Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Disguise, Revelation and Copyright: Disassembling the South Indian Leper

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Disguise, Revelation and Copyright: Disassembling the South Indian Leper

Article excerpt

This article explores the ways in which physically deformed people with leprosy in South India conceptualize, experience, and use their bodies in distinctive ways. I consider how such an enquiry might be informed by existing approaches to South Asian personhood, such as those emerging from phenomenology and ethnosociology. Conversely, I ask whether ethnographic analysis of those with different bodies might open up new avenues of exploration and complement our existing methodological tool-box. A focus on individuated body parts is one such approach that emerged from the latter enquiry. In looking at how leprosy-affected people perceived, talked about, and made use of their bodies in radically different contexts -- at home in rural Andhra Pradesh and out begging in urban Maharashtra -- I demonstrate how they might order and/or disassociate themselves from different bodily parts in different social spaces. I also show how the lived experience of leprosy might create a community of the afflicted within which awar eness of individuated parts dissolves.


Cet article etudie les facons qu'ont les personnes defigurees physiquement par la lepre dans le sud de l'Inde, de s'organiser, d'experimenter et d'utiliser leurs corps de manieres distinctives. Je pense qu'une telle enquete pourrait etre nourrie par des approches de recherches existantes concernant la personne sud-asiatique, telles que celles qui emergent de la phenomenologie et de l'ethnosociologie. Inversement, je demande si l'analyse ethnographique de ceux qui ont des corps dif-ferents pourrait ouvrir de nouvelles voies de recherche et complementer notre boite a outils methodologique deja existante. Une focalisation sur des parties individualisees du corps est l'une des approches qui a emerge de cette derniere enquete. En observant la facon dont les lepreux percevaient leur corps, en parlaient et les utilisaient, dans des contextes radicalement differents -- chez cux dans le monde rural de L'Andhra Pradesh et a l'exterieur en mendiant dans le Maharashtra urbain -- je demontre comment us peuvent s'ordonner et/ou se dissocier eux-meme des leurs differentes parties corporelles, selon les espaces sociaux. Je montre aussi comment l'experience vecue de la lepre peut creer une communaute de victimes au sein de laquelle la conscience des parties indi- viduelles se dissout.


'I say to my sons, us lepers never go whole to the grave. We go piece by piece.'

Victor, May 2000.

My friend Victor's (1) comment -- part joke, part bitter reflection on what he described as being trapped in a decaying, but not dying, body -- plays, like other leper jokes, on the idea of detachable body parts, dropping off one by one as the disease progresses. Although biomedically misleading, it was a remark that prompted my enquiry into the particular ways that leprosy-affected people in South India might conceptualize and experience their bodies.

This led me to consider, first, how existing anthropological approaches to the South Asian person -- especially those emerging out of ethnosociology and phenomenology -- might be utilized to explore how bodily difference impinges on deformed leprosy patients' experience of the world. Secondly, I became interested in whether analysis of bodily difference might open up new avenues of exploration (or stretch existing ones) through which to look generally at South Indian notions and experiences of the body that otherwise remain implicit or hidden.

Drawing on recent fieldwork with leprosy-affected people from a village I shall call Anandapuram, in coastal Andhra Pradesh, South India, this article attempts to shed light on both of these areas by focusing on leprosy-deformed bodies and their interaction with the world. I explore ways in which leprosy patients might order or prioritize their body parts, and at what this might say more generally about how bodies are 'read' and related to in South India. …

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