Making Caste In Nineteenth-Century India:
A History of Telling the Bobbili Katha & Velama Identity
University of California at Berkeley
Accounts of the siege of Bobbili in South India, 1757 C.E., agree
on precious few points. All of them do, however, acknowledge that
after the combined forces of the French troops under the Marquis
de Bussy and the army of the Rajah of Vizianagaram had laid waste
to the walls of the citadel, and had subdued those soldiers
venturing forth from the fort to contest the onslaught, the
victorious parties found virtually no survivors remaining in the
bastion. All women, children and non-combatants inside had been
martyred to prevent capture at the time of defeat. This aspect of
the history has kept the story in the telling. The story I am
about to tell, however, is not one of military history. It is the
story of how the recounting of that event--the siege and mass
suicide--in the form of the "Bobbili Katha" (the "Story of
Bobbili") ultimately came to reflect new understandings of the
character of the caste of people who over time became associated
with that martyrdom. The Rajah of Bobbili and "his people" were
Velamas. Velama as caste category, however, would only take shape
over the next 150 years of telling and retelling the tale of that
This work offers a look at representations (primarily in the form
of a folktale) of an act of solidarity that the people in the fort
at Bobbili exhibited almost 250 years ago. When they, according to
the story of the battle, willingly died for their king, they were
rallying around an heroic chief--an individual whose royal
character is central to the story.1 The significance of this act
goes beyond that solidarity. Its repercussions ultimately resulted
in the voicing of a new type of categorizing for the people of the
area. In the end, an "identity" developed, one that was centered
on subsequent changing definitions for the group that participated
in the eighteenth-century martyrdom. And, in this case, the
emergent identity revealed itself in the guise of a thoroughly
examined Indian social institution: the Velama jati and, later, the
Velama caste. By tracing this history, I hope to expose the
historical formulation of one caste. The Velama category that
eventually appears by the twentieth century should alert wider
scholarly debates to the increasingly varied historical
possibilities for caste formation throughout South Asia, contrary
to the existing standard range of opinions on caste as voiced by
the likes of Nicholas Dirks and Ronald Inden (caste was made
central to Indian society by colonialism and the inherent violence
to knowledge it perpetrates, and has succeeded in remaining
central to the present), or Louis Dumont (caste is the basic means
of representing essential hierarchies of Hindu society).2
In a break with such authors, the present work contests the notion
that caste, and its corresponding "caste system," was a central
feature of Indian society as late as the nineteenth century. My
attempt to question the validity of current visions of caste turns
its attention to the notion of the link between
expression-of-solidarity and formation-of-identity; Velamas came
to insist that an understanding of their jati was intricately
connected to the story of the martyrdom of Velamas for their
king.3 The tale told here hints at an alternate model for caste,
whereby its commonly attributed hierarchical and
imbedded-in-culture implications were only partially accepted by
those who invoked jati names and categories. The telling of the
story of the siege of Bobbili in northern Andhra will prove a
means to demonstrate the much more metaphorical than substantive
understanding of jati in that period.4 In this case, jati appears to
have existed apart from caste in the nineteenth century, and yet,
through reference to this story of the Velamas, did change into,
by the twentieth century, something that we recognize as caste
itself, a mere 150 years after the siege.
Various tellings of the story of Bobbili refer back to the event
of 1757, but they also encompass each other, as they purport to
tell the "whole" truth according to their historical contexts.
Analysis of these disparate texts, in a somewhat disjointedly
chronological order, will indicate that caste here emerged as the
articulable form of the solidarity experienced by this particular
group of people (jati), the Velamas of Bobbili.5 "Velama-ness"
became an essential feature of identity for those who wished to
claim descent from the people who fought and died in the battle at
Bobbili. I hope to suggest in the end that a look at the
production and power of new meanings (caste creation) for an
existing category (Velama), which came about through negotiations
within the spaces provided by colonial, bureaucratic, and
technological (the advent of Telugu publishing) structures, and
which defied the then discursive limits of that category, can
guide us toward a better understanding of how the myriad local
identities of India could survive the similar process of the
historical creation and use, for a time this century, of the
concept of the national identity, India.
1757: The Events As Historians Have Rendered Them
Robert Orme, in his A History of the Military Transactions of the
British Nation in Indostan, devotes an entire section to the
battle at Bobbili of 1757.6 The siege itself was short-lived. The
Marquis de Bussy, commander of the French troops charged with
supporting French interests in Hyderabad, used his artillery to
begin the assault, and the Raja of Vizianagaram sent his men over
Bobbili's walls, and through the breaches created by the cannons.
Once inside the fort, the invaders found the bodies of Bobbili's
subjects strewn throughout the rooms of the King's house, laid to
rest not by that onslaught, but by the knives and torches of
designated courtiers. Orme attempts to depict the horror of those
scenes in his history.
The slaughter of the conflict being compleated, another much more
dreadful, presented itself in the area below: the transport of
victory lost all its joy: all gazed on one another with silent
astonishment and remorse, and the fiercest could not refuse a tear
to the deplorable destruction spread before them.7
It is this version that, though not retold by Telugu speakers, is
put to use by British writers chronicling the events of the region
and even a Telugu annotator of the Bobbili Katha.8
Orme begins his section on Bobbili the previous year, noting that
by late 1756 Bussy had been able again to secure favor with the
court of the Nizam at Hyderabad, after the French position had
become somewhat tenuous. According to historian Sarojini Regani,
"Bussy had come to the Deccan at the head of the mercenary troops
that the Nizam had entertained in his [the Nizam's] service."9 But
Bussy's inability to stave off Maratha forces with those troops in
July of 1756, and the fact that the Nizam acquired support from
Mughal troops based in the Deccan, made Bussy temporarily
expendable to the Nizam. Bussy, however, managed to hold out
against various intrigues until French reinforcements arrived from
Masulipatam on the coast, and was then able to re-establish a
strong position with the Nizam. At stake for Bussy were the
revenues from the Northern Circars on the eastern coast, the land
base granted to the French, income from which supplied their
mission in the Deccan.10 With his position again secure, Bussy
could travel to the coast to collect arrears in rent for the
circar lands. Regani notes that "Of all the zamindars on the East
Coast only Vijaya Rama Raju [of Vizianagaram] continued to remit
the revenues regularly" during this period.11 Vizianagaram would
eventually serve not only as leverage for revenue collection from
other chiefs, but he would be Bussy's partner at the siege of
Bussy anticipated, and found, little resistance to his campaign.
He took with him only 500 Europeans and 4,000 sepoys.12 From
Hyderabad, he paralleled the Krishna River to the town of
Vijayawada, where he began meeting with and extracting overdue
revenues from local rulers. From there he turned northward, and
met the Raja of Vizianagaram at Rajahmundry, on the left bank of
the Godavari River. It was there that the two leaders made plans
to stem Bobbili's potential power in the region. Bussy would offer
the Raja of Bobbili land elsewhere--far from Vizianagaram's
borders. In return, Bussy would have a stronger, more confident
ally in Vizianagaram and his 10,000 troops.
Explanations for why a battle ultimately ensued vary with each
account. Regani's close history only attributes "some ancient
enmity with the Rajah [of Bobbili] over the canal waters" to the
reasons behind Vizianagaram's willingness to initiate a
confrontation.13 Orme tells us that at Bobbili that Raja was
unwilling to come to terms with Vizianagaram and Bussy; and it was
this stubbornness which forced the hands of the approaching
armies. Regani also mentions what a few others have as well, that
an ambush of 30 of Bussy's men set the stage for the breaking-off
of negotiations, though the ambushers were never proven to be
connected with Bobbili.14
Orme, though, does give us a larger picture of French goals in
those Circars. Bussy had led the first major inland expansion into
India by the French, away from their coastal factory strongholds.
The battle he waged and won at Bobbili was one in a series of
battles promoting French designs up and down the eastern coast.
That battle, however, was little more than that, one in a series,
a show of strength. After the section on Bobbili, for instance,
Orme moves easily on to Bussy's capture of Vizagapatam--an
important British factory town, never mentioning the Bobbili
battle again. Bobbili would become one stop among many bolstering
the French cause. Overall, that encounter had only marginally
important consequences in the larger scheme of French interests.
Martineau even suggested, "a vrai dire, etaient de peu
That battle, nevertheless, did leave its mark on Bussy at a
different level. What struck the French envoy was the suicide of
the people in the fort. Bussy himself is said to have refused to
enter the fort after his victory upon hearing what awaited him
inside. This suicide as historical event remains uncontested in
all accounts. For Orme it overshadowed all other aspects of that
confrontation. "The utmost excess whether of revenge or rage, were
exceeded by the atrocious prejudices which dictated and performed
this horrible sacrifice."16 Significantly, it is this same aspect
of the battle that produces a very different effect among later
generations of Velamas; it is the source for a history of caste.
For the purposes of this work, the date of the siege of the Raja
of Bobbili's fort in 1757 marks less the end of a protracted set
of negotiations to establish dominance among Telugu chiefs in that
region than the beginning of a new set of negotiations to
formulate a jati history for Velamas, the principal combatants at
the fort. The grand historical narrative, a la Orme, is a colorful
rendering of a seemingly tragic story. But that history is not the
vehicle that brings to Telugu speakers the story of that battle,
nor is its recording the source of a new identity.
Regarding the Relationship Between an Event and Its Story: 1757
Soon after the events of that day had transpired, the telling of
those events and the stories surrounding them began. Telugu
speakers throughout the region listened, and then retold the
stories. By the time that Charles Philip Brown, a Madras Civil
Servant with an interest in Telugu, asked a minstrel (probably not
of the Velama jati himself) to sing the Katha (story) of Bobbili to
one of Brown's Brahman scribes, some seventy years had passed
since the actual battle.17 And the Bobbili Katha had moved into
the larger genre of Telugu folk song and story. It had gained a
formulaic format that would last, in some ways, to the present
day. The relating of events too would stay basically unaltered.
But between 1757 and later tellings of those events, some basic
changes would take place in the Bobbili Katha, and in the way
people otherwise referred to the story. Most notably, perhaps,
each generation of retellers of the katha gave new meaning to the
groups therein. In this case an event, and later references to it,
provided the means for new fashionings of Velama selves. More
specifically, an event that required a sizable degree of
solidarity on the part of one group here provided for that group's
ability to alter the projection of its own jati and caste
boundaries, even in a pre-bureaucratized, "non-colonized," India.
This work investigates identity formation by looking at the story
of a story. The story of the story of Bobbili--the history of the
Bobbili Katha--offers a special chance to look at the relationship
between the dynamic of the opportunity for expression, and the
process of identity formation itself, while the katha's particular
historical positioning further highlights the intricacies of this
relationship. In a mere 150-plus years, between 1757 and the early
twentieth century, the story of Bobbili moved from oral tale, sung
by minstrels, to oral tale transcribed as colonial artifact, to
point of reference for Velamas when petitioning and interacting
with British officials, to, finally, standardized book and then
movie, recounting the events of that year in their own unique, but
now permanent, ways. The Katha's salient changes are located in
new depictions of Velamas, but the transformation of Velama-ness
took place at the conjunction of very specific, changing
structures--both Telugu and English, both Indian and colonial.
Velama identity emerged through the telling of a story that could
be told in different ways, through different media over the course
of 150 years. It will thus become clear that factors such as the
availability of petitioning a government and the coming of the
Telugu printing press are as important in the creation of caste
meaning as is the culturally specific imperative to narrate the
story of an event and its actors.
I will primarily examine two full versions of the Bobbili Katha
and, secondarily, two references to the events of 1757 in the
Company records. The references in the records present no problems
when attempting to attribute dates. The full versions are more
difficult to place in time. For the purposes of this work the
following, non-chronological, order for the texts will be used:
1. Oral version of the Katha: This is the version of the Bobbili
Katha found in the Tamil Nadu Government Oriental Manuscript
Library in Madras. It was recited in 1832 by a minstrel named
Mallesam at the request of C.P. Brown, who, at the time, was in
the process of having various works of Telugu literature
transcribed and collected. This manuscript was also later edited
by M. Somasekhara Sarma, and published by the Government of
2. 1794 Reference in the Records: District records from the
Northern Circars, and Government of Madras records contain certain
letters and memoranda that make reference to the Battle at
Bobbili. This 1794 series of references were collected by W.
Francis and D.F. Carmichael in their gazetteer and manual,
3. 1817 Reference in the Records: This series of references to the
battle at Bobbili are available in the original district records
4. Early twentieth century version of the Katha: By the twentieth
century, the story of the battle at Bobbili had become quite
popular, and came to be presented as a drama and, eventually, even
in film. This chapter, however, will address only the printed
prose version as its example from this century.21
In some sense, the issue of ordering these sources is a moot
point, as different uses will be made of different genres of
materials. What is significant is the connections individuals made
between stories and the historical event. By the time references
to 1757 appeared in the records, the siege of Bobbili was
understood as both historical happening and subject matter of
contemporary folk ballad. For this reason Mallesam's telling to
Brown's scribes is positioned before the references from the
records, and certainly earlier than the printed version of the
Katha. This is not to say that Mallesam's is the only authentic or
pure version.22 Rather, if C.P. Brown knew that such a folk ballad
existed, and if Mallesam knew enough to sing this one to Brown's
scribes for a few days in 1832, then there should be little doubt
that the story's existence is a part of an 1817 reference to the
battle of Bobbili of 1757.23
Beyond 1757: From Historiography to Folklore
The 1832 transcription of the oral version of the tale as told by
a minstrel named Mallesam is the earliest available
Telugu-language version of the events of 1757. It is the story
that was being told and sung about the people and the battle at
Bobbili. The Bobbili Katha (and the Bobbili Yuddhakatha, its
critically edited version) is appropriately titled--the "Story of
Bobbili" (and the "Story of the Battle of Bobbili").24 That is,
the story tells of the fighting, strategies, losses, and victories
of the participants in the battle to take the fort at Bobbili, and
render that chief ineffectual in the politics of northern
Telugu-speaking areas. Analyzing the text as performance, one
notices the narrative's terse, crisp lines. There is cadence and
repetition, and the reader can almost hear Mallesam singing. But
Mallesam also gives his version some particular characteristics
that offer insight into the world of what I understand to be the
"pre-discourse" self of the eighteenth century. His
characterizations are clear. Relationships are strictly defined.
There is no need for elaboration on who each of these individuals
is. In fact, the form of the telling is revealing in its locating
the self, and tends to follow patterns common to wider oral
traditions of India. Any meaning that is connected with labels for
characters or with relationship terms is understood, without need
for further elucidation: who the people of the katha are is
Certain aspects of that 1832 source set it apart from later
versions of the katha, of which two will be examined here in some
detail. First, the nature of the narrative is distinct from later
versions: critical for the telling of the story by Mallesam is the
core set of historical events and the fact that those events
result in the given tragedy that is Bobbili. Each individual or
group only happens to show itself and define itself subsidiarily
to those events, and only then by the actions the individual or
group take in connection with them. The book, by contrast,
highlights individuals and their greatness based chiefly on caste,
while the plot becomes contingent on those characterizations. This
feature is linked to a second distinct aspect to be looked at: the
issue of "typing" is much less important for Mallesam than for the
author of the later work, as is his "pointing" to (blaming)
characters in general.25 While Mallesam does not refrain from
referring to characters in the story as members of a certain jati,
that association between individual and caste, where present, is
not introduced in order for the minstrel to participate in a
larger heated debate, the likes of which were common by the end of
the nineteenth century due to the ongoing process whereby meanings
for categories and identities were being challenged to a much
higher degree than in 1832.
1. Narrative in the Epic
A. Beri Komatis
The best way to see Mallesam's general method, and the importance
he gives to events over peoples and cultural politics, is by
turning to his working of the course of the battle and the events
leading up to it. Central to this early-nineteenth-century telling
of the Katha is the battle itself, and Mallesam's focus on that
ever-nearing tragedy. Bobbili's pride and the pride of the Velamas
are merely tools in accentuating the palpable irony that builds as
the story nears a climax. Caste is certainly not the central
feature here. Whatever happens with jatis does so as the result of
a conjunction of events and positions, not as a result of the
nature of jati and society. One small anecdote about a jati group
(common to both versions) typifies this approach.
Mallesam tells us that in one part of the fort lived the Beri
Komatis.26 At the onset of the siege the men of this jati were out
gathering their merchandise, while the women were at home. As the
French troops came to attack this residential part of the fort,
the Beri women were forced into action. With the refrain "Beri
vari strilu" ("women of the Beri people") at the end of each line,
Mallesam tells of their heroism:
The Beri women tied their hair in knots (tufts), and swung them
behind their heads. They knotted the loose ends of their saris.
Then they tied up stones, and the pestles available. And they
proceeded to throw the entire collection of rocks on top of the
12,000 Frenchmen and the army gathered nearby. Then they struck
the white men where they lay. They hit the heads of 200 soldiers.
From the tops of elephants observes gathered and watched in sheer
In fact, the singer then breaks from the story to say that he
himself fought at Golconda against the Marathas, but never saw
such as this. Mallesam's attention to the exploits of a small
jati group in the fort appears to signify important issues of
It is actually difficult to say exactly why this particular group
is depicted, or what resonance these lines intend to strike. In
terms of whether "naming" the jati is the key here, the phrase
"Beri vaari strilu" could just as easily be an attempt to retain
meter. But other lines from this section suggest something else.
The women are presented as bases of comparison for even how much
fiercer the men of this jati might have fought were they there at
the time. "This is how the battle among women was fought. It would
not be possible to stand for a moment if the men were to fight."
The singer suggests that had the men of the Beri jati not been
forced by the invasion to secure their wares, they would have
repulsed the invaders. Of course, such a reverse does not see
reality; in the next instant, Bussy's cannons make naught of the
ingenuity of these Beri Strilu (women), and destroy all the people
in their section of the fort. That entire area becomes a
More than anecdotal, this passage sustains the notion that the
singer is typing a jati in a way that is not consistent with the
narrowly conceived of notion of ascriptive identity many scholars
commonly associate with jati, and the ascription logos behind it.
The kind of typing that we see here is one that sets up an
allowance for the possibility of one jati group to engage in
solidarity with another in a particular moment of time. The
singer's story reflects the realms of possible action individuals
might engage in along jati lines. The Beri Komati women are
positioned to show an allegiance to the Velama Raja of Bobbili,
and then to adumbrate the strength of their men, who, in turn,
would willingly have died as examples of lines of solidarity with
Bobbili that, in the manuscript, transcend jati categories.
Furthermore, it is highly significant that this particular
anecdote is retained in the book version of the Bobbili Katha. In
that telling, the exploits of the Beri women are even further
detailed. They are even more ruthless in their attack on the
French soldiers unlucky enough to make it into their part of the
fort. While the Beri men are off saving the youngest of their
children, those women fight like lions, the story tells us.29 They
kill thousands. Jangu ji (Hydarujangu), Bussy's advisor, despairs
at one point, "We cannot win, we cannot beat these Beri women!"30
But in this version, the context for their fighting is different.
More than setting up the ferocity of their men or their allegiance
to Bobbili, this twentieth-century passage highlights the baseness
of Bussy and his army. After destroying the Beri women with his
artillery, Bussy does not just move further into the fort. First,
the story is careful to point out, he collects all the gold and
silver from the bodies of the fallen women, and has it sent back
to his tent.31 There will be more to say about Bussy's depiction
in these two versions later. For now, the placement of this
anecdote in the book is useful in seeing how certain events are
retained in the later version, but re-contextualized to serve the
purposes of the later story.
Mallesam, in contrast to the book later, offers the anecdote to
teach us about Beri Komati women. He does this by naming them in
connection with their exploits and fierceness. He valorizes their
potential heroic solidarity with the Velama chief of Bobbili. In
the book their actions are somehow natural, transparent, and even
expected as caste-based (not solidarity-based). Caste meanings
have taken root, and new, twentieth-century expectations of caste
are the focus. Much more critical for the book is the tale of an
outsider's baseness and low character--how this foreigner
exemplifies all that the Beri Komati caste does not stand for.
B. The Killing Narrative
Descriptions of the martyrdom of the people in the fort at Bobbili
also provide insight into the shifts in group-meaning between
texts. At some point during the siege, the fall of the fort
appears inevitable to all those inside. Ranga Rao, the Bobbili
Raja, must come to terms with the reality of the situation. This
moment of realization makes its appearance in the form of Devi
Mallamma (the Raja's wife) and her challenge to all those
assembled.32 Her resolve had begun to take shape while she was
worshipping the gods moments before. There, Devi Mallamma put a
curse on Viziarama Raja:
Raja, O Raja, You, Viziarama Raja --
How long will you live after killing us, Pusapati Raja?
The third day after the fall of Bobbili will be the day of the
death of the King!33
With Devi Mallamma's curse comes a kind of release for her. She
charges into the court of the King to challenge the Velamas
assembled. "Have you no mustaches on your faces, Velama Doras? Are
you going to have your women eating food from the French? Devi
Mallamma then bared her throat saying, 'Cut!'"34 Mallesam's story
unfolds rapidly from that instant. At the challenge Ranga Rao
proceeds with knife drawn to another part of the chief's fort.
There he sees the eyes of his mother, and says, "In my hand is
written your death, Mother, Vengalamma. For each person Brahma has
written one death. Saying, 'Narayana! Narayana!' she gave up her
life."35 Mallesam is satisfied that these actions speak for
themselves. No description of Ranga Rao, or how he feels, is
forthcoming. How each character must proceed is the one clear
aspect of the narrative from this point on. Accordingly, the
killing did not stop there, with the King's mother. Men were
dispatched to various parts of the fort. They axed pregnant women.
The children in their wombs fell to the floor. They axed the
infants suckling at their mothers' breasts. They killed students
who were in the midst of reading. And then, in answer to her
challenge, one representative of Ranga Rao slit Mallamma Devi's
The killing continued elsewhere in the fort in the form of houses
being burned to the ground while men waited outside to stab anyone
who might yet flee the flames. Ranga Rao's troops came to him, and
expressed their loyalty. "You have love for [our] wives and
children. You show mercy to [our] mothers and fathers. O Great
King, we have eaten much of your nourishing soup, we will go out
to the town [to help in the killing]. Ranga Rao, we will die with
you."37 They then ran from house to house, killing all women and
children, as had been done in the palace earlier. The king stood
by, wrapped in his blood stained clothes. Servants in the king's
house had a similar understanding of their relationship to the
Raja. Ranga Rao told all thirty-two of them to flee the fort, and,
thereby, survive. Those servants responded with, "We cannot go
west and eat the food of the French. We will die as Mallamma Devi
died!"38 A regiment commander went out and lit on fire the twelve
thatched huts where the servants resided. That Ranga Rao feels
distaste for the killing is the most Mallesam will tell us about
how all this is affecting the King. If emotional states, however,
are not worth reporting, loyalty to the King is. The narrator
makes evident that each individual or group acts according to its
role in relation to the King. It is this relationship to Ranga Rao
that is supreme. Those ties dictate one's possible course of
action. In no way do connections based on jati have anywhere near
the potency of the sense of loyalty characters express for the
Raja of Bobbili and his place as their leader and benefactor.39
The slaughter in the fort ends when only men of fighting age
remain, and all their energies may be directed to the fighting
that is yet to occur outside the fort. In fact, apparently the
killings inside were necessary so that those soldiers would be
able to proceed to the next stage of battle against the enemy.
When all are ready, a soldier proclaims, "The chains around our
legs have been removed, Ranga Rayudu!"40 Mallesam tells us that
though only 400 strong, they appeared to the enemy as a ferocious
army. Those Velamas and Telagas began stabbing without relent.41
At every 100 killed a cry rings forth from Ranga Rao and his
allies, "Selaga!" If a corpse falls in the way, they step on it,
and continue fighting. Blood from the field flows as if it is a
river, knee deep.42 Even Bussy feels great admiration for the
tenacity of this contingent. Their efforts, however, cannot last.
Ranga Rao is soon wounded, and brought before Bussy. The latter
tries to end it there by again offering to the Bobbili Raja a
parcel of land elsewhere. Ranga Rao, as with the earlier offers,
waves off this one, and responds simply but resolutely with a
familiar saameta (proverb)
Paasina kuutlo kali positee padunuku vastundaa? |43
Can rotten food ever be made sweet?
Ranga Rao explains that his men will fight to their last breaths.
With that said, Bobbili dies, and his remaining forces are
destroyed soon after.
Then, just three days later, exactly as Devi Mallamma had willed
it, Vizianagaram dies at the hands of a small pack of Bobbili's
soldiers who survived the siege and suicide. Those men sneak into
Vizianagaram's tent while he sleeps, and while his guard is busy
elsewhere. In the raja's tent, Tandra Papayya explains that their
Ranga Rao has risen on high, and has sent them to bring the King
along.44 The trio then proceed to shred the King's belly and spill
his innards onto the ground.45 They are performing here. They are
acting out the role of the spirit of Bobbili, the word itself
coming from the Telugu word for tiger.46 The men, having
dispatched Vizianagaram, lament that there is nothing left for
which to live. They also decide that sneaking out might make it
appear as if mere thieves had come into the tent. So that all will
know their cause, they give themselves up to be killed at the
hands of the soldiers now stationed outside the tent.
2. The "Typing" of & "Pointing" to Characters in the Katha
Within the narrative lies a process that Mallesam uses to great
advantage in order to heighten the tension over what is at stake
for the characters of the Bobbili Katha in terms of their
understanding of self. The explicability of the reasons behind
actions taken by the people of the epic is based on the freedom
the minstrel feels to "type" groups contextually, and according to
the needs of the story-line. In particular, Mallesam's use of
jati labels for "typing" is a complex issue.
Turn-of-the-twentieth-century British anthropologists made a
living attempting to link castes with, literally, "types" of
people. Out of such attempts arose staple classifications for the
lexicons of colonialism in India. Perhaps most familiar are the
anthropological studies and collections of Sir Herbert Hope Risley
and Edgar Thurston who worked on huge classificatory projects for
the Government of India in the last part of the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries.47 Without going into too much detail
about this classification project by the British, it should be
noted that scholars have correctly documented its resulting use as
a tool in the further colonizing of India.48 The point of
connection with this Telugu-language Katha, however, is just that
"typing" along jati lines was never purely a British project alone.
Mallesam makes it clear that jati also has a very distinct role as
a means to understand the placement and organization of groups in
society. The Bobbili Katha gives us jati as an organizer of
knowledge. That is, epistemologies about groups develop through
the employment of jati names in the course of telling the story.
Those epistemologies were not immutable prior to the telling of
the story, nor would they be so after that telling. Jati
invocation for Mallesam and others of the early nineteenth century
had a linguistic and epistemological role outside the western
colonizing process. The story teller of the Bobbili Katha uses
jati names frequently, though carefully, and always purposefully.
A simple description, for example, of various groups might not
require Mallesam's own typing of jati, such as when he briefly
mentions the constituents in Apparayudu's entourage during the
army's march. These people included "gamesters, songsters, and
players (of plays)," with no actual jati names included.49 But when
it suits his purposes in the next line, Mallesam easily inserts a
jati name. Apparayadu, then, upon leaving camp to march to the next
night's halt, puts behind him 400 Velama Doras.50 This simple term
alone works as a means of impressing on the listeners the
importance given to Velama Doras. Their prowess in battle made
them the guard of honor. Velama Dora refers, then, both to the
jati group, and to the characteristics that Mallesam wants the
listener to associate with that jati. This association is clearer
given the context of the story of Bobbili as a whole. Velama Doras
are not only the main characters, i.e. Ranga Rao, the chief, and
all of his family, they are worthy of having a story told about
them. And the singer of that story is going to remind us of this
with jati name placements every chance he gets. Contrast this to
the Maharaja of Bobbili's lengthy description of Velama Doras in
his Revised and Enlarged Account of the Bobbili Zemindari in 1907.
At one point he claims
The men of this race [Velama Doras] are, as a rule, well-built and
of a warlike disposition. They are proverbially haughty, so much
so that they are not known to serve any but the chiefs of their
own caste. ... They are very daring and reckless of life when
their feelings are hurt, or when anything happens to offend their
notions of respect.51
Mallesam's degree of "typing" will seem not just subtle and
innocuous, but rather insignificant when we read the later version
of the Katha which presents Velamas in a similar way to the
Maharaja's presentation. At this stage, in 1832, jati is more an
appropriate and useful metaphor than it is a political label for
use in locating a caste in a larger charged atmosphere.
Understandings of the category "Velama," however, changed over the
course of the nineteenth century with each narration of the Katha,
and with the "typing"-of-Velamas process, according to the needs
of the moment, inherent in that narration. Eighteenth century
caste will ultimately appear very different from its later
namesake when we turn more fully to twentieth century descriptions
Linked to the typing of this era is the fact that Mallesam is able
to label a character without making him a representative of a
jati. That is, a label can be avoided as desired. Thus, after
Ranga Rao has proceeded with the killings, Vizianagaram is simply
left with the blame for what happened, and gives us an admission
himself. He is clearly made out to be the "bad guy," but, in
general, little is offered up by the singer of the story to
explain why Vizianagaram would take such a hard line against
Bobbili other than the notion that Vizianagaram's status in the
region was in jeopardy. For Mallesam, the circumstances of kingly
relations are sufficient reasons in themselves; neither
elaboration nor jati reductionism is deemed necessary.
In fact, Mallesam comes to the blame soon after the battle is
complete. Bussy has Ranga Rao's body placed in his own, Bussy's,
tent, to which he calls Hydarujangu, Vizianagaram, and his dubash.
Bussy asks the dubash straight out where blame and auspiciousness
should be placed in the matter of Ranga Rao's death, and the
defeat of Bobbili as a whole. Lakshmudu replies that the sin lies
with Vizianagaram, and "not with us."52 Hydarujangu concurs. But
Vizianagaram claims that the responsibility lies with everyone, as
does any merit that might come from it all. This assertion
changes, however, as soon as Vizianagaram enters the fort to lay
his hands on the spoils of the siege. At the sight of infants
suckling at the breasts of their fallen mothers, Vizianagaram,
amidst his suddenly felt remorse, says to Bussy, "This is my fault
(alone), and not yours."53 Attribution of the blame is confirmed
three days later, in the wake of Vizianagaram's assassination.
Upon Bussy's arrival at that scene, Mallesam tells us that the
commander's one comment was, "'The grief of Bobbili has
unfailingly touched the Raja. The murder of women, the killing of
students--that sin--has come back to the Raja.'"54 The deeds that
Vizianagaram had three days earlier taken responsibility for, have
now been avenged. Mallesam's story ends with Bussy granting Ananda
Rao, Vizianagaram's son, a jagir that includes the lands of
Events such as this are the epic's center, and do not anticipate
the over-riding tone of the later version of the story, one that
hinges less on the internecine politics of Telugu Rajas than it
does on the way a foreigner disrupts the balances that exist among
locals. One hundred years brings a retelling of the story in
print, a tale that reflects changes in attitudes about politics in
northern coastal Telugu-speaking areas, and a definite shift, as
we shall see, in where to place the blame for all the killing.
Again, in the manuscript, local politics are permitted to explain
the Raja's actions. This suits both Mallesam and the integrity of
the story. By way of contrast, the version that appears one
hundred years later does not, nor could it, leave the explanation
at that. Then, unlike in 1832, the need to "type" according to
caste interferes with an explanation that rests exclusively on the
desire of a Raja to secure the lion's share of land and wealth in
a region. 1900, as we shall see, brings with it a tale that
reveals the greater substance underlying the presentation of
Bobbili as a Velama chief commanding Velamas. By 1900, caste--what
it means to be a Velama--has taken on new meaning. And that new
meaning incorporates new reasons by which Ranga Rao is able to
kill his family. It incorporates new ways to set Bobbili apart
from Vizianagaram, making it more than a rift between rivals. And
it incorporates new ways for the same actors to express the
reasons for that rift, while always keeping most of the tale
itself intact. By 1900, who Velamas themselves are is a direct
product of the very actions performed by that eighteenth century
Velama chief and the stories of his actions. Definitions and
discourse spring up where layers of actions, based purely on
understandings of how to act, have collapsed in on themselves. The
sheer gravity of the episode itself in 1757, and the 150 years of
talking about it, produce a massive corpus of meaning surrounding
the Velama jati.
Given the almost generic nature of Mallesam's story, then, it
appears inappropriate to cast the events depicted in that katha as
signs of what I shall for the moment refer to as non-colonized
jati relations. Then again, it is also clear that the Katha is not
simply about kingly politics and colonial influence in this
region; there is something to the story of a Velama chief and his
people, and a piece of their history in relation to a hostile,
non-Velama world. Therefore, by examining changes in the Katha
over time, we will see some of the more-suggestive and perduring
underlying meanings to the story, as opposed to what any one
version might focus on in particular. For instance, as noted,
since the attackers, and the attacked, are of different jatis,
non-Velama/Velama, inter-jati fighting might seem to be at the
heart of the Katha. But then it is difficult to explain the later
book's thorough attention to the French troops and Bussy. If
historian Nicholas Dirks is correct in associating the emergence
of a discourse on caste (and the resulting politicization of
caste) only after the establishment of a colonial bureaucracy, and
the essentializing of Indian society "as caste based," then this
eighteenth-century episode could hardly prove useful in
understanding jatias an operative category in the politicization
of the self.55 The history of the Bobbili Katha, however, and its
continually changing representations of the roles for caste in
Indian society, outside the colonial institutional theater, calls
into question Dirks's conclusion about the historical
transformation of caste politics in the nineteenth century.
Mallesam's Bobbili Katha pits a Velama raja against a non-Velama
chief, but this proves to explain little about jati identity (or
lack thereof). Certainly, Mallesam's version offers sketches of
jati-based activity which enlarge our capability of putting a
finger on just what jatimeant to eighteenth-century
Telugu-speakers. What it meant, however, appears to have gone
little beyond the happenstance of birth grouping. His story
indicates that lines of allegiance and solidarity easily
superseded jati affinity. This will not necessarily be the case
when caste is hearkened to as the idyll for drawing lines of group
identity--an idyll created only later in the opening-up of
discourse over what caste actually means. In Mallesam's Bobbili
Katha meaning arose out of action. Later on, meaning about caste
will arise over descriptions, retellings, and expression.
Contextualizing the Bobbili Katha Within Telugu Oral Narrative
Whatever the Bobbili Katha offers on it own, it is important to
remember that it is integrated into the larger body of Telugu oral
tradition. Of the narratives still sung today, the Bobbili Katha
is of neither particularly recent nor ancient origin. Gene
Roghair, in his The Epic of Palnadu: A Study and Translation of
Palnati Virula Katha, comments that singers of such narratives in
the Visakhapatnam District alone have repertoires ranging from the
story of Bobbili to the great epics, the Ramayana and the
Mahabharata, to a "story about a clash between two landlords in
their own [the singers'] village in 1956."56 Furthermore, it is
not lengthy compared to other kathas. Roghair notes that the
Bobbili Katha is considered a standard three-night story. Other
stories might require up to 30 nights to tell. Nor is the Bobbili
Katha unusual in its tight narrative connection to a particular
historical event. In this way, unlike the katha that Roghair
studies, we might understand the Bobbili Katha as offering a trope
similar to the story relating to the dispute in the singers'
village. The Bobbili Katha focuses on one particular event and the
people who played a part in that event.
Moreover, to the extent that this story is based on a specific
historical event, it is even possible to make parallels to other
parts of India where work on oral narrative traditions has been
done. Rosalind O'Hanlon, for instance, has looked at the late
nineteenth century history of a Marathi oral narrative about
Sivaji, a pavada, in the process of trying to understand how
politicians at the time tapped into existing forms and traditions
to help them shape caste ideologies.57 The story of the battle at
Bobbili, then, does not seem to represent anything unusual within
the context of India's traditions of narrative recitation.
However, in the hands of a distinct type of analysis, the Bobbili
Katha allows me to depart from O'Hanlon's set of conclusions.
The main difference lies in the assumptions I bring to the nature
of the society that is producing the oral narrative prior to that
narrative's adoption by O'Hanlon's politicians and leaders of a
mass movement. She argues that those who enjoyed the ballads
before the late nineteenth century were "still rooted in
traditional rural culture. Such groups were pre-literate, and they
lacked the political and educational skills that would have
allowed them to engage directly in the new modes of formal and
organized political activity." Thus, she suggests, a successful
modern political movement would at the very least hinge on the
presence of an urban elite to bridge the gap between "organized"
politics and rural (pre-modern) epistemologies. And since,
according to O'Hanlon, "there had always existed a strong
identification with the Maratha past amongst social groups at all
levels of society," a bridging process, in her view, indeed had
potential for the Maratha case she examines.58
Instead, this work argues that every time a katha was sung, it
sought to achieve its own set of political goals. I am suggesting
that to de-politicize the ballad in the hands of its singers is to
de-historicize it. Identities do not exist "always" and for "all"
people in a society. Meanings, categories and relationships (and
thus identities) that are based on understandings of the past are
all constructed historically. And they are constructed through the
telling of the very stories O'Hanlon and this work analyze,
stories told by no particular "type" of story teller at all.
Ironically, O'Hanlon's potentially creative use of the pavada oral
narrative, presumably an attempt at bridging modern and pre-modern
forms of expression, only re-asserts the historiographical stance
promulgated by the so-called Cambridge School of historians. That
canon promotes the idea that it is sufficient to look at Indian
elites, and how they communicated ideology to the "masses," to
understand the social history of South Asia. The creation of
O'Hanlon's new politicians, their committee meetings, their
elections of representatives, and their attendance at conferences,
in fact, may not have been the great novelty of the nineteenth
century in the opening-up of political arenas. Rather, what that
period offered was a chance for people who still participated in
the trappings of oral culture to engage the new technologies for
telling their stories, whether in print, or for the colonial
archive, and thus widened and made more varied their audiences:
indeed, it was this greater exposure itself which led directly to
the heightened political charge of each new telling of a
It should be noted, moreover, that there was no secret formula for
regional identity creation; no one particular story was in each
case waiting to be uncovered and told in a political venue. There
are, for instance, caste components to other stories. Roghair even
observes about the Palnadu Epic that the "Velama caste" is the
Both quantitatively--most of the stories are about them--and
qualitatively--they are the central figures--the social and
religious world of the epic focuses on and through the Velama
caste and its great Heroes. ... Velama women are similarly at the
centre of the feminine world.59
But the quantitative centrality of Velamas, as noted by Roghair,
just as they are also central quantitatively in the Bobbili Katha,
was not, in itself, sufficient to catalyze the
Velama-as-politicized-category process. What actually makes these
stories special is based on issues that are at odds with his
characterization as to why Velamas are central in both; in fact,
the opposite is probably the case. Velamas are at the "centre" of
the Katha not because of the "reality" of some model for the
social structure in the region, i.e. caste structure, but because
they are prominent in the history of this particular katha: the
history of the telling of the story is itself the tale of the
development of their caste identity.
Roghair offers up Velama centrality by way of a specific reading
of the role of caste in Indian society. "The social structure
presented in The Epic of Palnadu is better understood when viewed
as concentric rather than hierarchical." Critical, then, to
Roghair's analysis of the epic, and the role of Velamas therein,
is his depiction of caste as an Indian institution that is opaque,
and able to resist scrutiny. "In The Epic of Palnadu, as in
Palnadu and in all of India, society is differentiated by
caste."60 Thus, though he suggests that our modeling of caste
needs to be reconsidered (concentric, not hierarchical), he
nevertheless retains caste as the core element of the society that
frames the tellings of these stories. Velamas continue as objects
of knowledge in a critical analysis of the makeup of South Asian
society, and a kind of Dumontian vision of caste takes over, one
that sees caste organizing all other aspects of Indian life,
including oral tradition.61
Yet, it has been the reading of these texts by scholars, and not
what the texts themselves have to say about caste, that has, for
the most part, determined caste's centrality in the depiction of
Indian societies. And on this point I concur with O'Hanlon: the
caste-centered aspect of the narrative was not necessarily present
in the texts historically.62 Otherwise, there persists an
undeniably important caste component for both the Palnadu and
Bobbili stories. One cannot fail to notice that in the Bobbili
Katha jatinames are present throughout, and that concerns about
jatiare everywhere. But jati's importance in later versions of the
kathas (jatias the primary basis for decision-making among
characters) was a result of contemporary narrative goals in
setting out how Velamas of the kathas should act and be
remembered, not because of caste's objective centrality. By the
time of those later versions, caste had become a useful category,
a politicized identity trope, to help listeners understand the
motives of particular characters in the Katha.
In the early-nineteenth-century oral version of the Bobbili Katha,
the raja who opposed Bobbili, though not a Velama himself, was
depicted as being in most respects on an equal footing with
Bobbili, as a leader, and as an honorable person. As we shall see,
however, any suggestion of equality between the two leaders is
completely absent from the twentieth-century telling of the story,
at a time when caste has indeed become central. At the very least,
therefore, it is important to avoid a reading of caste for 1757
that is based on how we understand it today, in the 1990s.
Beyond an Oral Narrative Tradition:
The Colonial Archive and Two References to the Events at Bobbili
Evidence that the popular legacy of the siege at Bobbili was
active and potent long after the 1757 episode comes from petitions
and letters to British officials from Velamas near Bobbili. They
display a different attitude both about the siege and about
"Velama-ness" from the characterization of events we see in
Mallesam's rendition. Although the requirements of the moment are
strikingly different (colonial petition), the mode of expression
strengthens the proposals I am making here. Telugu speakers
(Velamas) took it upon themselves, when it came time to refer to
1757, or to assume the role of "tellers of the Katha," to
determine how they would be defined according to the needs of the
The first example here is an early source for such expression, and
comes via a non-Velama. In 1794 the then Vizianagaram Raja (not a
Velama) had set up camp near the village of Padmanabham, in the
Northern Circars. The Government in Madras had decided that the
arrears in revenue from his estate would continue uncollected as
long as he was in charge of the management of his own lands.63
Accordingly, he was directed to proceed to Masulipatam where he
would be asked to sign an agreement that granted him a monthly
allowance, and relieved him of his managerial duties.64 Initially,
the Raja appeared willing to comply with the order, and set out
from his fort at Vizianagaram. After marching the twelve miles to
Padmanabham, on the road to Machilipatnam, with his soon to swell
to 4,000 troop retinue, however, he stopped, and indicated that he
had had a change of heart. Spies of the government "returned with
the news that it was the Raja's intention to resist the Company's
forces to the last, and, if finally overpowered, 'then to do as
the Bobbili family did formerly' when their fort was captured by
Despite distinct differences, including jati, the parallels with
1757 are quite evident (opposition to a more powerful entity--and
a foreigner, same locale in the Northern Circars, descendant of
one of the original parties). In fact, those parallels provided
all involved with a sufficient basis for understanding Viziarama
Rau's threat. By the same token it was also clear that the Raja
was truly a generation apart from his forebears with regard to his
avenues for action. In this case, he was forced to act knowing
that he lived in the shadow of that earlier event, and his scope
for performance was much more limited than Bobbili's had been. The
very act by the Raja, alluding to the events of forty years
earlier in order to evoke sympathy from his contemporaries, meant
that Padmanabham could parallel Bobbili as representation only.
This event, centering as it did on a non-Velama, was able to do
little more than play on tropic similarities (though it did lead
to a skirmish). Velamas, by contrast, came to be able to refer to
1757 in more resonant ways.
The records of the Collector at Vizagapatam from 1817,
twenty-three years later than the above episode, and sixty years
after the actual battle, contain an even more direct, and perhaps
more expected, reference to the story of Bobbili. In those records
is a letter, translated from the Telugu, from the Bobbili
Raja/Zamindar to the Magistrate of the Zillah of Vizagapatam
complaining of Government harassment. "I do not see how my
character can be preserved," he wrote.
I most humbly beg leave to state to your Honor, as to the highest
authority, that as my cast is one of rank amongst the Hindoos, and
as my ancestors to the number of 4,000 persons of both sexes died
in an instant, about sixty years ago, under the idea that death
was preferable to disgrace I hope that your honor will take this
into consideration. ...
As my character and respectability has already suffered so much, I
ought already to die according to the rules of my cast; but under
the apprehension, that my Zemindary will not be continued to my
children if I do not show my innocence to your Honor, I have
submitted to you this petition.66
The events of 1757 had clearly taken hold by this time. They were,
by 1817, rallying points for the then Raja of Bobbili, parts of
the definition of who he was, and who a Velama ought to be. This
was not a simple typing of caste. It was a use of caste as a
recently politicized category, arrived at through the re-telling
of the experience of 1757, and the re-creating of its meaning. A
Velama chief now had the ability to tell the story of Bobbili,
make reference to that event, utter the category "Velama," and
exert a newly understood force over his listeners.
Another letter of 1817, from the Bobbili Raja to Major General
Rumley, regarding the actions of sepoys sent to deal with the
problems at the fort, reaffirms this new understanding. The sepoys
came within the Raja's gate
with the intention of entering the house, where the women reside.
We are ready for death by blowing ourselves up with gunpowder, in
the event of their entering into the apartments of my family
women. ... If you delay doing so (preventing this) my character
will be lost, and we will doubtless die in consequence.67
"Character" here is Velama character. Further, the language of
threat is possible because of the shared understanding of the
history of the area. A reference in the letter to the concern the
Raja shows for the continuance of his zamindari exposes an altered
basis for the relationship between Velama and outsider. This time
a Raja's suggestion of suicide actually functioned because the
entire environment, one that made such a negotiated statement
possible, dictated dialogue.
This is to say, the shifting tactics that members of Bobbili's
court employed during the nineteenth-century series of
confrontations, and the changing responses they received from the
British, speak to the transitional nature of categories in this
time-frame. Initially, for example, the Raja fasted for some time
because, he claimed, the sepoys sent by the magistrate's office
had blocked access to good water in his house. The "peons" of the
magistrate had also attempted to arrest the Raja's wife,
Chandrammah, by laying hold of her. This attack on her body
prompted her own petition. Then, at the same time that the
magistrate heard of the threats of suicide from the Raja, that
chief's "Dewan," whose failure to deliver himself and the records
of the zamindari to the collector had precipitated this entire
exchange, wrote to the magistrate with his excuse. He had heard of
the Raja's intention to threaten suicide, and so included this
about himself in the letter, "I am the Dewan under the Zemindar of
Bobbilee, I have lent more than a lac of Rupees to the Government,
and I am of the Velama Cast."68 By this date, then, the diwan too,
as a Velama-caste member, could exercise the power of invoking the
As late as the early nineteenth century, when signs (caste and
kingship, for instance) were contested differently than they came
to be later, story tellers could take the narrative and play with
those signs, as Mallesam did to some extent. With the coming of
colonialism and a shift in the space of the tellings of the Katha
(from traveling minstrel and singer of repertoire, to minstrel as
teller of exemplary Telugu story, to Velama referring to the Katha
as a didactic means of articulating the Velama self), new,
contextualized forms of performance, and reference to the Katha
emerged. Accordingly, incorporated into those new styles were the
changing demands that the politics of self among singers and
listeners had been calling for; and those changes included new
ways to articulate the self. Fresh formulations of the story, and
altered styles of rendition, however, did not simply supplant the
older ones. Every updated telling provided a bridge to the future
in terms of the ways that characters in the story could be
described, and inevitably included the politics of categories and
identity into those descriptions. Thus, not only did the
descriptions themselves change, the parameters for the production
of the descriptions were also altered, ultimately having
implications for the production of the self in later years. Over
the course of the nineteenth century, Velamas of the Bobbili Katha
became, through renderings of the story, the sites for the
production of meaning and knowledge about the category Velama, and
about contemporary Velama identity itself. In the late eighteenth
century it had been an awareness of the existence of the events
related by the Katha, or the Katha's singers that had created
meaning. Now, with new fora in which to speak (petitions and,
later, print) Velamas produced meanings about themselves through
their "own" story of self.
To the Twentieth Century Printed Version of the Bobbili Narrative:
The Pedda Bobbili Raja Katha
The main substantive difference in the twentieth-century version
of the Bobbili Katha is its focus on representation, as opposed to
action itself. But the full import of that shift shows itself only
slowly. Instead, the first difference one notices in comparing the
later version of the Bobbili Katha to the earlier version is its
appearance as a book, printed in Madras. The 1832 version is a
manuscript, transcribed from Mallesam's telling. The printed
version has a new feel to it; it is now neither oral tale, nor
colonial artifact. Of no little importance in exemplifying this is
the absence of any real narrator/minstrel (there is no final "by
line" as in the 1832 version); and there is no initial disclaimer
that a singer was hired to narrate the story to a British Madras
Civil Servant and his Brahman transcribers. The Bobbili Katha has,
in this version, become one of the many examples of the shift from
oral to written culture writ small. The story of Bobbili that
appeared early in the twentieth century has a new title also. C.P.
Brown had written simply "Bobbili Katha" atop his manuscript. The
book version is titled "The Story of the King of Big Bobbili--The
War That Arose From Wagering On Cocks."69
The shift in titles here is from a focus on the locale, and the
family that ruled that locale, to the representations of the
reasons for the actions of the king of that fort and his people.
The narrative in the book reflects this change also.
Personalities, and how they explain themselves, are the focus of
this more recent version, more than the events and their details.
(As we shall see, for instance, the cock fights fit in well here
because they allow the reader insight into the motivations of the
characters.) In the book, events move to the background, while
relationships between characters and the "Velama-ness" of
characters move to the fore.
This trend has further implications: politics here emerge through
the actions of, and options available to, these individuals. The
characters and their actions all represent larger,
firmly-established solidarities. Therefore, each character acts as
a representative of the solidarity. In contrast to the earlier
manuscript, solidarities do not emerge from the actions and
pronouncements of the characters. By now solidarities are in
place, meant to be understood from the reader's knowledge of
Bobbili's history. Thus the pivotal confrontation between the
Bobbili Raja and his neighbor, by now firmly linked in popular
tradition, remote as it is in time, takes place squarely as the
confrontation between a Velama and a non-Velama chief. It is a war
that highlights not the courageous deeds of a generic raja, but
the now absolutely necessary actions of a Velama warrior. In the
earlier version, the possibility of a confrontation is given as a
likely part of the general politics of the region. Jati was
perhaps little more than a metaphor for possible lines of
alliance, not a prescription for action; "heroic solidarity" (a la
Marshall Sahlins) was crucial. In the book, the very impossibility
of a conflict is nil because of the strength and firmly-planted
discursive parameters surrounding the power of Velama-ness in the
early twentieth century.
Narrative In The Book:
The printed story begins with a description of a series of cock
fights held between the Rajas of Bobbili and Vizianagaram.70 These
fights take on escalating importance as a distinct trend develops.
Each new fight brings another victory for Bobbili, and deeper
anger from Vizianagaram. The Vizianagaram Raja cannot seem to
field a winning cock, and by the end of the first portion of the
book he bears a huge amount of resentment toward Bobbili.
Fittingly, the cock fights had been at Vizianagaram's prompting,
in a letter to Ranga Rao's younger brother, Vengalarayudu,
suggesting that the winner of the matches garner the accompanying
fame.71 Clearly, however, all is not well between the two houses,
as we can see in Bobbili's reaction to the challenge; Ranga Rao
laughed out loud when he read the letter from his neighbor.72 Such
exchanges are noticeably absent from the manuscript. The book
calls for an understanding of the history that exists between the
two rajas and their families. Whatever is about to come is not
going to rely on some uncollected revenue to be paid to the
French. It will hinge on the existing, historically-produced
nature of the outcome of the solidarity shown by Velamas decades
earlier; it will hinge on the ability of Velamas to express Velama
Upon reading Bobbili's acceptance to the challenge, Vizianagaram
begins his plans for the big day. He invites nearby rajas, and
prepares a great feast.73 Bobbili, on the other hand, clearly
making all the right moves, insists that all the Velama Doras must
come to these matches, immediately linking Bobbili with the ideal
of Velama solidarity, and confirming that ideal with the news that
all the Velama Doras were happy to receive invitations.74 Indeed,
not only were they honored with invitations, they were asked to
bring, and did bring, cocks to contribute to Bobbili's cause. The
productive nature of the historical creation of categories is
given a positive valence from the outset; being made known to be
Velama sets off indicators for right action and success.
Vizianagaram, alternatively, is given no specific jati affiliation
at this point, significant since Velama-ness is clearly critical
for Bobbili. While being non-Velama is not given a negative
valence at this point (it is merely neutral), it does later serve
as a productive anti-pod to Velama-ness.
In accordance with the status of Velamas here, the fights progress
in a predictable fashion. Each cock that Vizianagaram sends into
the ring meets the same fate: it dies while Bobbili's remains
unharmed.75 Soon we read that the Raja had never been so angry.
When it comes time to conclude the final match, Bobbili's cock
"holds the other cock down with one leg while it uses the knife
(attached to its anklet) to slit the throat of the (Raja's) cock."
(The reader immediately understands this to foreshadow the manner
of the killings to come later in the story.) The Raja's final cock
then dies, and members of Bobbili's retinue are seen poorly
suppressing their laughter. At this the Raja becomes even
angrier.76 As all parties decamp from the site of the matches,
Vizianagaram is beside himself to think of, and act out, a measure
of revenge against Bobbili.
Vizianagaram's franticness and general weakness of character are
important features of the book. But, again, this weakness is not
portrayed as the attribute of a jati. It is the attribute of the
antithesis of a Velama. The weak character is critical, for it
allows the larger conflict to take place. There is a need for a
revenge motive from a weak, and, especially, non-Velama, character
to permit such an eventually tragic course of events to happen to
the Velamas. Such weakness is evident even when the final battle
is about to be won. As Bobbili's men report Ranga Rao's death,
Vizianagaram cries out, "Do not believe, do not believe those
Bobbili people! We must go near and see that he has (actually)
died."77 This cowardice, of course, posits the contrasting
levelheaded-ness, and general superiority of Bobbili the Velama,
as compared to Vizianagaram.
In 1757 and 1832, when jati did not take on the political drive it
has here, no such characterization was necessary. Greed and power
were sufficient motives for the unfolding of events. By the
twentieth century, those are no longer legitimate (or even
interesting) premises for the battle to come. This time Velama
niti (a Velama code of conduct), which serves now as a new code
for action, will motivate Bobbili and his court to take those last
gruesome steps. They will not need the threat to their manliness,
the scoffing insult that Mallamma Devi hurled earlier, to put them
on the right course. They will take those steps in accordance with
nīti, and in opposition to the, by then, thoroughly established
inferior and unworthy Vizianagaram and French characters. Velama
nīti will dictate the drastic path that Bobbili takes.
In addition, along with the late nineteenth-century politicization
of jati in the book, comes an escalation to a more complex level of
the "typing" process; Velama-ness has become internalized, its
essence expressed not by the narrators of the story, but by the
characters themselves. This is evident early on, as the story of
the battle begins to unfold. Ranga Rao suggests that the people of
Bobbili take the women out of the fort to a safe refuge. Then the
men might return to fight.78 The book, however, does not change
basic historical events; the historicity of the story itself is
preserved as Ranga Rao's idea is rejected by his younger brother.
The latter claims, "If we go outside to take the women to the
west, Velama Doras will laugh if they hear of it. If the
surrounding rajas hear, they will ridicule (us)." Vengalarayudu
implores his brother not to speak "cowardly words." Importantly,
this suggestion from Ranga Rao is entirely absent from the
manuscript. Its inclusion indicates a shift from that version. The
manuscript allowed individuals to act out their understandings of
self and jati; by the twentieth century, and in this book, action
is supplanted by representation, by a need to explain why action
must take place.
Later, for instance, in the midst of battle, Vengalarayudu again
speaks of what it means to be a Velama, and how his forces should
Older and younger brother Velama Doras --
In this army, you must not look ahead or behind.
The heaven of heroes awaits the men who meet their death here.
We (our fame) will remain here until the end of time on this planet.
You presided over this fort as Sri Rama ruled (his kingdom).
Vengalarayudu spoke such brave words.79
These "brave" words contrast Ranga Rao's earlier suggestion. Yet
they both reinforce the recurring need to explain to the audience
what is implicit in being a Velama. These expostulations present a
marked departure from the earlier, rather simple, typing process
of the manuscript. In a sense, there the presence of Velamas alone
is the full extent of the expression of Velama-ness. The thorough
representation of Velamas and Velama mores in the book alters the
pretext of the story, if not the events depicted therein.
Ultimately, the descriptions in the book serve not to tell a tale,
but to explain how the events of 1757 could possibly have resulted
as everyone knows they did.
Bussy In The Book:
Bussy plays a different, and more central role in the book. We
first learn of him immediately at the conclusion of the cock fight
episode. Bussy, "That French Bussy who is one of those people who
rule at Pondicherry," we hear, is in the company of the Nizam at
Golconda, and is preparing for a tour of the eastern districts.80
Unlike earlier manuscript usages, his name is written "Praancila
Buci." Elsewhere in the book he is "Praanci Dora Gaaru," or "Buci
Dora Gaaru." It would appear problematic to suggest that "French"
and "Bussy" are intentionally poorly transliterated into Telugu so
that they will be mispronounced. But it is worth noting that the
manuscript version uses far less extreme divergence from the
French pronunciations, "Busi Dora Gaaru," for instance.81 The
manuscript also uses the Telugu word "Paraasu" when referring to
Bussy and his French troops, a term that specifically intended
French people. The politics and poetics of such specific name
modifications is difficult to interpret. The book might reflect a
freedom that Mallesam did not feel when telling the story to C.P.
Brown (or that the Brahman scribes did not convey). It might
reflect an attempt by the publishers of the book to put into print
nuances that normally only come through in an oral presentation of
the story. (This seems even more likely given the usage I shall
cite below for "Buci" as the boogie man.) In any event, it is
probably not too far off to say that the book uses terms,
descriptions, and spellings in reference to the French that are
intentionally somewhat more disparaging than those present in the
manuscript version. This interpretation is born out when we see
Bussy in action.
Bussy is made to look pompous in this printed version from the
moment of his first interactions with Indians. He tells the Nizam,
referred to here as Padusha, not to give him orders. He says that
the Nizam must permanently send payments for the use of certain
lands. And then the book mocks Bussy's sense of self-importance.
Bussy is said to have felt great happiness at (realizing) such
great excessiveness (power). The Nizam watches Bussy leave, and
says aloud that the Frenchman is not to be trusted.82
Soon after, in a communique from Vizianagaram to Vengalarayudu, we
learn more about Bussy and his removed position vis-a-vis both the
Velama Dora chief and his rival. Vizianagaram tries to
re-ingratiate himself to Vengalarayudu upon having second thoughts
about his alliance with Bussy against Bobbili. He writes
'He [Bussy] has a language we do not understand. We have a
language he does not understand. In a stupor from drinking bhang
and toddy, that French Dora does not even know his own body ...
Let's go together as one, Vengalarayudu, and defeat Bussy
This letter would also seem to be the perfect opportunity for the
narrative to take a nationalist turn and allow the Velama and
Vizianagaram to embrace, and turn as one against the foreigner.
But the suggestion from Vizianagaram is scoffed at, and the
Velamas brace for confrontation.84
Furthermore, this critique of Bussy's diet, and the lack of
attention he shows to his own body, goes on in each scene,
especially those that describe him in his tent. On the very next
page, for instance, we are again made privy to the contents of a
letter from Vizianagaram, this time as Vengalarayudu reads it
aloud to the court at Bobbili. Bussy, it seems, is camped in tents
at Rajahmundry, and is drunk on a combination of toddy, sįra
(arrack), and "ganjaayi." As if that revelation were not enough,
not only does he over-indulge as a rule, but we hear that even his
spoken tongue is suspect. "The language of the French people
consists of 'kikara' and 'bhakara.'"85 The text here parodies the
French language at a time (turn of the twentieth century) when
Telugu speakers were keenly interested in promoting Telugu's own
greatness and legitimacy.86 This type of condemnation of Bussy as
symbol of complete antithesis ran deep into the complexities of
Telugu-speaking culture, so much so that another aspect of the
man, the parodic figure of Bussy, is alive today among speakers of
Telugu. Parents can quiet their children at night by threatening
that "Bucci" (a boogie man) will come to get them if they are
noisy. Few people will recognize the origins of the word, but the
sign itself has become a part of the language of Telugu
Clearly, there is scope for a nationalist interpretation of this
text, given the caricature of Bussy. Nevertheless, it is equally
evident that what the author critiques can be interpreted as an
affirmation of its opposite (at the more local level) in Telugu
and Velama societies . By taking note of the extremeness of the
parody, an outline forms around what is being protected from
parody. Thus, virtually all of the condemnations of Bussy extol,
through their opposing effect, virtues of sobriety, temperance
(regarding all aspects of the body), and the specialness of the
Telugu language. Furthermore, these jibes at Bussy set up a
distinct social core made up of Telugu-speaking Velama Doras who
ascribe to the jati rules so thoroughly outlined in the tale.
The contempt for Bussy plays itself out during the battle later.
At a time during the fight when no matter how far they went, they
found only corpses, Vengalarayudu reminds his soldiers that great
fame will come from killing Vizianagaram and Bussy. Word of the
courage of Bobbili's troops reaches Bussy and his aid,
Haidarujangu ji. Haidarujangu ji proclaims that if Vengalarayudu
arrives at their tents, their siege will be lost. Bussy hears of
this possibility, and quickly mounts his elephant to head for the
hills. Vizianagaram at the same time proceeds to investigate how
Bussy is holding up under the pressure of the battle. Of course,
he finds Bussy has fled. Out loud he scorns the Frenchman, "French
Dora, however much physical strength you possess, French Dora, you
are a base creature with no mustache!"88 Here Bussy possesses none
of the qualities necessary in any way to be positioned on a moral
field with these warriors. He has none of the essential
characteristics of these chiefs and their soldiers, nothing that
would allow him to be identified with them and their status.
Then what of the Velamas versus Vizianagaram? It is not simply
that Bussy here is an outsider, a person from a far off place. The
story takes pains to establish that what it means to be an
outsider is predicated not on geographical origins, but on not
having the qualities inherent in the combatants at the fort.
Bussy's relationship with the Telugu Vizianagaram Raja does not
raise Bussy's status. That alliance does the opposite: it lowers
Vizianagaram's. And this is critical; the relationship exposes
Vizianagaram's true weaknesses. In fact, Bussy's total exclusion
from the ties that bind in this social setting is only the
frontispiece for the next few lines, when Vengalarayudu happens on
the Vizianagaram Raja's now empty tent, and wonders, "'Why have
you [Vizianagaram] come here with no compassion?'" The depth of
anguish for Bobbili is made clear by the way the story
characterizes that ruler's opponents. Much of that tragedy, beyond
the killings themselves, is set up through Vizianagaram and the
outsider, Bussy. Vizianagaram, in his relationship to Bussy, and
his failure to comprehend the importance of Velama solidarity,
points to the great tragedy that is the fate of Bobbili. Bussy
reveals, by way of his inadequacies, his intemperance, and his
cowardice, all the discipline, pride, and honor that are the
characteristics of the Velamas at Bobbili.
Thus, while the primary shift from the manuscript to the book is
the change from characters "being" to having them represent
(themselves and others), that shift is manifested in many ways,
one of which is an altered role for Bussy. Whereas Bussy was one
character among many before, in the book he wears both the hat of
a westerner and of a non-Velama. In the manuscript his presence
was as a foil, a provider of reasons to act. So, as a result of
Bussy's alliance with Vizianagaram, Bobbili became alienated from
the rest of the figures in that region, and was more logically
inclined to act in the drastic manner he chose. But Bussy's role
as a central character stopped there. We saw little in the
manuscript of him beyond those instances when we needed to know
why the plot continued to unfold as it did. In the book he becomes
an important character in his own right. More importantly, Bussy
now becomes the archetypal outsider, the converse of all that is
Indian, Telugu, and, most critically, the antithesis of a Velama.
Through his speech and conduct we see what it means not to be
righteous. Ironically, were Vizianagaram not a participant in all
this, it would be easy to explain Bussy's role as a type of
statement for the cause of nationalism: Bussy would embody a
presentation of the negated colonizer. Yet Vizianagaram is there.
So Bussy becomes more nuanced, making the main obstacle for
nationalist speculation, if, indeed, it is intended by the text at
all, Vizianagaram himself, the fellow Indian, who becomes a
betrayer of sorts. Such interplay drastically changes the weaving
of possible oppositions in the narrative, and the overriding
message of the narrative becomes that of stating Velama greatness.
Bussy's depiction in the book comes to define the limits of what
is meant by the category "Velama" for those Velama Doras in the
Katha; he is another productive vehicle for the promotion of that
category. His particular characterization in the book would not
have been possible early in the nineteenth century when a Velama
identity did not exist as such, as a political label, or as a unit
of discourse in itself, against which to posit a signifier of its
negativity. By the twentieth century the opportunity presented
itself to exploit the politicization of a Velama category in such
a way as to make "Velama" a positive module in a field of
identities. Bussy is the Velamas' complete Other, that polar
opposite discursive site that provided alterity for contemporary
productive visions of Velama identity.
The Final Battle and the Ultimate Differences Between Manuscript
That the book is about the making of Velama identity and who the
Velamas have become is visible also in the depiction of the
killings and final moments for the people of the fort at Bobbili.
The need to express Velama honor even brings about certain changes
in the story-line. Thus, though it is Mallamma Devi who throws
forth the gauntlet in the manuscript, when she questions Ranga
Rao's manhood for intending to allow his women to eat the food of
the French, the book gives that "honor" to Vengalarayudu. His
dying words urge the men of Bobbili not to allow the French to
feed the women of the King. Vengalarayudu dies insisting that the
soldiers return to the fort from the field of battle to release
those shackles, to usher off the women to their final rest.89
In a parallel scene, by way of expressing the honor (and piety) of
Velama women, when Mallamma Devi hears of Vengalarayudu's death,
she takes all the King's women to perform various pujas, a
sequence absent from the manuscript. Before she dies, furthermore,
she sends off one of Ranga Rao's sons with a maid servant, who is
disguised as a beggar, in the hope that they will make it through
enemy lines to safety somewhere beyond.90 Mallamma Devi seeks to
insure some continuity--she acts out tradition, and acts to
preserve tradition.91 As the end draws near, the men of Bobbili
become the ultimate personifications of male Velama honor, and
Mallamma Devi is given the role of a "true" Velama woman.
When the Raja's time for action does finally come, Ranga Rao
simply calls his brother-in-law, Narsarayudu, and hands him a
knife. Ranga Rao commands him to "go, release those shackles."92
With that, Narsarayudu knows what to do, and heads to the women's
quarters. Mallamma Devi instantly understands why her brother has
come, and tells him to carry out his work. "Saying, 'Garagara
Garagara,' he slit her throat."93 Narsarayudu then proceeds to
slit the throats of the rest of the women in the room, all of them
his sisters. As in the manuscript, here we now read of how
pregnant women, with full bellies, and students are killed. Other
Velama Doras go from room to room grabbing, and then holding heads
in the particular way, so as to be able to slit throats.94 The
Velama Doras also slit the throats of children. Rangayya Dora Garu
says, "Kill everyone, (even) those filling the streets of Brahmans
and Komatis!"95 To ensure their complete success, the chief's men
put others in warehouses, and burn down the buildings.
Then, in a further departure from the manuscript, before himself
heading out to fight, Ranga Rao gathers all the gold and silver in
the fort, pounds it into one lump, and throws it into a well,
along with a rock on which he makes an inscription. The wealth is
to be saved for any family member who may happen to survive the
battle.96 This is Ranga Rao's gesture to posterity. (And it is an
obvious contrasting gesture to what Bussy does with the gold and
silver he obtains from the Beri women of Bobbili.) Though Ranga
Rao cannot leave a fort to his children, perhaps he can save the
wealth of the zamindari for some future generation. Within a page
of this scene, Ranga Rao gives up his life on the field of battle.
He dies after his horse is killed and after he axes to death
ninety people, despite his intestines having been spilled on the
ground. "Such a life I have lived! Oh, to die at the hands of
these (unworthy) people!"97
Here ends the battle for Bobbili. With Ranga Rao's death the
Velama Doras cannot sustain the fight. Vizianagaram's forces hear
of Bobbili's death, end their retreat, and turn back to do battle
so as to put a final end to the siege. Vizianagaram inspects Ranga
Rao's body to make sure he has died, so afraid is he at the
thought that it might be a ploy. Bussy, on the other hand, sees
the corpse and begins to grieve, almost sobbing. "I unknowingly
killed the tigers of Bobbili!"98 And then he turns to Vizianagaram
and lamentedly speaks words noticeably absent from the manuscript,
"Viziaramaraju is a performer of bad karma, a traitor to his
family. I listened to too many words from that outcaste by
This is a completely new degree of criticism being leveled here
against Vizianagaram. Indeed, that censure is precisely by way of
contrast with the Velama Doras of Bobbili. In the manuscript
Vizianagaram is simply a person who has performed paapam (sin).
There he recognizes his wrong-doings, and shoulders the burden of
those deeds; he also pays for them with his life. But at no point
is his role as a fellow warrior, bound by kingly responsibilities,
in question. Nor is there any suggestion of some deep character
flaw in him. In that manuscript, the perception of his being, and
his own conception of self are are allowed to reside apart from
The book, however, paints a different portrait. Vizianagaram is a
performer of actions that confirm who he is as distinct from
others, literally, an "outcaste." This is, I believe, is an
essential key in the historical shift from jati to caste.
Vizianagaram's jati (birth) is never an issue in any of the works.
Rather, when being of a jati takes on a subsequent political aspect
that prescribes right jati-specific action, and when those
politics can then refer back to the birth feature of jati, then
being a member of that jati comes closer to what we refer to as
caste, now, in the late twentieth century. Vizianagaram became an
"outcaste" by virtue of the representations of his actions, just
as Bobbili had become the good Velama by virtue of the telling of
the Bobbili Katha. The book, moreover, even seems to take pleasure
in this turn of events, as the "outcaste" insult issues from that
lowly Frenchman, Bussy.
Finally, as with the manuscript, the story explains that
Paparayudu survived. He takes two men, disguises himself as one of
Vizianagaram's servants, and goes to kill the King. Each avenger
takes his turn at stabbing Vizianagaram. For the ultimate blows
Paparayudu has the King propped up so that he can properly address
that chief as he strikes. Unlike the manuscript, he does not
metaphorically change into the tiger of Bobbili and slash the
King's gut. He simply asks Vizianagaram if he accomplished what he
wanted in coming like a thief to topple Bobbili. A stab to the
chest finishes the business, and blood pours to the ground as life
leaves the King's body.100 Paparayudu and his men exit the tent to
allow themselves to be killed by the guards, and thereby make
understood what has transpired.
The Conclusion of Narrative and the Creation of Velama
There is an important trend present in the history of the telling
of the Bobbili Katha that has not been identified in recent works
on Orientalism in India. The Velama creation of an epistemology of
self through the telling of the Bobbili Katha, and the growing
politicization of categories therein, gives us a specific
production of identity that has generally only been applied to the
category "the nation" (in South Asia) to this point. Ronald
Inden's work, Imagining India, is perhaps most notable in avoiding
consideration of such identity formation. While he correctly
outlines the western process of essentializing India and Indian
society and culture, he does not take note of a corresponding
process going on in India by Indians.101 Ashis Nandy, on the other
hand, has, to some extent, explored Indian reactions to one type
of this essentializing.102 But he too has not elaborated on a
process that was somewhat independent of the particular western
nexus of Colonialism and Orientalism he investigates. In truth,
the nineteenth century process that we see with the Bobbili Katha
and Velamas may have informed what those two authors examine, but
the creation of categories in that period was certainly not
contingent on the rise of colonialism and its attendant systems of
The story of the Bobbili Katha, instead, offers an alternative
means of understanding the historical creation of local
epistemologies, epistemologies that most scholars have insisted
resulted from a western intrusion into Indian culture and society.
What analysis of this story suggests, in fact, is the presence of
a process that actually took place in Europe as well, and which
has been thoroughly expounded on.103 As opportunities for
expression grew, and print media outlets increased, societies
developed discourses on themselves, and, in effect, essentialized
themselves. Furthermore, this process is similar to the imagined
communities that Benedict Anderson posits for nationalism. Again,
however, his focus on that category ignores smaller community
development.104 In fact, I propose that larger discourses on the
nation, the body (sexuality), and even language did not arise
until discourses on the self, made possible through the expression
of historical solidarities at the local level, had emerged. Until
people developed a way to articulate who they were in a limited
field to those along side them and to those on the outside, they
did not have the tools to link themselves to larger discursive
(imagined) units, even with the appearance of such mechanisms as
Anderson's print capitalism.
Thus, whereas action was dictated by a deep understanding of the
self for Ranga Rao in 1757, sets of possible actions and the
ability itself to act, later became predicated on the
explicability of the self and the development of what it meant to
attach particular definitions to oneself or to one's group. The
shift here is critical, and is as clear as that offered by Ernest
Gellner regarding the ability of people to sustain loyalty.
"Modern man is not loyal to a monarch or a land or a faith,
whatever he may say, but to a culture."105 By the twentieth
century, the story of the Raja of Bobbili can no longer have that
raja act as action would have once seemed fit. He must act in
accordance with meanings of Velama identity (Velama culture) that
had been stated and developed until they could sustain any attempt
at a particular action--loyalty was no longer centered on the
raja. This trend is born out by the twentieth century telling of
the Bobbili Katha.
In the end, the early-nineteenth-century story of the battle of
Bobbili does prove to be a fruitful source for an exploration of
jati politics because it offers up group labels in ways that are
unfamiliar to later-nineteenth-century understandings of jati, and
then caste. What the Bobbili Katha, its tellings, and the
references that are made by Velamas both to the event, and to the
telling of the event, tells us is that between 1757, when Bobbili
was attacked, and the later nineteenth century discussions
surrounding caste and its place in Indian society, there arose a
critical series of changes in the way that caste was understood by
both Indians and the British. Moreover, these changes in
understandings of caste were not purely British or bureaucratic
productions. They were produced by Indians who described
themselves in connection with colonial bureaucratic institutions
made available to Indians. The point here is that an event at a
critical moment just prior to the arrival of those colonial
bureaucratic mechanisms offered a basis for the shaping of an
identity along caste lines, an identity that was not there in its
particular (nineteenth century) shape at the time of the event,
but which emerged through reference to the event over the course
of the next century. Of course, the story of the battle of Bobbili
is not in itself a story of caste. But the history of the telling
of the Katha is about how stories and events came to be the
moments of solidarity that led to the experience of identification
of the self with the group that experienced that solidarity. In
India these events (historical actions and the narration of those
actions) became the reference points for new ways to talk about
jati and caste. They created a new space for the definition of
caste. Therefore, they also provided the substance around which a
discourse on caste could arise for Indians and the British. Caste
does not exist in its current (late twentieth century) state
solely because of a colonial incursion into India. Caste exists as
we now know it because of the negotiations that surrounded
identity formation and the use of categories in India early during
the encounters between Indians and "others." The story of the
battle of Bobbili is the center of one such negotiation.
1 Marshall Sahlins's observations on history and kingship among
many Pacific Islanders are particularly applicable here. See, for
instance, his "Other Times, Other Customs: The Anthropology of
History," American Anthropologist 88 (1983): 517-544. There he
suggests that solidarity can, indeed, be centered on the idea of
an heroic king.
2 See Nicholas Dirks, "Castes of Mind," Representations 37 (Winter
1992): 75, and Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Cambridge, Mass:
Basil Blackwell, 1990), 58, for example, as well as Louis Dumont,
Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications, trans.
Mark Sainsbury, Louis Dumont, and Basia Gulati (1966; Reprint of
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). I might also include
here Partha Chatterjee and his "imminent critique of caste" in The
Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 175-81. Though
Chatterjee tries to tear apart the prevailing hierarchicalization
of caste by incorporating ideas of subalternity, he still posits
the "system of castes" in the historical framework he
investigates. This article questions whether there was caste at
all, as we know it, in the early nineteenth century, prior to
attributing to the period a "system" of castes.
3 Here it will be argued that jati, as it is represented by the
use of the label "Velama," in its early nineteenth century form,
is distinctly different from caste. Only by the twentieth century
does the invocation of "Velama-ness" clearly bear the traits of
framing an essential identity feature for Velamas themselves.
4 Consistent with this suggestion that jati and caste were not
absolutely central to Indian society is work done by Cynthia
Talbot in her "A Revised View of 'Traditional' India: Caste,
Status, and Social Mobility in Medieval Andhra," South Asia 15,
no. 1 (1992): 17-52. Talbot distances herself from other scholars
by offering an in-depth look at pre-nineteenth century "clans"
(what I shall still refer to as "jatis") that are strikingly
different from twentieth century castes and the models of caste
drawn up by those scholars. In addition to allowing for the
individual to act within the social system, Talbot proposes that
clans were "vastly different from the rigid, tradition-bound
society implied by the common model of a social system composed of
hierarchically ranked and hereditary jatis." (Talbot, 47.)
5 Re-assessments of the importance of the "punctual" historical
event, especially when using folk sources has precedents in such
writers as Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies, trans. Raymond Rosenthal
(New York: Random House, 1991; Reprint of Turin, 1989), in
particular see 12-13 and 22-23, and Jacques Le Goff's introduction
to a reprint of Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges (Paris:
Gallimard, 1983; Reprint of Strasbourg, 1924), XI-XIII, for
example, to name two.
6 See Robert Orme, A History of the Military Transactions of the
British Nation in Indostan--From the Year MDCCXLV, vol. 2 (London:
Printed for J. Nourse, 1763-78), 254-260.
7 Orme, vol. 2, 258.
8 Orme is quoted for the accounts of this battle in, among others,
the introduction to Sri M. Somasekhara Sarma, ed. Bobbili
Yuddhakatha (Madras: Government Oriental Manuscript Library,
1956), xviii-xxii; D.F. Carmichael, A Manual of the District of
Vizagapatam, in the Presidency of Madras (Madras: Reprinted at the
Asylum Press by William Thomas, 1869), 177-182; and W. Francis,
Madras District Gazetteers, Vizagapatam (Madras: Printed by The
Superintendent of the Government Press, 1907), 237-241.
9 Sarojini Regani, Nizam-British Relations, 1724 to 1857
(Hyderabad: Distributed by Booklovers, 1963), 96.
10 Alfred Martineau notes the importance of the income for the
troops, and for French glory in South India, in his Bussy et
L'Inde Francaise, 1720-1785 (Paris: Societe de l'Histoire des
Colonies Francaise, 1935), 134. The original circars granted the
French in 1752 were Kondavid, Chicacole, Rajahmundry, Eluru, and
Kondapalli. Also see P. Raghunada Rao, History of Modern Andhra
Pradesh (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private, Ltd., 1991), 34.
11 Regani, 103.
12 Martineau, 218.
13 Regani, 104. For some discussion of
politics in the region from the late seventeenth century see John
Richards, "Mughal Retreat from Coastal Andhra," Journal of the
Royal Asiatic Society, no. 1 (1978): 50-68. Ananda Ranga Pillai's
diary attempts to tell a bit of this history as well. See his
Private Diary, vol. 10 (New Delhi: Asian Educational Services,
1985; Reprint of Madras, 1925), 335.
14 Ibid., 104.
15 Martineau, 223.
16 Orme, vol. 2, 258.
17 Gene Roghair notes that Velamas did not necessarily tell their
"own" histories, as is the case in his work, The Epic of Palnadu:
A Study and Translation of Palnati Virula Katha, a Telugu Oral
Tradition from Andhra Pradesh, India (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
18 See "Bobbili Katha," Government Oriental Manuscript Library,
Madras, Telugu MS no. 2550, and Bobbili Yuddhakatha, op. cit..
C.P. Brown's note on the cover of the transcription he had
prepared reads, "The following three tales, viz. Bobbili Catha
(sic), Comara Ramudi Catha, Camamma Catha, are popular ballads or
histories, which are usually preserved by oral recitation alone:
but meeting with one of the wandering minstrels who subsist by
their recitations, I employed him for about a month to recite all
the ballads he knew; and these were written down from his
dictation. The town of Bobbili is a little to the north west of
Chicacole: and the sad tale here told is mentioned by Orme in his
history." (Bobbili Katha, fol. i.)
19 See both Francis and Carmichael, op. cit.. The manuscript
version was sung to Charles P. Brown's scribes in 1832. Strictly
speaking this would place it later than the references to the
events that we see in the records. The liberty I take in
ante-dating the oral version prior to the references in the
records has to do with my understanding of the way oral materials
such as the singing of this ballad work. In no way do I intend to
make the minstrel's telling a 1757 event. I would, however,
suggest that Mallesam's version of the story is close enough to
those told a few years earlier that we can take his (and those
versions) to pre-date at least the later references (1817) in the
20 See Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3737A.
21 See Pedda Bobbili Raju Katha--Kolla Pandemuna Kaligina Kalahamu
(Madras: N.V. Gopal and Co.).
22 It may have been, in fact, just the opposite, since he sang it
precisely for the ears of Brown and that man's servants.
23 Ginzburg's Ecstasies echoes the potentiality, and yet the
constraints of this possibility with his work on the history of
witches' Sabbaths in Europe. "The price to be paid in terms of
precise knowledge became part of the experiment." (Ginzburg, 22.)
And, of course, the supposition I make here is the very staple of
Mikhail Bakhtin's "chronotopism." See Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic
Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl
Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 425. For South
India, Velcheru Narayana Rao has made similar observations
regarding texts arising out of the oral culture of the area. See,
among others, his "Afterward" to Hank Heifetz and Velcheru
Narayana Rao, For the Lord of the Animals--Poems From the Telugu:
The Kalahastisvara Satakamau of Dhurjati (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1987), 131-166.
24 "Bobbili Katha," op. cit., and Bobbili Yuddhakatha, op. cit.
Unless otherwise stated, I will use these two works
interchangeably. Only the slightest differences exist between the
manuscript and its edited version.
25 For instance, though both works try to attribute blame for the
deaths of the people at the court of Bobbili, Mallesam does it in
a singular way.
26 Ibid., 71. C.P. Brown refers to this group in his dictionary as
a "sub-sect" of merchants--Komatis--who were originally traveling
salesmen. Charles P. Brown, A Telugu - English Dictionary (Madras,
1903), 388. Carmichael lists the Beri jati in his manual of the
district as a group also employed as soldiers. But based on the
way he "typed" caste elsewhere in the manual, it may very well be
that this description actually sprang from the section on the Beri
Komatis in the Bobbili Katha itself. (Carmichael, 64.)
27 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 71. The observers even put their fingers
to their faces in awe of the spectacle. "Soludaarulaku" is used
here for "soldiers." Apparently Vizianagaram had 40 elephants at
the battle. (Pillai, vol. 10, 335.)
28 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 72.
29 Pedda Bobbili Raju Katha--Kolla Pandemuna Kaligina Kalahamu, 74.
30 Ibid., 75.
31 Ibid., 76.
32 In the book version she is called Mallamma Devi.
33 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 96.
34 Ibid., 96.
35 Ibid., 97.
36 Ibid., 98.
37 Ibid., 100.
38 Ibid., 99.
39 This relates also to an important point that Marshall Sahlins
makes about the need to expand on Emile Durkheim's possible
solidarities. Sahlins writes, "We need a notion of 'hierarchical
solidarity' to go alongside Durkheim's mechanical and organic
types. In the heroic societies, the coherence of the members of
subgroups is not so much due to their similarity (mechanical
solidarity) or their complementarity (organic solidarity) as to
their common submission to the ruling power." Thus the cry that
Ranga Rao's troops issue is exactly parallel to the quote from
Shakespeare that Sahlins uses to elaborate on "hierarchical
Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King! Henry V IV, i.
See Sahlins, 522 and 524.
40 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 100.
41 On the one hand, the term "Telagas" refers to another
jati group. But it also heightens the idea of loyalty to the king
across jatis. Again, as with the Beris, Carmichael claims they
were regularly employed as soldiers. (Carmichael, 63.)
42 Ibid., 101.
43 Ibid., 102. This translation comes from Captain M.W. Carr, A
Collection of Telugu Proverbs (New Delhi, 1988; reprint of Madras,
1868), 251, no. 1434.
44 Ibid., 109.
45 Ibid., 109.
46 "Bussy's guards then heard them saying, '[This is] the coming
of the Bobbili tiger!'" MS., 109.
47 Herbert H. Risley, The People of India (London: W. Thacker and
Co., 1915) and Edgar Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern
India, 7 vols. (Madras: Government Press, 1909).
48 See, for instance, Christopher Pinney's annotations of colonial
artifacts, "Anthropology and the Colonial Image," in C.A. Bayly,
ed., The Raj: India and the British, 1600-1947 (London: National
Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990), 278-304.
49 Ibid., 10.
50 Ibid., 11.
51 Venkata Swetachalapati, A Revised and Enlarged Account of the
Bobbili Zemindari (Madras: Addison & Co., 1907), 8.
52 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 103.
53 Ibid., 104. By "us," Lakshmudu presumably means Bussy.
54 Bobbili Yuddhakatha, 110.
55 Note, for instance, Dirks's parting comment in his article,
"Castes of Mind." "Transformations [in caste] occurred because of
the ways colonial discourse inscribed its peculiar, often
masterful, combination of old and new meanings in institutional
theaters with major consequences for the colonial subjects."
("Castes of Mind," 75.)
56 Roghair, 35. The Bobbili Katha still has a tradition of being
sung in the late twentieth century. In 1986 a minstrel chose to
sing that katha to me when I asked for a sample of his repertoire.
(Personal communication, October, 1986.)
57 Rosalind O'Hanlon, "Maratha History As Polemic: Low Caste
Ideology and Political Debate in Late Nineteenth-century Western
India," Modern Asian Studies 17, no. 1 (1983): 1-33. This is also
a chapter in her work, Caste Conflict, and Ideology (Cambridge:
University of Cambridge Press, 1985).
58 Ibid., 6-7.
59 Roghair, 97.
60 Ibid., 99-100.
61 As mentioned above, however, some scholars have tried to give
caste an historical trait in connection with colonialism. See, for
instance, Dirks's "Castes of Mind," 59, or his The Hollow Crown,
62 O'Hanlon, 7.
63 As noted by Carmichael in W. Francis, 51.
64 Arrangements such as this were commonplace in the Northern
Circars, and typified what came to be know as "indirect rule" in
the British administration of India.
65 Francis, 52. Carmichael also notes that all the Raja's "men had
sworn to die, sword in hand," 218.
66 Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3737A, fols. 112-114, 29
67 Ibid., fols. 123-124.
68 Vizagapatam District Records, vol. 3737A, fols. 127-128, 30
69 Pedda Bobbili Raju Katha--Kolla Pandemuna Kaligina Kalahamu,
70 The manuscript moves from a brief introduction to a listing of
the succession of halts Bussy made on his march from Hyderabad
towards the coast.
71 Ibid., 5.
72 Ibid., 7.
73 Ibid., 8.
74 Ibid., 9.
75 Ibid., 12.
76 Ibid., 15.
77 Ibid., 99.
78 Ibid., 37.
79 Ibid., 82.
80 Ibid., 16.
81 "Bobbili Katha," MS, fol. 94 and elsewhere.
82 Pedda Bobbili Raja Katha, 17.
83 Ibid., 21. Emphasis mine.
84 Though this Velama focus corresponds to the tone of the book
throughout, the possibility that the story could be construed in a
nationalist vein was, in fact, acted upon by two dramatists of the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sri Padakrishnamurti
Sastri (1908) and Vedam Venkataraya Sastri (1916) each wrote a
nationalist play based on the story of Bobbili. P. Venkata Rama
Sastri notes the nationalist attitude present in both works in his
analysis of the two dramas. See P. Venkataramasastri, Sri Pada
Vedamvari Bobbili Yuddhanatakala Tulanatmaka Parisilanam
(Hyderabad: Usmania University Press, 1988), 4. Of course, the
fact that neither of these two dramatists was Velama may account
for the plays being less concerned with Velama history than they
are interested in promoting nationalism.
85 Pedda Bobbili Raja Katha, 22. Also see page 40. Toddy is a
drink made from the fermented fruit of the palmyra tree. Arrack is
a distilled drink. "Kikara" and "bhakara" are onomatopoeic words
for the author's impression of the sounds that make up French
86 Here note the efforts of such writers as Kandukuri
Viresalingam, G.V. AppaRao, and G.V. Ramamurthy. All three writers
participated in a series of projects to popularize Telugu in print
around the turn of the twentieth century. V. Ramakrishna's Social
Reform in Andhra 1848-1919 (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House,
1983), offers a general look at the works of these figures. Also
see John Leonard's work on Viresalingam's contributions to this
project, "Kandukuri Viresalingam, 1848-1919; A Biography of an
Indian Social Reformer" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin,
87 Personal communication: Interview with Vanajakshi Chatla,
August 30, 1990, and others.
88 Pedda Bobbili Raja Katha, 83.
89 Pedda Bobbili Raja Katha, 86.
90 Ibid., 88.
91 Of course, the changes in general here reflects a certain
gendering of caste and tradition in this version of the Katha,
discussion of which space does not permit. These moves, though,
are consistent with the changing status of women near the turn of
the century in many parts of India. See, among others, Partha
Chatterjee, "Colonialism, Nationalism, and Colonized Women: The
Contest in India," American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (Nov 1989):
622-33, or his chapter "The Nation and Its Women," in The Nation
and Its Fragments, 116-134, and Sumathi Ramaswamy, "En/gendering
Language : The Poetics and Politics of Tamil Identity, 1891-1970"
(Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1992). On women becoming
the sites for the establishment of control over tradition see Lata
Mani, "Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial
India," in Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, ed.
Sangari and Vaid (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press,
1990), 91, for instance.
92 Pedda Bobbili Raju Katha, 91.
93 Ibid., 92. "Garagara" here is apparently a war cry of sorts.
94 Ibid., 93.
95 This is spoken in a way the would suggest that these would be
the last people he would consider killing. Ibid., 93.
96 Ibid., 93.
97 Ibid., 98.
98 Ibid., 99.
99 Ibid., 99.
100 Ibid., 105.
101 Inden, for instance, takes great pains to suggest new
approaches to historicizing the village and villagers in India. He
suggests, for instance, that "If, finally, we gave up the
assumption that the actions of villagers are simply expressions of
or deviations from an underlying essence--the caste society as the
extreme, isolated, and static instance of an Asian or peasant
agrarian structure or fixed religious hierarchy (with its
attendant mythic and metaleptic mentality)--we would want to focus
more carefully on the actions themselves and on their outcomes."
Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell,
1990), 160. Clearly this is consistent with what I suggest
throughout this work, but Inden misses the point that "imagining"
the village, and even caste, became as much an Indian project as
it was a European one.
102 Nandy's, however, is a psychological approach that attributes
meaning to the actions of historical figures who were deeply
entrenched in the effects of colonialism, not to those of Indians
and British who produced it. See, for example, his description of
Gandhi's role in formulating the "most creative response to the
perversion of Western culture." Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy:
Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford
University Press, 1983), 49ff.
103 See, for instance, Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of "dialogism"
in his The Dialogic Imagination, 426; Foucault's notion of the
"silences that permeate discourses," The History of Sexuality,
Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York:
Pantheon, 1978), 27, is similar; this is also so with
Stallybrass's and White's suggestion that "the logic of
identity-formation involves distinctive associations and switching
between location, class and the body, and these are not imposed
upon subject-identity from the outside, they are the core terms of
an exchange network, an economy of signs, in which individuals,
writers and authors are sometimes but perplexed agencies," The
Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1986), 25.
104 Anderson claims "that the convergence of capitalism and print
technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the
possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its
basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation." Imagined
Communities (London: Verso, 1991), 46.
105 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1983), 36.