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Reviewed by:
  • Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal
  • Geraldine Forbes
Sumanta Banerjee, Under the Raj: Prostitution in Colonial Bengal. (Monthly Review Press, 1998.)

As Sumanta Banerjee points out in his introduction, there has been no serious study of prostitution in colonial India despite the importance of this topic to the colonial authorities and the emerging middle-class. In this extremely readable book, Banerjee explores the oldest profession in nineteenth century Bengal in terms of the changes and complexity of the trade, the reactions of the British and the bhadralok to prostitutes, and responses of prostitutes to their milieu.

Banerjee begins with a brief history of prostitution in Bengal and argues the prostitute in medieval Bengal, like the artisan or craftsman, had a place in society and a role to perform. The eighteenth century brought violence in the form of wars, economic dislocation, and rural anarchy and when people fled to metropolitan centers, women turned to sex work to earn a living.

Colonialism was partly responsible for this violence and created a new clientele – members of the Raj and the new class of Bengalis serving the empire. Banerjee traces the change from the eighteenth century, when powerful British men had Indian mistresses and concubines, to the nineteenth century when only British soldiers consorted with Indian prostitutes. With the rise of syphilis among these soldiers, military authorities sought ways to control what they considered the source – Indian women. The Cantonment Acts and the Contagious Diseases Acts, both failures in preventing the spread of the disease, represented new British efforts to criminalize and control Indian prostitutes.

The bhadralok, cultivating “a new set of moral codes and code of duties” (126), were more ambivalent than the colonial authorities in their reactions to prostitutes. While they disapproved of prostitution, they were entangled with practitioners. Banerjee documents their ambivalence as they rented property to prostitutes but worked to drive them out of respectable areas and admired them on stage but ostracized members of their class who contracted liaisons or dared to marry prostitutes. Prostitution was considered a social evil yet efforts to reform or rehabilitate prostitutes were sporadic and generally unsuccessful.

In painting the prostitute, Banerjee is attentive to changes over time as well as vertical stratification by caste and class, and horizontal separation by religion. The early nineteenth century prostitutes were victims of economic change that destroyed their patrons or of social customs, notably kulinism and prohibitions on widow remarriage. Later in the century prostitutes’ daughters and rural women dominated the scene. Using chapbooks, farces, poetry, songs, and newspapers, Banerjee traces the changing “mentalities and behaviour” (2) of prostitutes in the nineteenth century.

This book is a good read. Banerjee moves through the century paying attention to British, bhadralok, and prostitutes as they interact, embrace and collide. The subject is immensely complicated but in Banerjee’s hands, clearly explicated. Among the author’s strengths is mastery of a wide-range of nineteenth century Bengali sources from chapbooks and farces to colonial dispatches. Where the original documents have disappeared, as is so often the case with these materials, Banerjee reaches into his vast collection of secondary sources. And, this is also the book’s greatest weakness – the author’s reliance on his sources’ version of original documents. Unfortunately, much of this material has disappeared or if extant, not found its libraries so there is no way to replicate some of this research.

In the epilogue Banerjee calls this a beginning and urges other historians to focus their attention on prostitution. Asking why this subject has not attracted more attention given the importance of prostitutes to the colonial authorities and bhadralok, Banerjee suggests historian sons of bhadralok fathers feared contamination with the topic. Here I think Banerjee is too dismissive of the gendered nature of scholarship and scholarly inquiry. To begin with, historians of the West as well as India scorned women and gender issues until well into the 1970s and even now gender and women are rarely integrated into the meta-narratives of Indian history. Women historians interested in exploring prostitution for their dissertations were discouraged from pursuing this tainted topic. Contemporary economists, anthropologists, and sociologists argue that studying prostitutes and prostitution in contemporary Calcutta...

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