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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The History Room features Dr Geraldine Forbes

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This month on the History Room, we’re featuring Professor Geraldine Forbes.

Dr Forbes is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at SUNY Oswego. She specializes in History of Colonial and Modern India, Women’s History, Gender and Colonial Medicine, and Photography and History. A large portion of her work is concerned with Indian women, and two of her significant publications are Women in Colonial India: Essays on Medicine, Politics and History and Women in Modern India, part of the Cambridge History of India series. Her work in Indian history began over three decades ago. Dr Forbes is also a visiting lecturer in India with the Fulbright-Nehru program.

For a full list of her publications, see http://www.oswego.edu/academics/colleges_and_departments/departments/history/faculty/forbes.html

The History Room: Dr Maitrayee Chaudhuri

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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.

The History Room features Dr Maitrayee Chaudhuri

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In May, the History Room features Dr Maitrayee Chaudhuri, who is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. From 2006 to 2008, she was the director of the Women’s Studies Programme in JNU. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology, and has written several books and papers on feminism in India. She was also a textbook advisor to the NCERT for a couple of years, and helped put together texts on Sociology.

A full list of her publications can be found here.

“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’. “

The full interview follows.

The History Room: Laxmi Murthy

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This edition of the History Room features Laxmi Murthy, who has been involved in the women’s movement in India for over twenty-five years.

Laxmi Murthy is the Consulting Editor of Himal Southasian, Kathmandu; as well as Director of the HRI Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. Her writings, with a focus on giving voice to issues marginalised by mainstream media, have appeared in major dailies including The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and the Indian Express. Laxmi was an editor at the Women’s Feature Service, an international news-feature agency specialising in development issues from a gender perspective and was also South Asia coordinator for the Tolerance Prize, an award for excellence in journalism instituted by the International Federation of Journalists. Recently, Laxmi and Rajashri Dasgupta have published “Our Pictures, Our Words: A Visual Journey Through the Women’s Movement,” a history of the Indian women’s movement.

Read on for the full interview!

1. You’ve been a part of the women’s movement all your life. How has the movement fared in terms of documenting its own history?

LM: The women’s movement, like all movements, has been oriented towards action, rather than recording. And this is in the nature of movements – where action is prioritized. With the NGO-isation of the movement, several mono-issue NGos (like law, environment etc), began bringing out reports of their work, but these were more to fulfil requirements of donor agencies, and contained laundry lists of “achievements”, and did not quite represent the fervour or churning that symbolized the women’s movement.

However, it is not as thought the women’s movement has not felt the need the document its experiences, and this has been done in an on-going manner. In Saheli, where I was immersed for more than 20 years of my life, “Daily Diaries” were a live record of day to day happenings, communication between members, analyses, and not least, an outlet for emotions and thoughts. Once e.mail entered the picture, much of this moved to the Internet. Sadly, the Daily Diaries, along with most of the other papers and records, were destroyed in a major fire in May 2011. This reduction to ashes, quite literally, spurred many women’s groups to hastily begin documenting their own histories.

2. What are some of the documentation projects you’ve been a part of?

LM: Since most of my adult life was spent in activism as a major focus of work, a lot of my documenting efforts are related to the women’s movement. One example is the document that was brought out to mark 25 years of Saheli‘s existence in 2006. This was no mean feat for an autonomous, non-funded group working solely on volunteer power. To re-live and document the history of one’s own group, of one’s own life, is a heady, yet fraught enterprise. Since, as is well accepted, there is no one single history. Re-interpretation of the past, subjective analyses and prioritization are hotly debated issues, and this heat and dust is reflected when activist groups attempt to narrate and publish their histories. A notable fact is that Saheli’s history has no single author or “expert” – it is the history of the group as told by its members. In that sense, collective memories are woven together to represent the past in all its diversity as well as solidarity.

3. Tell us a little about the origin and rationale for ‘Our Pictures, Our Words.’

LM: “Our Pictures, Our Words” emerged from the Poster Women project launched in 2005 by Zubaan, a feminist publishing house. The political posters of the women’s movement (1970s onward) are ephemeral in nature, since, as noted earlier, women’s groups have not prioritized documentation and cataloguing. Many posters, created at the height of euphoria, often just before a demonstration — powerful line drawings with splashes of colour — are lost forever. The idea was the collect posters from women’s organizations across the country and create a digital archive. More than 1500 posters came in, and Zubaan organized exhibitions, printed post cards and T-shirts and an online archive. The idea of a simple, easy to read book that showcased this archive, emerged two years ago, and Rajashri Dasgupta and I were commissioned to write and design the book. Rajashri and myself are both journalists, and both of us have been active in the women’s movements for close on three decades. It was this “insider-outsider” status that enabled us to get to the core of issues, yet maintain the distance you need in order to be able to write. Writing the book was a challenge: to counter the media-created notion that feminism is “boring and didactic”, while simultaneously presenting authentic narration and analyses. The design element is strong in the book, and Sarita Sunder, from the Bangalore-based design studio Trapeze, was as much part of this journey.

4. Can you tell us a little bit about HRI and the work that you do here?

LM: The Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange is an offshoot of Himal Southasian magazine published out of Kathmandu. The idea was to set up a body that could do research on a longer timeline than journalism allows – to go in-depth, and branch out and follow leads to a logical conclusion. We also wanted to create a forum for discussion and debate on issues related to Southasia (used as one word) that goes beyond lip service to the idea of regionalism, and the goody goody “hum sab bhai bhai” approach. To examine Southasianism with a critical lens, and also help create and nurture a Southasian sensibility. Right now we are working on the love legends of Punjab – both East and West, and also on networking the smaller archives in the region.

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

LM: I think I would like to document the struggles for social justice that have bubbled to the fore soon after independence of most of the countries in the region. Labour and trade union movements, environmental movements, and struggles of the marginalized. The rich tradition of songs, slogans, visual material, and of course people’s experiences. It would also be a fantastic oral history project – or many projects, actually.

The History Room: Interview with Anupama Rao

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

AR: I have an odd relationship to disciplinary history. I was fascinated by European history in high school, and decided to major in it at the University of Chicago, where I went to college. (This was in the late 1980s, when Foucault, Said, and postcolonial theory were becoming dominant in the U. S. academy.) It just so happened that the University of Chicago was among the more important institutions in the United States for South Asia scholarship. I came into contact with two faculty members, Bernard Cohn, and Ronald Inden, who inspired my shift away from Europe, and towards anthropology and South Asian studies. As I noted earlier, this was at a time when the critique of colonialism was transforming area studies, and the interpretive social sciences. I was deeply influenced by this focus on the politics of knowledge production, and on commitments to rigorous interdisciplinarity. I returned to history as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the (then) recently established Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History.

What has this kind of a trajectory meant for my relationship to disciplinary history? I tend to be conceptually oriented. I am committed to social theory, and bring an interest in comparative work on difference and alterity to my understanding of historical process.

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

AR: Let me offer both a more personal, as well as an intellectual accounting of my interest in caste and gender.

I grew up in Bangalore for the first decade of my life, and then moved to the south side of Chicago where I lived until I went to college. It is odd, though not unexpected that though caste was present all around me in Bangalore, I processed it perceptually through the ways in which we apprehend how bodies labor, what spaces they inhabit, and how we are trained into forms of caste respectability. Instead, as a young person whose parents came to the United States as graduate students, I had a more direct engagement with class and race: with class because we grew up in a state of genteel poverty, with lots of books and library visits, but very little by way of living the consumerist American dream; and with race because I was deeply drawn to African American literature and history in high school and identified with the city, rather than the suburbs where the bulk of Indians lived. While we are not defined by such experiences, many academics do end up working on issues and themes that preoccupy them as central political and ethical problems. I can only speculate that the issues of intimacy, difference, and equality with which I am deeply concerned are somehow connected with this set of grounding experiences.

That said, I turned to caste and gender as an intellectual problem, an underexplored, if essential interface for understanding Indian social life partly due to the intellectual ferment in Indian feminism in the late 1980s—from all the wonderful work on colonial gender formation, to contemporary debates about the Uniform Civil Code, and the ways in which issues of difference and inclusion, and of exception and equality were being debated at the time.

I was extremely lucky to have been working on Maharashtra because this is a region with a strong tradition of gender reform, caste radicalism, and of a deep history of conflict within upper-caste society around questions of tradition and modernity. (This last point, about the conflicted modernity of the Maharashtrian upper-castes is of course what makes the region so different from South India, where such processes were exceedingly muted, though caste radicalism was equally intense.) I think Marathi debates about the continued impact and relevance of the Satyashodak movement and Dalit critique provided a context for my efforts to address the relationship between a rich tradition of caste-gender critique which explored how caste structured sexual and social orders, and its contemporary divergence into caste and gender-identified projects of social transformation. Instead, I was trying to understand the afterlife of history, of history in the present, as well as what significant breaks and ruptures had altered earlier debate and dialogue. Looking back, there were four main interventions my work made: rethinking feminist agency, problematizing caste identitarianism, providing a model for thinking about the relationship between caste and gender violence, and arguing that caste posed a problem of ethics for us all.

Finally, I owe deep thanks to Dr. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, who was instrumental in encouraging me to put together the reader on gender and caste for the Kali series, “Debates in Indian Feminism,” she edited.

3. What is your current research project?

AR: I have just returned from a stint as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford) followed by six months of research in Mumbai, India after publishing The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (University of California Press, 2009). The fellowship and research leave were in aid of a new project, tentatively entitled Dalit Bombay: Stigma, Precarity, and Everyday Life, which addresses the local itineraries of global Marxism in its confrontation with the resistant materiality of caste stigma and outcaste labor in Bombay/Mumbai, the epicenter of India’s working-class radicalism for most of the twentieth century. The project revisits the relationship between caste and class through debates that structured the public and political culture of western India in the first half of the twentieth century. As well, Dalit Bombay asks how the realities of caste and class were embedded in spatial practices and forms of inhabitation that impacted social life. At its broadest level this book project is an exploration of the politics of precarity and personhood in the aftermath of collective utopias of emancipation, and in the wake of neoliberal governance and the accelerated urbanization of the global South.

The book grows out of a collaborative translation project focused on the biography and autobiography of a Dalit Communist which provides a rare account of subaltern Bombay, and the public and political culture that sustained the lives of the working poor.

I am also working on a critical study of B. R. Ambedkar, the celebrated Dalit leader, constitutional lawyer, political theorist, and “architect” of India’s Constitution. I am especially interested in connecting key terms and ideas in Ambedkar’s oeuvre as these were affected by the inter-war intellectual cultures of American liberalism, on the one hand, and British and German social democratic thought on the other.

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

AR: Thought and academic writing are slow, and do not have the immediate impact of policy, with its means-end relationship between analysis and outcome. Very often thought is experimental, it asks what might have been, or better yet, it opens us to thinking “otherwise” and to resist the persistent fixation on making academic work relevant to social problems and contemporary reality. It may sound odd for me as someone working on issues that directly impact social action to say this. And I should clarify that I am not suggesting that academics should not influence the way things are thought and done. However I do want to challenge what we value as useful scholarship. I think what I am saying is deeply significant for a caste (and casteist) society like India’s, because it asks that we democratize thought and theorizing, and remove it from the idea of education as vocational training. We should have a patient relationship to this question of significance. Often it is too soon to tell!

However if I were to take a stab at responding to this question, I could say the following. Beginning with The Caste Question, I have brought the concerns of feminist theory into work that is not necessarily focused on women, or gender. That is to say, much of the ways in which I came to understand the project of Dalit emancipation was indebted to forms of thought that I would call “feminist” even when it was not engaging an explicitly gendered domain of action. (Of course my book also works through more explicitly through gender and sexuality to show how these structure instabilities of personhood and political projects.)

More broadly, the significance of my work is that it makes thought, and not merely resistance, the site of agonism and conflict. I track the systematicities of subaltern thought—its deep investment in history, in writing alternative accounts of labor, and in describing the precarity of everyday life, not to mention the central yet unacknowledged ways in which we have inherited the postcolonial state as an Ambedkarite legacy. I think all my writings attempt to think about the relationship between thought and social life as an embodied one.

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

AR: I am very lucky to be able to draw on the work of friends and colleagues, and in having time to research and write. However if I could have all the time and resources in the world, I think I would want to do more cross-regional work in South Asia, and to explore the world south of the Vindhyas by way of its oral and subaltern cultural histories.

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

AR: This is such a rich and vibrant field that I would hesitate to talk about understudied areas. But what has happened to sex/gender in a postfeminist world? Many people no longer feel the “need” for feminism as an organizing politics of our time, yet we are in a period where gender and sexuality matter, and matter deeply. Or, how is queer critique opening up new ways of thinking about sexual and social difference? How can revisiting questions of political economy (and its new practices of predation) allow us to understand gendered labor? All of these issues remain important. So too, does the question of gender and religion. I think this is an especially difficult issue given global geopolitics.

I think feminism’s adjacencies to socialism and other progressive movements is a part of its complex, and underexplored history. We Too Made History, and some recent work on women in the Naxalite movement have addressed this complex engagement. But I think we need richer intellectual histories of what and how women read, and ways to understand the circulation of feminism in global frame.

Another interesting area is the work on early modernity, which puts pressure on modern categories such as gender. For example the work of my colleague, Dorothy Ko, who has worked on female scholars in seventeenth century China, and on the changing history of footbinding across five centuries is especially interesting to me. This work, like other work on early modernity in South Asia, explores how “gender” is embedded in courtly, literary, or performative cultures, and thus how gender is inhabited.

Interview publication date: March 8, 2012.

Email interview by Archana Venkatesh.

The History Room: Dr Anupama Rao, an introduction

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First up in our series of “blog interviews,” The History Room, is Dr. Anupama Rao. Dr Rao is an associate professor in the History Department at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her work in the field of gender and caste is prolific and her other research interests include history of anticolonialism; caste and race; comparative urbanism; historical anthropology, social theory, and colonial genealogies of human rights and humanitarianism. For a more detailed biography and a list of her recent works, see http://www.columbia.edu/cu/history/fac-bios/Rao/faculty.html

“…what has happened to sex/gender in a postfeminist world? Many people no longer feel the “need” for feminism as an organizing politics of our time, yet we are in a period where gender and sexuality matter, and matter deeply. Or, how is queer critique opening up new ways of thinking about sexual and social difference? How can revisiting questions of political economy (and its new practices of predation) allow us to understand gendered labor? All of these issues remain important.”
~ Dr. Anupama Rao to The History Room.

The full interview follows!