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Tamil Brahmans

The Making of a Middle-Class Caste

A cruise along the streets of Chennai—or Silicon Valley—filled with professional young Indian men and women, reveals the new face of India. In the twenty-first century, Indians have acquired a new kind of global visibility, one of rapid economic advancement and, in the information technology industry, spectacular prowess. In this book, C. J. Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan examine one particularly striking group who have taken part in this development: Tamil Brahmans—a formerly traditional, rural, high-caste elite who have transformed themselves into a new middle-class caste in India, the United States, and elsewhere.

Fuller and Narasimhan offer one of the most comprehensive looks at Tamil Brahmans around the world to date. They examine Brahman migration from rural to urban areas, more recent transnational migration, and how the Brahman way of life has translated to both Indian cities and American suburbs. They look at modern education and the new employment opportunities afforded by engineering and IT. They examine how Sanskritic Hinduism and traditional music and dance have shaped Tamil Brahmans’ particular middle-class sensibilities and how middle-class status is related to the changing position of women. Above all, they explore the complex relationship between class and caste systems and the ways in which hierarchy has persisted in modernized India. 

288 pages | 2 halftones, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: South Asia

History: Asian History


“An essential read for all those who wish to understand how the concepts of both class and caste have changed. And for the community itself, an ‘unusual social group’, as Fuller and Narasimhan refer to them, this book will help them learn and reflect upon their achievements, gain a wider perspective of their history, and smile knowingly at the descriptions of their present lives.”

Radhika Santhanam | The Hindu

“Drawing on interviews, historical statistics, and active engagement with former studies of Brahmans and other privileged communities in South India, C. J. Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan have written an impressive biography of one of India's high-status communities over the past 150-odd years. . . . Tamil Brahmans will be a standard reference in the scholarship of Tamil Nadu and the conundrum of caste and class in general for many years to come.”

American Anthropologist

Tamil Brahmans is a solid, original work that makes a major contribution to our understanding of a vitally important part of the world and of a unique group of people whose numbers in the United States are growing year by year and who are becoming increasingly influential at the highest professional levels in medicine, law, academia, business, and government.”

Sylvia J. Vatuk, University of Illinois at Chicago

“For decades to come, if someone wants to understand the history and sociology of how and with what social effects the Tamil Brahmans have transformed themselves into a middle-class caste, they will read this book. Quite simply there is nothing comparable. Through comparisons with other Brahman communities throughout India, the authors show that the community-wide uniformity of Tamil Brahman achievement makes them truly unique.”

Mattison Mines, University of California, Santa Barbara

“This historical analysis of ‘TamBrams,’ written by a unique combination of sociologists, both insider and outsider, provides essential fleshing out of our sociological understanding of caste and class, which has tended to concentrate on the lower end of the caste spectrum. It shows how it is not merely the lower castes who invoke their ‘caste identity’ in contrast to the castelessness and ‘merit’ of the middle classes, but that caste has been critical to the formation and professional success of an urban, ‘modern’ middle class like the Tamil Brahmans. This book is an indispensible read not just for all those who wish to understand caste formation, mobility, and change over the past two centuries, but also for Tamil Brahmans themselves. It will help them rethink the notion that their professional achievements are somehow exceptional and biologically rooted in their caste and see them instead as a product of the opportunities provided by the colonial and postcolonial state.”

Nandini Sundar, Delhi University

"This study is significant for its explicit focus on the dynamics of an elite group’s dominance in
the face of strong societal transformations, even as much social scientific inquiry focuses on
‘the subaltern’. Moreover, it fleshes out at least one historically significant instance by which
caste and class privileges relate to each other, undergo transformations and persist in new
ways in contemporary Indian society."

South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies

Table of Contents


Note on Transliteration


1. The Village: Caste, Land, and Emigration to the City

2. Education and Employment in the Colonial Period

3. Education and Employment after Independence

4. The Changing Position of Women

5. Urban Ways of Life

6. Religion, Music, and Dance

7. Tamil Brahmans as a Middle-Class Caste

Appendix: Tamil Brahman Demographics





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