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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 8 February 24, 2024

Sunabohu: Ethnographic study of Karan; Construction of a Political Community | Radhakanta Barik

Saturday 24 February 2024, by Radhakanta Barik


(Suna Bohu a political story written by Fakirmohan Senapati. The Karan coming from outside rose to power in colonial times. Their education shaped their community. Karan turned into a political community and captured politics of Odisha till today.)


Fakirmohan Senapati’s story Sunabohu needs to be placed in the context of sociology of its time. The story’s centres around the Karan caste. The ethnographic background of Karan is found by Malley’s District Gazetteers of Balesore. (Malley , 2015 P18) All the castes have origin in tribes India except Karan and Brahmins. These two castes have come from outside.

Karan is found in Bihar besides the Kayastha. It creates a sociological meaning. That they have migrated from Bihar who is shrewd and intelligent enjoying clerical works. There is another dimension to it that Karans hail from Karnataka and came to Odisha and Bihar. But they came from outside which is clear. With the temple construction of Jagannatha hailed the Karans from South posted as Karani as the record keepers.

Karans worked as the gumasthas in the houses of Landlords. This explains they knew the local language and arithmetic to keep the records. They work in the houses of landlords involving themselves in transactions with the tenants. They are experts in manipulating the records against the tenants who turn angry over their behaviour before Independence and there were a large number of clashes with them and in some places there were violent attacks over them.

With the spread of English education in odisha they were the first one to have an access to education.

They had an access to their leader’s residence. Madhusudan Das’s home was open to these students, He patronised them.Mahtab’s autobiography explains it. (Mahtab1972 p22) This helped them to have college education and moved to state sector for jobs. Records telling that from 1920 to 1929 only those who got educated from Ravenshaw College belonged to two castes Brahmins and Karans. Madhusudan Das’s personal opinion over each graduate got required by the colonial officials for making them Sub Collectors. That transformed them into an administrative class of people of Odisha.

Blending of tradition and modernity:

Karan as a community has blended both tradition and modernity. In their tradition they worship ’ Lekhan’ or pen made of steel working over the palm leaf. With the coming of Bhagvat as a popular medieval text they accepted it and kept side by side of the lekhan and offer the puja. Pen and text both bring them to look outward and inward. With the coming of English education they went wholeheartedly to schools and colleges. Many of the families came down to city to stay in a hired place to educate their children. They accepted Shakespeare the same way as they accepted the text of Bhagvat written by a reformist Brahmin Jagannatha Das.

The Text and its social meaning:

Let us do synchronic study of the first paragraph of the story Suna Bohu: "Ramhari Patnaik was the police Inspector. In the Salepur region he is a popular person. Whenever people face problems they visit him to take his advice for a solution. The whole Panchayat looks at him and waits for his coming to the village. They invite him to be present in finding a solution to a dispute.” P76They work in the city but keep a close association with their village and they involve in the public affairs of the locality. Their linkage with village being urbanized creates a story within a story. They have land and jobs. They work in both the city and village as active citizens. This paragraph needs a diachronic study of the paragraph that their involvement in rural affairs and urban affairs build their capacity to solve the problems. This is the structure of modern elite who dominate Odisha politics during 1920s at the time of Non Cooperation movement which continued till today. This explains the domination of Karan in Odisha politics and in economy. Karans play a definite role in politics which started with the noncooperation movement. They started resigning from their jobs and leaving the schools and colleges;they took a brave decision to leave the schools and colleges. They fell back on their land as they were the land owning community. In contrast to Kayastha community in Bihar where the community does not take risk as told to me by the leading historian Gyan Prakash. While going to schools and colleges they are advised by the parents not to talk to anyone and not to participate in any political meeting. After reaching their homes the first question to them by their mothers that Have you talked to anyone or participated in any meeting? This brings them to remind them to live in your own cocoons. As a teacher in School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi I find the students belonging to Kayastha refuse to talk to girls as this may disturb their studies. Many women class mates of them tell me in class room. Karans of Odisha can be compared with the Kayasth community of Bengal but it is a stratified community where there is aristocracy or Kulin in their community which is absent in Karan of Odisha. (Pagani Lucy 2017) Although Patnaiks of the Karan look down at Geta Mohanty.

Social Function of Politics:

Social function of politics is to negotiate among diverse social groups. Karan having one leg in rural countryside and the other leg in the city turn into a powerful agency. A land owning community having hold in police administration and court system played a decisive role. People need someone to approach the police station as they have fear of the police men. The second one they have disputes over the land which need to be tackled in the court. As they work as police men and lawyers provide such help which shape themselves as proto politicians. They need to spend some money for these clients which they have and they are interested to spend. They need space for allowing these people to sit which they have. They have baithik khana in the front of their house which provides for waiting space for visitors. In other communities the front room is usually meant for cows and bullocks. As Karans do not have interest in livestock economy they have enough space for the outsiders.

They have land but they do not get engaged in cultivation. They either lease out their land. Those having more land they keep people to manage the farm. Both ways they do not spend time and energy over agricultural operations. Their courtyard remains clean and their women do not involve in these activities. One third of activities related to farming get handled by women in their courtyard. The farmers’ courtyard turns into an extension of the farming activities. Their women get engaged in taking care of livestock. Both these absent which give leisure for their women to take care of the family needs such as cooking and reading books. Their women get literate to read out these books. Some of the leading women writers come from this community. Perhaps, literate gets defined as those who can read out the Bhagvat have come from this community.

Locational advantage:

Karans concentrate in the big villages. These villages are having limited market facilities. These villages have primary schools and very often have middle schools during the first District Board authority in 1919 local self-government. Their children with others got opportunity to study up to the middle schools. After passing out the middle schools they sent their children to cities for the High schools.

After the 1866 famine two things happened that there was provision of the irrigation facilities and embankment for flood protection which benefited them. During 1920s large number of children belonging to two communities like Karan and Brahmin went to the cities for studying in High schools and some went for the college education. On patch from Cuttack to Patamundai which turned for education as they had surplus from the irrigated zone. The other Zone came from Cuttack to Machhagaun where these families belonging to both the communities went for higher studies. The face of these two communities got transformed into educated ones. The Salepore Pragana benefited from three things: one irrigation and neighbouring of Cuttack city. The third some leading persons of Cuttack city belong to the place. Location of Ramhari’s village Gopinathpur. Salepore is across the river Mahanadi.

Involvement of parents in their education:

There is an intense desire on the parts of parents to educate their children in these communities . After death of Ramhari Patnaik the main earner did not dishearten his wife. She decided to educate his son by selling her ornaments. According to his mother: “Let Sibu learn alphabets, once human body holds the educational qualification then much ornaments can be bought.”(p77) Her daughter Champa learnt the ABC which made her reading the texts like Kripasindhu Badan and other poetic texts.”With passing out High school her son Sibu got the job in the Sadar Court as a clerk . “Daughter reads out these texts to her mother while brother goes to office. “ p77It is education transformed the community into an urban based people. They turned into forward looking people.

Their children take the image of Madhusudan Das as their ideal that a popular song gets recited by them. “ Path Padhibi , Goda Chadibi, Madhubabunka Sange ladhibi” ( I will read and ride the horse and fight with Madhusudan Das” That to be lawyer like Mr Das turned into an ideal. Most of the lawyers hail from this community before Independence. Das turning into leader of the community and he belongs to Salepore region which make young people of the region look at him. Das with his income as lawyer turned into landlord of five hundred acres at Chatia not far off Salepore and turned into an industrialist. Many Gumastas with knowledge of land laws of colonial state and its loopholes rose to be owners of small estates. Despite they gave priority to education. Small landlords belonging to the community turned into active players of the national movement.

Marriage system:

Marriage in Karan community is exogamous which brings in establishing long distance relationship. As the community is scattered over the state and in various market centres. There is a proverb regarding the marriage of daughter in Karan community that a girl once married then one hears the death of the girl. Lack of communication leads to such a pathetic situation. “Daughter is taken by the son in law , equivalent to Yama taking her” p78 Girl’s mother does not follow such a path and she wants it should be held in such a place that she can see her whenever she likes.

It is interesting to note here that Ramhari Patnaik and his village friend Nabaghan Das both working in Police and turned into friends. They wanted to have friendship turned into a permanent relationship. Their wives used to be friends and they spend a lot of time together while taking bath in pond. This is the place women meet and discuss various issues in a patriarchal society. On Dola Purnima both of them share a special bond known as boula (mango flower) which is symbolic in fictive relationship. As a young they decided to give their son or daughter to each other for keeping the bond. This worked out once their son and daughter turn into adults. Nabaghan Das’s son Divakar is “an ablest youth as he knows some English words.” p78 He works as a gumasta in the Zamindar’s place of Kakatpur.

Relevance of woman diplomat in the village:

In a patriarchal society no diplomacy except a rare elderly woman turns into a diplomat. Whenever a family faces a difficult situation they take her advice. She is a self-less woman. She moves among women easily. She is an intelligent woman to solve the problems. She helps here in fixing the marriage of Ramhari’s daughter with son of Nabaghan. She uses her diplomacy in settling disputes between mother in law and daughter in law.

Mother in law and Daughter in law conflict:

Kinship in Hindu society is highly patriarchal as women do not inherit property. Their property is their sons. They are highly protective of their sons. They apprehend of their daughter in law who may create problems for their security. But this relationship varies from community to community. In the cultivating castes daughter in laws are forced to drink water touched by the toes of their mother in law. This obnoxious ritual is quiet widespread. But in Karan community it does not exist. But as they do not cultivate their own land and they depend on earnings of their sons. Daughter in laws are not earning members. But in all families mother in law plays dominant role and she desires to have a subordinate daughter in law. Mother in law –daughter in law relationship turn into a relationship between a dominant and subordinate relation. As tradition gives backing to the mother in law to dictate the terms and puts conditions of relationship. She is backed by the family members and power of the wealth. Daughter in law a new comer does not have any thing with her but except she is married to their son. It takes time to understand the grammar of her mother in law’s family and their social behavior. Once she adjusts to the new environment she starts dictating the terms to some extent holding her subordinate position.

With the coming of dowry system between two families, the relationship between mother in law and daughter in law further gets vitiated. It is the language of money speaking where greed and avarice work now. It started after 1970 when technical education started and the engineers and doctors started earning more money than the general graduates. They started demanding dowry and non payment of the amount agreed create conflict between two families. Mother in law uses her power to grumble in front of her daughter in law reminding her and her family regarding the payment; this vitiated the human relationship between mother in law and daughter in law. Here her son Sibu a clerk does not demand dowry. During the 1970s a popular hit song of Akshay Mohanty tells: A clerk in Secretariat demands a motorcycle. Many girls cannot pay dowry remain unmarried.

This is a threat to girl child. Discrimination against the girl child is an organized activity in Odisha. Girl child in proportion to male child has declined. It is violence all around where the society is guilt. Sex Ratio in Orissa is 979 i.e. for each 1000 male, which is below national average of 940 as per latest census. In 2001, the sex ratio of female was 972 per 1000 males in Orissa.

In this story Suna bohu Senapati uses a narrative where he looks at the man woman relationship in an interesting way. The mother in law desires to have an additional labour from her daughter in law but she is not ready to work. In normal peasant society a woman is an additional hand but in Karan family she works in the house hold activities. As they have employed an outsider to work for cleaning the utensils and sweeping the floor then the work is sharing the cooking for a small family. She does not do the work as she feels that her husband is the earning member and she does not have to do the work and other members specifically mother in law is supposed to do the work.

In the story there is a simulated model where sister in law and her own husband conspired together against the concerned woman that her brother is going to have a second marriage which threatens the position of woman. She agreed to concede to their demand that she is going to work as a partner with her mother in law in various household activities. In conclusion that mother in law by winning the battle has pronounced that her daughter in law is Suna bohu. Here stronger brides get incorporated into joint family. (Penny Vera- Sanso 1995)With education the Karan family has capacity to solve the problems which happened here. In many cases the daughter in law makes a point that her husband moves out of the house for her comfort to create a separate nucleus family where both of them stay without mother in law. (Hye Kim1996 ) The joint family gets broken to nucleus family.


  • Senapati F 2020 “Suna Bohu” (ed) Kailash Patttnaik , Fakirmohan Granthabali: Galpamala, Friends’ Publishers, Cuttack
  • Myung –Hye Kim 1996 “ Changing Relationships between Daughter in law and Mother in law urban South Korea, Anthropological Quarterly, 1October
  • Penny Vera- Sanso 1995 “ Dominant Daughters in Law and Submissive Mother in Law? Cooperation and Conflict in South India, Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 5,No4 December.
  • Pagani Lucy , Sarmila Bose, Qasim Ayub, Chris Tytler- Smith , 2017” Kayasthas of Bengal, Legends, Genealogies and Genetics” In Economic and Political Weekly,Vol. 52 , Issue No 47No27
  • Mahtab, H 1972 Sadhanara Pathe, Cuttack Students’ Store, Cuttack , College life
  • LSS O’ Malley, 2015 Bengal District Gazetteers ,Balasore, Logos Press, New Delhi
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