Updated: January 25, 2011 16:40 IST

Gender-related themes

Padmini Swaminathan
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It provides an opportunity to appreciate gender-related issues in all their varied dimensions and nuances

This is an anthology of brilliant essays written over a period of 25 years. For non-historians, and historians who are not gender sensitive, it provides an opportunity to appreciate gender-related issues in all their varied dimensions and nuances. At the same time, it also reveals the breadth of the themes covered and the painstaking manner in which the author has gone about the exercise of contextualising and reading the texts between the lines.


Most of the texts drawn upon are Sanskrit works — the Grhya Sutras, the Dharma Sutras, and the three major Sastras (the Arthasastra, the Manusmrti, and the Kamasutra) which are all, by definition, prescriptive. Occasionally, Pali textual tradition and inscriptions in Prakrit have also been sourced. Roy's focus, as she says at the outset, is on the content and structure of the texts rather than on critiquing their histories.

This volume has 19 essays arranged in two sections and in terms of the widely accepted chronological segments, ancient/early medieval Indian history. In the first section, Roy attempts to show that “a gendered analysis of institutions and processes, ranging from the household to urbanism and renunciatory traditions, is critical for an understanding of early Indian history.” The second section highlights the strategies of textual analysis, and Roy argues: “Given that many of these texts are gendered in overt and covert ways, gender provides an undercurrent to several of these discussions as well. Since several of the texts were produced by [the elite] and for elite consumption, issues of power run through as an underlying strand.” Some of the several interesting and thought-provoking observations of Roy are highlighted in this review.

In ‘The Other Ksetra', Roy speaks of possible links between production and reproduction, suggesting that the revenue demands of the new states that emerged in the post-Mauryan period would have created a demand for labour. “It is in this context that the issue of ownership acquired a certain centrality… Two kinds of ownership were focussed on — one, the ownership of land, and, second, the ownership of potentially or actually procreative women. In a sense, the two kinds of ownership were interwoven.”

The Arthasastra and the Manusmrti gave a systematic account of the manner in which women in general, and their procreative powers in particular, are to be controlled. Roy says: “The notion of women as property or as instruments of procreation was, in itself, not new… What was new, however, was an attempt to buttress this notion through a range of prescriptions that focussed on regulating the day-to-day lives of women.”

In ‘Defining the Household', she critically engages with Medhatithi's commentaries on the Manusmrti, in particular those related to the domestic realm. By explaining the significance of the chronological gap between the text and the commentary, as well as the shift in geographical focus,

Roy is able to show how and why Medhatithi's agenda of incorporating norms for the establishment and perpetuation of a hierarchically ordered society ran into problems against an empirical situation that was less neatly ordered and in which gender roles were relatively unstructured. By historicising the household rather than accepting it as a natural, permanent, harmonious institution, Roy allows for conceptualising patriarchies as a plural, not a monolithic, structure.

‘Re-presenting the Courtesanal Tradition' is a powerful essay, wherein Roy draws attention to that category of skilled, articulate women in early India whose existence has been a perennial source of unease. Focussing on three texts within which courtesans acquire a distinct visibility (the Kamasutra, the Mrichakatika, and the Jatakas), and, after exploring the phenomenon through the axes of networks of exchange and within the socio-political contexts of their location, she concludes thus: “Courtesans could be viewed as mercenary, but they could also represent simple notions of justice and fair play. They could be projected as seductive, but they could also be regarded as ordinary, practical women surviving in a complex world.”

Historical connection

Similarly, the ‘Politics of Reproduction in Early India', while reconstructing attitudes toward procreation, explores whether, and in what way, son-preference is linked to ancient traditions, as is often suggested. There is much to learn from every one of the essays for scholars who want to look at issues from a historical perspective, and for historians who want to read texts from a gender perspective. In several of the essays, Roy begins by alluding to the present before going on to provide a historical-cum-gendered perspective to the theme dealt with. However, the historical connection to the present is not always clear. In the Introduction, she sketched the context for the collection. By way of conclusion, she could have provided the much-needed connection to the present.

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