What is the most Bengali ever

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While the representation and categorization of service nomads in Europe - the so-called "Gypsies", "Gypsies" etc. - has already been examined in numerous studies, research on service nomads in South Asia is generally manageable (see e.g. Rao; Casimir 2003). The aim of my dissertation, the most important findings of which are presented here, was to close this research gap for the Bengali region, primarily today's Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. In addition to the analysis of Bengali-language literary works, above all non-fictional sources in various formats from the beginning of the 19th century until today were the subject of the study, which was carried out through qualitative interviews in Bangladesh and West Bengal with members of non-settled groups, the settled population and individuals from development policy and science were added.

The term think

As in other regions, in today's Bengal different non-sedentary groups are mostly perceived as a community and subsumed under a single name: the Bengali term bede or one of its various variants bādiẏā, bediẏā, bāidyā etc. This designation is the linchpin of the representation and categorization of non-sedentary groups in Bengal and can be compared with the terms "Gypsy" and "Gypsy", which are often only used as external names for different groups. For whom the name "Bede" was used for the first time and what it originally meant could not be clearly clarified even with the help of an etymological analysis. Central Bengali sources (cf.e.g. Śarīph 1976: 27) indicate, however, that with the older variant of the term (bādiẏā) were primarily referred to as snake charmers. This meaning largely coincides with its current meaning in West Bengal, but stands in stark contrast to the dominant use in present-day Bangladesh: While in West Bengal "bedes" are predominantly associated with snakes, the term is used think in Bangladesh, which, in contrast to West Bengal, has a wide network of waterways, often equated with "River Gypsy".


Fig. 1: A typical sight of "Bede" boats in Bangladesh Photo: Carmen Brandt


The categorization of the "Bedes"

According to the meaning of the English term, the so-called "River Gypsies" of Bangladesh are characterized by a life and traveling around on boats in group associations and, in contrast to the "Bedes" in West Bengal, can earn their living with a wide variety of professions: catching or / and demonstration of snakes or other entertainment arts, the sale of medicines, household utensils, cosmetic articles and jewelry, the treatment of rheumatism and toothache etc. However, these groups have their own names depending on their activities, e.g. Lāuẏā, Times, Sāndār, Sāpuṙe, 1 vehemently reject the name "Bede" for themselves and usually do not maintain any relationships with other "Bede" groups. Rather, they are endogamous groups that are perceived as a community only because of their "exotic" commonality - roaming around on boats. That different groups supposedly the The "Bede" community, however, has already been recorded in publications by British colonial officials (cf. eg Wise 1883: 212-221), which is influenced by the idea that the "Gypsies" of Europe come from India, often comparing them to indigenous population groups who had a similar socio-economic role, moved and subsumed it under one term. To this day, the relevant authors cannot agree on what kind of community the "Bedes" form, which is already clear from the contradicting terms: caste, community, class, ethnic group, race and tribe. The "Bedes" (here: Bediā, Bediyā [Hindi] resp. Bedia, Bediya [English]) today as Scheduled tribe listed (Government of India 2007), although until 1976 it was a Scheduled Caste while they have not been officially categorized in Bangladesh. There are several reasons for this contradiction, the most important of which is the uncritical adoption of the colonial categorization of the indigenous population in independent India. The representation of different non-sedentary professional groups as "Bedes" in literary works by Bengali authors suggests, however, that this external categorization was not an invention of the colonial officials, but was merely strengthened by them.


Fig. 2: A so-called "Bede" woman selling glass bracelets on Dhaka's streets Photo: Carmen Brandt


The representation of the "Bedes" in literary works

So-called "Bedes" are often at the center of novels, short stories, dramas and poems, also by well-known East and West Bengali authors, e.g. Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Al Mahmud, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay (Banaphul), Shamsur Rahman, Jasim Uddin and others Similar to the portrayal of non-sedentary groups and individuals in European literature (cf. eg Brittnacher 2012: 93-125), the stereotyping of the "Bede" woman is particularly striking: she is the focus of almost all works in which she mostly depicts sedentary men consciously or unconsciously turned the head without ever finding a happy ending. The above-average frequency of depiction of the non-sedentary woman in comparison to her male counterpart reflects the actually important role of "bede" women in generating income, in which they often have to confidently come into contact with strange men. It is therefore not surprising that sedentary men, such as the authors of the literary works, were fascinated and inspired by these "other" women. In addition to erotically charged portraits of "Bede" women and the romanticization of non-sedentary life, the reader is also confronted with the tough everyday life of the "Bedes". The representation of the life of the "Bedes" on the fringes of society corresponds to the reality of many so-called "Bede" groups. The socio-economic status of numerous such groups is comparable to the so-called "untouchables", which is why they have increasingly attracted the attention of development organizations since the 1990s.


Fig. 3: A fortune telling "snake charmer" with a customer Photo: Carmen Brandt


The "Bedes" as a target group for development organizations

Parallel to studies by local scientists (cf. eg Huq Choudhury 1998 and Rahman 1990), reports from development organizations (cf. eg Maksud; Rasul 2007: 2) cite the sources from the colonial era without criticism and the idea that the various "Bede "-Groups form a community, even forced, in that especially in Bangladesh there is more and more talk of an ethnic group (ibid .: 3). Whether this happens intentionally cannot be answered unequivocally. However, in a country where around 98 percent of the population is Bengal and almost half live below the poverty line, an ethnic minority is a more attractive target group for international donors than a "merely" socially marginalized group of Bengali. An exoticization and ethnicization of the "Bedes" or "River Gypsies" and the alleged threat of the imminent loss of culture have therefore dominated media coverage of the "Bedes" in Bangladesh in recent years. However, this trend is in stark contrast to the efforts of the various non-sedentary groups themselves.

The socio-cultural adaptation of "Bedes"

In contrast to the impression given by development organizations and the media that the "Bedes" feared losing their supposedly "other" culture, the center of which is life on the boat, more and more "Bede" groups are permanently settling down and trying to adapt socio-culturally to the majority population. This applies to the role of women, for example: while non-sedentary "Bede" women play an active role in generating income and also offer services and / or goods to strange men, "Bede" groups that have become permanently sedentary are increasingly practicing gender segregation and forbidding theirs Women work outside the home (cf. e.g. Huq Choudhury 1996: 77f.). This strategy of socio-cultural adaptation goes hand in hand with original narratives in which "Bede" groups proclaim an origin in Arabia, the region of origin of Islam, in order to secure social recognition within the Muslim majority society. Interestingly, an essential element of these theories of origin is the kinship of the terms established by folk etymology think and beduinwhich, on the one hand, establishes a credible connection to the Arab Bedouins for many people in Bangladesh, but on the other hand forces so-called "Bedes" to accept the foreign name "Bede" for themselves. Since the latter is not the case even for "Bedes", who spread this folk etymology, it makes it clear that the idea of ​​a relationship between the "Bedes" and Bedouins is of more recent origin. Thus, the "Bedes" are another example of today's Bangladesh in search of its identity between Bengali and Islam: Although the "Bedes" interviewed by me emphasize their Bengali identity, they are at the same time motivated to seek an origin in Arabia to gain a better status within the majority society.


Fig. 4: A group of "Bedes" celebrating the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice Photo: Carmen Brandt



Even if the socio-economic status of so-called "Bedes" in West Bengal is hardly better than that of their counterparts in Bangladesh, they are less confronted with identity conflicts in a state that is both ethnically and religiously much more heterogeneous. While in India the status as a member of one of the numerous Scheduled castes and Tribes especially promises direct socio-economic advantages, which is why some "Bedes" in West Bengal have no problem with becoming members of a Scheduled tribe Registering means a further consolidation of the "Bede" category, i.e. the ethnicization of the "Bedes", in Bangladesh automatically a socio-cultural marginalization. Even if this could attract more funds from development actors in the short term, the "Bedes" as a non-Bengali ethnic group in Bangladesh, the land of Bengal, would be second-class citizens in the long term. The adaptation strategies of various "Bede" groups mentioned above make it clear that this is precisely what they want to prevent. It remains to be seen whether national and transnational institutions will respond to the efforts of individual actors and continue the administrative path of categorizing the various non-sedentary groups as a community that was taken in British colonial times, or whether they would allow these groups to become part of the majority society.



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GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. 2007: Census of India: List of notified scheduled tribes (, accessed: 05.01.2015).

HUQ CHOUDHURY, JAHANARA. 1996: "The effect of sedentarization on a nomadic people", in: Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 41.1: 69-83.

HUQ CHOUDHURY, JAHANARA. 1998: Pearl-women of Dhaka. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.

MAKSUD, A.K.M .; RASUL, IMTIAJ. 2007: The nomadic Bede community and their mobile school program. Paper presented at the conference "What works for the poorest: Knowledge, policies and practices"; December 2-5, 2006. Dhaka: GramBangla Unnayan Committee
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RAHMAN, MD. HABIBUR. 1990: The Shandar-Beday community of Bangladesh: A study of social change of a quasi-nomadic people. Dhaka: Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka. (Unpublished dissertation.)

RAO, APARNA; CASIMIR, MICHAEL J. (Eds.). 2003: Nomadism in South Asia. (Oxford in India Readings in Socioloy and Social Anthropology.) New Delhi (et al.): Oxford University Press.

ŚARĪPH, ĀHꞋMAD. 1976: Saoẏāl sāhitya. Ḍhākā: Bāṃlā Ekāḍemī.

WISE, JAMES. 1883: Notes on the races, castes and trades of Eastern Bengal. London: Harrison and Sons.

[1] Interestingly, some of these groups, e.g. Lāuẏā and Sāndār, only known from East Bengal, which suggests that more groups were subsumed under the name "Bede" here than in West Bengal. It can also be assumed that in the more impassable East Bengal service nomads have occupied niches that either did not exist in West Bengal or were filled by other groups, e.g. retailers.


The original article appeared in the Masala newsletter Virtuelle Fachbibliothek, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2015), pp. 5-11.