Debating Women’s Health: Reflections in Popular Hindi Print-culture in Colonial India, XIXth-XXth century

This paper tries to delineate the intervention of ‘educated section’ of colonial India with western medicine, scientific knowledge about reproduction, reproductive organs and mechanical means of contraception the manner in which it was discussed in the public sphere. In this context this study explores the way women have been represented, shown or projected in the twentieth century in popular Hindi print culture. It further shows how scientific knowledge about reproduction was invoked in public? What were the debates about norms of marriage, procreation and pleasure? For this purpose this paper examines contemporary Hindi literature, medical tracts published in Hindi and advertisements of contraceptives and aphrodisiacs placed in Hindi newspapers and journals. It argues that this intervention generated a rich corpus of medical tracts in Hindi which familiarize the scientific notion about body, sex and reproduction among ‘the masses’ or those within the broad circumference of a reading public. This paper further shows how multiplicity and complexity of social interaction and encounter in forms of advertisements reinforces caste, patriarchy, gender and communal identities. Nevertheless, their main concern was only about a healthy male progeny and man’s pleasure thus marginalising woman’s health and pleasure. The ‘educated section’, in their engagement at various levels sought a new pedagogical role in public life by disseminating this knowledge in paternalistic form to women and married couples. However their primary agenda was to build a ‘strong’, ‘virile’ and ‘masculine’ nation. Women were expected to be ‘good’ wives and mothers, and reproduce/nourish healthy male children for this nation. However, ironically they were clearly outside the boundary of this ‘masculine’ nation. On the basis of our exploration one can perhaps argue that the tracts and the debates opened issues related to sex/sexual pleasure and sexuality to the public domain.

Madhuri Sharma is a Fellow at Nehru Memorial, Museum & Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi, working on a project titled Media, Medicine and Society in North India, c-1900-2000. She completed her doctoral research on colonial medicine in 2007 from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has taught history in some colleges at the University of Delhi and was a Visiting fellow of the British Academy in the Department of History, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow in 2007-08. India’s premier body of historian’s Indian History Congress has awarded twice best paper prize to two of her papers in 2003 and 2006. One of her papers titled Universal Panacea: Reflections on Health in Hindi Print Media was awarded an International Outstanding Essay Prize at the Third Conference of the Asian Society for History of Medicine held at Jawaharlal Nehru University in November 2006.


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