Once published, these autobiographies were disseminated among the reforming elite and worked to consolidate companionate marriage under the undisputed leadership of the husband. This stage of social history has been has plotted for us in the last two decades by feminist scholars with great skill. What has been less well explored is the underside of this process: the valorisation of the reformed and modernised Hindu household, the subject of women’s autobiographies, had its discontents . This was evident primarily through the figure of the widow who disrupted the neatness of the reforming Pygmalion and the child-wife wherein the husband led his pliant wife to occupy her due place as the mistress of his heart and the queen of his household. Not surprisingly the voices of the widows were submerged in the rhetoric of conjugality as were the voices of others who critiqued the shallowness of modern husbands who had no real investment in the recasting women project, content to have acquired the accoutrements of modernity without its substance. which Tarabai Shinde did so forcefully, but was attacked so viciously that she never wrote anything else ever again.
I want to shift the focus in this paper from women’s writing, even as I continue to draw upon it, to focus on Pandita Ramabai and her use of the photograph to document women’s non-conjugal existence, the redefining—even the subversion—of the family that happens through the photograph. Moving away from the husband-wife photograph which ultimately became the visible symbol of new conjugality in the 19th century (and continues to dot our drawing rooms to this day, proudly displayed by families as necessary symbols of the modern household) Ramabai rewrote even the ‘happy family’ photograph, as she used the camera to capture the battered conditions under which child wives/widows arrived at her doorstep. Sometimes she coupled them with pictures taken years later, showing the transformations in the persona of the girls who had spent a few years in the Sharada Sadan, her home for widows.
Among the most striking pictures are various photographs of her post-famine extended family—hundreds of widows in one picture and hundreds of little children in another. These amazing photographs, captured by using some technique to piece together segments of the group to make a whole at a time when the wide angle lens was not available, stunningly show us how dramatically Ramabai pressed against the boundaries of conventional thinking in her own life and work, never failing to document that process with all its dramatic intensity.
The caption tells us that the mother was a Hindu, while the elder daughter had converted to Christianity; nothing is stated of the younger daughter: either way the information seems to be irrelevant in reading the picture. All three women nestle comfortably against each other with the mother at the centre seated on a chair; the older daughter, who may have been a child widow at Sharada Sadan and been among the girls who converted to Christianity in the move that led to a furore in Poona, stands behind her with an affectionate hand over her mother’s shoulder while the younger daughter sits on the floor, also with an elbow resting on the mother’s lap.
Another one shows Mami, Ramabai’s widowed step sister-in-law who was childless and unwanted in her marital home at her new home in the Sharada Sadan with Ramabai. Mami adopted little Krupa, meaning grace, who was found abandoned on the road as a little baby. Krupa nestles by Mami’s side holding a ball, her cheek against the mother’s face, the mother’s arm around her, holding Krupa close. Mami had been the second wife of Ramabai’s step-brother, much resented for that and so Ramabai had brought her back to Poona, giving her an honoured place and a new life in the institution she set up for the ‘social pariahs and domestic drudges’ of her time. Many of these intimate portraits were clearly taken in a studio but others are taken outdoors. In one, such six young widows who are studying at the Sharada Sadan sit together in another picture taken in the Sadan grounds as a dog too sits comfortably in the picture, perfectly at home in its everyday surroundings.
This attempt at the social reproduction of what was intrinsically a shifting community of girls and women, who went in and out of Mukti Sadan, led to growing vegetables, running a dairy, spinning and weaving, and book printing among a host of other activities providing them with working skills that they could use later in life. This too she documented through a series of photographs which are quite unique for the 19th century, as these were activities that women performed outside the conventional household, which was the seat of normal reproduction: children, and its concomitant, property, to pass on for them, without which the normative family would simply die out.
How different all this was from the ideologies dominating the 19th century is well borne out by a comparison between Anandibai Joshi and Ramabai. As is well known, Anandi defended child marriage in America, wrote her husband letters referring to the violence she was subjected to by him but proceeded to express wifely sentiments, even wondering how she should greet him on his arrival in America as her American family would expect them to kiss.
She combined these new rituals to express proper conjugal sentiments with opinions she held firmly to from her early Brahmanical socialisation: caste and class boundaries that must be maintained at all times. Not surprisingly, her thesis titled ‘Obstetrics Among the Aryan Hindoos’ was on childbirth, as she hoped to practise gynaecology on her return to India and wrote her medical thesis on childbirth. Among her observations on feeding the infant if the mother is unable to do so herself, are instructions on using the services of a wet nurse. She wrote:
The wet nurse should be of the same caste and class as the child. She should have a perfect body, good complexion and a loving nature. She should be of medium height, middle age, and in good health, devoid of chronic diseases and non-covetous [in nature]…Her milk should be of good quality and flow easily. She should present a good family history…She should not nurse more than one child…Feeding on her milk the child will naturally inherit good or bad quality…to say nothing of the influence she exerts over the baby both moral and intellectual…
I am not surprised that there is an attempt to create a couple-type photo of Anandibai and her husband Gopalrao in a new book approximating to an archive on Anandibai. Her death soon after her return to India, educated but still unconverted, led to a paroxysm of emotion, almost a hysterical funeral, since she had died as a ‘sumangali’, and was photographed before the final rites. She had to be remembered as the archetypal Hindu wife. There are also a number of earlier photographs taken when Anandibai was studying to be a doctor at Philadelphia: a lovely photograph of her with two other oriental women, also studying to be doctors, and many of Anandibai wearing the sari in the Gujarati style but called the Hindustani style in contrast to the nine-yard Maharashtrian version which was cumbersome to wear in a cold climate. One of these photographs sent to Gopalrao was the subject of criticism by the husband located many thousands of miles away but still able to assert his husbandly powers of surveillance over her. Anandibai had to defend herself by evoking the argument that no harm had been done in her wearing the sari in the Hindustani style as that too was a dress of her own people!
I am certainly not surprised that there is no couple photograph of Rakmabai and her husband Dadaji given that he took his young wife, with whom his marriage had not been consummated, to court on a restitution of conjugal rights case to gain control of the considerable wealth she had inherited by a will from her father. This case came to be infamous in India since in refusing the plaint, Rakmabai challenged the validity of the marriage itself on the ground that it had been entered into when she was a minor and was in that sense non-consensual, generating mass hysteria because Rakmabai had not lived to ideal notions of Hindu conjugality. After the threat of her going to prison for failure to comply with the restitution of conjugality law had been averted through Rakmabai literally buying her freedom from Dadaji, she went on to England to become a doctor, a stage of her life for which we do have a single but beautiful photographic record. What remains intriguing is that while there is a stunning photograph of Ramabai as a young woman before she was widowed—photographed with a set of books c.1880—and there are innumerable photographs of her after she became a widow, and we also know she did use the photograph so powerfully: strategically using the widow’s garb closely wrapping herself on one occasion in America in white from head to toe, appearing almost as if she were a nun—something she never did in India, creating an image so different from the Indian prince look photograph of Vivekananda. The irony in this is not lost on us as Vivekananda launched a tirade on the materialist west which was in desperate need of eastern spirituality [we not only have a photograph of Vivekananda in this ‘garb’ but also a description of how he used velvet and gold braid to create that image!].