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Bringing Gender into History: Women, Property and Reproduction

Bringing Gender into History: Women, Property and Reproduction

The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History by Kumkum Roy (Delhi: Oxford University Press); 2010, pp xiv+386, Rs 850.

Roy reads the range of her material

Bringing Gender into History:

with a meticulous eye for detail that is the basis for a number of links that she makes

Women, Property and Reproduction

to forms of marriage and distinctive arrangements within them for control over the daughter’s sexuality; the nuggets in-Uma Chakravarti clude what happens to the stridhana of

umkum Roy’s The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power is a colle ction of 19 essays written over more than 15 years that, in an extended sense, carries forward her earlier monograph on the emergence of monarchy published in 1994. In that work, she explored the creation and consolidation of monarchical power in early north India using Sanskrit texts to examine ritual practices enacted by the king on the one hand and by the head of the household on the other. The work had shown that these rituals legitimated the king’s right to control the productive and reproductive resources of the realm and the household rituals legi timated the yajamana’s right to control the productive and reproductive resour ces of the household. The work analysed the emer gence of monarchical power in the context of other developments that related to stratification along the axes of caste, class and gender.

The Emergence of Monarchy was a pioneering work that sought to make gender integral to the way we look at, think, and write about history and, though somewhat difficult for the non-specialist to fully grasp, it remains the only work written by a “his”torian that successfully reshapes the congealed paradigms of history that are so terribly difficult to dislodge.

For various reasons, in my view, this work has not received the attention it deserves from mainstream historians of course, but, even from historians who write on gender, within India and internationally. That is, in one sense, their loss but it is also a loss for us feminist historians who have struggled against great odds to not just introduce the gender lens into history, which many practi tioners of history are doing, but change the very paradigms of history to more meaningfully incorporate gender as a critical component of writing history rather than remain within a zenana dabba, read by women historians,

Economic & Political Weekly

august 13, 2011

book review

The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History by Kumkum Roy

(Delhi: Oxford University Press); 2010, pp xiv+386, Rs 850.

and then reviewed by them as well. I hope this new collection will be read by everyone and I look forward to reading a few reviews by “social historians”, a category that I will return to at the end of this review.

On Property and Procreation

Two of the essays in this new collection carry forward in very interesting ways the main theme of Roy’s earlier work as she f ocuses on issues of reproduction: in the first nicely titled “The Other Ksetra”, a pape r written in 1998 but never published, she argues for the need to examine the p ossible links between production and re production. This is a favoured theme in the writing of history for me which normally places the two in a binary, discrete, and almost oppositional relationship to the other that, in turn, inevitably also leads to the watertight compartments of the “public” and the “private”; this is a dichotomy that feminist scholars have inherited, and have comfortably or uncomfortably worked with, but must rethink seriously.

Drawing from Leela Dube’s work on the metaphors of seed and field, Roy examines the ideology of the ownership of the ksetra evoked by the early prescriptive texts to speak about property and procreation. An earlier piece of writing titled “Women as Property, and Their Right to Inherit Property” by Vijay Nath is expanded here to look at the compulsions of the need to r eproduce labour in the post-Mauryan s ociety and the drive towards establishing control over potentially, or actually, procreative women that may be discerned in the Arthashastra, the Manusmrti, the Jatakas and the inscriptions of the time.

vol xlvi no 33

the wife in the different marriage practices. For example, the stridhana in a gandharva marriage, if taken by a husband in distress, returns to her with interest – in the more brahmanical forms such as the brahma form of marriage, the groom has no such obligation. In the case of a raksasa marriage, i e, a marriage by abduction, such an appropriation would be regarded as theft according to the Arthashastra. If a woman died following these lower forms of marriage, her property reverted to her family – presumably because the girls were not bestowed upon the husband as a gift by the fathers or guardians in question.

In the higher, preferred forms of marriage, the husband had lordship over his wife. We may extend the analysis to argue that where women themselves are regarded as property, they cannot also be independent owners of property – an ana logy that is xplicitly cited in the case of the sudras – and also comes up in the Sabhaparvan of the M ahabharata as the assembly debates the legality of the staking of Draupadi by Y udhisthira. Roy shows how women are explicitly stated to be included among movable property along with chariots, elephants, grain and cattle among other things in the Manusmrti. Similarly, wives are equated with dasis, cows, she-goats, and the offspring of all these categories were expected to accrue to the owners. Women, then, are merely the other ksetra, fields to provide children, with no rights over their own offspring (pp 68-59).

In the second part of this essay, Roy looks at other genres of sources – the Jatakas and the post-Mauryan inscriptions to show that the ideal types of Manu did not seem to represent social reality, which often suggested diversity of practices and more complex arrangements than what he had laid down. Clearly there is a kernel of a full monograph that we can glimpse in this essay as Roy dwells here on the labour needs of an expanding agricultural society as the larger framework within which the


details of the law givers and the other as she fed them with the help of her magic sources may be better understood. begging bowl. Unfortunately under the in


Portraying Multiple Realities

A later essay, written in 2008, also looks at politics of reproduction in early India and examines the past in terms of controlling and contesting conceptions. In a long introductory segment, the paper is explicitly set in the current “hype” about the declining sex ratio which has belatedly and rather rhetorically hit the public sphere. Following her meticulous eye for a detailed examination of sources and the personal trademark of her work where she refuses to portray a single reality (even when it might be the dominant reality for others like me!), and always dwells upon alternative practices, she goes over the body of evidence that does indicate that there was something of an obsession with sons but also that in particular contexts, sons also produced great anxiety when they became adult. In the royal household, sons were necessary for reproducing kingly power within a given lineage, but also represented a threat to the continuing rule of the king, since princes like crabs were “proverbial eaters of their progenitors”. But best of all, disloyal sons, the sources suggest, could be supplanted by the daughter’s son, and in extreme circumstances a neighbouring king could be invited to plant a seed in the royal wife to produce a more pliable son (p 180).

In the concluding segment of the essay on the politics of reproduction, Roy argues, perhaps hoping to influence those who might need to be convinced, by taking recourse to tradition, that early “Indian” (maybe we should say Hindu) notions of reproduction were not monolithic – some valorised sons but we cannot draw linear connections in any case between the attitudes of the past and those that shape present-day sex-selective abortions. Perhaps through the example of Manimegalai, she too hopes to draw from the “arsenal” of the past in a way that we can all relate to: a beautiful woman who had multiple possibilities before her, Manimegalai proceeded on a journey of self awareness across time and space, mediated through magic and cross dressing, ending with her becoming a Buddhist nun. She turned the importance of compassion in Buddhism into a commitment to alleviate the sufferings of the poor exorable march of new technology, a deepening crisis of unequal social relations and a fairly well congealed hatred for women, upon whom violence can be unleashed in multiple contexts, the question at the end of one’s reading of Roy’s essay is “how can we change things?” For me at least, even our multiple pasts provide little comfort. Nevertheless, I respect Roy for never giving up and always trying to counter my gloom, and the gloom of others, in creative ways.

Reading the Kamasutra

Other essays range over marriage norms, defining the household, legitimation and ways of invoking authority in the brahmanical tradition, the urban world, courtesanal traditions, visions of liberation in early Buddhist tradition. Gender is always an axis of the analysis and the insights from some essays like the one on women donors at Sanchi have been carried forward by younger researchers. Roy’s important essay on the Kamasutra which appeared earlier in a volume on sexuality takes its place here as part of a larger body where one can locate it in her own historical journey and recall the careful and creative ways in which she forced other scholars and lay readers (who had somewhat mindlessly sought to celebrate the sexual “openness” of the text) to engage with the text on its own terms.

With the urban nagaraka as the archetypal sexual pleasure-seeking protagonist, Roy shows us how to read a text – while the pursuit of pleasure was certainly the basis of many of the texts formulations which countered the obsessive regulation of desire that one can see in the prescriptive texts, such formulations conformed to hier archies of gender and class. For example, force was “okay” in initiating sexual relations with the wife when pleas did not work, and could be used to seduce other women too if they did not comply. The woman who was the object of a hetero sexual man’s desire could not “hope to escape from the web of matri mony” (p 330). Further, since unsatiated kama could lead to physical agony culminating in death, any woman could be accessible to the desiring man within the logic of the Kamasutra. It is not surprising that among the list of women with whom sex could be

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august 13, 2011 vol xlvi no 33

Economic Political Weekly


had by the village chief are those women who are subject to forced labour when they come to work on the field or the household, in what was clearly a naturalisation of lordly power (p 331).

The Zenana Dabba Once Again

The theme of power is explored with finesse in many essays but I will confine my observations to two which are among my favourite essays in the book. The first is the essay on the king’s household and the second is titled “Turbulent Waves”, where the famed Rajatarangini is the source for the analysis. In both, the running theme is the instability of political power, how fraught it is with so many contenders – many within the king’s own household. In “Turbulent Waves”, what is delightful is the way Roy breaks down the text into its various segments and then shows certain patterns leading to observations that may have been missed otherwise – patrilineal succession is not so established, changes of dynastic power are endemic, and women too could be contenders in a variety of ways, beginning with marriage but leading to new dynastic formations drawing on their natal side. As she succinctly




points out, attaining and retaining power seem to have been most uncertain in Kalhana’s own time. Chandalas and Dombas dot the Rajatarangini in striking ways which raise questions about prescriptive injunctions and political realities. So was the location of the Rajatarangini in a frontier region, an important context for fluid social relations. The essay concludes with a cautious suggestion – Kalhana was grappling with a situation where gender relations were not immutable. Unlike some earlier social historians, Roy often abjures the conceptual leap for the cautious but irrefutable conclusion, which seems so necessary for bringing gender into history.

And that brings me to my last point where I want to return to an issue I raised at the beginning of the review. The blurb

– now a requirement for publishing a book in terms set by publishers where eminent scholars have to say something positive about the book in question – written by an eminent male historian provides a nice paternalistic pat on the back. It says, “although Kumkum Roy has written extensively on gender history in early India, she has not (my emphasis) written them with a feminist pen, but as a social historian”. It



goes on to say even nicer things about Roy’s work – all well deserved. But I do want to take issue with a formulation that seems to think a feminist pen is some lower order position which cannot claim the rank of writing social history – is a feminist pen writing outside of social history? Or is it telling us that good social history must engage with gender because otherwise it is the history of only a part of society? Would one create such binaries with Marxist, dalit or subaltern historians? When will feminist scholarship be less than pejorative and get its due? I am so glad Kumkum included this sentence for the blurb because it draws attention to the sad fact that feminist writing, if it needs to be taken seriously, must get published under the cover of silence. Social historians need to engage with feminist scholarship on scholarly grounds and not condemn us to a zenana dabba even after three decades of feminist scholarship. It is not enough to give us an occasional pat on the back – that only works to establish who really writes canonical history.

Uma Chakravarti ( is an historian who taught at Miranda House, Delhi University and is now retired.



Economic Political Weekly

august 13, 2011 vol xlvi no 33

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