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  • Sexuality, Obscenity, Community : Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India
  • Leah Renold
Sexuality, Obscenity, Community : Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India. By Charu Gupta. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Movements for the protection of the cow and the promotion of Hindi are well-known aspects of the development of Hindu identity under colonial rule. Charu Gupta, in this well-developed and extremely provocative work, turns the reader’s attention to the role of gender and sexuality issues in the construction of the ideal Hindu household and a definable identity for a Hindu community and nation. Following a paper trail of the emerging discourse of gender and sexuality in a great assortment of literature, ranging from sex manuals and advertisements for aphrodisiacs, to newspapers and archival material published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Gupta successfully shows how gender was central to the creation of a sexualized and communalized identity in colonial north India.

This book has much to offer on the issues of gender and Hindu identity, but will also be of interest to a variety of readers. Gupta explores a gorgeous expanse of subject matter. She includes information on colonial obscenity laws and the popularity of sensational romantic Hindi fiction. In a chapter titled “Sanitising Women’s Social Spaces,” Gupta writes of Hindu publicist attempts to control the types of entertainment which could be enjoyed by Hindu women, including what songs women could sing, which performances they could attend, and how they could participate in certain festivals. There are discussions of the forced re-location of prostitutes in towns and cities, the fear of reading, gendered health and medical issues, elopements of Hindu women with Muslim men, and much more. Gupta’s presentation of her wide-ranging research is a fascinating read and is relevant to studies of gender politics, formation of ethic identity, subaltern resistance, the history of Hindu and Muslim relations and others.

Gupta presents the scene of male Hindu publicists, working hard to shape and control the realities of sexual relations, the home, the community and the nation, and all the while watching each and every independent, unregulated move of women with suspicion. Playing upon fears of women’s uncontrolled sexuality, coupled with stereotypes of the licentiousness and aggressiveness of Muslim males, the publicists were able to draw a disparate group of men (and women) into a vision composed of “pure” wives, respectable homes, a Hindu identity and community, and a glorious Hindu nation, all entirely divorced from the “filth” of the Muslim community. While the aggravations and divisions posited by caste hierarchies did not melt away in the golden oblivion of community identity, these realities took a back seat to the moral and sexual worries of Hindu males. Hindus were able to unite in their concern to enforce Hindu masculinity and patriarchy in the cause of “purifying” and “protecting” their women. The work done for this cause encompassed a great field of activity, from attempting to rid literature of all elements designated as obscene, including spiritualizing the relationship of Radha and Krishna, to forbidding the respectable wife from expressing sexual desire. In the process, all that was uncontrollable and undesirable was projected onto the Muslim, who was perceived as the greatest threat to the honor of Hindu womanhood.

Gupta introduces another layer to her work in showing how in almost every area in which Hindu publicists attempted to exert their influence, there was resistance to the direction in which they attempted to move society. As she writes, “The picture was much more tangled than is suggested by studies emphasizing the growing rigidity of caste hierarchies or the integration of a wider Hindu community.” Strong opposition to inter-caste marriage was reflective of a high incidence of inter-caste marriage. While Hindu publicists tried to “clean” Hindi literature of sexual content, the public clamored for the “dirty,” and the presses rolled to the public’s demand. When men tried to teach wives that “good” wives should sing “pure” and patriotic songs, wives kept singing their own songs. While there was a wide-spread portrayal of the Muslim male as a lascivious abductor, Hindu women still eloped with Muslims...

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