Objects of Statemaking: Self-Help Groups’ Khaatas   



A typical khaata (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)

In rural India, women’s self- help groups or SHGs are promoted as the harbingers of empowerment for poor and marginalised women. During my fieldwork in 2013-14 among SHG women in the West Midnapore district of the state of West Bengal, I noticed that SHGs also serve as a means to make interactions between rural women and the state possible. A typical SHG consists of 8-10 women from the same village who pool in their savings every month. Members can then take loans out of this consolidated amount for their different needs: a wedding in the family, financing cultivation or running a small business. Members conduct weekly meetings among themselves to decide on the allocation of funds. Most of the existing SHGs were formed under state schemes, and governments try to provide benefits such as subsidised loans to these groups. Of course, the state’s support to these groups is also strategically self-beneficial in different ways. First, it enables them to make claims about their role in financially empowering women and contributing to ‘development’ and poverty reduction. Second, the state is able to reach the rural households and community much more through its everyday interactions with women.

In order to select the SHG groups that will receive benefits, state officials check the khaatas maintained by the SHG. The Bengali word khaata roughly translates to record books or notebooks meant for writing. At the time when SHGs are formed, state officials provided these record books to women. Each group maintains four khaatas:  Meetings Resolutions Book, Savings Book, Cash Book and Loans Register. The meetings resolution book is seen as reflective of how participatory or not the SHG is.  Members are expected to record the attendance and minutes of each meeting that the group conducts. Meetings are normally held weekly or fortnightly. The other three books record the financial status of the SHG. Only if the state and bank officials think that the khaatas have been properly maintained do they consider the SHG as eligible to receive benefits from the state and subsidised loans from state-owned banks. The reliance of the state bureaucracy on the written record therefore makes these record books important objects in the process of statemaking.

An important part of the training that the SHG women from receive from the NGO workers relates to teaching them how to maintain these records. However, this depends, first and foremost, on the literacy levels of the SHG women. Only those group members who have received a certain level of education are able to do what is required. For instance, Sumana Mahato of the Ma Saraswati SHG of Sal village told me, “I am the only one in the group who can read and write, so all the records are maintained by me. The other members have only just learnt how to write their names.” As a result, there is a hierarchy in terms of who can handle these objects of statemaking and who cannot.   To conclude, khaatas as objects acquire a life of their own and form an essential link between the state and its female subjects.  On the one hand, therefore, the state uses these objects to classify who is a legitimate receiver of benefit and who is not, while providing the women with the means to seek legitimacy through the very same objects.

State officials checking women's khaatas (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)

State officials checking women’s khaatas (photo courtesy Lipika Kamra)


Lipika Kamra is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.


A Single-Sheet Archive on Papyrus: The Case of a Sixth-century Amulet


P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

Excavations reflect the problematic of archival practice. Archaeologists reflect their own priorities and historical narratives by which artefacts they choose to preserve and document. The process of digging is also a process of sifting which inevitably privileges certain objects and information as more desirable.

Most extant manuscripts from Late Antiquity were preserved in the dumps of ancient Egyptian cities such as Oxyrhynchus, where arid conditions protected documents written on papyrus (“papyri”) until excavators uncovered them around the turn of the twentieth century. While fragments were often found discarded together in baskets, the papyrus hunters—in this case Oxford’s own Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt—concentrated on potential reconstructed texts. Their priority was a text-critical project, searching for textual witnesses to early Christianity and the Greek classics. Except for the approximate dating of texts found in the same trash mounds, Grenfell and Hunt disregarded the material culture of textual artefacts and the sociological implications of artefacts juxtaposed in their initial excavated locations. As a result, any number of links between individual objects were severed as excavators sifted through baskets and baskets of fragmentary textual remains, deciding what to keep and what to discard. Although a material turn in manuscript studies has taken place over the last couple of decades, modern publication continues to concentrate on the papyri as witnesses for the reconstruction of abstracted literary texts. Through the process of archaeological discovery and academic publication, the jumbled contents of an ancient dump have been converted into a collection sharing the same methodological challenges as any other sort of archive—certain sorts of information are privileged, largely because they respond to questions posed by a particular set of narratives.[1]

This decontextualising process of excavation poses particular challenges for my research concerning papyrus amulets. For the textual critic, “paraliterary” texts like the amulets hold only a secondary interest as representatives of “literary” texts, but seem equally foreign to the demographic and historical inquiries for which the so-called “documentary” papyri are used (to borrow the conventional, if somewhat problematic, terminology of the discipline). Further, archaeologists interested only in textual data discarded the material evidence for how the amulets were used. Many appear to have been folded. In others, holes were made to facilitate wearing on a string or cord. Yet for the most part, the material settings for these amulet texts have been long lost. Casings, whether leather or papyrus, simply were not important enough to box up and ship home. Further, publication generally privileges the object as text more than anything else—something perhaps partly justified for the text-critical projects of classics or biblical studies, but inherently problematic when working with unique objects that were not only read, but actually worn.

If sifting the city dump frequently obscured connections between artefacts, perhaps a more attentive handling of smaller original collections might allow us to see textual juxtapositions with fresh eyes, while still recognising that our data remain inescapably tainted by the processes of discovery and publication. One promising example is cartonnage—a sort of ancient papier maché that recycled used sheets of papyrus into funereal masks. While this sort of rediscovered archive is not inherently balanced, the textual juxtapositions are not a function of the same sorts of conscious information-collection that shape conventional archives.

The simplest sort of unconventional archive, however, is a single sheet of papyrus—originally written on one side, and later reused with an unrelated message on the reverse. While material from ancient dumps has been haphazardly collected, and even the components of a cartonnage might be separated and sold unprovenanced on the antiquities market, it is rather hard to separate the two sides of a single papyrus sheet.[2] What this means is that even when the archival bias of an overarching collection is questionable, it still contains a plethora of mini-archives within it.

As an example, consider the sixth-century amulet P.Oxy. XVI 1928, which re-uses a portion of a legal document dated to 5 October 533. While in this case both sides have been published together (frequently not the case), the original publication by A.S. Hunt in 1924 did not address, let alone adequately problematise their relationship. For Hunt, the legal document merely provided a terminus post quem for the amulet and the edition treated the two sides as entirely discrete. Yet this legal document connects the amulet with the Apion family, wealthy landowners holding elevated positions in Byzantine imperial administration of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Such a link raises a number of questions:

–        Is this simply recycling of a discarded document, or does it suggest that the legal text on the one side has an inherent connection to the one either writing or using the amulet?

–        What does it say about the perceived function of the amulet that it could be written on the backside of another document without any apparent perceived diminution of efficacy?

–        What does it indicate when a provenanced amulet is found far from the location relevant to the legal document on the recto?

–        In an era when theological authorities discouraged the use of apotropaic magic, is an amulet linked to a family of prominent imperial administrators a datum of significance?

Even if the processes of excavation and publications have irreversibly jumbled the papyri, the material reality of recycling allows us to juxtapose two apparently independent documents and gain a thicker reading of both.

P.Oxy. 1928 (Images courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)

P.Oxy. 1928 (Image courtesy of the Imaging Papyri Project, University of Oxford)



[1] See the original excavation reports in Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts (chapter 28). Of course, it is slightly ironic that in order to explore the process by which an unsifted archive (a dump) was converted into a peculiar sort of academic archive (the Oxyrhynchus papyri), I have had to resort to  a third sort of archival material, the archived excavators reports.

[2]Because of how papyrus is formed into a writing surface, it strictly speaking is possible to separate the two sides, but as such a procedure significantly compromises the structural integrity of an already-fragile artefact and has no financial benefit, it is hard to imagine a context in which that would happen.


Brief Bibliography

Bagnall, R.S., ed. 2009. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford; New York: Oxford U.P.

Bowman, A.K., ed. 2007. Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts. Graeco-Roman Memoirs 93. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

De Bruyn, T.S. and J.H.F. Dijkstra. 2011. “Greek Amulets and Formularies from Egypt Containing Christian Elements: A Checklist of Papyri, Parchments, Ostraka, and Tablets,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 48: 163–216.

Frend, W.H.C. 1991. “Apion, Family of.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. A.S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan. 1: 155a–156a.

Gamble, H. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Christian Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale U.P.

Luijendijk, A. 2010. “Sacred Scriptures as Trash: Biblical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus.” Vigiliae Christianae 64: 217–254.


 Jeremiah Coogan is reading for an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World at the University of Oxford.