of five crafts] blacksmiths who occupy a lowly position and work in the open air outside the village.”
(Thurston and Rangachari 1975:III-141)
The prevalence of the practice of endogamy among the Mudda Kammaribecomes extremely apparent after inputting the collected genealogical data on to a genealogy software. The resulting genealogy tree that runs over several pages suggest that each and every individual in the last 4 generations among these 15 families, were related to one another through some or other form of kinship. Marriages outside these 15 family groups have only become more common in the present generation as the Mudda Kammari lost their distinct identity owing to the decline of iron-smelting.
HOMOGENIZATION OF CRAFT AND IDENTITIES
The Mudda Kammari identity was dependent on the existence of iron-smelting. However, iron-smelting in northern Telangana started to decline steadily since the late 19th century. There were two reasons: first, the imposition of Forest Regulations under the Nizam’s Government, first in Karimnagar and then in Adilabad district in the late 1890s. This compelled the itinerant Mudda Kammari community to settle down in the villages, often near the iron-ore sources. However, since their mobility along the landscape and the forest began to be strictly monitored by these new laws, this meant that these family groups could only exploit ore and charcoal sources close to the villages they had settled in. This led to the over-utilization of accessible resources, ultimately resulting in the exhausting of these sources.
Secondly, as has been cited many times in academic literature on South Asia and elsewhere, the decline of traditional village industries was brought about by an overwhelming influx of mass-produced goods from the west. Pre-industrial Iron-smelting in northern Telangana, and elsewhere in India rapidly died out at the face of this unequal competition with the import of industrial cast-iron from Britain, and later, with the establishment of the Tata Steel. The last collective living memory of bloomery iron-smelting in my study area comes from the early 1940s.
The decline in iron-smelting forced the Mudda Kammari to seek work as traditional Kammari and function within the strict norms of the traditional prestation system. The prestation system was not new to the Mudda Kammari as their memory suggest that apart for selling the blooms they produced for cash to the middle-men, they also worked as part-time blacksmiths within the prestation system in several villages. The major problem that they faced having to turn into full-time Kammari was that the Kammari identity itself. The traditional Kammari looked down upon the iron-smelters considering them as impure. The Mudda Kammari therefore were forced by the circumstances to cover their Mudda Kammari identity up and perform a ritually pure Kammari identity. This was achieved by adopting the tradition of wearing sacred thread, like the Kammari, and the four other specialized craft groups who together constitute the Viswabrahmin caste, and more recently by worshipping the cult of Veera Brahmendra Swamy, a 16th-17th century saint who is now widely worshipped by the Viswabrahmins in Telangana, Seemandhra and parts of Karnataka.
The decline in specialized craft production has transformed the identities among the Mudda Kammari northern Telangana. They often identify themselves as Kammari. But often, as in the quotation at the beginning of this post, they sound uncertain. They consciously attempt to justify their claim to Kammariidentity and they eventually they settle on being Viswabrahmin–an even larger umbrella identity. As a result, during the initial stages of the fieldwork, it was not immediately possible to tease out the technologically important distinction between blacksmith and smelter. On every first meeting, the village blacksmiths had unequivocally introduced themselves as Kammari, and said that they belonged to the Viswabrahmin “caste” along with four other artisan groups. There was a conscious attempt to present the egalitarian and homogenized character of the Viswabrahmin community to me—an outsider, who wanted to study the community. The Kammari repeatedly advised me to study the Viswabrahmin “caste” as a whole– as it was not possible to understand the Kammari or Mudda Kammari in isolation. Despite being made to believe that all iron-workers were part of Kammari community, there was visible tension when I wanted to talk about smelting and the group associated with it. As I repeatedly visited the same villages, and became familiar with some my interlocutors, it became possible to gradually peel the layers of homogeneity and unravel the discrete identity of the specialist iron-smelters.
1. This piece is a small portion of the author’s Ph.D. thesis. The information provided here is the intellectual property of the author and requires proper citation.
2. The cover picture has been used with prior consent of the interlocutors in the picture.