Marriage, Love and Caste: Telugu

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Telugu Women in the Colonial Period

September 24, 2006

REVIEWS: Family ties

Reviewed by Noor Jehan Mecklai

Thirumali, born in Andhra Pradesh and co-ordinator of the Centre of South Indian Studies, gives us in this modest volume a fascinating, multifaceted picture of the evolution of the sense of family and related values in the Andhra region of India, and in neighbouring Telangana during the colonial period. He points out very clearly the contrast between the position of higher caste women, whose families moved to the newly emerging towns with the burgeoning of the East India Company, and the more advantageous lot of so many of their gender in the rural areas.

In the process, he examines a number of related issues such as the husband-wife relationship, the ideal view of womanhood, the evolution of women’s dress as an expression of their subordinate role and of their caste, the practices of Sanskritisation and Brahminisation, as well as touching upon such things as the predicament of child widows and the role of women in the

Telangana Movement, where doughty village ladies toted guns with life or death determination.

In the new urban situation, many women “were isolated from their conventional moorings ... alienated from the wider world, living exclusively for their husbands, children and family. Their connection ... with the outside world was through men. Their dress and make up too was modernised to impress or please men. These women, mostly from Brahmin families, led ideological lives of (the) pativrata or humble (followers) of the husband. They carried this image, developed by colonialised intelligentsia, which assigned women a secondary role in the family,” along with the constitution of a new national (mostly Brahmin or upper caste Hindu) morality, as part of the new nationalist awareness.

He points out very clearly the contrast between the position of higher caste women, whose families moved to the newly emerging towns with the burgeoning of the East India Company, and the more advantageous lot of so many of their gender in the rural areas

Out of the insecurities of the new urban women, their isolation and immurement, arose a greater dependence upon religion; and consequently some very interesting facts appear concerning the rite of sati (also spelled suttee, amongst other variants). The Sanskrit word sat means good, pure, virtuous. Thus sati denotes a chaste and virtuous wife, as in the case of those who, either voluntarily or as custom required, were immolated upon their husbands’ funeral pyres. “The practice of sati came into being, in Andhra,” writes Thirumali, “only during this period of transition to modernity.” The rite was conducted with great ceremony and respect, and was a pledge of continued respect and adoration of the husband, though the author adds that this degree of Brahminisation originally affected only a small section of women in the rising towns, and that they were afterwards revered as perantallu. In the 17th century, sati prevailed only among the princely families, but with increasingly widespread Brahminisation, the understanding of it changed considerably, and among various peasant castes, notably the Madiga untouchables, any woman who died while her husband was still alive became a perantallu. This was all intended to bring respectability to their castes. And amazingly, “(by) the 1920s and 1930s, this culture affected a very large section of the Andhra population”, to the extent where every married woman was a perantallu (a virtuous and fortunate wife).

The Encyclopaedia Brittannica informs us that “Numerous suttee stones, memorials to widows who died (in the classical suttee manner) are found all over India, the earliest dated 510AD,” and that jauhar, the immolation on the other hand of women before their husbands’ expected death in battle, was practised by the Rajputs, notably at Chitorgarh.

The pativrata in the town became role models for the rural women, their humble dressing being in tune with their husbands’ ideological or personal likings, and “while the men wanted sire (sari) and jacket as the fashionable dress for their women ... as far as men’s fashion was concerned, European coat, trousers, shoes, a short moustache and a modern haircut was the preference. The men were European in dress, the women were Andhraised”.

As to the bra, the author reveals that there were “controversies and prejudices associated with (this) among the rural people (and) ... it became a fashion in the Andhra region only during the late 1930s. It created family feuds in some cases ... There were men who opposed it, since it was ... something worn by nautch women, and there were men who wanted their women to wear it too.” Meanwhile, the sari petticoat as we know it today was copied from the lehenga, another nautch girls’ garment, and the kasekattu sari of nine yards’ length, worn in a style suggesting trousers, was abandoned by the Brahmins owing to its association with the labouring castes.

In the chapter headed “Wife: A Quest for Definition”, indeed several definitions are given, but regrettably by no means all of them are accompanied by definitions, whether here or in the short glossary. With the words, “global village”, on everyone’s lips nowadays, and research scholars crossing international borders ever and anon, who can tell in this day and age just how far a book will travel? A full glossary is essential, mandatory.

Likewise a map would have been of value, pinpointing the exact locations under discussion, and a brief account of the origin and objectives of the Telangana Movement would have been extremely helpful, though I’ll finish my carping by saying that such ugly constructions as “got identified”, got converted”, or “got wide patronage” could best be done without.

Certain noted reformers and female leaders are mentioned, amongst them Veereshalingam, who advocated women’s betterment as central to the social reform programme. Betterment, he felt, was possible mainly through education and marriage. Though he offered no specific solution to the problems of nautch girls, he endeavoured to have the child widows of unconsummated marriages remarried. Innumerable cases existed where girls of four, five, six years old, for example, were married to men old enough to be their grandfathers at least, if not their great grandfathers; and there were men, mostly high caste and college educated, who were willing to marry such girls if they were of the same caste.

To end on a positive note, one must mention that the photographs and illustrations are extremely well chosen, and it’s toss-up between whether their aged appearance is fitting to the topic and the period, or whether the face-lift effect of computergraphics would have given them all the impact of the front cover picture. The many quotations from literature, in particular from songs and poems, do much to enrich the texture of this sensitive and intellectually honest study

Marriage, Love and Caste: Perceptions on Telugu Women During the Colonial Period

By Inukonda Thirumali Promilla & Co.,

Published in association with Bibliophile South Asia,



Available with Paramount Publishing,

Jamalistan Shopping Centre, Plot # DC-1, Block 8

Kehkashan, Clifton, Karachi

Tel: 021-5833915.

Email: ISBN 81-85002-45-2

200pp. Price not listed

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