Regional fields

India (specifically Andhra Pradesh and Orissa)

Thematic fields

Sea fishermen’s societies, religious anthropology, kinship systems (particularly Dravidian), Dr B.R. Ambedkar and the untouchables of contemporary India


India, popular Hinduism, Ambedkar, untouchables, sea fishermen, religion, change, kinship

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New “teppas” that appeared in the 1990s
with outboard motor, Puri (Orissa), 2004
(photo O. Herrenschmidt)

Now more than ever, Olivier Herrenschmidt is centring his research on the ethnographic experience. Since 1999, he has been regularly repeating earlier field studies, enabling him to update information collected from 1963 to 1982, and making him a special witness to the changes that have so deeply marked the past fifty years. Although sea fishermen castes of the coast of Andhra Pradesh continue to be central to his study – especially the Vada Balija caste – his enquiry has extended to all castes of the village of Pentakota (a reference village in the Visakhapatnam district), with special attention to the dominant Kapu/Telaga caste.

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Typical representation of goddesses
in the village temples,
Venkatnagaram (Andhra Pradesh), 2008
(photo O. Herrenschmidt)

The study of changes led him in two directions. Firstly, towards the distinct evolution of the Vada Balija caste, with its two essential periods of technical change: the early 1960s and the 1990s. The later had multiple consequences within the caste (economic differentiation between new, small “entrepreneurs” and the rest of the fishermen who, for the most part, are poorer than they were in the 1970s and 1980s) and outside the caste: the appearance of wealthy, powerful caste leaders, representatives recognised by the outside world where they defend the caste. This is particularly important in Orissa, Puri, where fishermen have been migrating since the early 1950s. His 2002 article (English version 2004) noted these changes, and was at the same time programmatic – all studies to date have attempted to respond to the observations and questions raised since 1999.
 Secondly, he is trying to understand how the region and the village have been affected by changes to the state of Andhra Pradesh following the Indian central government’s 1991 liberalisation policy. In Pentakota, the dominant lineage saw its power being challenged by another lineage, each of them relying on one of the two main political parties in Andhra: the Congress Party and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – a “regionalist” party that appeared at that time, bringing the Congress Party’s monopoly to an end. This turned the village power structure upside-down. Previously unknown factions appeared in the dominant caste, and the different castes of the village became true “vote banks”, free to support this or that member of the dominant caste – since the Kapu/Telaga caste still retained power. Although the reference village case is fairly special, it represents one of the ways in which the villages of Andhra Pradesh changed politically and economically after the early 1990s. The proof is that, based on observations made locally, Olivier Herrenschmidt found himself engaged in a study of the administration council presidents of the very wealthy Tirumala Venkateswara Temple (Tirupati). The temple leaders’ collusion with industrial and political actors immediately came to light. This revealed the masterly corruption of those in power (beginning with the state’s Chief Minister) who – flouting political etiquette (something which draws the attention of political scientists more than ethnologists) like state “boundaries” – can just as well pledge allegiance to the Andhra Congress party as ally themselves with the mine lobby of the neighbouring state of Karnataka, which is financed and supported by the top national leaders of the BJP, the leading opposition party in Delhi.
 All of this shows the richness of village-based ethnological enquiry, which has been significantly undermined, and consequently abandoned, by post-modernists, be they anthropologists, political scientists or geographers, Indian or foreign.

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Until recently the village could only be accessed by crossing the river, either fording or by boat,
Pentakota (Andhra Pradesh), 2008
(photo O. Herrenschmidt)

Concerning the religious dimension of the ethnography of fishermen, the repetition of fieldwork enabled him to take at least one new look at each of the main rituals observed since 1964. In this new context linked to liberalisation, in which the Brahminical “orthodoxy” started a major Hinduism “purification” movement (meaning: putting an end to the practices of “Popular Hinduism”, of which blood sacrifices (including that of the buffalo) are essential components), the “Brahminical” rituals had a significant impact in all of the castes. And yet, faced with this invasion of rites relating to the pantheon’s major divinities (Siva and Vishnu, the goddess Durga), the Vada’s sacrificial system has been fully preserved in terms of chosen victims, killing methods and recipient female divinities. Observations made from 1999 to 2011 confirm this unambiguously.

The preservation of photographs and sound recordings has become urgent, so that these documents, which constitute the memory of the people of Pentakota, can one day be accessible to them. Although all of the photographs are well on the way to being scanned – and the Laboratory library should pursue this task, as well as that of scanning unexploited manuscript documents – the preservation of audio tapes (1963-1965, 1967, 1976) has just been scheduled with the help of The Centre for Research in Ethnomusicology (CREM). All of this material will be made available to all interested researchers with minimal restrictions.

Questions of kinship continue to engage Olivier Herrenschmidt. A 2009 article revisited an interesting question about categories of “consanguinity” and “alliance”, and several entries written for the Dictionnaire de l’Inde contemporaine (2010) try to synthetically and comparatively present the forms of kinship that exist throughout Hindu India.

In parallel with this ethnographic research, which is now a priority, Olivier Herrenschmidt has long been interested in the question of Indian ex-Untouchables and their leader Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956). Three publications have provided a glimpse of this research (1996, 2006), 1996 (English version 2004), 2008 (English version 2009).

Principal publications

  • 2011, Il est bon de savoir quelque chose des mœurs de divers peuples, in F. Pouillon and J.-C. Vatin (eds), Après l’Orientalisme, l’Orient créé par l’Orient (Paris, IISMM-Karthala): 253–265.
  • 2010, Un ethnologue mécontent et heureux. 18e conférence Robert Hertz de l’APRAS, le 18 juin 2010, lettre d’information de l’APRAS, n° 46 (automne 2010) http://web.mae.u-paris10.fr/apras/.
  • 2009, The Indians’ impossible Civil Code, Archives européennes de sociologie, L (2): 309–347.
  • 2006, Les Intouchables et la république indienne, in C. Jaffrelot (ed.), L’Inde contemporaine de 1950 à nos jours (Paris, Fayard): 509–533.
  • 2004, Ambedkar and the Hindu Social Order in Reconstructing the World, in S. Jondhale and J. Beltz (eds), B.R. Ambedkar and Buddhism in India (New Delhi, Oxford University Press): 37–48 [French version 1996].
  • 2002, Pêcheurs en mer de l’Andhra Pradesh de 1960 à nos jours. Réflexions sur l’ethnologie et les problèmes de développement, in C. Jaffrelot and M. Bouez (eds), Tribus et basses castes. Résistance et autonomie dans la société indienne (Paris, EHESS): 85–110 [Purushartha, 23].
  • 1989, Les meilleurs dieux sont hindous (Lausanne, Éditions l’Âge d’homme).
  • 1978, L’Inde et le sous-continent indien, in Ethnologie régionale II (Paris, Gallimard) [Encyclopédie de la Pléiade].
  • 1966, Le cycle de Lingal. Essai d’études textuelles de mythologies: les mythologies des tribus de langue Gondi (Inde centrale) (Paris, EPHE VIe section/Mouton & Co).


Publications available at the Éric-de-Dampierre library

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Mis à jour le 16 January 2014

Professeur émérite, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, Département d’ethnologie, de préhistoire et d’ethnomusicologie
[Emeritus Professor]


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