The History Room: Interview with Dr Geraldine Forbes

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

GF: I was always interested in history and upon finishing high school entered  the Bachelors of Education program at theUniversity ofAlberta inCanada. I wanted to be a teacher but when I became one, I realized my understanding of history was not sufficient to make history as interesting as I had hoped to make it. After teaching, mostly 9th grade, inCanada for three years, I decided to return to University for my Masters. Once I began studying for my Masters, and especially studying Indian history, I was hooked. I never returned to teaching in a school but stayed in University to work on a Ph.d. After completing my Ph.d., the most natural place to look for a position was at the University. I didn’t set out to become a historian, it just happened.

 

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).

GF: I came toCalcutta fromLondon in 1969  to research a society of Bengali positivists.  I had chosen this topic because I was interested in the nineteenth century and the way in which ideas moved from the western world to the colonies and had found letters and other documents about the interest in positivism in England. When I did not find what I was looking for in the national library andWest Bengal archives,  I decided to contact the descendants of the leading Bengali positivist: Jogendro Chandra Ghosh. I found the house listed on Ghosh’s letters, met Jogendro’s  descendants and was directed to his grandniece,  Shudha Mazumdar. Then in her early 70s, Shudha welcomed me to tea and shared what she had collected on her illustrious granduncle. I asked her about her father’s and mother’s recollections of  Jogendro and his circle, and whether she thought his positivist ideas had impacted the family. Shudha was a marvelous raconteur and after hearing stories about the family mansion, her father’s interest in everything foreign, and her mother’s memories of preparing food for Jogendro’s guests, we agreed to meet a second time. [my phd dissertation became my first book:  positivism in bengal (1976) and was selected for the rabindra puraskar, awarded in 1979.]

On my next visit, Shudha talked more about herself and her own childhood than about Jogendro. Astounded to learn that this sophisticated  and articulate woman had less than four years of formal schooling and was married at age eleven, I kept asking questions. In  graduate courses, I was fascinated by the nineteenth century reform movement and wrote papers on child marriage and the position of widows. This was the 1960s, and the materials available to me were limited. While reformers – men as well as women — documented the problems associated with child marriage, proponents of the custom painted a picture of girl children welcomed and pampered by their mothers-in-law. When I asked more questions, Shudha opened a cupboard and produced a 500-page manuscript. “Perhaps you’d like to read this,” she said, “it’s my unfinished autobiography.”  This was 1970 – the dawn of  women’s history – and much of the writing we now take for granted did not exist. Nothing had led me to expect that someone like her would think of writing a memoir, and that I would be given access to it. As anyone who has read Shudha’s memoir knows, it is a lovely, charming account which brings to life a world that has disappeared. I spent the next few years working with Shudha to edit her manuscript for publication.

What Shudha taught me was to look beyond the discourse about a custom or practice for traces of human agency. Let me tell just one story from the memoir to illustrate this point. Reams have been written about female seclusion in the Middle East andIndia. Some people have argued that the custom of secluding women came toIndiawith Muslims; others have looked farther back in history and found that secluding women predated the arrival of Muslims.  Seclusion or Purdah is and has been a contested issue historically, politically, and in people’s private lives. Even though I had read a great deal about purdah, what it meant, and how it differed from region to region,  Shudha taught me its importance in social transactions.

Shudha grew up in and married into a household that insisted that women follow norms of sex-segregation. Practiced not as a religious duty but rather as one befitting women of their social class, Shudha’s mother and mother-in-law stayed in the women’s compartments and traveled in curtained carriages. Living away from the joint family with  her husband, Shudha abandoned many of these practices and began to practice purdah selectively. When someone she did not want to see came to call, she told the servants to tell him she was pardanashin and he would have to come back when her husband was at home. However, attending a mixed tea party organized by her husband’s English superior, she went with only her head covered. However,  eating in front of strange men seemed to be going too far. Offered a cup of tea and cake, she kept the tea on her lap and kicked the offensive and difficult cake under her chair where it was covered by her sari. Somewhat later, when Saroj Nalini Dutt invited  her and her husband to dinner with an English couple, Shudha was able to eat at a mixed dinner party because Saroj Nalini Dutt had placed a giant bouquet of flowers in front of her plate creating a screen of privacy. Shudha taught me to look for the small ways that women were self-conscious actors in their world. While customs are often reified in social science accounts, real people accept, modify, and discard them in accordance with their values and specific situations.

Working on the context of Shudha Mazumdar’s life led me into work on women’s history.

 

3. What is your current research project?

I am actually working on three projects:

Samuel Perrine’s visual presentations of the Nagas

This research developed from an unlikely archive: a box of glass plate negatives, lanternslides, negatives taped to glass, and ordinary negatives, all pertaining toindia.  Given to me by a colleague, the box contained photographs from famous studios such as Bourne and Shepherd, copies of Mughal miniatures, and missionary photographs of theNaga hillsfrom the 19th century. Among them were lanternslides used by Samuel A. Perrine in his ‘infotainment’ talks for the Dunbar Chautauqua Bureau ofChicagocirca World War I, as well as photographs from Perrine’s years as a missionary to the Ao Nagas in northeasternIndiafrom 1892-1905. Some of Perrine’s photographs were published in missionary magazines along with articles about the steady work of the American baptists in theNaga hills. In contrast, Perrine the public lecturer, a profession he turned to after his retirement and pursued during and after the first World War, presented his audiences with “bloodthirsty savages” incapable of changing their ways.

These photographs have led to questions about history and memory, archives, and visual evidence. Samuel Perrine and his archive attracted my attention because he used images from his decade in northeasternIndiato create two different stories for two different audiences. Writing articles for missionary magazines,Perrinesupplied them with documentary evidence of a people undergoing change. Some of his photographs show the pagan customs the missionaries wanted to change, while others show schools, new Christians learning their lessons, and a different world emerging in the hills. This documentary evidence verified the on-going success of the historic Christian mission to conquer the world for Christ. Later,Perrineconstructed a narrative that abandoned history to focus on the heroic man navigating a chaotic world.  Perrine’s transition from missionary to popular lecturer drawing from the same visual evidence points to the need to study the contextualization of images rather than images separate from the negotiation between visual document, presenter, and audience.

The Tarakeswar murder case of 1873

In may of 1873, Nobin Chandra Bandhopadhyay, a young printer, left the city ofCalcuttaand traveled to Kumrul, a village near the site of the famous Tarakeswar temple. Upon arrival, he went to his father-in-law’s home, met his young wife Elokeshi and took her to her grandmother’s home. Three days later, Nobin brutally murdered Elokeshi with a kitchen knife, confessed his crime to the chowkidar, and was taken into custody. He was tried by a jury, appealed, tried a second time at the high court, and finally sent to theAndaman islands.

Of all the cases of spouse and paramour murder in Bengal in the 1870s (about one-third of all homicides), only this one captivated journalists, brought hundreds of people to the trials, compelled thousands to sign petitions, galvanized playwrights and poets to write at least 50 works of literature, and motivated woodcut artists and the patuas [folk artists] of Kalighat to paint their version of this story. The cast of the story: high caste people and a powerful Mohant; the site:  a temple where Lord Tarakanath had appeared and a popular destination for pilgrims; and the action: adultery and murder were the ingredients of high drama.  As this tale of sex, violence, and power unfolded, it became the vehicle for discussion of colonial government, social change, and modernity.  Even though one newspaper argued that everyone, even “groups of peasants,” were talking about the case, it did not attract the attention of the colonial rulers.

There are at least four distinct discourses from this period: journalistic, official-legal, fictional (plays and poems), and visual (pats, woodcuts, and photographs), and each had its own view of the case and its significance.  Those who wrote and painted this case were fully aware that its scandalous elements made it a marketable story, and they employed it to discuss a range of issues beyond adultery and murder. This case, although passed over by colonial administrators as a “native issue,” was intimately intertwined with the technologies and institutions of colonial modernity.

Photographic Imagery in the History of Indian Women.

Indians embraced photography soon after it was introduced to the sub-continent in the 1840s and by the end of the nineteenth century elite and middle class families were creating family albums. These collections are a rich source of data and can be used, with other photographic collections, in writing the history of women in colonialIndia. Having collected family photographs from  the  late nineteenth century to  1947  from bombay and calcutta families, I am attempting to  explore: photographs as documents that provide details of events and illustrate aspects of material culture and style; the photograph album as family self-representation; photographs that trace the development of the self; and photographs as mnemonic devices to connect meaning to images.

 

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

GF: Each project has its own significance. The first, on Samuel Perrine’s use of photographs, is a cautionary tale about taking images at their face value. Photographs are very powerful documents and I think we too often assume that they present some kind of “truth.”

My work on the Tarakeswar murder case might be useful in helping us think about the persistence of and justification of violence against women. While 19th century reformers were concerned with changing society and especially women’s position through education, entry into the professions, etc., ideas about women’s nature and vulnerability persisted.

My photography  project focuses on a methodology of using photographs as historical documents. I would like to see people move beyond using photographs as illustrations to analyzing them for historical information.

 

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

GF: Right now I would like to finish the three projects listed above. Each one of these projects has “branches” that I could pursue if I had more time.

 

6. What are some under-studied areas and un-asked questions relating to women, gender and history?

GF:

  • Economic issues – work roles, pay, hours, double work
  • Domestic roles & household technology
  • Non-elite women’s culture
  • Changes in masculinity and  femininity

First, I would love to see a number of people take on projects aimed at the recovery and preservation of historical sources: family photographs, oral histories, folklore collection, etc. I know a number of projects are already underway, but I would like to see more efforts to preserve the materials that will allow future researchers to learn about the different histories in the future.

 

7. What are some emerging historical and historiographical issues that non-historians should take an interest in?

GF: I am especially interested in the new focus on gender and the history of gender. The title of Terrell Carver’s book, Gender is not a Synonym for Women, is a good motto for our work in this area. While  women’s history has been concerned with retrieving women for history, charting oppression and understanding agency; gender history focuses on the ways sex and sexuality are related to  power relations in society. Gender history has the potential to change history and society if researchers and writers follow the mandate to study both masculinity and femininity as “relational constructs” in time and space. There can be no doubt that our writing of women’s history has left out the relationships between men and women and in doing so, has distorted the historical picture. Gender history will force us to look beyond what women have done to the constructions of femininity that determined their choices.

 

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