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The Dashing Ladies of the Shiv Sena

Members of the Shiv Sena's women's wing have adopted a skilful negotiation of the public sphere through everyday "visible" performative strategies that get expressed at the local level in urban India. The politics of visibility is critical in the constitution of the political, gendered subject within a political party, where women despite their broad participation, remain structurally subordinate. Narratives and data from fieldwork in this article show how personal stories of political awakening are deeply embedded in the visual performances and urban imaginaries that frame them.

The Dashing Ladies of the Shiv Sena

Members of the Shiv Sena’s women’s wing have adopted a skilful negotiation of the public sphere through everyday “visible” performative strategies that get expressed at the local level in urban India. The politics of visibility is critical in the constitution of the political, gendered subject within a political party, where women despite their broad participation, remain structurally subordinate. Narratives and data from fieldwork in this article show how personal stories of political awakening are deeply embedded in the visual performances and urban imaginaries that frame them.


n a characteristically warm and humid April evening in Mumbai, I am invited by several of the women from the political party that I am researching who have kindly let me into their lives over the last so many months,1 to the inauguration programme for a youth sports event. The event is one of many such events sponsored by the party leadership. “Come wearing your ‘bhagwa’ sari; we will all be in bhagwa,”2 I am told. I know from plenty of prior experience with Shiv Sena events that these explicit instructions portend a larger-than-life event with carefully crafted pageantry in which appropriate “costume” is critical. I tumble out of an auto-rickshaw packed with four of my companions all duly clad in saffron at the gate of a local high-school playground. As more and more Shiv Sainiks arrive, I learn that this school yard is simply a gathering place and not the grounds at which the sporting event will take place. Instead, the organisers have planned for all Shiv Sainiks to march to another stadium about three kilometers away, through the crowded markets and streets of Mumbai waving the party flags, amidst plenty of drumming and fireworks all led by a young man on stilts clad in a saffron turban and long, flowing saffron robes. The women who are resplendent in their saffron saris are handed long saffron scarves that they drape around their necks. The men are handed saffron turbans to tie around their heads. One of my companions disappears for a little while and then reappears with one of the men’s turbans tied around her head:

You see madam I am both gents3 and ladies.4 I do a lot of daring,

and I am very dashing lady when I am ‘outside’ the house. People

‘see me’ and they know me so everyone is scared of me.

The above quote is a clear expression of the ways in which the visual, women’s entrance into the public sphere, and the everyday performative intersect around the constitution and shifting of gendered identities. This intersection is particularly relevant in an urban Indian context marked by a surge in media and consumer practices, increasing public mobility for women, and shifting notions of the private sphere of the home. This paper therefore takes as its starting point, the analytical paradigm that looks at identities as historically, discursively and spatially performed spheres. It argues that discursively constituted identities take on a unique relevance in the context of urban populations in the developing world who are deeply embedded in the consumption of visual technologies [Kaur 2003]. Using ethnographic data, I explore the performative and discursive selfconstitution of female members of the Hindutva allied, militant, regional political party in western India (Shiv Sena or Shivaji’s army) within the context of some key approaches to performance, visual culture, and urban politics. This paper will look at two unique discursive sites through which Shiv Sena, women constitute their political personas through visual performances in urban public space – these are the morcha, and the Maharashtrian-Hindu ‘haldi-kumkum’ ritual.5 I argue that these “front-stage” performative sites are deeply important in the constitution of the gendered political subjectivities of women of the Shiv Sena. These examples illustrate two things. One, they explore the ways in which visual and performative sites of localised and vernacular cultures become the spaces through which the political manifests itself in modern India [Kaur 2003; Pinney 2004]. Second, and more important to the focus of this paper, they illustrate the ways in which individual performers in the public sphere stake out their own forms of political subjectivity and personal resistance to embedded forms of patriarchal power through the everyday, visual-performative. By suggesting that political performance is constitutive of gender, rather than vice versa, this attempts to contribute to an understanding of gender and public politics, and gender and visual performative cultures more generally. It is also an effort to engage the relationship between cultural and historical process and identities in India as they interact with and are communicated through non-literate means of communication such as marches, speeches, gatherings, and religious festivals in urban public space [Kaur 2003].

Shiv Sena and Its Women’s Wing

Shiv Sena (named after the 17th century Maratha warrior Shivaji) was founded in Bombay (now Mumbai)6 by former journalist and cartoonist Bal Thackeray in 1966 as a populist, “sons of the soil” movement [Gupta 1982; Hansen 1999; Hansen 2001; Katzenstein 1973; Katzenstein 1979; Purandare 1999]. It demanded the reservation of jobs and economic opportunities for the lower echelons of white-collar Maharashtrians7 in the wake of perceived economic and cultural threat from non-Maharashtrian migrants. In a de-industrialising, but increasingly commercial and business-driven Maharashtra, the semi-urban and urban Maharashtrian middle-classes found themselves economically marginalised and displaced by non-Maharashtrian whitecollar migrants from other parts of India [Katzenstein 1973; Katzenstein 1979]. Shiv Sena has a strong meta-narrative of its founding which focuses deeply on the maverick discursive performances of its founder against the more embedded systems of economic and political power in the Bombay of the 1960s (Lele 1995; Purandare 1999). Right from its inception, the party has relied on diverse forms of media such as its own daily newspaper, a weekly cartoon and satire publication, everyday public oratory across the city of Mumbai, and more recently cable television networks to disseminate to its publics. Since the 1980s the ideological stance of Shiv Sena, while still embedded in a discourse of regional rights and access to economic mobility has aligned itself closely with Hindu nationalism or hindutva.8 At the same time, its impact has spread from the urban centre of Mumbai, into the districts of Maharashtra. However, despite the evolution of the party’s agendas and its electoral tactics, its own self-construction remains rooted in an oppositional, maverick, and locally constituted “modern” identity; and its publicly aggressive, often “criminalised” performances seem to draw from this construction [Hansen 2001].

It has become impossible to ignore the ways in which the political, the visual, and the performative coalesce in Indian public life. The visual nature of political projects in India can be traced to the anti-colonial struggle. Christopher Pinney’s term “mytho-politics” coined in the context of the employment of mythological icons in the Indian nationalist struggle has its counterpart in contemporary Indian politics [Pinney 2004]. Political projects of the contemporary Hindu right have particularly relied on heavy visual imagery and the power of visual performance in their constitution of a pan-Hindu public identity [Ghosh 2002; Kapur 1993; Rajagopal 2001]. Therefore, the stance that performative cultures have played a key part in the social imaginaries of the Indian public is not a new one [Freitag 1989a; 1989b]. However, it would be erroneous to give all the credit for the birth of visual politics to hindutva. In fact, the rise of the politics of hindutva mark a vital historical point in modern India’s development – the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, and the accompanying proliferation of consumer goods has sparked the call for increasingly visual advertising due to the entrance of private cable television into Indian homes [Hansen 1999; Huyssen 2000; Mankekar 1999; Rajagopal 2001]. Hindutva has relied very heavily on the fruits of these developments. In fact, India’s current, mass-mediated urban culture has made the visual very critical to everyday public life. In a city like Mumbai, home to Bollywood9 and the centre of the Indian advertising industry, the production and consumption of visual cultures in public space is something that both ordinary citizens and political figures engage in everyday as a matter of course [Mazzarella 2003]. Shiv Sena’s contemporary avatar crafts its organised performances, (locally always referred to as “programmes”) around a number of the popular cultural narratives [Heuze 1995] that Hindu-Maharashtrian iconographies, Bollywood, and consumer advertising make available; what is key here are the visual strategies that focus on constituting Sena leadership as larger-than-life personalities that must be presented to a visually embedded public in forms that are familiar to the aesthetic of their everyday lives. Therefore, these performative strategies draw very heavily on local, Hindu-Maharashtrian forms of cultural expression and women are often at the centre of these ‘cultural’ spectacles where region, nation, and religion intersect.

The party’s women’s wing, the Mahila Aghadi (women’s front) is comprised largely of middle and lower-middle class women who often live in and on the edges of the Mumbai slums. There is only very vague official documentation on the establishment of the Mahila Aghadi (hereby referred to as the Aghadi).10 Hence, much of the reconstruction of its birth comes through the narratives of women who see themselves as its “original” founders [Sen 2006]. The absence of a master-narrative for the founding of the women’s wing is telling, especially given the almost mythic nature of the founding narrative of the larger Shiv Sena party. Instead, the Aghadi’s narratives of its establishment take on the form desired by the teller. If there is a common thread, it is that all the narratives of women who see themselves as “original” members suggest their own actions as absolutely key to the founding of the Aghadi. From these, I generally gather that it was born out of the efforts of young Maharashtrian women in Bombay touched by the joblessness of their fathers and brothers, and therefore attracted to the Shiv Sena’s potent “sons of the soil” message. This initial message was one that critiqued the economic marginalisation of Maharashtrians in the rapidly deindustrialising Bombay of the 1960s and 1970s. The multiple founding narratives despite their diversity, all focus on visual events where women’s bodies were inserted into public space via a performance of “dashing and daring”11 as the defining moment of the Aghadi’s inception (interviews with founding members). These narratives of “dashing” and “daring” always seem to intersect with visual political events that unfold in urban public space. In all the narratives this entrance into an urban public space seems to be integral for the constitution of political selves for Sena women; it is almost like a psychological “before” and “after” where “after” the engagement with public space, they are changed as political subjects forever. The repetition of these narratives that attempt to reconstruct the history of the entrance of women into the party continues to be critical in capturing the desires of new recruits as much as it serves to continually reconstitute the “dashing” identities of existing Aghadi members.

The Aghadi gained more public prominence and was officially integrated into the structure of the larger party through the influence of Thackeray’s late wife Meena ‘tai’ (tai is the Marathi term for older sister) in the 1980s. Meena tai continues to be a key visual iconic figure. At all Shiv Sena sponsored events a large portrait of her almost always stands alongside a bust of Shivaji and all ceremonies begin with the strongly visual communicative act of a garlanding ritual of both.

Since its founding, women of the Aghadi have constituted themselves both collectively and individually within the mother image of Meena tai, the historical figures of the Rani of Jhansi12 and Jijabai,13 and against a politically shifting array of “others”. More recently, urban Sena women who are key consumers of televisual media also seem to constitute their missions as local, urban, caretakers through television programmes that revolve around “crime-buster” themes such as India’s Most Wanted and CID.14 The performative and mediated articulation of religious, linguistic, and “moral” difference between the Maharashtrian, female Shiv Sainik and the “other” – migrants from south India, Muslims, migrants from north India, the westernised women, patriarchal bureaucracies such as the police and the municipality, has played a key part in their conceptions of political and moral power. It has also critically affected the ways in which power gets practised in the urban contexts in which Shiv Sena women live, work, and consume.

However, despite the broad recruitment of women into the party and plenty of interaction between men and women, Shiv Sena, like many conservative movements across the world, preserves a separation of the women’s wing, arguably in order to ensure that women remain structurally subordinate [Bacchetta and Power 2002b; Gottlieb 2002]. There does seem to be clear indication that most right-wing women across the world are segregated by sex from their male counterparts. Feminist scholars have argued that this right-wing sex segregation has two main consequences: on one hand it excludes women from overall organisational power. This is documented quite clearly as far as the Hindu right is concerned. Despite the high visibility of women in hindutva mobilisation, the top level leadership remains male. [Bacchetta 2004; Banerjee 1996]. In Shiv Sena every appointed post in the male wing has its counterpart in the Aghadi. This seemingly “parallel” organisation ensures that women and men are carefully segregated in the political sphere; however Aghadi leadership, despite their parallel posts and a great deal of interaction and sharing of local responsibilities between the male and female wings, are visibly structurally subordinate to their male colleagues. On the other hand however, the argument is that sexsegregation in fact enables women to “forge their own discourse, practice, and modes of solidarity in ways that sometimes have the potential to threaten the overall male-dominated right itself by contesting male power” [Bacchetta and Power 2002a]. My research suggests that for Shiv Sena women, gendered performative strategies in public space are particularly important, since despite their broad participation women remain subordinate within the party and are generally excluded from its institutionalised visual cultures of larger-than-life-personalities. This exclusion therefore becomes a motivating force for alternatives for women who demand recognition and are increasingly admitting their displeasure at this exclusion (even if not publicly). It also provides women with tools that link them with a large variety of publics that are completely closed to the male cadre.

Performance/Narrativity: Dual Theoretical Approach

The analytical paradigm that has come to be known as “performance” theory owes much of its intellectual debt to the “dramaturgical” approach that grew out of symbolic anthropology, and the sociology of organisational communication. This approach is associated most closely with the work of Erving Goffman (Goffman 1959). Much of the theoretical debate on the “performance” of everyday life since Goffman published Presentation of Self in Everyday Life has positioned itself in relation to Goffman, even if only tangentially [Morriss 1995]. Goffman’s early ‘dramaturgical’ framework goes a long way in contributing to an analysis of individual communication and expression (and thereby also to a constitution of personhood) (Morriss 1995). Using the metaphor of the dramatic performance, that includes both “on stage” and “off-stage” personas, Goffman explores the ways in which individuals in everyday life present themselves and their activities to others and the ways in which individuals guide and control the impression others form of them [Goffman 1959; Goffman 1963].

For Goffman, the individual is both a performer and a character in the drama of everyday life. He defines performance as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the participants” (Goffman 1959). It is when an individual performs the same part to the same audience on different occasions that a “social” relationship is born. While Goffman’s approach is self-professedly a theory of social interaction, and social “systems” he is also attempting to provoke an approach for the theorisation of personality, social interaction, and society as they are constituted through “performance.” For Goffman, to “be” a kind of person is “not simply to possess the required attributes but to also sustain all those standards of conduct and appearance that one’s grouping attaches thereto” [Goffman 1959]. The notion of “acceptable” appearance and conduct, or what Goffman refers to as “front” or “face” is a key notion in theorising performances aimed at marking out social categories such as gender and nation. He is interested in theorising the kinds of things that the individual “does” or does not “do” in the efforts to sustain “identities” or impressions in the face of an external audience. According to Goffman, the expressiveness of an individual involves two very different forms of communicative activity, “the expression he gives, and the expression he gives off” [Goffman 1959]. The first refers to words and communication in the traditional sense while the second involves non-verbal, visual, often unintentional forms of communication. In the latter case, the “performance” conveys motives often at odds with what is communicated through the more traditional forms of communication. In the case of Shiv Sena women for example, appearance and conduct play a key part in the visual intersections of class, gender, religion, region and nation. It could be argued, that the construction of “face” is a profoundly important sphere of a Goffmanesque “working consensus” for these women [Goffman 1959]. Most Shiv Sena women stepping into public space, [arguably their “on-stage” personas], display all the accoutrements of appropriate female, Maharashtrian-Hindu middle-class respectability. This is Goffman’s “everyday” presentation. Almost all the Aghadi leaders I have talked to in Mumbai (and other parts of Maharashtra) instruct the female party cadre on the appropriate clothing they must put on when they step into public life to ensure the visual consonance between religious, national, regional and moral spheres. Therefore, while the management of impression or Goffman’s idea of “face” is motivated by the need to initiate stable and predictable social relationships [Goffman 1963], Goffman’s more pertinent suggestion to an exploration of identity is that the very structures of the self can be analysed in terms of how we arrange our performances [Goffman 1959]. Thereby, identities, such as Maharashtrian womanhood, and more importantly a particular kind of vernacular “modern” womanhood that distinguishes itself from both the “westernised” modern woman as well as from the north-Indian ‘homebound’ woman, get performed and sustained through repetitive visual transactions of “face” which inevitably becomes embodied. However, every so often, as my Shiv Sena companion who decided to accessorise her feminine sari with a man’s turban in a very public and visible space illustrates, strategies to resist assumptions of “face” also emerge in visual-performative ways.

The notion of “performativity” and its association with gendered identities has become widely accepted in the scholarship on gender [Butler 1990a, 1990b]. Butler’s argument seems to be placed quite squarely within a Goffmanesque paradigm of performance in everyday life [Goffman 1959; Morriss 1995]. Like Goffman, Butler stresses the impossibility of self in the absence of publicly legitimated performance. Therefore, gender, like all other forms of social life requires an almost ritualised, repeated public performance whereby a set of socially established meanings are “re-experienced” to constitute notions of self [Butler 1990a]. In the case of Shiv Sena women, the ways in which they negotiate public space through visual performative strategies that say much about class, religion, and gender, notions of “performance” and the “performative” are theoretically integral. However, as my ethnographic research has tracked both public and private performance as well as the ways in which specific performances are embedded temporally and imagined culturally within larger historical and cultural contexts, this paper situates itself within both “performative” and “narrative” approaches. Arguably, “narrativity” is implicit in performativity. However, from a theoretical perspective the two approaches, while undeniably related, serve two different functions – performance focuses on the cultural processes by which collective and individual identities get constructed, while narrativity focuses on the historical moments within which those cultural processes get imagined in the first place through culturally available, collectively mediated means [Herman 2003; Morriss 1995; Somers 1994; Somers and Gibson 1994].

While “performance” and “performativity” approaches are key in developing a critical theory of identities, they are not always successful in accounting for the social or historical relations that mediate performance. After all, “performances” must come from somewhere. Performances of gender particularly, must also be theorised as embedded in social relations since all performances take place in contexts of differential power and material conditions and in differentially experienced historical and cultural contexts [Morriss 1995; Weston 1993a, 1993b]. Moreover, why is a particular performative act constitutive of a particular form of identity while another is not and what determines how identities persist and change over time? What are the cultural and historical processes by which certain performances are enabled? A narrative approach is critically useful here [Abbott 1990]. The narrative approach sees historical processes as stories and these stories are collectively embedded, even when they are individually “performed.” This approach is rooted in the effort to theorise subjectivity within the context of sociality – “The social world consists of complex subjects to whom complex things happen” [Abbott 1990].

An approach that elegantly reconfigures the concept of narrative and narrativity as a tool for social theory is put forth by Margaret Somers (Somers 1992; 1994; 1997; Somers and Gibson 1994). In an attempt to avoid what she suggests are overly rigid categories of “identity,” Somers introduces the concepts of time, space and relationality in theorising the constitution of identities [Somers 1992; 1994; 1997]. She suggests that social theory must be looked at through engagements with the concept of “narrative”. This theory of social action precludes structural categories and instead engages actors and their relationships with each other, and their cultural and institutional imaginaries that shift over time and space. Therefore, Somers argues that the power of a theory of narrativity illuminates the constitutive condition of social beings, social action, institutions and structures(Somers 1997). If identities are looked at as fluid, and “performed,” it must also be admitted that identities are both individual and collective experiences. They are enabled by certain cultural imaginaries that are differentially drawn on by both individuals and collectivities over time. Narratives therefore, may be looked at as the “cognitive artifacts” that manifest themselves both individually and collectively (Herman 2003).

Somers’ central thesis is that we construct identities by locating ourselves or being located in social narratives that are rarely of our own making. For purposes of this discussion, I draw on three dimensions or types of narrativity theorised by Somers. Ontological narratives are those stories that social actors use to make sense of, and act in their lives. Ontological narratives are mutually constitutive – the “doing” in turn produces new narratives that define further systems of meaning. This is where Somers’ paradigm is capable of addressing the place of agency in the constitution of identity. The space of the ontological narrative is that space that allows for the creative execution of various available meanings. In the case of the Shiv Sena women for example, ontological narratives would capture the individual stories that people tell about their lives and their motivations in their constitutions of identity. However, the ways in which identities are constituted at the individual level (ontological narratives) are critically embedded within the larger imaginaries. Therefore, ontological narratives are both social and interpersonal and depend fundamentally on intersubjective systems of relationality that sustain and transform these narratives over time. They are framed by public, cultural and institutional narratives that are larger than the single individual and provide the parameters within which the ontological narratives are employed. In the case of Shiv Sena women, these would refer to the narratives of Maharashtrian regionalism, hindutva, and nationalism and their constitution through cultural resources such as media, television, newspapers, films and other forms of “popular” culture. Metanarratives refer to the master narratives in which we are all embedded both as contemporary social actors as well as social scientists. In the case of the Shiv Sena, the metanarratives of capitalism, economic liberalisation and globalisation are critical in giving shape to cultural and individual identities. A narrative conception of “identity” therefore captures the ways in which subjectivity and visual self-construction have profoundly social roots and that narrative identities are never independent of the power and political contexts within which they arise and persist. For Sena women who otherwise feel sidelined from the core centres of power in the party, narratively and performatively constitute identities in ways that allow them to insert themselves visually into the peripheries of power.

A narrative and performance approach to examination of the Shiv Sena, addresses how women selectively instrumentalise and diffuse notions of popular culture, how they mediate and negotiate consumer identities to reframe them visually in right-wing and religious terms that in turn get manifested in diverse performances of gender. It has been suggested that “political society in India is…unruly and unpredictable – [with] collective performances and protests, ritualised violence in public spaces and equally ritualised destruction of public property” [Hansen 2001]. In India therefore, visual public spectacle and performance has an enormously rich and varied history and iconography that provides the canvas against which contemporary protest is played out [Freitag 1989a, 1989b]. In Maharashtra, the regional ethnohistorical imaginary is equally rich and plays a key role in how the Shiv Sena’s political and cultural personas are constructed [Heuze 1995; Hansen 2001]. Moreover, the marked proliferation of a televisual consumer culture in India also provides a rich narrative background for the constitution not simply of collective Hindu/Maharashtrian gender identities, but also to individual notions of self.

Engendering a Public Sphere: The “Visual” and the “Visible”

I would like to make sure that I am clearly differentiating between my use of the terms of “visual” and “visibility.” This is not to say that they are not theoretically related terms, but in the course of my fieldwork with the Shiv Sena, I have found this difference to be integral to the gendered spheres of the party and the ways in which the male and female cadre engage with urban public space. The “visual” sphere, I argue is almost exclusively male gendered, whereas the “sphere of visibility” is that which allows Sena women to interject themselves bodily into the larger political projects of the party which range from hindutva, to Maharashtrian pride, to a party that stands for raw, urban justice.

Let me begin with a discussion of the context in which I use the term “visual.” The Shiv Sena, and its reliance on local patronage systems that operate at the level of each neighbourhood through a remarkably vital ‘shakha’15 network in Mumbai, necessitates a recognition of key personalities at every local level [Eckert 2003]. Generally, I have found that all Sena leaders (both male and female) spend much of their efforts in office making sure that that they are known (and to some extent feared) in their localities. The use of colourful photographic images is a key strategy in the visual politics of the Sena. A keen observer of the visual in Mumbai cannot miss the wide variety of large, colourful Shiv Sena bill-boards dotting the most visible areas of the city’s public space – the western and eastern express highways, the entries and exits of markets and stations. These boards have multiple uses. For one, they are used as announcements of Sena-sponsored events with larger-than life photographs of organisers of the event. These portraits of Sena leadership are often juxtaposed against religious iconography or cleverly used light to provide halo effects. For the most part, their primary use is as visual professions of support for the party by various local shakha leaders. So it is quite common to see a board with the pictures of several local shakha ‘pramukhs’16 and ‘corporators’17 dedicating best wishes to the party’s founder Bal Thackeray or his son Uddhav Thackeray (successor to his father) on birthdays, or religious events. In the process, these visual displays also make Sena faces known to citizens in the locality – and this is absolutely integral to a party that relies so heavily on the power of residence and local patronage in political campaigning.

There is however, a conspicuous absence of female Sena cadre in these institutionalised public visual displays. Even in cases where women of supposedly parallel rank to the men pictured in the visual displays are mentioned on the posters, I have rarely seen Sena women “visually” present on these posters. This absence is not lost on Sena women. I have heard many express their dissatisfaction at their exclusion – “we do all the work and they get all the recognition”. However, given the embedded gender hierarchies within the party, most women admit that they would never be able to demand their inclusion in these visual displays. Instead, what Sena women do is engage in a politics of “visibility” where they insert themselves bodily into urban public spaces in order to make themselves known to their constituents, to show their support for their party and to further their own political and public ambitions. In the process, they constitute themselves as political agents – agents of a particular Hindu-Maharashtrian project, through a wide variety of performances in public space.

The Politics of Visibility: Public Spaces and Public Personas

In order to illustrate the ways in which the politics of visibility interacts with the public performances of Sena women, I discuss two different sites at which women of the Mahila Aghadi, engage with public space. It is at these sites that they constitute their own positions and visibility in public space in continually performative ways in the face of their general marginalisation from the institutionalised visual machinery of the party. These two sites are intricately tied to the urban spaces in which they take place. The first is the morcha, where there is some gendered ambiguity in space (because issues like possible courting of arrest and violence intervene). The second is the ‘haldi-kumkum’ celebration around the festival of ‘sankranti’18 where public space in particular neighbourhoods becomes a Hindu feminine domain – relatively peaceful, and organised around women’s celebration of their ‘suhaag’ (long life of their husbands). Nevertheless in my experience both these are also deeply political sites where Shiv Sena women utilise the large female audiences they receive at these events to constitute themselves as the local female patrons in the neighbourhood and thereby stake out their own political and public futures.


While only the large morchas get covered by the mainstream press, Shiv Sena organises a number of small local morchas all around Mumbai quite regularly. These generally begin at a particular neighbourhood shakha where everyone gathers garnering a great deal of public visibility. Shiv Sainiks are equipped with the party’s distinct two-pronged saffron19 flags and there is plenty of chanting of party slogans that invoke the Maratha warrior Shivaji and his patron saint, the Hindu goddess Bhavani. Sena women in particular performatively embody the various causes of Hindutva during these morchas as they often dress in saffron saris with all the trappings of middle-class Hindu-Maharashtrian respectability. The morchas trail through the densely populated markets of Mumbai, and often terminate outside the local train stations (hubs of commercial and public activity in Mumbai). It is generally at, or close to a train station that the morcha stops for key Sena participants to give their speeches. As far as Shiv Sena women go, the act of being individually “visible” and performing acts that are publicly “visible” is not simply an imperative, it is also the strategy that is most rewarded within the party. Therefore it is just as important for women to be publicly “visible” at morchas for the sake of their constituents, as it is to visibly show their support for the party. “We have to go to these to make sure no one thinks we are straying from the party.” (As mentioned earlier for Sena men, a lot of this support is shown through the visual images of themselves on billboards.) For Sena women the morcha is one of the key sites of visibility and it is the loud shouting of slogans, the participation in the drumming and music that often accompanies the morcha and the opportunity to raise and carry party banners and the saffron flag, that makes up a lot of their perceptions of “dashing” political agency – “we are very “daring” “dashing” ladies; we are not afraid”. Moreover, the morcha with its possibility of criminalised outcomes such as violence and police arrest is the ideal site at which to express this “dashing”. Many women narrate their own sense of bravery when talking about the degeneration of a particular morcha into violence: “the police hit us so badly that we ran everywhere. I came home without my shoes or my purse. It was really a good morcha. I felt like Kiran Bedi.”20

In most of my conversations, women describe participation in morchas as one of their key duties. Most female shakha pramukhs have lists of neighbourhood women who are not involved in any other Shiv Sena activities other than morchas. These lists are brought out whenever a request for large human numbers comes down the chain of Sena command for a particular morcha. The imperative of visibility at the morcha is such that presence (and absence) at a particular morcha is always noticed and commented upon. Participation in visible events such as morchas is widely believed to be requisite for promotion in the party, and for what many of the women I have talked to see as the most coveted of opportunities – a chance to contest a Municipal corporation election. This is why being photographed at morchas is something Sena women do not mind at all. In fact one woman who agreed to pose for my camera at a morcha even said to me: “it would be nice to have this photo put into the newspaper so that ‘they’ [quote Sena leadership] can see it, since someday my dream is to be in the Corporation.” It is in fact pictures of Sena women at morchas that one sees in the media most often; and the discourse of most English language media in Mumbai generally characterises Shiv Sena women’s participation in morchas as irrational outbursts led by the “remote control” of Sena leadership. I contend however, that these are in fact carefully crafted performances of visibility by Sena women rather than spontaneously erupting acts of protest. They emerge of out of a very incisive perception of what sorts of personas are most likely to achieve political and social gain. Another woman expressed how the success of a particular Aghadi leader is often judged by how many neighbourhood women she is individually able to make visible or mobilise for purposes of a morcha. It is interesting that most of these “extras” brought in for morchas tend to be very poor women who live in Sena-dominated slums and probably perceive that they will get some basic amenities such as water or roads in their areas if they show up as supporters of a morcha. It is this high visibility of the urban poor at visible events such as morchas, which continues to reinvent the Sena image as the “common person’s party” for the Sainiks themselves as much as it does for the press and media opportunities.

It is probably no accident then that even what might be considered a rather insignificant morcha is attended by at least one of the Sena’s key party members (all male), and it is for their eyes that a great deal of gusto is mustered up by all present when it come to the chanting of slogans and the raising of the saffron flag. It is also interesting to see how women at Sena morchas that I have attended craft themselves visually in physical space. They position themselves in relation to the prominent actors in the morcha – namely the male speech-givers since these are the ones that get photographed most often. It is also no accident that when Aghadi post-holders participate in morchas they are dressed in fine saris, and all the symbols of appropriate femininity even as they shout loud and raucous slogans. Most of the women I have talked to are deeply aware of the opportunities to be photographed at these public events and are quite honest about their reasons for choosing one sari to wear on that day over another. It is also quite common on visits to Aghadi members’ homes or shakhas to be shown the photo albums of Sena women shouting slogans or standing with their male colleagues in public at morchas. These exchanges are always accompanied by narratives of danger, “dashing” and violence. As far as the party goes, female participants in morchas are always asked to lead the morcha; this seems to serve the party’s motive of steering public perception to view the morcha as a “decent” familial event thereby imbuing it with some public legitimacy. At the same time, this effort at putting women upfront gives the women themselves a sense of “leading the way”; it also gives them the coveted opportunity to be seen and heard clearly if the morcha is ever covered by the press.

The Haldi-Kumkum

Haldi21-kumkum22 ritual is a key example of how domestic ritual gets performed in urban “public” space. In the case of the Aghadi for example, these originally domestic forms of ritual now get performed by women in public and occupy an important part in constructions of Hindu community. It could be argued that public, religious ritual, which often remains centred on women, is a site for innovation as much as it is a site for control over female religiosity. In the case of the Aghadi, Hindu-Maharashtrian identities are reconstituted and reproduced in the public sphere through visual performance that draws its symbols from the larger cultural narratives that Maharashtrian domestic life and modern urban life make available. Shiv Sena women are deeply cognisant of those cultural narratives that might produce the most effect in performance and they pick those that are the most potent. In fact, many Aghadi leaders have built their political careers through “domestic” rituals that are rooted in a Maharashtrian Hindu religiosity but in their public practice provide a site for local (often personalised) political campaigns.

The space of the haldi-kumkum, unlike the morcha, where the genders compete with each other for visibility, is one that is an exclusively female domain. Haldi-kumkum ceremonies take place starting with the festival of sankranti on January 14 and can go on for one month following sankranti. I am told by the women I talked to that the haldi-kumkum ritual is a way for women to get out of the house, go visiting other women, and solidify friendships all at the same time that they pray for the long life of their husbands. The traditional ritual involves women putting turmeric and vermillion on each other’s foreheads, receiving ‘tilgud’ (a sweet sesame ball) and a small gift of a household item from the host.23 While historically these are intimate household affairs for close friends, relatives and neighbours, and remain so in Maharashtrian households all over the state, the ‘Aghadi’ has co-opted this domestic ritual and made it into a large neighbourhood spectacle where Sena women are at its visual centre.

Unlike the small personal celebrations that I have attended at people’s homes, the public events depend a great deal on a high degree of visibility. They are a “showcase” of sorts for the Sena female leaders to be seen by women in the neighbourhood. These events are organised at the neighbourhood level in the open spaces within jhopadpatti24 communities, marketplaces, school playgrounds, or in and around Hindu temples. These public spectacles are most often replete with a stage on which the key Shiv Sena women are invited to sit. The organisers in each neighbourhood are generally junior local party workers who live in the housing society or neighbourhood that the event takes place in. For many of these women, being given the responsibility of hosting such a large public affair is an immense source of selfaffirmation and more than one of them admit to this being the first step of dashing. The hosts provide microphones, loudspeakers, and a disc-jockey who initially devotes some time to playing bhajans25 but generally soon switches over to hit Bollywood numbers; this is clearly illustrative of a particularly Indian phenomenon where the lines between the religious and the purely entertaining are crossed quite effortlessly. Many of these public haldi-kumkum events also present dance programmes choreographed by children of the neighbourhood. For the events that I have attended, the first dance is generally a ‘koli’ folk dance26 programme. This folk form that is indigenous to Maharashtra marks out a clear celebration of regional identity at the same time that its vigour and exuberance provide much joy and entertainment to audiences. The subsequent dances are generally set to popular Bollywood tunes where children and their mothers alike sing along.27 Once the entertainment is done with, the haldikumkum events always involve speeches by Sena women to their constituents, the presentation of bouquets of flowers to all the key Sena women involved and the felicitation of all Sena women who attend. At more than one of these events key Sena women have been presented with busts of Shivaji which they hold up to the photographers with a great deal of pride. These gifting ceremonies get photographed by local camera owners and become part of the Aghadi’s album or are pinned up on the bulletin boards at various shakhas. Here too, like in the case of morchas, when visiting a shakha for the first time it is quite a common practice for Sena women to bring out their haldi-kumkum albums which become the foundation for several stories of “daring”. Amidst the extremely well-executed programming and organisation, the actual practice of placing the haldi and kumkum on women’s foreheads seems to be only of tertiary concern, and at most of these public events, is given the least stage-time in a two or three hour programme. Therefore, while the gathering is overtly one that celebrates women as wives (and therefore consonant with patriarchal right-wing politics) the ritual surrounding the solidifying of this Hindu feminine identity is vastly overpowered by the celebration of political will, and the recognition of female constituents as critical to the electoral process.

Given the spectacle that the haldi-kumkums create, the public audiences in densely populated Mumbai stretch far beyond simply the immediate surroundings in which the programme takes place

– women from the surrounding buildings, markets and streets also get pulled into the visual aspects of the ritual. The symbolic association of the ritual with a particular sort of Hindu moral order makes it an acceptable space for female audiences to participate without reprimand; for Sena women, it allows them to navigate a political terrain where they are ostensibly asking for votes and political support from women for the larger party. However, I have observed that this mobilisation, away from the gaze of the Sena male cadre, often tends to be a personal political project that engages gender interests often at odds with what conservative rhetoric might otherwise support.

Hindutva in India has engaged very strategically with the liberal discourse of modern India where it is constitutionally prohibited to use religion as a political vehicle or to incite communal passions. Hence, “if religio-national icons are to be effectively used for political mobilisation, they need to be promulgated indirectly – at occasions other than political rallies” [Kaur 2003:155]. Therefore, a great deal of importance is placed on an investment in everyday vernacular culture which is positioned as quite detached from the sphere of realpolitik [Hansen 2001; Kaur 2003]. The haldi-kumkum, and the fact that it ostensibly focuses on a feminised, ritual sphere is a particularly important casting of this detachment from politics. Here, even as the performers of the ritual are deeply political subjects they are able to rhetorically deny their association with ‘rajniti’ (politics) through what is cast as a uniquely Hindu-Maharashtrian cultural performance. For the male cadre in the party, this feminised ritual and what takes place there between constituents and the Aghadi leaders appears to be politically unthreatening in ways that a more overtly “political” event may not be. Moreover, the fact that young children accompany their mothers to these events and that older children often provide dance and music entertainment gives the haldi-kumkum a particularly familial feel. For the spectators, made up of large gatherings of women from across the dense urban neighbourhoods of Mumbai the ritual establishes feelings of commonality between the Sena women and the populace. It is an erasure of the abstraction of politics by forging community around common residence, devotion to a common Hindu ritual, and shared gender.


The “politics of visibility” have allowed Shiv Sena women to constitute a unique sense of personhood through visual performances that are deeply embedded in the larger historical and cultural processes of urban India. It is through these performances that individual members of the women’s wing of what remains an otherwise patriarchal political party have been able to carve out somewhat autonomous discursive spaces. These discursive spaces are constitutive of public-political personas as much as they extend the possibilities of political space and politically engaged publics in a visually consumerist urban India.




1 All interviews and research used for this essay were conducted with Shiv Sena women as part of dissertation fieldwork during the 2005-2006 academic year. Funding for this fieldwork was provided by the American Institute of Indian Studies Junior Dissertation Research Fellowship programme.

2 Bhagwa is the Marathi word for the colour saffron. Saffron is the colour that has come to be associated with Hindutva.

3 The word “gents” is a short form of the English word gentlemen and is used so often as part of several south Asian languages as a substitute for the vernacular word that for many it is now almost part of the vernacular itself.

4 Shiv Sena women regularly refer to themselves using the English word “ladies” even when speaking in Marathi.

5 The “morcha” is arguably a uniquely south Asian expression of public politics. The word “morcha” most literally translates into a political gathering aimed at protest of some sort which, in the case of Shiv Sena’s militant tactics, often becomes verbally and physically violent. The Haldi-Kumkum is a traditional Hindu married woman’s ritual targeted at collectively celebrating the long life of the husband at the same time that it reinforces female relationships within the community.

6 For purposes of this paper, henceforth, when referred to in the pre-1995 context, the city will be called Bombay; when referring to its contemporary post-1995 context (when the name was officially changed by the Shiv Sena government then in power), it will be referred to by its changed name of Mumbai.

7 Residents of the state of Maharashtra on the western coast of India, and speakers of the regional language, Marathi. Maharashtra was officially organised territorially as a linguistic state in 1960 with Bombay (Mumbai) as its capital.

8 Generally understood as the rising importance of the Hindu religious discourse in electoral politics and the running of the modern Indian state. 9 The commercial Hindi film industry centred in Mumbai. 10 This paper uses the terms “Aghadi” and “Shiv Sena women” interchangeably; both terms refer to the same group of women.

11 “Daring” and “dashing” are both terms used very widely by Sena women in self-description; they are used in a variety of ways. For example “I am very daring”; and “We do a lot of daring”; “Sena ladies are very

dashing”; “I do a lot of dashing”.

12 The queen of Jhansi hailed from a Maratha-led princely state who bravely fought off British forces during the 1857 war. She is widely celebrated as an icon of nationalism and patriotism.

13 Mother of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji.

14 India’s Most Wanted is a television show similar to America’s Most Wanted where information about fugitives and their arrests through the actions of common citizens is publicly aired. CID is a popular investigative drama.

15 Shakhas, literally mean “branches”. They have been the central principle around which all Shiv Sena activity is organised. The Shiv Sena has branches in neighbourhoods across Mumbai.

16 Pramukh literally translated means “chief”. These are appointed posts rather than elected posts in the Shiv Sena.

17 Corporator is the term used for elected members of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). During the course of my fieldwork, in 2006, Shiv Sena, who held the majority of seats in the BMC was gearing up for the next municipal elections held in February 2007. As per the declaration of results of the February 1, 2007 elections, Shiv Sena has once again captured a majority in the BMC.

18 This Hindu festival takes place in January.

19 Saffron is the colour that has come to be associated with Hindu nationalism.

20 Kiran Bedi was India’s first female police officer and is often invoked by the Sena as a role model for the modern Indian women. Her biography entitled I Dare has been widely read and I have often heard it quoted at Mahila Aghadi sponsored events such as at the International Women’s Day 2006 celebrations.

21 Turmeric powder.

22 Red vermillion used by Hindu women as a form of make-up. Among married Hindu women this vermillion is put into the parting of the hair as one of the visible symbols of marriage. Traditionally the presence or absence of this vermillion on the face and head of a Hindu woman visually marks the difference between married women and widows.

23 Examples of some of the household items that I have observed being gifted at these events are stainless steel glasses and tumblers, soap-dishes, stirring and mixing spoons, and incense holders.

24 Slum communities.

25 Hindu devotional songs.

26 Kolis are a Marathi-speaking fishing community believed to be the original inhabitants of Bombay.

27 During the course of my fieldwork, for almost all the haldi-kumkum celebrations I attended, the hit Bollywood number ‘kajra re’ dominated the programme.


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