Europeanized saris: The aesthetics of clothing in women’s political activism in colonial India, 1890’s-1920’s

This paper explores the case of the few European women who on their arrival in India (1890s-1920s) abandoned the conventional Western dress for a costume whose elements reflected a reworking of elements borrowed from Indian culture. Women like Margaret Noble, Annie Besant or Madeleine Slade, well known for their political activism and sympathies for the Indian cause mirrored this phenomenon in different degrees. All three occupied a central place in nationalist politics from the beginning of the 20th century onward. Their choice of clothing has been entirely ignored till today although it is neither superficial nor anecdotal, particularly as they were prominent actors in the public sphere. And clothing practices, particularly in the colonial context represent an important stake, both for the British authorities and for the Indians. I will begin by examining these transformations from a subjective and an ethno-historical perspective: when and in what circumstances were these changes made? Can these changes in attire be attributed simply to personal taste or sometimes eccentric choices, a fashion statement at best, largely irrelevant to the conflicts between colonizer and colonized and the exercise of power? Are we instead to understand them as a form disguise or a kind of mimicry to be understood as “ethnomasquerade” (Kader Konuk, 2004)? How was their external appearance viewed by a colonial government, whose anxiety about maintaining distinctions between rulers and governed after 1857 made clothing conventions and colours favoured by the British community in India an imperative of imperial policy? On the other hand, how was it received by Indians, for whom clothes and colours were strong indicators of social roles and status, particularly codified for women? The paper analyzes such instances of behaviour as a specific form of intervention available to European women in a colonial situation. It investigates the impact of these practices particularly for Indian women at a moment when the latter’s position was a sensitive and emotive issue in nationalist politics.

Arundhati Virmani est Chargée de cours à l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Vieille Charité, Marseille). Elle est notamment l’auteure de : « Réflexions d’une hindoue convertie au christianisme : Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) et l’hindouisme », dans Daniel Tollet (dir.), La religion que j’ai quittée, Paris, Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2007, p. 277-290 ; « Roman de voyage, récit de voyage. L’Inde de Jules Verne, de Pierre Loti et d’Edward M. Forster », dans Alain Guillemain (éd.), A la recherche du meilleur des mondes. Littératures et sciences sociales, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2006, p. 209-224 ; « Contester l’Empire. Européennes au service de la nation indienne », dans Jacques Weber (éd.), Le monde créole. Peuplement, sociétés et condition humaine, XVIIe-XXe siècles. Mélanges offerts à Hubert Gerbeau éd. par Jacques Weber, Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2004, p. 125-142.

British Imperialism and the Trouble with Native Women’s Histories in Colonial India in the late XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries

This paper explores the incorporation and uses of women within dominant historical accounts of colonial India through an examination of the sexual relationships between British men stationed in the Indian subcontinent and their ‘native’ consorts” – concubines, common law wives, and nautch (dancing) girls – in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such encounters between the colonizers and a specific subset of the ‘subject peoples’ are both romanticized and at the same time trivialized as frivolous sexual dalliance in much of the extant historiography of that era, when, in fact, as the paper argues, they were a crucial element in the reproduction of the Company’s workforce in the subcontinent. Both the relationships and the women whose sexual and other labor were appropriated through such relationships thus merit more careful attention. The paper also traces some important changes in the terms of interaction between the British and their ‘subject’ populations in the nineteenth century.  It ends with a brief discussion of the ways in which the changing representations of ‘native’ women in colonial discourse in turn influenced subsequent reformist and/or nationalist discourses of the indigenous middle classes on the “woman question” in the nineteenth century.

Mahua Sarkar, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies, Program in Women’s Studies, Binghamton University, USA. Author of Visible Histories/Disappearing Women: Producing Muslim Womanhood in Late Colonial Bengal, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Re-published in English: New Delhi: Zubaan Books (South Asian edition), 2008.

What is a “friend”? Changing vocabularies of connection in the mission of British Protestant women missionaries to Indian women, 1870s to 1940s

Recent historical studies outline how by the turn of the c19th. a multiplicity of spaces were opening up: of “intercultural encounters, intermixture and fusion, as much as conflict and separatism” (Holton 2002: 159) within and across the borders of nations, empires and colonial boundaries of race, class and gender. A key sphere of cross-cultural and transnational activity was that of religion, specifically the missionary movements based in the metropolitan centers, in which both colonizing and colonised women played important roles as proselytizers and activists in a variety of transnational networks. Sandra Stanley Holton (2002) in her study of British Quaker women reformers active in the transnational movements over segregation and racism during the period argues there is a shift in thinking about racial difference. A more ambiguous continuum of positions is produced she suggests, in the interstices of scientific racism, and maternalist feminism on the one hand, and a growing auto-critique of British racism and colonialism, alongside a more visible (to the white reformer) autonomous agency of black activists. This was a continuum in which “some black individuals appeared more equal with white than others” at the same time as there was “a weakening of the form and degree of identity that had previously been possible between black and white activists” (ibid. p. 19). This paper uses a case study of the 1910 World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Australian, Indian and British women’s involvements within and around it, to explore Holton’s idea of an ambiguous continuum of racialized positioning in terms of the concepts of whiteness, cosmopolitanism and anti-colonialism. In so doing, the paper contributes to a deeper historical sociology of gender and colonialism, and the ways in which women participated in the making of new cross-cultural spaces and discourses in the early c20th.

Jane Haggis is member of Centre for Development Studies, School of International Studies, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Flinders University Adelaide, Australia. Author of: Imperial Emotions: Affective communities of Mission in British Protestant Women’s Missionary Publications c1880-1920, Journal of Social History, Spring 2008, p. 691-716 initially presented at Panel: Missionary Women and Global Christian Communities, 2005 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June 2-5 2005 at Scripps College, Claremont, California ; “Beyond Race and Whiteness? Reflections on the New Abolitionists and an Australian Critical Whiteness Studies” in D. Riggs (2007) ed. Taking Up The Challenge: Critical Race and Whiteness Studies in a Postcolonising Nation, Crawford House, Adelaide, 2004, p. 307-321 ; (with Meera Kosambi, Ed) “Reconstructing Femininities: Intersections of Gender, Race, Religion and Class”, special edition of Feminist Review, 2000, Issue n° 65 (with Margaret Allan).

Reproductive Health and Child Birth: Revisiting the Technological Intervention in Colonial Bengal

The proposed study seeks to engage with two things: first, it intends to explore the historical trajectory which made technological intervention in reproductive health and child birth in colonial Bengal a pressing medical imperative, and second, it will attempt to explicate the cultural implications of this intervention in an era of cultural transition from pre-modern to “modern” under the British rule. In recent writings on reproductive health, a sharp historical focus on the use of surgical instruments and its socio-cultural and technological implications for a tradition-bound society like India is curiously lacking. All the major scholarly interventions made so far in this direction have confined themselves to intermittent references to surgical instruments and their impact on the colonized. Even in nineteenth century Britain, when medical profession was characterized by tradition and prejudices about women was slow to recognize the real needs of women, the development of obstetrics and gynecology was not a smooth one. Indian medical world also was certainly not lacking in such problems. The same holds true of caesarian section which slowly crept into Indian medical vocabulary at the beginning of the twentieth century, but was slow to gain recognition. In fact, few more questions are in order: First, when did forceps make their foray into the Indian medical world and how exactly did they grope their way through the socio-cultural taboos that characterized the contemporary Bengali society? What was the implication of the use of such techniques for the Bengali society where the cultural and gender stereotypes often worked in tandem as major impediments to the free acceptance of any innovation? Given the fact that child birth was conventionally perceived as a natural process that warranted little technical intervention and was looked upon as an exclusively female domain, the impact of introduction of forceps merits fresh interrogation.

Arabinda Samanta is Professor of History in the University of Burdwan Golapbag (West Bengal, India) and Coordinator of the University Grant Commission Special Assistance Programme in New Delhi. Books Published: Malarial Fever in Colonial Bengal: Social History of an Epidemic. Kolkata, 2002 ; Rog Rogi O Rashtra (Disease, the Patients and the State) Kolkata, 2005 ; Praakitik Biparjaay O Manush (Natural Hazards and Man) Kolkata, 2006 ; The Revolt of 1857: Memory Identity History eds, Kolkata, 2009 ; Locating Epidemics: Colonial Bengal, 1920s- 1940s, (in Press).

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.

Contesting Pahari Conjugality in the Western Himalayas: Sexuality, Colonialism and the Question of Inheritance

The historiography of social reform in colonial India continues to be influenced by the dominant language of critique of the lived lives of the natives. In the context of western Himalayan region, the hilly areas of colonial Punjab, this early twentieth century debate was largely influenced by the discourse of migrants who came to settle in Shimla, the summer capital of British Empire in India, in the late nineteenth century. The contestations of a local custom of reet, which defined varied aspects of Pahari conjugality, were central to the debates of these reformers who sought to abolish this custom through legislation. But the nature of relationship between the colonial state and the native chiefs of several hill states and the inherent diversity and exclusivity of several regions in these Pahari areas altered the language of rhetoric against reet and evoked an interesting counter-discourse on sexuality, labour, freedom, reform, inheritance and colonialism.

This paper is an attempt to foreground a historiography ‘with characteristic emphasis: first on the variety of idioms, or “languages” as they came to be known, in which political argument might be conducted and second, on the participants in political argument as historical actors, responding to one another in a diversity of linguistic and other political and historical contexts that gave the recoverable history of their argument a very rich texture.’ The argument is divided into several parts and shall evolve a discussion on the notion of reform, Pahari landscape and its relationship with conjugality and sexuality, and colonial anxiety with the question of inheritance and social reform.

Yogesh Snehi Yogesh Snehi teaches history at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). He has been engaging with critical debates on the Punjab region and has published research, organised workshops and conducted surveys on themes related to diversity, sexuality, region formation, identity and communalism, piety and orality at popular sufi shrines and social reform in colonial Punjab. Snehi is jointly editing a book ‘Modernity and Changing Social Fabric of Punjab and Haryana’ with Indian Institute of Advanced, Shimla. Through a Tasveer Ghar fellowship, he has also created a digital repository of images that are in circulation at popular sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab.

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