The History Room: Dr Maitrayee Chaudhuri


1. What led you to choose history as your area of work?

MC: My basic discipline is sociology. In the early 1980s when I began my research women studies had just begun. As was the dominant practice in sociology, I ought to have worked on a contemporary theme and conducted field investigation. However a small research project that I worked on, for Dr. Veena Mazumdar, on women’s political participation gave me a sense of how history could be made alive and how critical it was to understand the present. This issue of the links between the past and present has informed my work since, even when I am working on advertisement which may appear to have little connection with the past.

The dominant practice of sociology in the 1970s was also deeply a historical. That is another story. Interestingly Indian sociology in the colonial period was far more historically informed. However the disproportionate influence of an American sociology informed of structural functionalism in some sense rendered earlier traditions invisible. Recent years have seen greater interest in historical sociology.

2. Can you tell us a little about how your research interests evolved? Especially your interest in working in gender (a field in which there hasn’t been a lot of research done).

MC: Well, about the second part of your question referring to paucity of work on gender, I would differ. Speaking in 2012, there has indeed been an enormous amount of very fine research in gender in India. My edited volume on Feminism in India was an attempt to showcase the richness of the history of doing and thinking feminism in India. Mary John’s edited work on Women Studies in India also demonstrates this.

For many of us entry into gender studies was a historical happenstance, if I may describe it so. In the times I did my MA (1977-1979) we had no idea about women studies. We had no idea about ‘gender’ except for its grammatical usage. That was a period when the second phase of the women’s movement was making its presence felt in India, a moment which made us once again look to the incredible and complex history of the women’s question in India.

As mentioned before we were in the university at a time, when the women’s movement was ‘happening’, when ‘women studies’ was emerging. They were exciting times. However looking back, it was a process of learning. I grew along with it. I cannot claim any clarity of understanding the women’s question from the very beginning. I recall that while we responded to the women’s question emotively, we were not very clear about the gender question in any deep systematic sense. One learnt along the way. There was no ‘canon’, no established body of feminist scholarship. It was still a period of ‘rediscovery’ and ‘discovery’. I say rediscovery because we had to relearn what did exist in India’s past . This was a contentious question as most scholars today would know. It was important to rethink an intellectual culture that either eulogized women in ancient India or debunked India’s past as barbaric and uncivilized. Feminist historians in India have done a remarkable work in rethinking the past critically.

A related point that I would like to touch upon is the manner that our higher education is structure or not structured. Many Indian scholars trained in the west are trained in a very structured fashion. The texts that must be read are ‘givens’, even as they may change with academic times and intellectual currents. For Indian students it is either a fossilized curricula or a free exploratory journey. In JNU where I studied the latter was the case. That exploration, sometimes entailing reading ‘extraneous’ tests (if such a word can be used for learning) often led to unexpected insights.

If I think back today, I may discern a pattern in the manner that my research interest evolved. Thinking back it was odd to be working on history as a sociologist at a time when historians necessarily researched specific themes in a specific district in a very specific period. I was trying to do a history of the sociology of dominant ideas about Indian womanhood as it evolved in a colonially mediated Indian modernity. I was struggling through what I read and trying to make sense of the persistent influence of theses ideas. Even today the typical matrimonial advert that asks for the beautiful convent educated Indian bride, but homely and also educated makes better sense if we look at the specific history of the ideas that shaped the Indian middle class.

3. What is your current research project?

MC: There are a couple of different areas in which I am working on:

• Media
• Academia and the social sciences
• Doing theory

While they may appear to be disparate ‘objects of inquiry’ for me they flow from my interest in the manner that India’s public and intellectual discourse has been shifting.

I have been working on the media, advertisements and the making of the new Indian middle class post 1990s. I have been arguing that the adverts themselves and the media generally have been instrumental in breaking away from an earlier public discourse that took shape in the anti colonial movement to a new public discourse more in sync with the new developmental paradigm. I am planning to put these essays together to mark the shift from what I tem the ‘nation’’ to the ‘global’ discourse.

While the ‘national’ and the ‘global’ are terms used often, I have been feeling that they are loosely deployed. They are buzzwords and the world today seems abuzz with such buzzwords. I have been arguing that we need to break away from a culture where social science discourse is being taken over by a managerial discourse. In this context you may find my books ‘The Practice of Sociology’ and more recently (where I actually seek to theorize the ‘national’ and ‘global’) The Sociology of India: Intellectual and Institutional Discourse useful.

4. What in your view is its significance–for scholars and for society?

MC: In modern societies the academia has been a central site of knowledge production and dissemination. The role of English educated Indian middle class in the 19th social reform movement and the Indian national movement needs no reiteration. The British visualized the role of education as producing pliant Indian clerks and officials to buttress colonial rule. The consequences as we all know were unintended. This critical role of liberal education for a just and democratic society is what I argue is extremely important. That I feel is under threat.

Within the higher education sector, the discourse has increasingly been driven by questions of ‘usefulness’ to the industry and development. Linked to this of course is the question of ‘employability’. Getting jobs is important. Students must have skills that are employable. The point that I have been arguing however is that the role of a university and liberal education (in which the role of social sciences and humanities is critical) is not only about professional and vocational education. University is a site for creative and free thinking which provides a space for ideas of inclusive citizenship and justice to develop.

Further doing theory becomes critical for social sciences in higher education to train students to think out of the box, make connections, understand diversity and make sense of the empirical. Normative theory also enables students to imagine other worlds and move beyond common sense understanding.

More worrisome has been the role of the media, particularly the electronic media. It has positioned itself centrally in the making of a new public discourse. Anchors have taken over as intellectuals who think about, and to the nation. Often university professors may be drawn in for a sound bite but the terms of the discourse are set by the media. That the media is firmly located within the maneuverings of the corporate and state structures need to be highlighted. I think understanding the role of the academia, the media and social sciences in contemporary times is extremely important in today’s context.

5. Can you share a glimpse into your research wish list? If time and resources were abundant, what would you work on?

MC: I like teaching and my interest in pedagogy and curricula emerged from that. The classroom for me has been a very rich and rewarding experience. I have been tempted to follow this up in different ways. Not sure whether it will work out.

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