"Why can't we live such lives!": Practices of reading and identity making amongst colonial Bengal bhadramahilas

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


From the late nineteenth century, colonial Bengal was the center of a vivid debate on the status of Indian women, which informed several reform proposals. To counterattack the British assumption of Indian women’s conditions as indicator of Indian backwardness, Bengali middle-class intellectuals, i.e. the bhadraloks, promoted female education. This aimed at creating the perfect female counterpart of the bhadralok, the bhadramahila: literate enough to be a pleasant intellectual companion for her husband, well-versed in traditional feminine skills like cooking and sewing, overall respectable and chaste.
Though still replicating the traditional patriarchy, female education allowed young bhadramahilas to leave the private space of the antahpur to step, both physically and intellectually, into the public space of colleges. However, the public sphere was traditionally male-dominated, and female students often found themselves as subalterns to their male peers. This became clear in relation to nationalism: young bhadramahilas were relegated to secondary tasks, and acted only under the control of male tutors.
However, bhadramahilas were not keen on returning to their traditional passive role, and sought a way to actively participate into nationalism without compromising their respectability. They found enabling alternative female models in novels and non-fictional accounts. As Bina Das, a bhadramahila turned terrorist, recounted, Bengali schoolgirls would organize informal reading clubs in “secluded corners” of colleges to discuss of, and dream about their literary heroes. These safe and female-only spaces allowed bhadramahilas to develop patriotism free from patronizing or belittling comments from their male peers, and without endangering their respectability by acting openly in the public space.
Through the analysis of some primary sources, like bhadramahila activists’ memoirs, and Bengali novels, as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Pather Dabi, this paper will argue that reading together was not only a bonding activity overreaching restricted household ties, but also a way for young Bengali girls to self-fashion a new identity comprising nationalism and traditional femininity.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 8 Jun 2022
EventCambridge Cultural History Workshop - Cambridge, United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Jun 2022 → …


WorkshopCambridge Cultural History Workshop
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period8/06/22 → …


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