Crooked Stalks

Cultivating Virtue in South India

Crooked Stalks

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 33 photographs, 4 maps Published: October 2009

Author: Anand Pandian

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

How do people come to live as they ought to live? Crooked Stalks seeks an answer to this enduring question in diverse practices of cultivation: in the moral horizons of development intervention, in the forms of virtue through which people may work upon their own desires, deeds, and habits, and in the material labors that turn inhabited worlds into environments for both moral and natural growth. Focusing on the colonial subjection and contemporary condition of the Piramalai Kallar caste—classified, condemned, and policed for decades as a “criminal tribe”—Anand Pandian argues that the work of cultivation in all of these senses has been essential to the pursuit of modernity in south India. Colonial engagements with the Kallars in the early twentieth century relied heavily upon agrarian strategies of moral reform, an approach that echoed longstanding imaginations of the rural cultivator as a morally cultivated being in Tamil literary, moral, and religious tradition. These intertwined histories profoundly shape how people of the community struggle with themselves as ethical subjects today.

In vivid, inventive, and engaging prose, Pandian weaves together ethnographic encounters, archival investigations, and elements drawn from Tamil poetry, prose, and popular cinema. Tacking deftly between ploughed soils and plundered orchards, schoolroom lessons and stationhouse registers, household hearths and riverine dams, he reveals moral life in the postcolonial present as a palimpsest of traces inherited from multiple pasts. Pursuing these legacies through the fragmentary play of desire, dream, slander, and counsel, Pandian calls attention not only to the moral potential of ordinary existence, but also to the inescapable force of accident, chance, and failure in the making of ethical lives. Rarely are the moral coordinates of modern power sketched with such intimacy and delicacy.


Crooked Stalks might be read for the sheer lyrical quality of its prose. It draws from two distinct philosophical traditions, and has borrowed from Tamil cinema, something that greatly adds value to a book set in Tamil Nadu, where cinema, ideology and politics have been incestuously bound together in the twentieth century. The book is richly footnoted, comes with a fine glossary and an exhaustive index. It is a product of hard work and has taken good shape in the hands of an anthropologist who has kept his feet on the ground without building an ivory tower of theory and methods around his work.” — R. Venkat Ramanujam Ramani, Book Review

“Anand Pandian’s beautifully written Crooked Stalks is animated by a deep engagement with the moral life of an erstwhile classified, condemned and policed ‘criminal tribe’: the Piramalai Kallars of the Cumbum valley of south India. . . . [R]eading Crooked Stalks filled this reader with both pleasure, as she got a rare and beautifully written insight into the life of a people, as well as a sense of deep foreboding as to the future of marginalized communities in South Asia.” — Annu Jalais, Pacific Affairs

“Anand Pandian’s poetically composed book about the Piranmalai Kallars in the Cumbum Valley in southern Tamil Nadu is a timely addition to this genealogy of theorising. It represents an important intervention that opposes the tendency to prioritise structure, power and interest over considerations of the ethical dimensions of culture in the anthropology of India. This is one of the first analyses of how actors themselves ruminate on an ethical life, firstly by defining how it is that they ought to live and, secondly, by postulating pragmatic means through which to live as they ought to.” — Indira Arumugam, Contemporary South Asia

“Pandian is a virtuous ethnographer, a civil participant in multiple traditions. . . . Pandian’s concerns are profoundly demotic, and as such they constitute a salutary reminder of what, as anthropologists, we might offer to wider conversations about what it is to lead a good life. Because the horizon of improvement is often so important to our interlocutors, it is ethically necessary for us to treat local dreams of development with the dignity they deserve. . . . There should be nothing shocking in such a stirringly anthropological call to arms, but this is but one of many things we always knew but had forgotten until reminded by this supremely thoughtful book.” — Jonathan Spencer, Cultural Anthropology

Crooked Stalks is comprehensive, theoretically-sophisticated, and persuasively argued. Scholars and students interested in South Asian agrarian history, ethics, development issues, and agrarian thought will find this book compelling.” — A. Whitney Sanford, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

“[Crooked Stalks] is a fascinating and insightful study. . . . Its strengths are numer¬ous. . . . [Pandian’s] insistence that the self-awareness of savagery among the Kallar is an instrument of self-transformation is an important extension of Elias’s seminal work on the history of manners.” — Satadru Sen, Environment and History

“Anand Pandian . . . skilfully piece[s] together a coherent, well-grounded, nuanced, and highly relevant work that is, moreover, so well written that you may find yourself wanting to read the book thoroughly and carefully, cover to cover. . . Pandian’s own achievement, in Crooked Stalks, is surely one of the best and most important works on the anthropology of the Tamil people published during the last hundred years, and it certainly will form part of the canon of the subject for decades to come.” — James Frey, Itinerario

“In this elegantly written and beautifully crafted book, Anand Pandian explores the connections between ways of making a living and the ways in which people make themselves as moral beings. . . . Crooked Stalks builds on and extends a rich vein of research on Tamil culture and on the colonial history of India. It is particularly illuminating in regard to the study of colonial governmentality and in general is a first-class study in the anthropology of morality, deserving of a wide readership.” — John Harriss, American Anthropologist

“Overall, Crooked Stalks provides a rich account of the lives of Piramalai Kallars in Tamil Nadu. . . . The subjects of the book are as vivid, lively and dynamic as landscapes, dams, schools, state institutions, parrots, monkeys, oxen, and cows. These lively subjects are examined in the contexts of nature, civility, oppression, colonialism, power, knowledge and hegemony. . . . Let’s hope that the book will be used by scholars, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and students working on colonial south India as a source to understand the power-politics and hegemonic impositions of law and order and civility in India and other post-Colonial lands.” — Vineeth Mathoor, Anthropology Review Database

“Anand Pandian brilliantly explicates the complex linkages between the cultivation and care of the self and the cultivation of the land. I have seen no better illustration of the twin meanings of development as an ethical project and as a socioeconomic one. This ethnographically thick, historically embedded volume will be a major contribution to a range of disciplines including anthropology, history, geography, sociology, development studies, and subaltern studies.” — Akhil Gupta, author of Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India

“The Government of British India, in exercising its imperial obsession to count and classify, created a census category called ‘Criminal Tribes & Castes’ under which it (in)famously included the Kallar of South India, a caste, since made famous by two monographs, written by Louis Dumont and Nicholas Dirks, respectively. Crooked Stalks is also a book about the Kallar. Its distinction, however, lies in its sparkling difference from its predecessors. Its concerns are contemporary and of a wider import. It is a study of the self-making of a community, historically located at the meeting of four vectorial complexes: civic governmentality, missionary religiosity, progressivism of modernity and Tamil (traditional) ‘virtuosity’—the latter encompassing the word's medieval meanings. This is a meticulously documented, convincingly argued, lucidly written work. It is an original.” — E. Valentine Daniel, author of Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way

“The Kallars of Tamilnadu were categorized by the British as a ‘criminal tribe’ in 1918. Anand Pandian's study of the Kallars today asks ground-breaking questions about how subaltern groups, caught in the webs of colonial stereotyping and postcolonial projects of development, use these and other resources to produce their own sense of moral life. Crooked Stalks stands out for its caring and creative deployment of historical, ethnographic, and cultural material in tracking the presence of the colonial past in postcolonial times.” — Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Anand Pandian is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is an editor of Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Note on Transliteration xv

Introduction 1

1. "A Rough Spade for a Rugged Landscape": On Savage Selves and More Civil Places 31

2. "What Remains of the Harvest When the Fence Grazes the Grop?": On the Proper Violence of Agrarian Citizenship 65

3. "The Life of the Thief Leaves the Belly Always Boiling": On the Nature and Restraint of the Criminal Animal 101

4. "Millets Sown Yield Millets, Evil Sown Yields Evil": On the Moral Returns of Agrarian Toil 141

5. "Let the Water for the Paddy Also Irrigate the Grass": On the Sympathies of an Aqueous Self 181

Epilogue 221

Notes 241

Glossary 283

Bibliography 289

Index 309
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Rights and licensing

Anand Pandian is the recipient of The Infosys Prize 2019 in Social Sciences

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4531-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4514-5
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