Voices of women from colonial Bengal

Updated - September 16, 2014 03:03 am IST

Published - September 15, 2014 11:22 pm IST

Chennai: 16/09/2014: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column:
Title: Shaping the Discourse. Women's Writings in Bengali Periodicals 1865 - 1947.
Author: Ipshita Chanda and Jayeeta Bagchi.
Publisher: School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University.

Chennai: 16/09/2014: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column:
Title: Shaping the Discourse. Women's Writings in Bengali Periodicals 1865 - 1947.
Author: Ipshita Chanda and Jayeeta Bagchi.
Publisher: School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University.

The purpose of an anthology is often the most important thing about it. The title, 'Shaping the Discourse', describes the light in which the collection of women's writings in Bengali periodicals from 1865-1947 is looked at and holds a clue to the objective of the editors.

In the introduction by co-editor Ipshita Chanda, it is mentioned that they have tried to “explore the process” how the discourse of gender is actualised in society. It is followed by a disclaimer that lays stress on the need for caution that every student should take before embarking on a study of the anthology: “We do not assume that there is no slippage between the discourse and practice; neither do we assume each is exclusive of the other.”

The essays have to be read in the various contexts in which the women's question emerges in the 19th century — analysing the dictum of Hindu Shastras, colonial modernity, value systems in the Muslim society. While the temporal journey in each trajectory will help us gauge the change in thought processes and practices, the synchronic study of the material available in a particular time period will let one analyse what kind of similar or distinct ideas and practices co-existed.

Co-editor Jayeeta Bagchi’s introduction on education and gender in 19 c Bengal elaborates on the communal, societal, religious, class-related and colonial aspects of the emergence of education. The distinction between education as a tool to improve the woman in the private sphere and as a means of empowerment in the public sphere also helps in analysing the motives of different writers calling for women’s education.

The classification of the essays into five parts — Breaking the Mould; The Emerging New Woman; Refiguring the Family and Relationships; 'Working' for the Nation; Gendering Public Space — makes a diachronic study easier. 

However, the editors also offer their insights in the similar topics discussed by women from different backgrounds to emphasise that the issue of women’s question was never homogeneous.

The introduction also raises a few pertinent points which let the readers keep the baggage of general knowledge on Western feminism aside and look at these writings in the contexts they emerged from. It mentions Professor Geraldine Forbes stating in her book Women in Colonial India that for Indian women, men were not the issue, but custom was.

Scriptural knowledge Interestingly, the writers cited and interpreted the Hindu Shastras and Islamic scriptures, depending on their religious identities, to substantiate their orthodox or ‘radical’ viewpoints. Most articles ask for the improvement in the condition of women for the betterment of the institution of family, and in the later years, for the betterment of the society and ‘nation’.

However, some articles, like the one written in 1923 by the title ‘The Plight of Women’, attacked men and Shastras alike for the overall-impoverishment of women. The article criticises fiction and commentary that propagated, what can be called, hegemony of women’s glorification through sacrifice.

Conversely, we have an essay written in 1885, called ‘On Whether Or Not the Hindu Widow Should Remarry’, that invokes the Shastras to prevent widow remarriage while concluding sati is not prescribed. Her somewhat convoluted logic along with her exposure to knowledge on the Western society (she talks about Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments ) is extremely curious!

“The Hindu does not consider marriage as the coming together of two individuals, each having distinct qualities as is common in English marriages. Hence, the union of one and one is not marriage; the coming together and mingling of a woman into a family to complete the half is called marriage,” Shyamasundari Devi, the writer notes.

On widow burning, she asserts that brahmacharya is more desirable than sati as the latter involves fulfilling of the ‘desire’ of spiritual happiness (striving towards the fulfilment of any kind of desire is sin, according to the Shastras ). The option of brahmacharya is preferred because it lets the widow lead a life of sacrifice, abiding dharma .

Again, there are essays which were written by Hindu and Muslim women on a particular topic (such as education) with the same goal but articulated keeping in mind the needs of their respective societies.

The translations of the essays sometimes retain words that have synonyms in English but may lose the cultural meaning in translation. These words are explained in the footnotes. Sometimes the words are translated literally to aid uninterrupted reading but direct readers to the footnote to get a complete understanding.

For instance, the word ‘writing’ in the following excerpt: “... men in our country have no leisure, they have to earn by writing in the office ...”

The readers are given the cultural nuances of the word in the footnote: “the word ‘writing’ implies the jobs of petty clerks that English-educated Bengalis found in colonial administration; they laid the foundation of the growing class of bourgeoisie who formed the social and economic strata of Bengali Bhadralok”.

The anthology not only gives an access to the voices of women dispersed across the various periodicals, but also the necessary tools to ‘read’ them. The thematic classification of the essays not only helps students or scholars pursuing gender studies, but also scholars tracing the public and private life, colonial modernity or nationalist movements in Bengal.

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