Updated: December 22, 2009 16:37 IST

Redefinition of Tamil family ideals

print   ·   T  T  

Scholarly and eminently readable, this book commends itself to both scholars and non-scholars across disciplines. While analysing the debates about ‘family’ that proliferated in the Tamil region of India during the late 19th century and the mid-20th century, it examines the claims about the family — its appropriate membership, its role in buttressing ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, and the property relations of its members — that, according to the author, became critical to the formulation and contestation of Tamil social relations.

While at one level, the family emerged as an arena where Tamil men and women could either maintain or challenge the caste, gender and class hierarchies, at another level, families became targets for state regulation and sites for the exercise of colonial authority. “Therefore, despite its absence from most Tamil historiography, I suggest that the family — conceptualised both as a set of lived social relations and as a normative ideal — was far from incidental to the development of Tamil politics and society during the colonial period.”


The book is organised chronologically and thematically around questions attending the reconstruction of families and family ideologies, with each chapter highlighting a “particular moment of tension in the redefinition of Tamil family ideals.” The chapter on “colonising the family” examines how Tamil families were redefined when zamindari households confronted the politics and institutions of the colonial regime during the 19th and early 20th centuries, with conflicts within and among households being played out in law courts. Significant for the “women’s question” is the fact that, while adjudicating disputes, judges made decisions about the constitution of zamindari households and the status of various ‘family’ members within them. “…colonial legal institutions produced patriarchal family forms that disregarded women’s political authority while emphasising their socio-sexual status as ‘wives’ or ‘concubines’ under the control of the male zamindari kin. Within a legal system that classified royal women either as wives of zamindars and mothers of legitimate heirs, or as concubines whose offspring were denied property rights, one female litigant’s success in the courts could mean the simultaneous exclusion of other women from the status of wife. European missionaries and Indian social reformers seized upon these public disputes among women to figure the zenana as a pathological space in need of either Christianising or Indian nationalising reform.”

In another place, the author says: “Although the particulars of zamindari experience were limited to a minority of Tamils, the fate of these vast households was critical to shaping future ideological developments in Tamil family history.”

Women’s rights to property

In the chapter on “conjugality and capital,” the author discusses how the growing professional and mercantile class (a class that was not governed by the zamindari settlement) found that the law’s assumption of joint ownership of property — and the broader legal conception of property as ‘trust’ — did not correspond either to the changing political economy or to the ‘natural’ bonds of affection within families. Instead, this class demanded legal reforms that would diminish the claims of family members, loosen the obligations of joint ownership, and strengthen the ability of individual men to control their property within a market economy.

However, this debate advocating the replacement of a multi-generational unit of agnatic kin with a unit focussed on the monogamous conjugal couple, according to the author, fell “short in producing a female property-owning subject.” Because questions of property were resolved within the framework of colonial and indigenous patriarchies, they were posed not in terms of women’s equality but as problems of how to properly negotiate the competing claims of a ‘tradition’ supported by colonial law and agrarian elites and of a ‘modernity’ emerging from professional and mercantile interests. Judicial resolutions tended to reinforce ideas that women’s rights to property flowed from their status as dependents rather than as coparceners in their own right.

In the discussion on the “Indian and Dravidian politics of conjugality,” Sreenivas examines how claims about “becoming modern” shaped and limited the scope of Tamil debates about conjugality, ultimately producing divergent Indian and Dravidian constructions of what ‘modernity’ might mean to Tamils. Importantly, “even the more thorough-going reforms of Self-Respect marriage did not fully address the implications of women’s equality within family and nation but, instead, eventually reneged on the anti-patriarchal promise of cuyamariyatai-t-tirumanan.”

Sreenivas concludes by suggesting a road map for further research that challenges the efforts of the postcolonial state to identify the ‘family’ with a singular set of gendered and political meanings. Clearly, this book is a product of an exemplary piece of research.

It is organised around questions attending the reconstruction of families and family ideologies.

WIVES, WIDOWS AND CONCUBINES — The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India: Mytheli Sreenivas; Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 3-6-752, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 375.

More In: Books | Hyderabad

Last Sunday, a friend left a message for me on Facebook. “Professor Mushirul Hasan was injured in a road accident. He is critical.” I said a quick prayer for his life and health. As news came in, f... »

More »



Recent Article in Books

All for quality over quantity: David Davidar. Photo: S. Subramanium

In the world of books

The more the publisher works invisibly, the more successful a book becomes, says Aleph founder David Davidar »