Prof. Uma Charan Mohanty (1931–2008) was born into a family of freedom fighters in the city of Cuttack. After his school education, influenced by Gandhian ideologies, he took up teaching in his village school founded by his father (Late) Dukhishyam Mohanty. He continued his education and took up post-graduate course in the newly opened Department of Anthropology at Utkal University headed by (late) Prof. A. Aiyappan in 1958. During 1961-64, he worked with Tribal Research Bureau, Government of Orissa. In 1964, Mohanty moved to the Department of Anthropology, Utkal University as a Lecturer and then to the Anthropology Department, University of Madras as a Reader in 1976. He became the Professor and Head, in the same department. In 1990, he was offered Fulbright-Scholar-in-Residence and visited several universities in USA and Canada. In 1991, he retired from the University of Madras and took up a prestigious project from Smithsonian Foundation, USA, on a study related to senior citizens of Tamil Nadu.
Even when he was a student, he was associated with eminent scholars like F.G. Bailey, Cora Du Bois, N.K. Bose and Surajit Chandra Sinha. He came into prominence with his first publication, based on the field data, in the first year of his MA in Economic & Political Weekly (erstwhile Political Weekly). He was known for his profound understanding of tribal societies in Orissa, especially the Saora, Kissan, etc. and has several articles published in national and international journals to his credit.
This monograph provides a vivid socio-economic account of a nomadic community, the Sapua Kelas or the snake-charmers of Orissa. Of all the nomadic castes and communities of Orissa, the Sapua Kelas have, perhaps, a unique traditional social organization and interesting lifestyle. Amidst the sweeping social, economic and political changes, the Kela community has retained its features of traditional caste system and is undergoing a process of social mobility which is closely related to the traditional caste system where both endogenic and exogenic factors come to play. The book meticulously deals with the social, economic, political and cultural facets of the Kela life, their problems in life and how they solve them. It uncovers the romantic life of the Kelas, their family organization, gender issues, the significance and impact of their leadership and caste panchayats, their harmless deceptive methods for earnings and their simple but unique lifestyle. It also delves deep into the perception of outsiders about the Kela life, especially their free love and of the non-hesitancy of the Kela women in divorcing their life partners. This, once an untouchable community’s struggle for social mobility, is still an ongoing process. From a nomadic and semi-settled lifestyle, with the advent of the democratic institutions, the Kelas have got a new scope for political and social participation, enabling them to look beyond their traditional occupation of snake-charming, and thus attuning their lifestyle to that of the surrounding population. The book is, therefore, an attempt to show how the nomadic folk society of the Kelas is marching towards the settled life of the Indian peasantry, causing their cultural traits vanishing fast, in favour of the neighbouring culture of the other castes.