Session 38: Individual Papers: Gender, Subjectivities and Publics in South Asia

Organizer and Chair: Thomas R. Trautmann, University of Michigan

Women on the Wheel: Contested Realities of Potter's Work in North India

Neema Caughran, Syracuse University

It is said that potter women 'never' work on the wheel. Anthropologists and art historians have made this claim, citing the inevitable exception to the rule: usually a widow or a woman with a disabled husband who must work on the wheel to survive. In a village near Banaras, potter men also said "Women never work on the wheel." Yet, if one cared to explore further, one could find women in the next courtyard or verandah, making pots on the wheel next to their husbands or fathers, in full view of everyone. Is this an exceptional village? Or has the view that women do not work the wheel been created by men and researchers who spoke only to men? In this paper I will discuss the historical and current invisibility of this women's work and its implications for gender and power in this lower caste community.

Sitadevi and the Status of Women in Early Gaudiya Vaisnava Hagiography

Rebecca J. Manring, University of Washington

Sitadevi, senior wife of Advaitacarya, became a leader of the Gaudiya Vaisnava community following the death of her husband. The hagiographical works treating Advaitacarya describe a miraculous birth and childhood. Although Sitadevi's adult life is circumscribed by the societal norms conditioning the lives of women in sixteenth century Bengal, she manages to fulfill her duties as befits a saint, producing magnificent banquets on frequent occasions (menus provided in the texts) and six sons. Later, as a widow, she attracted many devotees in her own right, the most controversial of whom were Jangali and Nandini, two men who apparently transformed themselves into women in order to be accepted as Sita's disciples.

This paper will examine Sita's changing roles throughout her life and the ways those roles are described in the Advaitacarya corpus, with the goal of providing insights into the status of women in the formative years of the Gaudiya Vaisnava community.

The Distances Appropriate to Humor: Jokes, Gender, and Discursive Distance on the Tamil Popular Stage

Susan Seizer, University of Chicago

This paper analyzes a comedic monologue from the contemporary Tamil (South Indian) popular stage. Such monologues are introductory acts for performances of the theater genre known as "Special Drama." I analyze the rhetorical devices employed in this monologue for how they both assume and manipulate dominant notions of rigidly gendered social space in Tamilnadu. By wedding Bakhtin's notion of "the distances appropriate to humor" to a careful linguistic analysis of the Special Drama performer's use of stage asides, I show how key socio cultural paradigms lie behind even the fancy free veneer of highly improvisatory comedic popular performance genres. Using a strategy of repeated shifts between the narrated text (the actual 'story' of the monologue) and the narrating (or event) text of the performance itself, the comedian plays with conventions of gender and discourse in revealing ways. The motor of this particular monologue is the young male protagonist's fears about the withering of privileged male access to the Tamil public sphere, a narrative conceit which enables the comedian to discursively connect fear of the foreign with fear of the female. I analyze the ways in which such connections are naturalized, what they index about gender in postcolonial Tamilnadu, and discuss some of the implications of such texts for the community of actors who stage them.

"A Novel, Anyone?" Fiction, the Reading Public, and the Emergence of the Novel in Colonial India

Priya Joshi, Columbia University

This paper addresses the long term impact of British colonial policies on the literary and intellectual culture of 19th century India. In particular, the paper focuses on the emergence of the novel in Indian letters where the genre had not existed prior to the 19th century. While the novel was enlisted under the curricular reforms of the English Education Act of 1835 as a tool to propagate Englishness and contain dissent in the colonies, the paper shows that Indian subjects, in fact, had entirely different uses for the novel. When the first Indian novels appeared almost a century after the genre was exported into India, it became apparent that their Anglicist legacy notwithstanding, the particular forms of the Indian novel had successfully subverted earlier colonial policies and mandates into forms that radically reversed the priorities of Englishness and empire.

In an effort to understand how this transformation took place and precisely how Indian readers of English novels could refashion prose fiction into their own needs, the paper presents primary research from publishing, book selling, library circulation, and translation archives from Britain and India between 1835-1900. These findings document to a significant extent what British novels were actually being read in India, and the paper analyzes the precise-and enormous-disjunctions between the dissemination of English culture in India and its voluntary consumption by Indian readers.

The paper discusses, for instance, the differences between best selling novels in India and the canon of popular literature in England, and analyzes the consumption of prose fiction beyond the classroom to the informal consumption of this literature from libraries, bookstores, press records, domestic reprints, "adaptations," and translations. It discusses the extent to which Indian readers preferred certain minor English novelists (like G.W.M. Reynolds and Edward Bulwer Lytton) to the titles carefully selected by the Department of Public Instruction, and it suggests how this strategy of reading offset some of the subtlest forms of imperial domination directed toward Indian readers.

The paper concludes by showing how the reading habits of 19th century India both consumed and resisted English culture and carried on this project within the imported genre of the novel that eventually emerged in Indian letters. Rather than reading the emergence of the Indian novel as the straightforward product of 19th century colonial policies (where the colony "mimics" the colonizer's culture), the paper establishes the complex and multi layered process by which Indian readers actively selected and refashioned the corpus of English novels made available to them by the colonial authorities in order to create a form to the novel that was genuinely "Indian" and ultimately post colonial.

Would you like to return to the South Asia Table of Contents? Choose another area?