Red buttocks that are a sari loss

Women
November 13, 1998

Anita Roy's introductory essay to this special issue, at only four and a half pages, is too brief a survey of Indian sexuality, Indian feminism and the women's movement in India to do justice to this collection. One can draw one's own conclusions from the absence of theorising about feminism or cultural studies in most of the papers.

The two well-written opening essays are informative and suggestive, making the issue worth acquiring for these alone. Emma Tarlo's elegant and subtle discussion of Kasturba Gandhi recovers her silenced voice through an examination of the testimony of her husband, exploring the paradox of how she achieved the status of an ideal wife by resisting her husband. Ania Loomba's fascinating piece picks up Tarlo's earlier work on the dilemma of choosing between western and Indian clothing by exploring the significance of the sari. Martha Alter Chen's paper discusses from an activist's standpoint the status of rural widows, a gender issue in India that has few parallels in the West, while Ratna Kapur and Shailaja Bajpai discuss two major concerns of western feminist and cultural studies that focus on pleasure, namely censorship and soap. Kapur disentangles the peculiar alliance censorship has forged between the Hindu right, feminists and the state, arguing against censorship from a feminist legal perspective on the grounds that it is used to imply that sex and woman's bodies are somehow obscene. This argument should be inserted in debates about censorship in the West, such as the acrimonious confrontations of Camille Paglia and Ronald Dworkin.

Television in India, an almost untouched field of research, is the subject of Bajpai's contribution. She has garnered excellent material on images of women in television soaps, noting the disappearance of the positive role models or the strong, silent sufferer who have been replaced by "rich bitches", cruel, callous and calculating women. Although she points out problems in interpreting the viewers' pleasure in this figure, she stops short of developing her argument in detail.

The last two papers take cinema as their basis, one looking at "art cinema" (the films of Aparna Sen), the other at images of a former film star of Tamil Nadu (Jayalalitha Jayaram).

But the gem in this collection must be Loomba's fascinating aside, mourning the loss of the diversity of images of feminist sexuality, manifested in different modes of dress, in particular "the lost Begumbahar, a translucent sari worn by wives of rich Bengali merchants who painted their buttocks red underneath".

Rachel Dwyer is a lecturer in Gujarati and Indian studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Women: A Cultural Review Speical Issue on Independent India (three times a year)

Author - Anita Roy
ISBN - ISSN 0957 4042
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £57.00 and £25.00 (individuals)
Pages - -

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