Cultural Overview

Orissa and West Bengal are two of India's post-independence states. Although they have distinct languages—Oriya and Bengali, respectively—they are closely related Indo-European languages. The histories of these two states have been closely intertwined, especially in modern times when the British ruled this region from Calcutta, the contemporary capital of West Bengal. Together, West Bengal and Orissa constitute North India's rice bowl, made possible by the rich alluvial Gangetic plain that extends east to Bengal and south along the Orissan seaboard. Both states share a similar climate: summer monsoons (June-August) that cool the region from its hot dry period, with temperatures reaching 120oF (March-May) and replenish the land, a cooling and drying period in the fall, with temperatures dropping into the fifties (Fahrenheit) during winter months (December-February). Temperatures can be lower in the hills of both states.

Both states are predominantly Hindu, and they share similar family, kinship, and caste systems. This article will address sex and gender among the Hindu populations of this region, examining possible variations due to rural versus urban residence and caste/class status.

While West Bengal is one of India's most densely populated states and Orissa one of its more thinly populated states, they both have extensive rural populations. West Bengal is about 78% rural and Orissa about 86% rural. Rural settlements in this region vary between a dispersed layout to nucleated villages. West Bengal has one of India's largest and most cosmopolitan cities, Calcutta, whereas Orissa's cities are much smaller. Bhubaneswar, its capital, was only established in 1948 and has grown from a population of about 10,000 to half a million.

The ideal family system in this region is the joint family where two or more patrilineally related kinsmen reside together—a father and his sons or a set of brothers, their wives, and children. Household size and structure are cyclic. When a father dies, his sons may partition the family holdings, breaking into nuclear units until sons marry and have children, once again producing a multi-generational household. From an Indian perspective, however, families are always extended. They include all close patrilineal kinsmen regardless of residence. The Bengali term used for family is samsar, literally meaning "that which flows together" or the ties of bodily and emotional attachments that bind people together through the flux of births and deaths (Lamb, 2000).

This family system belongs to a general model of social institutions and associated beliefs that Mukhopadhyay and Seymour (1994) call "patrifocal family structure and ideology." This system is characterized by the importance of family generally, and of the extended family specifically, regardless of household composition; the subordination of individual goals and interests to the welfare of the larger group; a complex of structural features (patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent, patrilineal inheritance, and succession) that emphasize the importance of males, particularly sons, to the continuity and long-term well-being of the family and kin group; gender-differentiated family roles and responsibilities that associate males with the "outside world" and females with the "inside world"; a gender-differentiated family authority structure that ideologically gives same-generational males authority over socially equivalent females; an emphasis on family control and regulation of female sexuality and reproduction with an accompanying ideology of appropriate female behavior that emphasizes chastity, obedience, self-sacrifice, and modesty; and a marriage system characterized by family control of all marriage arrangements, including the selection of their children's spouses.

Families are parts of larger patrilineal kinship structures locally known as jatis (castes and subcastes). These are endogamous descent groups that are locally and regionally ranked by both ritual and socioeconomic criteria. Ritual ranking is based upon beliefs about the relative degree of purity that one jati has in relation to another. The Hindu principles of reincarnation, dharma (righteousness, moral actions), and karma (fate based upon one's past actions) underlie this system. Jatis also have an occupational identity and are often economically interdependent. In urban areas the caste system is gradually being transformed into a class system where status is measured more by educational and occupational achievement than by birth into a particular jati (Seymour, 1999).

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