The workshop will bring together a group of established and younger scholars to explore the variety of social and cultural meanings that gather around the term ‘sexuality’. It proposes to move away from discourses around sexuality that derive either from biological reasoning or from historical projects that make a direct connection between the Kama Sutra and contemporary Indian life. As an idea, biologism essentially argues that identities derive from a ‘deep source’ within the self: hence the notion, that we express our gendered and sexual selves, rather thanenact it. ‘Enactment’ gestures at ideas of learning and performing, whereas ‘expressing’ embodies the notion of an essence that, not withstanding other factors, will come to the fore and ultimately reveal itself. Further, a significant consequence of thinking about ‘sexuality’ as a world-unto-itself is that it tends to be simultaneously thought of as a very narrowly confined domain (with little to do with other spheres such as, for example, politics and economics) as well as something that is of very general significance and absolutely fundamental to the ‘truth’ of our being. Furthermore, because it is usually thought of as a truth – with ‘truths’ often being imagined as fixed and unchanging – sexual identity comes to be seen as fixed, unchanging and biologically given. While sexuality has been significant to the making of a wider public world, its role in certainsocial fields has simultaneously been downplayed through its treatment as an inner and private matter.
The workshop seeks to position sexualities within a wide range of changing social, cultural and political contexts so as to better understand its shifting and unstable meanings.
Some of the themes and issues that can be explored are:
Among other things, the workshop seeks to explore relationships between the ‘mainstream’ and its others, in order that we might problematise the making of sexual norms. If cultures of sexuality are to be seen for what they are – unstable, contested, and in flux – then it is important to juxtapose different kinds of sexual claims. What are the contexts for the emergence of discourses – rights based, legal, cultural etc. – of non-heterosexual cultures India? What is the relationship between different forms of urban politics and LGBTI issues? It becomes important, then, to explore why it is that we talk about sexuality at this moment in time in the ways that we do. And further, why are histories of sexuality important to the present?
This interdisciplinary seminar encourages contributions from scholars from different disciplines working across a range of contexts, utilizing diverse methodologies to understand the contested field of sexualities. It seeks to build the grounds for an understanding of sexuality in India over the long term and also of its relationship with modernity in its different aspects.
The first day of the conference ‘Sexuality and Society in India’ organised at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, began with the Director of the Institute, Prof. Chetan Singh, delivering a welcome speech. He highlighted on the considerable amount of research growing around the social and cultural aspects of sexuality. There is a need to understand where we are located today, he said. Prof. Singh, being a historian himself, delivered a comprehensive illustration of the dynamics around the Mughal harem which was an authorised and a legitimate space for the expressions of sexuality, which accommodated the normal, as well as the alternate, the sober as well as active women inside, while the eunuchs guarded it from outside.
After the inaugural speech by the Director, Convenor Dr. Sanjay Srivastava gave a schematic introduction to sexuality studies and its importance across a range of disciplines. It was interesting to note that even with a bit of silence always around the talk of sexuality, how pervasive the study of sexuality has been. Studies around sexuality had an interesting beginning in India when Sexology as a medical discourse came up in Maharashtra in order to enrich the sexual lives of the richer people there. For the middle class however, the discourse developed around family planning. He spoke about the significance of looking at caste, class, tribe and nation through their sexual culture.
There have been various approaches to engage with sexuality, the Marxist approach, the Psychoanalytic approach and the Feminist approach, to name a few. All these approaches mark an entry into looking at the social rather than the biological. Dr. Srivastava argued that it is necessary to ask specifically about ‘Indian sexuality’ rather than asking what is Indian about sexuality. Most of the contemporary debates around LGBTI identities propose that they are western identities, which has become part of the contemporary sexual identity in India. Along with the colonial construct around Indian sexuality there has also been a sufficient labelling of sexual ‘categories’ by the NGOs like ‘MSM’s. Sexual violence is an important context in the politics of sexuality. He argued that the manner in which we look at rape today is also problematic. The notion that ‘rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman’ is also looking at rape from a man’s perspective. There are many such questions around sexuality and the construction of it that one must look into, and Dr Srivastava ended by saying that the papers in this seminar suggest that we will be able to think about these questions more.
Session I: Non-Heteronormative Sexualities
The first session of the conference was chaired by Prof Muraleedharan Tharayil and the first speaker was Dr. Brinda Bose, Professor of English at Delhi University who presented a paper on ‘Queer Matriarchies: Hijra Intimacies and Inheritances’. Dr Bose began her paper with quoting a judgement passed by the Supreme Court on 18th September 1979 following the transgenders’ demand of a legal recognition of their gender identity than the one assigned to them. There is a custom among eunuchs that the property of a deceased can be transferred only to a hijra (through adopted kinship) and not anybody outside. Her paper focused on thinking about patterns of kinship mainly through the guru-chela relationship in the hijra community. This thought points to a new understanding of non-normative family structures. Bose here referred to the fire incident that happened in New Delhi in November, 2011 in a hijra settlement where fifteen transgender people died after which Chief Minister Sheila Dixit announced compensatory money to the ‘next of kin’.
Sexuality and capital have a very interesting relationship. Sexualities are usually constituted outside the political economy. The queer body threatens to undermine the system by her non-normativeness. In the case of hijras, capital and sexuality go hand in hand. Bose also referred to the entry of hijras into education and the question regarding whether they should be allowed under the OBC category. As with all other quotas, there is also the danger of misusing this particular quota or creating confusion around processes that determine it. However, the very act of announcing a reserved quota under the OBC category for the hijras and the breaking of gender binaries is a laudable advance in the nation-state.
There was a vibrant discussion after the presentation where many questions were raised. Rajeev Kumaramkandath questioned on the methodological part, arguing that there are substantial differences between guru-chela relationships across the country. Bose defended her argument saying that this is not a homogenous concept at all. She has looked at a state where legalities are homogenously applied to which the community itself is resisting. Charu Gupta said that given the current political scenario where certain kinds of questions are being raised by the ministry, there is need to differentiate between the many categories constructed around sexuality. Kiran Keshavamurthy referred to the ‘Autobiography of Revathy’ and said that there is the need to complicate the relation between gender and sexual orientation. There are possibilities of having intimacies between the hijras themselves, which is why many of them have biologically male partners.
The second speaker of the day was Sutanuka Bhattacharya and her paper was titled ‘Of Genders and the Flesh: Trans-bodies as Site of New (Gender-Sexual) Possibilities’. In this paper she mainly looked at the model of two genders/sexes that are enforced on everyone, including on transgender people. The popular notion holds that even trans-men or women will adhere to one fixed gender of being either a man or woman. It points to situating of two extreme gender-spectrums- male and female and restricting them in such watertight compartments. In this broad context of how trans-experiences are understood in India, the speaker attempted to explore the possibilities of (re)thinking trans-experiences beyond the binary sex/gender model in the paper. She raised important questions like how do the sexed bodies of transgender persons get played out when they embody the other gender. The speaker asked a pertinent question that how does one identify a true transgender person? She referred to the verdict passed on 14th April 2014 where transgender persons were legally recognised as the ‘third gender’. Sex-reassignment was popularised by the medico as a cure for trans-sexualism. The underlying meaning is that there is an option only to choose between two genders and two body types. Another very important issue which came up in her paper was whether the transgender people were actually in favour of sex-change to embody the other gender or not. It is not enough to just physically look like a woman, it is also required to be one, along with her vagina and her breasts which are sites of violence as well as politics. What does it mean for the transgender to do gender while their bodies remain beyond the two gendered bodies.
The discussion that followed deliberated around anxieties regarding labelling. The labelling of LGBTIQ by the media has categorised sexualities all the more, which was basically the point of departure for trans-people. The speaker ended the discussion by arguing that transgenders make meanings of their own bodies. There is definitely a bigger context, but there is a necessity to listen to how transgender people configure and re-configure their sense of body-knowledge.
The last paper of the session, titled ‘Queering Marriage: Temporality, Events and Ethico-Politics’ was delivered by Geethika Bapna from Delhi School of Economics. In this paper she questioned the very bases of the anthropological universality of both heterosexual marriage and queer intimate bonds. Thinking of heterosexual marriage and a queer relatedness, she attempted to analyse the entirety of marriage and to see whether the heterosexual imaginary that founds discussions of marriage constitutes the definition of it. Also, in the everyday ‘doing’ of marriage, how much of it has a queer relatedness. She has looked at the evocation of ‘death’ as propounded by American anthropologist John Borneman (1996) in relation to the dominant notion of till ‘death do us apart’ in heterosexual marriages. The very thought of ‘till death do us apart’ in a marriage points toward perpetuity and reproduction, whereas other forms of intimate sociality point toward more open-ness.
Bapna here spoke of the concept of ‘nibhana’(to keep a promise against odds, to fulfill) around which marriage is centred. Marriage is also about affective value of ideas and an ethico-politics of two. In this context she spoke about the queer relatedness in marriage and the heterosexual imaginary attached to it. Bapna argued in the paper that an account of the ‘doing of queer’ shows the painful difficulty of moving towards a singularity of homosexual ethos (contra Borneman) and it appears that the heterosexual symbolic organization cannot be completely disavowed in queer relatedness. Thus even as the parody finds an autonomous embodied performative life in the subject’s narrative, the heterosexual does not disappear. She ended the paper with suggesting a scope of horizontality that may emerge where homosexual and heterosexual marriages will merge.
A discussion followed the presentation of the paper where Bapna responded to the notion of linear temporality, arguing that the queer is based in the temporality, interacting with laws and especially when homosexual marriages do not have a history. Also, while thinking of open-ness in marriage the concept of ‘lesbian gatbandhan’ arises in relation to ‘till death do us apart’ as constitutive of heterosexual marriages. To questions regarding adultery in heterosexual marriages and why open-endedness in held to be constitutive only of homosexual marriages, Bapna responded by arguing that clearly there are multiplicities, but there is a way in which one can confirm a certain category. It is only at the level of metanymic that the two levels are being brought together.
Session II: Understanding Sexuality through Historical Time
The second session was chaired by Anup Dhar and the first paper in this session was by Rashida Parveen from NIT, Rourkela. Her paper was titled ‘Changing Dimensions of Virginity and Chastity: Reading Women’s Petitions in Imperial India’. The prime focus of the paper was to survey and examine pre-independence juridical documents such as women’s petitions from 1900-1947 that translate issues of chastity and morality of colonial India to represent itself in the Imperial court of law. Parveen in her presentation had attempted to explore subaltern voices in juridical literature. She strongly feels that such an insight would provide a new direction to women’s questions in contemporary India. The speaker went back to 1852 when consent was considered immaterial for girls below ten years. It was a time when early marriages were rampant and the ambiguity of the law became evident with such practices. Feminine honour was based on virginity. It was taken for granted that there is eternal consent of sex for married women. Parveen mentioned Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code where penetration is sufficient for rape. Though definitions of rape have undergone changes over the years, little has changed when it comes to the real meanings around it. Because the proving or disproving of the fact is based entirely on the woman’s credibility, there is constant questioning of the woman on the basis of her changing story. Parveen spoke about how ‘virginity’ and ‘chastity’ are given priority even beyond their existence. The paper argued that the legal site has provided neo-definitions to the modern concept of gender equality.
In the discussion that followed, Sanjay Srivastava discussed how difficult it was for women to prove their chastity. On one hand they were not supposed to talk about their virginity, and on the other, they were also not aware of the English legal terms that were used in court rooms. There would automatically be gaps between the narratives that the women expressed in their language and what reached the lawyers. There was constructive discussion on the politics of language in court rooms and police stations.
The second paper in the session titled ‘Tracing Bengali Masculinity through Advertisements in the 20th Century: Crises or Continuity’, was presented by Sayantani Sur, Ph.D scholar from Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. The speaker attempted to examine the advertisements against a socio-political history of Bengal and Bengali masculinity and thereby to connect it with a discourse on morality and consequently sexuality. It is through advertisements of a particular period that she analysed notions of masculinity and de-masculinity. The speaker used three categories of analysis: Age, Paradoxes of Virility and Socio-Political History. While elucidating the first category, she mentioned the Sharda Act which puts the boy-child under state protection. Meanings of childhood and boyhood are constructed through such mechanisms. Organisation and re-organisation of Bengali masculinity is an extension of this process. Under the second category ‘Paradox of Virility’, she spoke about the popularity that birth control movements gained with the introduction of potency pills and love potion in order to restore semen. The third category which looked at socio-political history recognised the lack of physical strength and virility. The given notion was that solving sexual problems would solve other forms of bodily, mental and political shortcomings.
With the beginning of the 20th century one witnessed the crisis and struggle of the Bengali bhadralok community amidst economic depression and unemployment. There was an overall sense of lack, constant influx of refugees, famine and blackmarketeering of food and cloth. Advertisements of 1930s-1950s reflected this sense of crisis. The advertisements for sexual pills followed three basic categories as drawn by Sur, first, physiological and bodily, second, pathological (sleeplessness and sexual weakness) and third, fiercely erotic. Most advertisements revolved around oldness or excesses of youth. Parallely these informed other issues like the health of the nation. In the advertisements of the 1950s-1970s, the size, shape and nature of sex tonics changed. Sexual health shifted to an overall sense of good health. Old health came to be associated with de-masculinisation. Along with this there was a transformation in the political scenario in Bengal. With the emergence of the Left Movement in the 1970s, as Charu Mazumdar proclaimed, there was the ‘rise of the new men’. Sur argued here that the idea of continuity was inherent in crisis.
In the following discussion, Navaneetha Maruthur questioned the technicalities while reading advertisements. Charu Gupta mentioned that the crises of masculinity shifted from the colonial to the Naxal period, while advertisements offered a fantasy realm to the supposed loss of masculinity. Anup Dhar asked whether it was advertisements shaping Bengali masculinity or was it the other way round. Sanjay Srivastava remarked that it would be interesting to note the material positioning of the advertisements, as in which kinds of advertisements followed these, especially if they were religious advertisements.
Dr. Charu Gupta, Prof of History at Delhi University presented the third paper in this session, titled ‘Innocent’ Victims/‘Guilty’ Migrants: Sexuality, Caste and Indentured Women in Colonial North India’. In this paper she examined the intersections of caste, gender, sexuality and nation by scrutinising the gendered language and idioms in which the anti-indenture campaign came to be framed in early 20th century, which revealed new ways of strengthening national claims over women’s bodies, their labour and sexuality. The paper focused on demonstrating how sexuality, family and nation took on different contours in anti-indenture politics, while also highlighting the contradictory effects of the social reform of gender by nationalist middle class women and men. It was Gokhale first who associated women with indenture. There was a connection drawn between sexual degradation and indenture with potential women migrants seen as prostitutes in the making.
Any expression of non-conjugal female sexuality was seen by them as the highest form of moral degeneration that indentured women had succumbed to. However, as Gupta suggested, for the single Dalit woman it was an attempt to disrupt the neat folding of the self and personhood into the collective. These personal and intimate histories not only show how Dalit women at times stood as individual subjects, following their distinct trajectories, embodying their needs and desires, but also how they implicitly questioned stereotypes of sexualities and caste hierarchies through accounts of intensely material realities. During the discussion, Gupta claimed that the labouring identity had been marginalised and that it was always the sexualised identity that dominated. Indenture was then identified as slavery, as it was very exploitative. To a question on whether it was ever the choice of the woman to migrate, Gupta responded by saying that women did want to migrate, almost to falsify their homes, coming out of their own free will to work. They were always not fooled by men, their choice as an agency also worked many times.
The last speaker of this session was Salma Farooqi, Professor at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, who presented a paper on ‘Understanding Sexuality through Historical Time: The Art of Mughal Painting’. The paper was an attempt to analyze the development of painting as an art form in Mughal India by taking into account how definite departures had to be made from the Shariah in order to fulfill the objectives of the State and to make the political process more inclusive. The time frame that the speaker looked at was 1526-1707 AD, from Babur to Aurangzeb. The Mughals were the representatives of the Safavids of Persia and had brought with them their own language, art and architecture. However, over a period of time, as a result of the continuous inter-mingling with the Hindu culture, there was a distinct metamorphosis of artistic and cultural forms yielding place to those that were Indian in spirit. The paper was read along with the display of some paintings from the time that she looked at.
The Mughals had always encouraged painting. The form depended mainly on Royal patronage, as the painting of human forms was not permitted by orthodox Muslims. Mughal paintings over reigns developed themes such as Chinese landscapes, epic and romance, flora and fauna, battle scenes, birth scenes and still life gradually making way for tempered romantic, sophisticated portraits of royal and noble men and women. The Mughals’ swaying away from the orthodox Sharia was also evident form the nature of names that they kept for their children. Their names were symbols of sexuality and beauty rather than religious piety, for example, Jahanara, Roshanara, Dildara, Gulbadan, instead of Khadeeja, Fatima and so on. Jehangir took more interest in art than Akbar. Farooqi elucidated how the former’s paintings instead of being crowded with depictions of battlefields and wars had more of romance. Natural themes were also regularly used, like flowers, beasts, clouds, and real life drawings. Shah Jahan took more interest in architecture. There was a profusion of gold, lavish embellishment and splendour in the post-Akbar era. Sadly, lots of political reasons led art to decline during Aurangzeb’s time. However, the Mughals never introduced moral or puritanical symbols in their art.
In the following discussion, Farooqi argued that the paintings used to be largely an expression of what the Mughals wanted to keep as memory. The ideology behind the art was liberal-minded. However, no man-to-man or woman-to-woman relationship was depicted in Muslim art. Pradipta Mukherjee brought up the reference of Kunal Basu’s ‘The Miniaturist’ where there were Bizad’s homo-erotic paintings on himself and Akbar. Sanjay Srivastava said that it is important to make a difference between sensuality and sexuality.
Session III: Sexuality and Culture
This session was chaired by Charu Gupta, Professor of History at Delhi University. The first paper of the second day was delivered by Dr. Arunima Deka from OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati, and her paper was titled ‘Women and their Bodies: menstruation and the Construction of Sexuality’. Within a larger discursive realm, this paper sought to analyse the connection of sexuality to its socio-historical context and see how it is socially constructed. It attempted to problematize sexuality in the context of menstrual practices in Assamese society and specifically dealt with the socio-cultural construction of menstrual practices.
Deka spoke about the Ambubachi mela which happens in Assam every year in June in the Kamakshya temple. An important aspect of women’s lives is menstruation and the onset of puberty is seen as a stage toward prospective motherhood. Celebratory announcing of menarche is a manifestation of patriarchal relation of power and also a means of controlling the fertility of women. Its symbolic terrain can be traced to the origin and consolidation of myths around mother goddess Kamakshya and the ritualistic practices performed at the site of worship. Thus the speaker discussed how female sexuality is addressed in society and the entire power discourse around it, as both sexuality and menstruation are tied to relations of power. There is also a cultural implication attached to this which considers women as inferior. It arises from the nature-culture divide where nature symbolises female and culture symbolises male. The speaker argued that through this notion there is a universal devaluation of women. The body and functions attached to women make her closer to nature, and patriarchy is sustained in the cultural sphere. Women are also considered the bearer of culture through their body, marriage and motherhood. It is within this limit that sexuality is normatively defined. She concluded her paper by saying that menstruation despite being a physiological change has become a cultural phenomenon, and is used as a means of controlling the sexuality of women.
There were questions regarding the speaker’s definition and universalisation of the ‘Assamese society’. Deka defended that she is mainly referring to the lower caste Assamese Hindu society which practices ‘Tulunibiya’ (the practice of celebrating menstruation as a form of celebrating marriage beforehand). Brahmins do not practice this ritual as they anyway marry off their daughters even before they reach puberty. Ketaki Chowkhani asked about the discourse of Asha workers in this context. Sanjay Srivastava asked how she situated Kamakshya temple in other contexts. He probed about public health requirements and how the state has historically imagined the temple. Anup Dhar asked which part of menstruation dealt with sexuality and which part dealt with the reproductive, health and development question. Geethika Bapna talked about looking at pockets across India where menstruation is celebrated differently.
The second paper of the day titled ‘Sexual Realism? Ambivalences and the (Hetero) Sexual Excess of Social Realism’, was presented by Rajeev Kumaramkandath, Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. It was an attempt to understand how forms of desire and its depiction occupied the centre of public debates around the 1930s and 1940s in Kerala. Looking at the cultural politics involved in the production and reception of two main texts- Five Bad Stories (1945) and Voices (1947)- from authors of realism, the paper foregrounded what continuities and ruptures this space marked from the erstwhile ‘Social Reform’ era. These two texts had been part of Malayalam literature during the Progressive Literature Movement and the attempt on the part of authors to democratise subjectivities outside caste and class combinations also touched upon desire outside its normatively assigned position. The paper focused on the portrayal of homosexuality in these texts and the mapping of the discussions and debates it inaugurated in the local vernacular domains. There were conscious efforts to democratise desire and move beyond hetero-normativity. This also included depicting lives of women folk. The question of articulating sexual desire through literature came up and the speaker discussed the role of literature in transforming society at the end of 1940s. A difference was drawn between good stories and bad stories. This introduction to homosexuality in literature was taken as the invention of obscenity in literature, and questions were raised on the excessive focus on sex. Hostility against same-sex desire came out in full form ever since it was published. There were two major shifts with the emergence of social realism- continuity and rupture. The jeering criticisms against the depiction of non-heterosexual desire in literature coincided with the emerging anxieties of nation building and constructing a moral code for the society to follow.
In the discussion that followed the presentation, Muraleedharan Tharayil asked whether at all the novel can be treated as one on homosexuality, as the protagonist when finds out that the person he had thought was a woman and had loved was actually a man, he feels extreme repulsion and hatred. Charu Gupta remarked that even if a text brings out homophobia, it stands to the fact that it has come out in public. Kiran Keshava talked about how some say that if they are progressive then they do not want to talk about sexuality at all. They say that one should talk about labour, class and so on. It is not important to make the personal, political. Anirban Das asked that allegations of pornographic charges are also thrown at hetero-normative texts, so is it possible to relate them to those made at texts on alternative sexualities? Uma asked which public is constructing the ‘public’? Is a private reception of the novel different from when it is introduced in the public?
The last paper of this session titled ‘Resistance to Media Representations of Women’s Sexuality in Indian Cinema’ was presented by Dr. Pradipta Mukherjee from Vidyasagar College for Women, Kolkata. The paper attempted to look at how media images of women in performance are framed and later reconstructed, and offered insights in understanding how films have attempted to redefine femininity, sexuality and masculinity in the changing context of postmodernity and a post global consumer culture. The films that were discussed in the paper were Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008), Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrinalini (2010) Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture (2011) and Bhandarkar’s Heroine (2012). The speaker read the female actress’ body as a text and sought to analyse how the body is stigmatized by gendered and sexualized significations in order to justify normative power structures. The external agency that seeks to control the woman’s sexuality or the representations of it is symbolised by the media in this context. As a socio-cultural text, films subvert stereotypes. The meanings and notions around pleasure constructed in an entertainment industry are dominated by men. Women in these films that are constantly spoken of are themselves inaudible. The media dictates how these women are to be looked at. It perpetuates an aspiration among the public. The speaker also illustrated how photography acted as a powerful mechanism to re-inscribe sexuality to a ‘failed actress’ and the desperation of the actress to get photographed by that ‘famous photographer’ whose photograph would bear the credibility of re-instating her sexuality. The speaker said that it is important for the glamour world to give women their true worth and appreciate their inner talent.
During the discussion that ensued, there were suggestions of looking at Silk from an alternate point of view and not the male point of view. It was argued that it amounts to making enemies out of men and all differences have the threat of becoming hierarchical. It has the risk of becoming an overarching totalistic conception.
Session IV : Psychoanalysis
This session was chaired by Esha Shah, Fellow at IIAS, Shimla and the first paper of this session was presented by Dr. Anup Dhar from Ambedkar University, New Delhi. The title of the paper was ‘Politics of Prop Roots: Beyond the ‘Confessions of the Flesh’ and ‘The Repressive Hypothesis’. The speaker began his paper by declaring that the paper is not on ‘sexualities’ but it is on ‘sexuality’. It is on the Other histories of sexuality and not on histories of Other sexuality. It is an attempt to study the quite recent notion of sexuality where the recentness is neither to be underestimated, nor over-interpreted. He sought to analyse three sets of prop root problematisations of psychoanalysis introduced by Bose, Lacan and Irigaray.
The paper talked about the complex relationship between Christianity and the notion of sexuality in psychoanalysis. The speaker asked whether what he has called ‘prop root notions’ (or Banyan Vine notions as against the main trunk and the support tree) form an interconnected network of (alternative) genealogies of the subject or of technologies/cultures of the self across East and West, across pre-modern and critical modern contexts? Under the metaphor of the banyan tree, the support tree referred to here is Christian morality while the main trunk is psychoanalysis. The paper also deliberated upon a self-reflection moment on what can be called the sexuality movement. When the ‘other’ lacks, the Other is in crisis and also when the ‘other’ covers up the lack. Talking about ‘recentness’, the speaker referred to the first appearance of ‘sexuality’ in the Oxford dictionary between 1850 and 1870. The rendering moral of the problematique of sexuality in Christianity was discussed. He also mentioned that Lacanian psychoanalysis focuses on sexuation, which in turn is premised upon the understanding that each person is each other’s unconscious other. In this context he mentioned Girindra Shekhar Bose and Irigaray (erotics of the surface).
In the discussion that followed, Arunima Chakraborty asked about the concept of sexuation. Dhar responded that sexuation is a window of liberation. It is the marking of the sex-subject as spectral, it deals with the question of mis-recognition and also that there is no such thing as a single sexual relation. The speaker defended his paper arguing that the prop root problematisation is only to problematize, re-thinking the very concept of sexuality.
The second paper of the session was presented by Arunima Chakraborty from Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, Kolkata, and was titled ‘Sex-work in Phallogocentric Order: Toward a Psychoanalytic Framework’. In this paper Chakraborty tried to put forth the psychoanalytic insight about the immense influence of the original object choice on the psycho-sexual constitution of the subject and compare it to the situation of the sex worker who has to fulfill the sexual desires, or rather, needs of her customers and enact their sexual fantasies so as to approximate their sexual object choice. The primary locus of contention was the debate around whether sex-work is dehumanising or not and whether it should be abolished. There still is a huge debate over whether sex-work is legitimate or not. The pro sex-work argument goes that it is a mere transaction of services like any other kind of work. The defenders of this argument say that workers are not abject victims, they have agencies to control their work and may demand various rights. The speaker referred to Swati Ghosh, Janaki Nair, Mary E. John and Rajeshwari Sunderajan regarding sex as work and labour. It is at this point at which the speaker brought in the framework of psychoanalysis to answer questions regarding whether for the sex worker ‘work violates herself’ as argued by Swati Ghosh.
Departing from Freud’s concept of the Oedipal Complex and the Castration Complex, Chakraborty drew the argument of the ‘female side’ of the two. For the anatomical female, castration complex compels her to relinquish the mother as the primary object of desire and it starts the ‘female form’ of the Oedipus Complex in which now having realized that she is castrated, she turns away from the mother and starts desiring the father. The speaker’s contention was that the realization that the mother does not possess the phallus (which in the pre-oedipal stage, the child assumes it possesses and shares with the mother) is the first step towards integration into the patriarchal order. Chakraborty argued that the subject’s psychic history gets reflected in her sexual object choice. The speaker held that she finds that there is little scope for the prostitute subject to approximate the proto-type of her object-choice, yet she has to return to the site where the lack is so glaring over and over again. This, she contended, causes trauma for the sex worker.
In the discussion that followed, Brinda Bose enquired about the role of pleasure in sex work, which has been documented to exist in some cases. Charu Gupta demanded for a problematisation of ‘trauma’. She said that there is a need to place it in a larger feminist framework. Anirban Das defended the speaker arguing that it is a structural notion of trauma that Chakraborty is attempting to look at. Anup Dhar talked about a semblance of choice. Sex work opens our being to a non-choice or non-knowledge, which maybe in our legalised every-day we do not need to face. In the case of the sex worker the client walks in and unleashes an unknown which is qualitatively different. Uma remarked that tribals and dalits are often forced into this work and how can one talk of pleasure when so many, including children are forced into it completely against their wishes.
Session V: Sexuality and Regional Cultures
This session was chaired by Prof Anirban Das from Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, Kolkata. The first paper in this session was delivered by Ketaki Chowkhani from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and her paper was titled ‘Adolescents and Sexuality Education: Understanding Adolescent Sexuality, Masculinity, Sexual Knowledge and Romance’. This paper talked about the need for a critical engagement with sexuality education. The prevalent debates on adolescent sexuality are only around the issue of health. They are framed from an interventionist perspective, a behaviourist perspective, or a health and moral depravities perspective (prevention of HIV AIDS, population control and teenage pregnancy, drug abuse) and fail to borrow from the vast scholarship on sexuality that queer theory, feminism, post-colonial studies and cultural studies have produced. It is necessary to understand the adolescent lived experiences of sexuality. This paper was based on retrospective narratives of seven people between the age of 18 and 30 years who talk about their memories of adolescence and related sexuality. By examining adolescents’ sexual and romantic lives, the speaker attempted to see how this could be used to think about sexuality education that is embedded in young people’s experiences and not adult perspectives on how sexuality education should be taught.
The primary questions that she looked into are what are their notions of sexuality and networks of information about sexuality? What discourse of sexuality do adolescents subscribe to? Is their view normative, or do they transgress? What are the kinds of media texts, electronic texts, literature, cinema or pornography that adolescents consume? How does this consumption construct their understandings about the sexual act and about sexuality, and more specifically about notions of romance, conjugality, marriage, intimacy, gender constructions, heterosexual relationships or homosexuality? What kind of ‘sexual knowledge’ do they have access to? What do the adolescent sexual and romantic relationships tell us about adolescent sexuality and their negotiations with dominant ideas of romance and love?
Kiran Keshava initiated the discussion after the presentation. He said that the same sample would give a different response if they belonged to a boarding school. They would probably have more knowledge of same-sex intimacies, through a bodily sense. He asked the speaker about the curiosity that the boys in her sample carried regarding the opposite sex. Shraddha asked how one could detach gender and sex education.
The second speaker of the session was Dr. Navaneetha Maruthur, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and she presented a paper on ‘Mobilising the Spectral Lesbian: On Sexuality and Subjectivity’. Her paper attempted to analyze the political mobilization on ‘lesbian suicides’ from the late 1990s in Kerala. Following the reports of a number of lesbian suicides, there has been an attempt in Kerala, after all the gay and lesbian rights movements that took place there, to make lesbian lives a subject of politics and lesbian suicides became a rallying point for inaugurating this new discourse. Maruthur sought to pursue the following questions in this paper. What does it mean to produce a discourse around lesbian sexuality that has at its centre the event of suicide and the spectres of women whose lives could have been saved? What is the impetus behind the recording of the lives of two women who are beyond the pale of any politics? What are the narrative tropes through which the lesbian as a figure surfaces in the public sphere of post-90s Kerala? The paper was based on the study of a collection of interviews on one particular case of lesbian suicide, conducted by an activist group Sahayathrika (Co-traveller), published in the anthology Beyond Myths: Homosexuality in Kerala (2004). The interviews were held with the members of the community who were associated with the women who died. The inference of the paper was founded upon a close reading of the form and content of the oral narratives and a meta-critical analysis of the politics of conducting and publishing these interviews.
The speaker suggested that the ‘lesbian’ as a mobilizable figure haunts the public sphere of Kerala and that it is necessary to examine this process of haunting to understand the complexities of sexual politics. She has consciously stayed away from more purposive verbs like ‘emerge’ or ‘appear’, and had used the term ‘haunt’ because the lesbian is a figure that inhabits the shadow zones between visibility and invisibility and is constructed through multiple mediations. This paper explored how the discourse on lesbian suicides in Kerala re-envisions the central paradigms of sexuality studies– the agential subject and the politics of visibility, to foreground the workings of inter-subjectivity and spectrality in marginal life-worlds.
In the resulting discussion, Muraleedharan Tharayil commented on the objective behind activism, which amounts to selling it to a larger public. He said that this case was foregrounded as it happened in a tribal colony. Sutanuka Bhatthachrya interestingly talked about lesbian double suicides and single suicides, and the different kinds of meanings that are read into each one of them. Uma asked a pertinent question of what the difference was between homo-suicides and hetero-suicides. Geethika Bapna thought about the woman as a subject and how the feminine gets associated with the metaphor of death.
The last paper in this session was by Muraleedharan Tharayil, professor at St. Aloysius College, Thrissur. This paper was titled ‘Gender, Sexuality and the Region’. He had attempted to extend the dialectics between sexuality and the nation and engage with the notion of region as well, as it is another geo-political discursive construction that has comparable investments in the imaginations of identity. The speaker argued that bringing the category of the region into the critical evaluations of gender and sexuality could throw new light on the complexities of the evolving polarization of sexualities and identities in contemporary India. He said that the idea of region is theoretically and politically fictionalised along with the evolution of the national discourse. He sought to transcend the national-region binary and explored the different ways in which the unconventional sexual romantic has elaborated to write the region.
For this paper he had looked at eight short stories in Malayalam from three distinct periods in the recent Malayalam history. The first three stories were written between 1947 and 1977. During this period there is a shift from feudal economy to a society based on gulf-based service sector. With the second set of stories written between 1980 and 2000, an international image is created for Kerala. The third set of stories that the speaker had looked at were between 2000 and 2010 and the stories were chosen as categorisation of the Queer literature. The first writer that he looked at was Madhavikutty (1934-2009). It was about a woman in love with another woman. The second writer was Pattathuvila Karunakaram (1925-1988) who wrote ‘A Bourgeois (Male) Friend’. The third writer mentioned was M.P. Narayana Pillai (1939-1992). His story was ‘Murugan, the Snake Charmer’ which was published in 1964. Kamala Das (1934-2009) was the author of the fourth story he mentioned, whose story ‘Sandal Trees’ came out in 1992. The next author he looked at was P. Valsala who wrote ‘A World without Bheema or Dushyanth’ in 1995. The sixth writer was P. Shankaranarayanan whose ‘Lallu’ came out in 2000. The seventh author was K.R. Meera, born in 1970 who wrote the story ‘Coming Out’ which was published in 2004. The last author which Tharayil mentioned was Pramod Raman, whose stories were ‘Ten Steps of the Endangered’ (2008) and ‘A Severed Fragment of Life’ (2009).
The discussion that followed had Charu Gupta asking how these stories spoke about Kerala as a region. The same stories could have been in any other socio-cultural setting, not necessarily Kerala. Anirban Das argued that just because they are written in Malayalam did not mean they were talking about the region. Anup Dhar asked how these stories created a space. He gave examples of certain films that create Kolkata and Bombay as cities. Tharayil defended his paper by arguing that he has looked at region as a process where the region is constantly changing.
Session VI: Sexuality in Indian Literature: Ancient to Modern
The last session of the seminar was chaired by Dr. Brinda Bose, Professor of English at Delhi University. The first paper in this session was delivered by Dr. Kiran Kesavamurthy from Centre for Studies of Social Sciences, Kolkata. His paper was titled ‘Between Desire and Politics in Tanjai Prakash’s Fiction’. The speaker focused on his novel Karamuntar Vutu (Karamuntar House, 1998) which draws attention to the renewed culture of intimacy and violence between two caste groups– the Kallars and the Pallars– that has historically characterized their relations in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Kesavamurthy has attempted to historically locate the shifting understanding to what constitutes sexual or transgression. He sought to- through this novel- explore the sensual possibilities of desire which are not exhausted or limited to sexual act. The novel is set amidst the context of inter-caste conflicts across several castes and classes. It does not portray upper class dalits and non-dalits as monolithic. The focus lay on the power of the subaltern- the woman deploying seduction toward an upper caste man
A discussion followed after the paper where Charu Gupta asked whether there is a romanticisation of the Dalit woman’s labouring body which in one way sublimates the desire. She said that more than desire the idea of intimacy can perhaps disrupt boundaries between private-public, between castes and so on. She remarked that it is one kind of articulation of desire between upper caste women and lower caste men and it becomes very different the moment the combination is reversed. Rajeev Kumaramkandath asked how the novel could mediate between the context and the reader. Tharayil enquired that where the novel is so much about caste where does the authorial voice locate himself?
The second paper titled ‘Negotiating Structural Inequalities– The Case of Marriage, Sexuality and Domesticity in Mridula Garg’s Chittcobra’, presented by Bharati Arora from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, focused on the discourses around sexuality and intimacy within and without the institution of marriage. The paper highlighted how the gendered biases endorsed by the family-community and nation-continuum negate other modes of identifying relationships, and how concerns of sexuality that may rest on mediation of lived experience and individual subjectivities become so pertinent to “constructing new modes of politics and identity in post-independence India”. The paper was divided into three sections. The first section mapped the gendered contexts of the nation, especially in relation to marriage and reproductive heterosexuality, including a reference to some of the key debates on the institution of the Hindu Code Bill (1955-56). The second section explored how upper caste/middle class married women’s sexuality is often appropriated by a sense of ownership by husband, as well as domestic constraints. The third section foregrounded a woman writer’s vision toward reforming the post-independence gendered habitus.
Arora problematised the seemingly innocent concepts like love and intimacy within marriage, aligning them with the economic and cultural, socio-legal structures of society and by extension the nation. She argued that women’s issues, their sexuality and any theorization of their agency cannot be understood as separate from social issues but they are integrally related to the meta-narrative of power relations– state, family, kinship, tradition, community- affecting women on the one hand and other marginalised sections of society on the other. The speaker said that the author proposes, through the character of Manu, that it is possible to conceive female sexuality outside the strictures of marriage and not merely as a site for contested expressions of both tradition and modernity (where it is constantly measured on a scale of morality, impinged by factors like shame and honour).
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