Making Sex and Society in Modern South Asia: New Directions

AHA Session 159
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 6
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Shailaja D. Paik, University of Cincinnati
Gandhi, Brahmacharya, and Sexual Science, 1920–37
Douglas Haynes, Dartmouth College
Global Indian, Nubile Indian
Shefali Chandra, Washington University in St. Louis
Historicizing the Typical in Bengali Sexology, 1860–1950
Projit Bihari Mukharji, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

This experimental session stages a conversation among historians of sexual modernity in India to discuss new directions in the thriving field of sexuality studies and ways it informs the new social order. Indianists have been at the forefront of histories of sexuality and the field is ripe for critical interrogation. Rather than present standard research papers, the panelists will describe one aspect of their research in 5 minutes. Next, we will draw comments from the audience on possible overlaps and divergences in our vocabularies and conceptual categories. Finally, we will all discuss the possibility of new directions in the History of Sexuality.

Since the panelists work on different regions of India, this experimental session is well poised to examine the history of sexuality from multiple perspectives. Contemporary politics in India require a critical re-examination of the politics of caste, community and language in shaping the history of Indian sexuality. We are eager to seize the opportunity to work together at the AHA and to draw from audience specialization.

Alongside maximizing discussion with the audience, the panelists will together develop a longer and broader conversation on the power of matrimony and global reconstitution of caste, youth as a sexual category, M.K. Gandhi’s societal celibacy, pre-colonial and colonial connections of kama texts, and the construction of a “decent” community and “masculine” nation. The papers combine a variety of historical sources from research in state archives, with the study of matrimonial columns, pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers in regional (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Bengali) vernaculars and oral histories to study the strategies deployed by a range of actors in navigating their social and sexual selves.

The history of sexual modernity in South Asia like in other parts of the globe, is intimately connected with discourses about “honor,” “respectability,” racial identities, caste and gendered politics, and the construction of “decent” communities. As a result, intellectuals, politicians, and ordinary women and men were not merely concerned with the symbolic power of sex and sexuality, but constantly worried about the racial, economic, cultural, and political entanglements of marriage, consensual union, youth power, scientificity, prostitution, male power, and so on. Like our papers demonstrate, sexuality was also explicitly politicized at certain historical moments of conflict and transition to assert distinct interests, define identities, and marginalize or even malign social and economic competitors. Our conversations could shed light on some unanswered questions about other historical periods or places. Our analysis of social, gender, and sexual relations may also help explain the power of caste politics and racial democracy myths in India and the US. We initiate a dialogue across different communities, cultures, and regions to investigate the interconnections between caste, class, gender, and sexuality, which are central to understand the construction of public sphere, modernity, difference, and marginality in India. Significantly, the panel draws upon the theoretical frames provided by historians, anthropologists, literary critics, and scholars of women and gender studies to offer a fresh perspective on the role of sexual politics and subject formation in South Asia.

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