Women’s History Roundtable January 2020: “Coverage of Sexual Violence in the Indian Media” by Radhika Santhanam


Radhika Santhanam is an Assistant Editor at The Hindu, Chennai. She commissions and edits articles for the opinion pages of the newspaper. In her seven years there, she has also written on gender, caste, and literature. Her articles have appeared on the opinion pages, Sunday Magazine, Literary Review, Education Plus and Metro Plus. In 2017, she was selected as a Journalism Fellow for a three-month programme in Germany, funded by the Bosch Foundation. Besides working with the ZDF, the German public service television broadcaster, she also reported about German politics and culture for The Hindu. She holds a Masters degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a diploma in Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Ms. Santhanam began her talk by discussing the 2012 Delhi gang rape, and the shifts that resulted in reporting on sexual violence in India. This case highlighted the deep-rooted problem of sexual violence in the country, grabbing headlines and leading to legal changes. This was a watershed moment in India. Although it was not the first time that protests took place in response to an incident of sexual violence, it showed how society had reached a breaking point, causing the media to cover the issue in some depth. Yet, in general, coverage tends to be episodic, whenever a sensational case emerges. Even these cases disappear from public view after some time, only to be replaced by the next case.

Limiting her analysis to English print media, Ms. Santhanam outlined some of the main problems that can be identified in coverage of sexual violence. Firstly, she spoke about language: what kinds of words and descriptions are deployed by the media? Are these descriptions necessary? And do they help the report or the larger cause? She mentioned the use of terms like ‘sex scandal’ when reporting on cases of sexual abuse, which sensationalises these incidents and minimises the gravity of the situation. Moreover, it implies that both survivors and perpetrators are willing participants in the act. This is also true of reports that use the terms ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ interchangeably. She also mentioned the use of terms like ‘roadside romeos’ for harassers, or the widely-used ‘eve-teasing’ for street sexual harassment, which trivialises gender violence.

The second problem in reporting is providing unnecessary sensationalising details of the crime that imply victim-blaming. She noted that politicians across the political spectrum also talk about sexual violence in these terms, with the victim’s actions being constantly questioned. These include some politicians saying ‘boys will be boys’, while others remark that rape does not occur in rural areas. She added that female politicians have also made such statements. She mentioned this to highlight that the notion that women must have ‘asked for it’ is extremely prevalent. Moreover, some media reports even identify the survivor by name, or provide identifying details such as where they work or the neighbourhood where they live. While courts have pulled up the media for this in some cases, not much has been done beyond that, since the media in India is not truly accountable to anyone. Social media intensifies the problem by making it easier to circulate identifying information, with even less oversight.

The third problem identified by Ms. Santhanam is the images used for publication with reports. She noted that editors tend to rely on images of protests, where relevant, but in the absence of protests, they choose from stock images. Many of these images reinforce harmful stereotypes about survivors. Some, for example, depict a woman sitting in a corner looking ashamed, with a man hovering menacingly over her.

Another enduring problem is the role of caste and class. Class bias in terms of which stories get reported is common, determined by what the newsroom thinks its readership will be interested in, as well as what editors themselves might be biased towards. She noted that the Kathua case was an exception because it became a political/communal issue. Reports tend to focus more on violence in urban India, which is seen as more relatable to the consumers of English language print media. Yet, even those stories get sustained coverage, they do not invite the same level of anger seen during initial reports, which results in publications ‘moving on’ to the next case without always following up on previous reports. Cases of sexual violence from a caste angle, used as a tool for oppression, are similarly not reported on enough. The newsroom, Ms. Santhanam noted, continues to be dominated by upper-caste men from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, even though the number of women has gone up considerably in recent years. She added that greater diversity in the newsroom would open up conversations and possibly allow for a more representative range of stories. She reflected that members of the newsroom are ultimately not very different from the segments of society they represent, and bring in some of the same biases.

Ms. Santhanam then spoke about the #MeToo movement and its impact on the profession. She said that it resulted in some amount of self-reflection on practices within newsrooms themselves that went beyond simply what to report. She added that a lot of media outlets do not have a ‘gender beat’, meaning that there is no real organisational push to cover gender issues. This makes following up on cases more difficult. She pointed to other systemic issues, like the training provided in journalism schools. Many schools, she noted, do not teach gender reporting as a compulsory part of the syllabus, leading to reporters having to learn on the job. She also spoke about the ways in which the media can improve its reporting. She emphasised the need to be more sensitive and empathetic, which can be challenging when the goal is to get quotes. She urged for using terms like ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, with the latter serving to reinforce stereotypes about women being passive or meek. She added that the Indian media relies too much on euphemisms. She also spoke about reporting on violence against trans people and sexual minorities, highlighting the need to ask them what their preferred pronouns are and being more generally aware of the specific forms of violence they might face.

A truly progressive shift in reporting, Ms. Santhanam said, would involve moving beyond only concentrating on specific cases, and investigating systemic issues that allow sexual violence to happen. She added that this does happen to some extent, but much more can be done. She referred to a recently published book called ‘She Said’ on the Harvey Weinstein case by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, two New York Times journalists. This book, she noted, looked at how he was able to continue sexually assaulting women over so many years with impunity, providing insights into power relations at a deeper level. She urged for more reporting on laws, the criminal reporting system and the work done by the police, and other systemic issues, which might push politicians towards creating more inclusive and harassment-free spaces.



Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

Women’s History Roundtable February 2020: “Women’s Movements and Theatre” by Dr. A. Mangai


A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. Padma, a retired Associate Professor in English from Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her fields of interest are theatre, gender and translation studies. She has written and translated several books and plays, and has been actively engaged in Tamil theatre as an actor, director and playwright for almost three decades. She has directed over 15 plays, all of which deal with women-centric themes. These include Kaala Kanavu (A Dream of Time), a feminist history of Tamil Nadu scripted by the feminist historian V. Geetha, and pieces based on classical Tamil texts. She strives to create a language of theatre from the traditional forms of Tamilnadu. She is also passionate about community theatre, and making theatre the voice of the marginalised. Her work with the transgender community over the past few years has helped form Kannadi Kalai Kuzhu, for whom she has directed two plays. Dr. Mangai has twice been a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research in the US, and has also taught in the UK.

Women’s movement and feminist theatre, Dr. Mangai believes, have succeeded in the representation of women without victimisation, seeing women through her own sense of agency and redefining leadership as part and parcel of grounded realities.

Sharing insights from her book, Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards, on the trajectory of gendered theatre practices and women’s movements, Dr. Mangai began with a gist on Agusto Boval’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which recognises spectators as “spect-actors” and attributes the act of “doing” rather than “thinking” to spectators, Dr. Mangai spoke about how this theatre movement by Boval has been used as a tool for social change.

Although riddled with scepticism, Boval’s other contribution, the Legislative Theatre, Dr. Mangai said allows one to engage with law in a very proactive way (Boval used legislative theatre as a tool to identify key community problems and the kind of legislation that would help address it). Today, however, she said, “we talk about individuality in a way that fears individuality.”

Splitting her talk on feminist theatre into “content” and “form,” Dr Mangai went on to cite some important plays that have lent support to the women’s movement and have led to some of the strongest movements/reactions and positive developments that we have seen in recent times.

She gave the example of the play Draupadi (a short story by Mahasweta Devi’s which was adapted by Heisnam Kanhailal as a play in 2000). It is about a Bengali adivasi woman who is raped by soldiers of the Indian Army. At the end of the story, Draupadi confronts the officer who sanctioned her rape. The play is said to be prophetic as it spurred, four years later, the protest by 12 Manipuri women, who stripped naked, to vent their angst against the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by army personnel.

Dr Mangai, who has directed four plays on female infanticide, showed a brief clipping of a play from “Voicing Silence,” done in collaboration with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, where theatre was used as a tool to discuss gender-based issues like female infanticide. In the play, the theatre group proactively engages with the spectators and seeks their thoughts on the subject. While such forms of engagement helped the group get a sense of the ground reality, a few women were rebuked for speaking their mind.

She also feels that while theatre gives the energy and hope for artistic sharing, it also provides the chance to listen.

If the 1990s were about female infanticide, the 2000s were about LGBT issues in theatre. Dr Mangai spoke about her play on transwomen which focussed on addressing their issues as citizens, including the right to have an identity card. The play also spoke about other societal issues faced by the group. There are many in Chengalpattu, who even today, credit the play for some of the positive developments that came about for the community such as access to rights, land, etc. Dr Mangai, however, attributes this to the “right time, right demand.” But these changes also make her feel validated and with the growing number of trans people in Tamil Nadu who are entering art and films, she acknowledges the small part she and her theatre group have played in contributing towards this. Here, she cited the example of transgender activist A Revathi, who had her name displayed alongside names like Maya Angelou in Columbia University. 

According to her, every time there has been a big campaign, either poetry or literature or art has come as a supplement. However, she adds, “without a sense of solidarity, collectivism doesn’t sustain.”

She then went on to speak about the key aspects of “form.” Reinterpreting myths, like Heisnam Kanhailal’s play Draupadi, has been a favourite for playwriters. Dr Mangai believes that engagement of feminist ideology has produced this interpretation. Another aspect is the female impersonation by men.  

She credits Anuradha Kapur for being the pioneer in conceptualising and changing the way one can make a presentation. But representation of women, even when it’s based on facts, if not attuned to cultural sensitivities can be problematic. Talking about her play Avvai, Dr Mangai pointed out that her representation of Avvai as someone who enjoys toddy drew flak as it was seen as “subscribing to the image of western feminism.” This despite the fact that 40 poems, penned by Avvai, have references to toddy and drinking toddy by women was a ritual practiced by many during the Sangam age.

She also touched upon plays like Vakkumoolam and Karuppi. The former revolved around custodial rape and the fight for justice by Nagamma, a Dalit woman, during the period of Emergency and the latter is about female migrant workers in South Asia. Plays like Vakkumoolam, instead of victimising women, successfully bring out the calm, composed and steady resilience of a woman who stood for justice.  

She believes that in theatre, the process of work becomes more important than the product. And theatre/art as a tool allows you to acknowledge the various shades of feminism consciousness. Feminist theatre, she said, is like a seed, it grows on different soils, it grows slowly but it stays.  

According to Dr Mangai, it is important to note that representation of women in feminist theatre and women’s movements – from the Kurathi (gypsy) to Avvai to Manimekalai to as recent as Shaheen Bagh – is grounded in women’s lived realities.


Rapporteur: Nandhini Shanmugham

Dr. Shailaja Paik in The History Room


Paik photo for history room Shailaja Paik is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, and the author of Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination (London and New York: Routledge, 2014 ). Her first book  examines the nexus between caste, class, gender, and state pedagogical practices among Dalit (“Untouchable”) women in urban India. She is currently working on a National Endowment for the Humanities–American Institute of Indian Studies funded project that focuses on the politics of caste, class, gender, sexuality, and popular culture in modern Maharashtra. Paik has published several articles on a variety of themes, including the politics of naming, Dalit and African American women, women’s education, and new womanhood in colonial India in prestigious international journals. Her research over the past twenty years has been funded by Yale University, Emory University, Warwick University, Charles Wallace India Trust, and the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research, among others. Her scholarship and research interests are concerned with contributing to and furthering the dialogue in anti-colonial struggles, transnational women’s history, women-of-color feminisms, and particularly on gendering caste, and subaltern history.



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


During my undergraduate years in India, I was preparing for the UPSC exams. The exam focused on an in-depth study of two major subjects and also had a general knowledge component. Most students appearing for these state and national level exams selected History as their top choice. So, I decided to follow suit. In addition, I had a wonderful teacher during undergraduate college. She was responsible in creating  the love for a deeper history based on the perspectives and works of different scholars. She introduced me to classic texts and scholars of Indian history. I also decided to pursue my MA in  History. Since I was trained in History it was my first choice when I applied for my PhD at the University of Warwick, UK. However, as I familiarized myself with different disciplines such as Women’s Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology, I wanted to combine different disciplines and especially ethnographic fieldwork along with archival investigation. For my PhD I decided to investigate the hitherto unexamined history of Dalit women in modern Maharashtra.



  1. Can you tell us a little about how your research interests evolved? 


I received my first fellowship to conduct research on Dalit women from the Indian Council of Social Sciences Research. In order to apply for the fellowship, I conducted a survey of available literature, as it is referred to in India, and I also started connecting with Dalit women in Pune. While I was doing this, I found that there was a serious lack of in-depth qualitative research and historical studies on Dalit women. Hence, I embarked on finding out more about their lives. Most important, my research also helped me establish deep connections  with my own Dalit community and real people. Women and men I interacted with were very proud that I was studying our Dalit lives. They were being recorded as historical actors for the first time and this was an exciting moment for all of us. Along with archival research, I conducted life history oral interviews with more than 150 women from different Dalit castes. I incorporated different methods—close reading of archival documents, life history interviews, participatory research, and so on to conduct an inter-disciplinary study of Dalit women’s worlds. I published my first book and several articles in prestigious journals focusing on different aspects, including education, the politics of naming Dalits, building solidarities between Dalit and African American women, the social life of Tamasha performance, and so on.


3. What is your current research project?


Currently, I am working on my second book project that focuses on the politics of caste, class, gender, sexuality, and popular culture. Once again, building on my skills and interests, I have conducted archival research and oral interviews in Maharashtra.


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


My work is certainly significant for both scholars and the larger society. I am writing, lecturing, workshopping, and teaching about a variety of issues central to the history, politics, culture of South Asia and beyond. My work makes significant contributions to Dalit studies, India studies, Asian studies, Women, gender, and sexuality studies, colonial studies, oral history, and so on. The focus on the most deprived Dalit women allows me to connect with a variety of marginalized groups, for example African American women in the US to work on the “most inclusive and productive politics, developing of new feminist frame­works, and critical decoding of systemic power structures. Such an exercise of building bridges may allow African Americans and Dalits to effectively share their experiences and struggle together for an inclusive, deeply democratic, transnational politics” (as I’ve noted in my book Paik, Dalit Women’s Education, 2014). My work has built bridges between academics and activists. Some NGOs have used my book for argue for the right to education and information for disadvantaged communities.


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


I would like to work on my mother’s biography. She has written a few pages. I would like to work with her. I would also like to translate my first book into Hindi and Marathi languages, so that the women I engaged with and the larger non-English speaking audience has access to the main findings of the book.


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


Only recently, feminists have started producing a deeper analysis of the interlocking structures of gender, history, sexuality, caste, and class (my book emphasizes these connections). We need to build on existing and emerging work in this area. Although scholars have begun to work, there is a lack of historical studies on women from certain communities, such as adivasis, Muslim, Brahman, and so on. There is also a lack of serious conversation on building solidarities between feminists from different ethnic, gender, and class backgrounds or between academics, artists, and activists.


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


A big problem is that there is a lack of conversation between historians and non-historians as well as between historians focusing on different periods of history and regions. These  communities of scholars need to draw upon each other’s work and connect with each other. Non-historians focus on the contemporary and they need to open their studies to the complex contingencies of historical twists and turns. They will then be able to better appreciate the value that the past has on the present as it continues to plague the future.


Women’s History Roundtable December 2019: “Examining the Rise of the Female Protagonist in Indian Cinema” by Dr. Uma Vangal


Uma Vangal is a film professor, columnist, critic, filmmaker, film curator, media scholar, archivist, and gender activist. Primarily though, she sees herself as a Teacher/Transformer. A Fulbright Nehru Scholar, she has taught Film Studies at Kenyon College, Ohio, and is an Adjunct Faculty at the Asian College of Journalism, where she teaches Film, Gender and Culture. She has also made a number of notable documentary films. Her most cherished moment was when one of her films paved the way for the Supreme Court to rule in favour of two Dalit women whose struggle she had documented. As a Founder-trustee of the MIRA Trust, she works with young people, especially young girls and women, to create opportunities for empowerment, employability and enhanced livelihood choices.

Dr. Vangal began her talk by discussing the film Baahubaliand its portrayal of female characters. She noted that while the movie depicted women as being powerful figures, it also denied them agency on numerous occasions throughout the movie and reinforced negative stereotypes about women. The character Avantika, for example, who resembles the warrior Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Gamesin many ways, was also subjected to what Dr. Vangal described ironically as the ‘most aesthetic rape scene’ in Indian cinema. She also spoke about the #MeToo movement in the Hindi and Tamil film industries, observing that many men in power escaped media scrutiny, while others who were called out did not face any long-term consequences. She added that while it caused some ripples in these industries, it ultimately felt like a token movement due to how little has changed. She continued, however, to note that the rise of bona fide female superstars, like Kangana Ranaut and Nayanthara, presenting stories of women and their lived realities in modern India, was a positive trend.

Dr. Vangal then described various tests to determine how inclusive a film is from a gendered perspective, and to examine its broader gender dynamics. These included the Bechdel Test, where a film should have at least two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man; the Mako Mori test, which prescribes that at least one female character should have her own character arc that does not simply bolster male characters’ stories; and others such as the Furiosa Test and the Sexy Lamp Test. She also described a test she had devised for Indian films specifically, known as the FItMuS Test. Short for ‘Female Integrity, Male Utility, Cultural Sensitivity’, this test determines if films move beyond a tokenistic approach. According to this test, female characters should have clear and consistent narratives and should not exist only for ‘male utility’. Moreover, they should be culturally relatable, coherent and credible. She reflected that these tests are important because films are often used as a yardstick by audiences to judge their own actions, especially when it comes to romance.

The session proceeded with a feminist analysis of Indian cinema from the 1930s to today. Dr. Vangal demonstrated how cinema reflects the zeitgeist of its times. She noted that early films passed many of the gender equality tests, with female actors often being given strong roles on screen and depicted as being in touch with their sexuality and desires. The 1940s witnessed women continuing to be cast in strong roles, but given the prevalence of the civil disobedience movement, these were more nationalist in character. With the 1950s, films such as Mother Indiadepicted women as resilient characters contributing to the task of nation-building. This decade also included films that spoke out against restrictive gender practices such as dowry. The 1960s reflected Nehru’s vision for an industrialised, modern India, with women shown as working together with men to achieve these goals. This period, however, was also when a transition to more regressive portrayals of women onscreen commenced.

In the 1970s, the arrival of new wave cinema resulted in a monopoly on strong roles for women in these films. As a result, while powerful films on gendered themes were being made in parallel cinema, mainstream movies were declining in this aspect. This decade also featured a number of films on courtesans, and by extension, on the ‘fallen woman’, while the ‘angry young man’ trope became more visible. Dr. Vangal emphasised that this distinction between parallel and mainstream cinema was not so visible in South Indian film industries during this period. The 1980s and 1990s saw a further decline, with female roles becoming unidimensional across languages and industries. The 1990s, according to her, was the worst period for female representation in Indian cinema.

In the 2000s, most films continued to reinforce unrealistic expectations about women, who were reduced to visual motifs through these depictions. The behaviour of young, modern women was rendered as a series of tropes through this decade. She went on to note that the current decade has seen the entry of foreign studios, with their own conceptions of female agency that are not always replicable in an Indian context. Moreover, films are increasingly marketed as feminist because this is now seen as a selling point. However, while these movies are ostensibly women-centric, many of them continue to fail gender equality tests. Recent decades, she added, have also included progressive films that have challenged patriarchy and portrayed female desire sensitively, but such movies are not as prevalent as in earlier decades.

The talk concluded with Dr. Vangal tracing the career trajectories of Nayanthara and Kangana Ranaut, and the positive and negative trends that can be observed in the rise of female-centric films in India. She described the positives as including audiences becoming more accepting of women playing lead characters and the mainstreaming of female-centric films, breaking the myth that these movies have to be exclusively about ‘women’s issues’. She reflected that they can provide women agency through positive role models, while also demonstrating that age is no longer a barrier for strong female characters, as evidenced by Neena Gupta’s character in Badhaai Ho. The negatives, according to her, include writers and directors promoting films as female-centric as a marketing strategy, without always understanding feminism or aiming for true gender equality in these productions. These films might also normalise negative stereotypes about women around sexuality and criminality. She added that casting women as leads can also be used as a cost-saving tactic by paying them less than a male lead while leveraging their star power.

Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

Women’s History Roundtable October 2019: “M.K. Gandhi and Women” by Dr. V.R. Devika


V.R. Devika is an activist, writer and educator. She is the founder and managing trustee of The Aseema Trust, a nonprofit organization that links traditional performing arts with education, particularly concepts of non-violence inspired by Gandhian principles. She conducts regular workshops on peace education and communication skills for students and teachers. She has received awards and honours from a number of organisations including the British Council, the Goethe Institute, Bharath Kalachar, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha and Rotary clubs, among others. She has held the position of Director for Education and Culture of the Madras Craft Foundation and its project Dakshinachitra.

In her talk, Dr. Devika analysed the gendered politics of M.K. Gandhi’s philosophy and writing. She presented rich accounts and lively stories detailing the experiences of several of the women he lived and interacted with. She reflected that Gandhi impacted millions both during his lifetime and after, in a multitude of ways that have rendered him a polarising figure. She emphasised the need to consider alternative sources and diverse historiographical approaches, particularly to understand his views on women. His wife’s letters, for instance, provide interesting insights and possibly a different narrative to mainstream accounts of their relationship.

Dr. Devika suggested that Gandhi was a study in contrasts, often changing his position on various issues. For example, while he wanted women to join the freedom struggle in the public sphere, he also believed their ‘place’ was in the home. Even as he tried to be a social reformer, he was constrained by the demands of social norms, which was evident in his interactions with his wife and children. Dr. Devika argued that Gandhi supported the participation of women in public life, but failed to understand that oppression is not a moral condition, but a socio-economic one. She also commented on his sexual politics and experiments, which have elicited much debate and discussion both in historical and popular writing.


Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

Women’s History Roundtable September 2019: “12 Years and Counting: The Prajnya Story” by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan


Swarna Rajagopalan is the founder and Managing Trustee of Prajnya. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She has published books, peer-reviewed papers and media articles on a wide range of topics related to peace, security and gender equality. She has also taught at a number of universities in India and abroad. Besides Prajnya, she also runs Chaitanya, a consultancy specialising in research and academic programming on political and policy issues.

On 9 September 2019, Prajnya celebrated its 12thbirthday. To mark the occasion, Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan traced the organisation’s journey at a special edition of the Women’s History Roundtable Series. Dr. Rajagopalan remarked that her talk would be a very personal account, given that she has the most continuous memory of Prajnya. She added that to not remember was simply not an option, particularly because Prajnya itself is a small and personal type of organisation.

Dr. Rajagopalan said that Prajnya was first conceptualised in February 2003, in her home office in Urbana, Illinois. While she dreamt about creating it, she was simultaneously beginning to seriously consider returning to India. She tried to imagine what the organisation would be, and what specifically she wanted to create. The three years between 2003 and 2006 constituted the planning phase, as these details were fleshed out. She drew up her first documents outlining her plans, which she titled ‘Theme for a Dream’. In August 2003, Dr. Rajagopalan moved to Chennai. She spent a year making contacts, noting that founding an NGO requires various kinds of capital, including inclusion in local networks. Despite her initial struggles, she decided in 2005 to go ahead with her project. She called in the first Trustees, and began the elaborate process of officially setting up the organisation. The deed, for example, took several months to draft, which she did with the help of a lawyer. Sorting out these details, such as legal compliance and income tax, took another year.

In September 2007, Dr. Rajagopalan received a notification that Prajnya’s income tax registration had been sorted out. She then had to address the final paperwork and procedural details, such as creating a bank account and letterhead. She decided to set it up as a trust in order to protect the founding vision, so that however it grew and changed over the years, it remained tethered to those original principles. She reflected on the journey of the logo as a symbol of Prajnya’s growth, adding that its identity was anchored in these symbols, especially in its early days. On 8 March 2008, the Prajnya banner was raised at an event for the first time. The tangibility of this act, along with the arrival of the first batch of volunteers, made the organisation feel more ‘real’.

Dr. Rajagopalan then provided some operational information about Prjanya. She noted that while she had dreamed big initially in terms of budgets, Prajnya has become a volunteer-led organisation. Much of Prajnya’s work involves information and communication, which is a core skill of many of the organisation’s volunteers. Prajnya is also known for working with other organisations, which she noted might become more difficult as the climate increasingly pits organisations against each other. In addition, Prajnya is hyper-local, but has nevertheless forged a number of connections outside Chennai. Prajnya is also largely community-funded, with no government or FCRA funds. She added that this meant that whenever individual donors contribute, they are also given some amount of ownership. She also mentioned the challenges that Prajnya has faced, including the persistent threat of closure, trying to keep energy and morale up, raising funds and getting people to attend events. Yet, she emphasised that over 12 years, the organisation’s reach had grown immensely, with Prajnya being seen as a ‘go-to’ for various issues.

Dr. Rajagopalan’s talk provided clarity on what creating a non-profit in India entails, in the context of her own positionality. It also highlighted how interwoven her personal and professional journey was with the evolution of Prajnya.


Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

The Return of The History Room


Happy New Year!

Some years ago, we introduced The History Room as part of our interest in documenting women’s work in the public sphere. The History Room is a  series of email interviews that we will carry in our blog. The series will feature scholars working on women’s history, senior women historians, biographers of women, women biographers and some other social scientists and humanities scholars.

A short, more or less standard, list of questions will be used for the interviews, answers to which could provide insights into the following concerns: professional choices and challenges; the evolution of research interests; current research and its significance; research wishlist (what the scholar would like to work on); emerging questions/issues. Our idea is to showcase scholarship in a format that is accessible even to the casual reader, who is more likely to read a conversation than a journal article, but who will still benefit from learning some of the issues and insights in that scholarship. And whose interest might well be piqued to make them look for more.

These blog interviews are essentially glimpses of women in the public sphere, mostly academic women. With these “snippet” interviews, what we’re trying to do is trace the evolution behind their interest in history, and what draws them (or does not) to a gendered approach or feminist perspective.

We are pleased to announce that we are rebooting The History Room! We aim to blog one interview a month as of now; depending on when the responses come in. The first interview will be published in June.

Women’s History Roundtable Series: “Daughter Discrimination in India: A Research Retrospective” by Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, March 2019


Dr. Sharada Srinivasan is an Associate Professor, & Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development at the University of Guelph. She obtained her PhD in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Prior to joining the University of Guelph, she taught at York University, Toronto, Canada.


Dr. Srinivasan began by explaining that this presentation was a ‘research retrospective’ because it has been twenty years since she completed her research for the PhD. Her research, completed in 1999, focussed on female infanticide. Rather than examining daughter discrimination in those states where it is examined more often (e.g. Bihar, Haryana), she chose to study how daughter discrimination emerged in a context where the gender disparity is relatively less. Dr. Srinivasan noted that it was important to study places or events that do not conform to national ‘trends’, making Tamil Nadu – with lower gender disparity indices – an important site in which to examine daughter discrimination.

During her research process, Dr. Srinivasan found that dowry was an important way to measure daughter discrimination in Tamil Nadu. In particular, she pointed out several ways in which patterns of dowry had changed over the past few decades. Though popular perceptions of dowry portray it as being prevalent among poor, illiterate people; Dr. Srinivasan found that it was those in more privileged positions who practiced dowry. Thus, she found that as a family’s status moved up, so did the daughter discrimination in the form of dowry. This insight allowed Dr. Srinivasan to examine the links between dowry and gender violence in Tamil Nadu. As Dr. Srinivasan found, wealth had little impact on dowry and domestic violence. Instead, it was women’s income that was the influencing factor. Women who earned/had access to their own income were less likely to be the targets of domestic violence.


Dr. Srinivasan also found a conflicting narrative – it is well known that men take pride in the size of the dowry they ‘attract’, which is a marker of their status in society. Wives having their own income is seen as undermining their husbands’ status, ego and power.

In the course of her fieldwork, Dr. Srinivasan found certain ‘red zones’ in Tamil Nadu where this contradictory narrative led to increased daughter discrimination. She noted that this was particularly prevalent in the landowning castes (especially the konguvellalar gounders, the focus of her research), where son preference is high given the desire to keep the land within the family. In this scenario, having many daughters creates more claimants to the land in question. To avoid this problem, parents often arrange early marriages for their daughters.

This practice was emulated by lower caste groups, reflecting a pattern prevalent in Indian society wherein economic growth is perceived as going hand in hand with the imitation of upper caste/class behavioural patterns.


Dr. Srinivasan saw the famous Cradle Baby Scheme, along with the Girl Child Protection Scheme and ensuing police action pioneered by the TN government as important points of change in this narrative. Within a decade after these landmark initiatives, the census showed an improvement in FMR (female mortality rate) for the state.


Twenty years after her initial foray into this field, Dr. Srinivasan continues to study daughter discrimination in India. Her current research examines adult daughters and sons and their relationship with the care of elderly parents in India. She is currently conducting fieldwork on this topic in Punjab and Kerala. The study will analyse how elderly parents are supported in daughter-only families and identify existing patterns among sons and daughters in providing care to elderly parents.




This report is based on notes taken by Nafeesa Usman

Women’s History Roundtable November 2019: “Grandmother, Mother, Daughter: Writing Women’s Lives” by Dr. K. Kalpana


K. Kalpana is Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Her research area is development studies with a focus on the interfaces between gender and the development experience. Her academic publications are in the intersecting domains of gender, poverty, microcredit, women’s work in the informal sector and collective action in solidarity economies. Her book ‘Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

This post is extracted from a story written by KV Navya for The New Indian Express titled ‘Paati’s story across five decades’ (published 12 November 2019). You can view the original story here.

‘When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.

“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.

Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.

“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.

Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”

Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.

Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.

When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”

The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.’

Women’s History Roundtable August 2019: “Handmaidens of God or Common Prostitutes: Perspectivising the Devadasi Tradition in India” by Professor V. Bharathi Harishankar


V. Bharathi Harishankar is Professor and Head, Department of Women Studies, University of Madras. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, gender studies, translation, web based pedagogy and open educational resources. She has successfully completed projects on OER, Devadasi System and Impact of CSR on women empowerment. She is currently engaged in Erasmus Plus project.

Professor Harishankar presented the key findings of a report on the Devadasi system submitted to the National Commission for Women (NCW), based on a study conducted in 2015-2016 for which she was the principal investigator. She began by highlighting the inherent ambiguity in the term ‘Devadasi’ itself (as the title of her talk indicates), which literally translates to ‘Handmaiden of God’, but is now synonymous with prostitution. She outlined the systemic exploitation that Devadasis are subject to, extending beyond the physical or sexual to encompass cultural, social economic and religious aspects as well.

Professor Harishankar explained the historical origins of the Devadasi system, citing scriptural evidence of its ancient roots and temple inscriptions across the subcontinent. She highlighted the shift from the ‘dedication’ of girls and women to their ‘appointment’ around the 8thcentury, signalling their occupational status. Their elevated social position allowed them to learn how to read and write, excel in the arts, buy property, and adopt children and grant them inheritance rights, setting them apart from other women at that historical juncture. Their venerated status could also be seen in a number of practices. When a Devadasi died, for example, the sanctum sanctorum of her temple was closed to visitors for three days, as the gods were said to be in mourning, indicating the respect Devadasis were afforded. During the Chola era, there were 400 devadasis who worked in service of the temple, and were seen as being on an equal footing with male ministers of the court. Their high social standing derived in part from their being outside the caste system, giving them the status of an occupational caste group akin to a guild. Moreover, Professor Harishankar asserted that prostitution had never been the primary occupation of Devadasis before the 19thcentury. Some temples had up to seven categories of Devadasis, each of whom performed different roles within that socio-religious space.

Over time, however, Devadasis were absorbed into the traditional caste system, giving them a fixed caste status that eventually lowered their social positioning. In addition, while the Devadasi system had begun to decline in North India from the time of the Mughal invasion, it continued to flourish in South India until the advent of colonialism, when Devadasis begun to be treated as immoral ‘dancing girls’, with their public performances subsequently banned. This was followed by calls for a complete eradication of the system from Indian social reformers, including Devadasis themselves.

While the goal of these reforms was to prevent sexual exploitation, they diminished the artistry of the Devadasis as well, with their dancing seen as illicit. This view persisted, despite Devadasis generally covering their entire bodies during performances, and specialising in restrained movements with a focus on abhinayaor facial expressions. Compositions by devadasis were also seen as obscene, even while male, upper-caste composers’ own sexually-charged compositions, at times inspired by certain Devadasis themselves, were considered acceptable. Professor Harishankar noted that the Devadasi’s body, rather than being inscribed as an artistic body, was objectified and reduced to a corporeal body alone; simultaneously, upper-caste women began to perform a more sanitised form of Bharatanatyam in much greater numbers. She added that these socio-cultural shifts resulted in an erasure of the ‘handmaiden of God’ aspect of the Devadasi system from public memory, and of their previous status as accomplished women who entertained visitors.

Professor Harishankar then spoke about the study she was invited to conduct by the NCW. She noted that the system has moved from one of respect for Devadasis to one of exploitation of young women and girls, as well as transgender people. She conducted her research in areas of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra where the system is still prevalent (although Devadasis and the Devadasi system are known by a number of different local names). After providing an overview of the methodology adopted for the study, she highlighted the terrible conditions of most Devadasis today, who are forced into the system at an early age by their families, largely due to poverty, and who rely on prostitution and begging as their main sources of income. She also outlined the rampant corruption and lack of awareness across stakeholder institutions, including the police, judiciary, government departments, NGOs and the education system, that impeded reforms to the system.

In addition to this lack of awareness, rescue and rehabilitation efforts were also hindered by the dearth of family support that many Devadasis faced, preventing reintegration into their families. Despite the existence of numerous laws and rehabilitation schemes specifically addressing Devadasis and the Devadasi system, progress was far from adequate. She noted that NGOs’ efforts were often ill-conceived; occupational training, for example, focussed on skills such as basket weaving or tailoring, which earned them significantly less than prostitution. Moreover, these attempts at rehabilitation did not address the root cause of the persistence of the system in its current form, such as family poverty or caste-based oppression. The system is also intricately linked with the idea of dedication, even today, and is thus seen by Devadasis themselves as being beyond an occupational categorisation. As a result, Devadasis often fail to demand or expect employment rights associated with sex work, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation. Professor Harishankar also outlined the challenges faced by the children of Devadasis, such as stigmatisation within the education system and a lack of opportunities for social mobility.

In her conclusion, Professor Harishankar reiterated that despite the origins of the system, Devadasis are seen primarily as prostitutes today. She noted the loss of their art forms that accompanied efforts to eliminate sex work, and highlighted that attempts at reform had systematically erased Devadasis’ agency while inscribing their bodies with the narrowly-defined identity of ‘prostitute’, giving them few options outside of this exploitative system. She called for greater regulation of NGOs and other institutions tasked with overseeing the system, as well as education campaigns and awareness-building. She also suggested that a return to the artistic elements of the system and intensive training in traditional art forms might provide a better career path than those currently being offered by support groups.


Rapporteur: S. Shakthi