- Wives, Widows, and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India
Drawing on an impressive array of sources, ranging from British colonial law reports to the native women’s press, Mytheli Sreenivas fills an important gap in the social history of colonial India with her study of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century family. Focusing on the Tamil-speaking regions in the southeast of the subcontinent, Sreenivas writes a compelling history of the family, arguing that women’s shifting roles in the domestic sphere and the spread of the conjugal family ideal were fundamental to shaping ideas about national identity and the nation. While accepting the basic premise of Partha Chatterjee in his groundbreaking work, The Nation and Its Fragments, Sreenivas’s study successfully refines and nuances Chatterjee’s thesis on the growth and articulation of nationalist sentiment in colonial India.1 While Chatterjee locates the origins of Indian nationalist thought not in the political organizations of the late nineteenth century, but rather in an earlier discourse which separated the family from the public sphere, and then claimed sovereignty over the former, Sreenivas argues that this narrative masks the dynamic nature of the interactions between the family and nationalist articulations. The family, she demonstrates, was not a “blank slate” or an “empty cultural category waiting to be filled with nationalist politics,” but was one of many historical forces that was affecting, as well as being affected by, national political culture (10).
Much of Sreenivas’s study focuses on the role of women and the changing relationship between husband and wife. Sreenivas shows how the splintering of household politics at the hands of the colonial state made the family available for nationalist incorporation, and also threw open the door for the negotiation and reinterpretation of women’s positions in the family. Much of this reinterpretation was conducted by Indian men; Sreenivas, for instance, examines the struggle of Indian (male) professional and mercantile interests to replace the multi-generational joint family unit with the monogamous conjugal couple. However, women—widows, wives, and concubines—also made their voices heard during this process of negotiation and redefinition. Sreenivas discusses various forums, such as women’s magazines and the colonial courts, where women’s voices were recorded, but unfortunately, she often stops shy of painting these women as subjects. For instance, Sreenivas’s analysis of lawsuits brought by women in the colonial courts masterfully demonstrates the debates over what constituted a ‘wife’ versus a ‘concubine.’ Indeed, these contestations go to the very heart of the colonial construction of the family. However, Sreenivas fails to fully recognize women’s agency in bringing these legal actions forward, instead focusing on omissions and gaps in the legal record which, she claims, prevents us from appreciating the proactive nature of women’s participation in the legal system (5).
Interestingly, the most compelling idea presented by Sreenivas has little to do with widows, concubines, or women’s place in the family. Rather, it is the looming question mark that she places over the idea of a ‘monolithic’ nationalism that scholars of formerly colonized regions would do well to take careful note of. In the third chapter of this study, “Nationalizing Marriage: Indian and Dravidian Politics of Conjugality,” Sreenivas skillfully demonstrates that there were in fact multiple nationalisms being articulated in twentieth-century colonial India. According to Sreenivas, the notion of a distinct Dravidian nation within India, composed of the Tamil-speaking peoples in the South, was first articulated in 1910, and took on a political shape some fifteen years later, when the Self Respect Movement was founded by E.V. Ramasami, a former Congress Party activist. During subsequent decades, the Dravidian Self Respect Movement offered an alternative vision for the reform of marriage. While Indian nationalists increasingly focused on legislation governing the minimum age of marriage for girls, Dravidian nationalists focused on the reform of conjugality, advocating a new brand of ‘self-respect’ marriages, which aimed to transcend the caste, gender, and religious hierarchies that traditionally characterized the Hindu patriarchal family. However, not all of...