Merchant’s Perceptions of Masculine Identity in Kerala Port Towns

Key words: Bazaars, Migration, Trade, Indian Ocean, Kerala, Port town, Gender

The Indian Ocean fosters vast movements historically between cultures, societies, and locations while furthering trade, and exchange of goods, labor, and customs.
For centuries, trade and migration flows have changed with politics, technology, and physical environment within the Indian Ocean. With these developments traditions of trade, the construction of port towns, and multicultural bazaars in places like Kerala (the region located on the South-­‐west tip of India), were instilled. Port towns, growths from various trade routes, have been witness to political turmoil with few withstanding the rise and falls of it’s successors. Nevertheless, Cochin, a port town known for it’s spices, Kashmir, and antiques bazaars, and source of labour to the Gulf has survived the test of time and is now ranked as one of the largest and most fruitful cities in Kerala. (Department of Tourism, Kerala, 2000; Mathew, Rajan, & Zachariah , 2001)

India’s migration, has been a long time focus in migration studies. Providing insight into diaspora communities, labour migration, trade migration, environmental migration, and refugee studies, and continuing to provoke the examination of migration waves and gender aspects within these areas. (Kurien, 2004; Walton-­‐ Roberts & Pratt, 2005; Mathew, Rajan, & Zachariah , 2001) Nevertheless, contemporary emigrations surrounding men and women to Western countries and labour migrations can change the way in which families support themselves while altering gender roles as remittance and diaspora studies show. (Naujoks, 2009) This can lead to shifting power dynamics both in the public and private spheres within the home cultures. (Asis, 2003, pp. 10-­‐11)

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Port town’s successes are typically due to the ability to accommodate for international merchants of various religions and cultures with a sense of security and unity despite cultural norms. (Pearson, 2003) Bazaars and port towns, throughout Karala such as Cochin (now booming with tourism rather then the once a spice capital with command from Jewish populations and other various ethnic powers), has undergone great shifts in physical shape (physical growth and location), networks, and resources as migration and resources shift. Therefore, I seek to understand how contemporary migration flows affect the ethnic power dynamics within these bazaars and the overall shift in physicality and resources through the perceptions of its occupants.

In addition to India’s relationship with migration and thus development of migratory exchange ports, this project cannot avoid the inevitable influence of India’s patriarchal norms while examining these public spheres of exchange. South Asian patriarchal societies place men as power holders within a hierarchy of gender furthering hegemonic images of masculinity, revealing power dynamics, not only amongst ‘men and women’ but also between ‘men and men’. Micheal Kimmel, a scholar in masculinity studies, claims performative notions of masculinity can be seen in the market place where validation of manhood begins, “demonstrated by the display of various gender-­‐appropriate traits, attitudes, and behaviors that have become associated with masculinity.” (Kimmel, 1993, p. 32) Therefore, a hierarchy of values and traits and how one embodies them can affect access to preferred social goods (i.e. networks, selling areas, trade routes). However, though masculine identities are contextually intertwined with culture, ethnicities, and economical statuses migrating men tend to view their masculinities as “durable and transportable” (Donaldson & Howson, 2009, p. 215) Therefore, in the discourse of the market places and challenges to power hierarches through ever evolving migrations of the Indian Ocean, it is important to acknowledge how hierarchies of masculinities and the subordination, marginalization, and empowerment connects men with social goods. (Chua & Fujino, 1999; Farahani, 2012)

Migration studies have a tendency to place gender on the periphery and commonly discuss it as supporting or suppressing women. However, men as merchants engage in public arenas with gender and ethnic power hierarchies (amongst men and women) and venture out in search of merchandise (such as the antique trade) and alternative Indian Ocean markets. These ventures have been explored as passages of ‘manhood’ (Kimmel, 1993; Saxer, 2012; Jolly & Reeves, 2005), and migratory-­‐ exchange ports of ethnic, religious, political and gender hierarchies of power continue to play a role in the negotiation of the masculine identity. Therefore this research proposal moves gender to the center. Through the framework of this project, I want to provide insight into role that contextual gender images play in men’s lives as merchants within the port town of Cochin and its bazaars.

This project will include narratives revealing accounts of intricately woven relationships in a broad network of family and community. The in-­‐depth interviews will be essential in exploring the bazaar contextual settings in these often overlooked and untold perceptions of contemporary merchants men’s lives. I will carry out an extensive desk review of qualitative data presented on historical and contemporary Indian Ocean migrations and the social dynamics within Kerala port towns and Bazaars. Proceeding, I will apply an ethnographic approach of data collection through in-­‐depth interviews and field participant observation with merchantmen within the Cochin bazaars. This will facilitate collection of data in exploring the perceptions of changing social structures within the bazaar and it’s role in gender identity negotiation.

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