AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 229

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Session 229: Gendering Circles of Power: Women’s Performances of Authority in South Asia

Organizer: Melia Belli, University of Texas, Arlington, USA

Chair: Antoinette E. DeNapoli, University of Wyoming, USA

Discussants: Anne Hardgrove, University of Texas, San Antonio, USA; Susan Dewey, University of Wyoming, USA

Anthropologist of religion Susan Starr Sered suggests “…when women have opportunities to express their own…ideas and rites, themes peripheral to men’s…lives emerge as central to women’s [lives].” This panel is concerned with South Asian women’s lives and agency. Power is a nuanced and multifaceted concept that is entwined with ideas of agency. Women in South Asia have claimed power in both traditionally male dominated and normative female realms and/or idioms. The scholarly literature predominantly focuses on how men have historically claimed power and authority through divine right, politics, education, patronage, lineage, and community in South Asia. Largely omitted from this discourse are considerations of how power and authority are gendered and the contexts of their genderings. Questions this panel hopes to address are: How and in what contexts have women in South Asia claimed, created, and performed their power and authority? How and to what extent do female performances of power differ from male performances? Furthermore, what models do women draw on/from to legitimize their power? This panel proposes to gender models and contexts of power in South Asia through considerations of female philanthropy, patronage, the arts, religion and politics. While women in South Asia have succeeded to extraordinary, public positions of power, we recognize that power is also performed in ordinary and everyday circles. We welcome papers that explore women of various classes, religions, communities, and historical periods and their performances of agency.

“Performing Religious Authority and Agency among Upper Middle-Class Hindu Women in Delhi and Beyond”
Jennifer B. Saunders, Independent Scholar, USA

Scholars have begun to explore the emergence and cultural productions of India’s growing middle-class, which encompasses a range of occupations and economic statuses and wields significant influence over contemporary culture in India. A few significant scholarly works have addressed the shifting gender dynamics of this influential group, the world’s largest middle-class. This paper aims to add to this discussion by examining the religious locations and performances of authority and agency among upper middle-class women in Delhi and their sisters and daughters abroad. Based on over fourteen years of research among families and religious groups and institutions in Delhi and the United States, I argue that although urban, lay, upper middle-class women largely continue to fulfill traditional roles in the family, they also possess increasing authority and agency in religious realms beyond what has been normative for women. Much of this authority and agency is an extension of women’s leadership within traditionally gendered bhajan mandalis, puja groups, and families. The expansion of this leadership into male territory can take several forms depending on the context. For example, outside of India some women’s leadership in the home and in mixed-sex groups emerges out of necessity where fewer religious authorities are available to perform pujas and other religious ceremonies. In other contexts women’s socio-economic status and their religious knowledge and performances provide them with authority over male Brahmin temple priests. This paper will explore a range of ways in which these women’s religious performances lead to increasing authority outside of traditional female arenas.

Lineage and Legitimacy: Queen Ahilyabai Holkar’s Memorial Commissions
Melia Belli, University of Texas, Arlington, USA

Prior to Independence, Indian rulers claimed their authority from a limited range of sources, chief among them were caste, lineage, and gender. Queen Ahiliyabai Holkar (r.1766-1792) ruled the central Indian state of Indore after the deaths of her male relatives. As a female ruler from the recently established royal Maratha community, Ahiliyabai was compelled to announce her authority and secure her subjects’ loyalty through more dramatic visual methods than her royal male counterparts. Ahiliyabai was one of the most successful female rulers and most prolific architectural patrons in South Asian history. Her architectural commissions include restorations and new commissions of temples, forts, and funerary memorials throughout India. While several studies consider the politically informed architectural patronage of other pre-modern Indian rulers, Ahilibai’s commissions have been omitted from this discourse. This paper focuses on Ahiliyabai’s earliest and most politically informed commissions: the two memorials she commissioned for her father-in-law, Malharrao Holkar. Commissioning funerary memorials was a royal prerogative and performance of authority in princely India. Due in part to her need to promote her political legitimacy, Ahiliyabai commissioned memorials for Malahr Rao that were larger and more symbolically charged than any other royal Indian memorial. This paper considers how Ahiliyabai appropriated from and ultimately surpassed earlier royal Hindu memorials to promote her recently established community and her unusual gendered position of authority in eighteenth century India.

“My Bhakti is my Power”: The Gendering of Power and Devotion in a Rajasthani Expression of Female Asceticism
Antoinette E. DeNapoli, University of Wyoming, USA

In Indian society female ascetics are seen as sacred sources of power, despite their transgression of normative gender roles. In a vernacular expression of female asceticism in the north Indian state of Rajasthan Hindu ascetics (sadhus) publicly claim and create their unusual positions of power and authority through their performances of devotion (bhakti). These performances occur in fellowship contexts of satsang, lit., “gatherings of truth,” where participants, sadhus and householders, express devotion to God. Specifically, in the practices of the female sadhus with whom I worked, devotional singing, storytelling, and textual recitation characterize what I term a “rhetoric of renunciation” and provide cultural resources with which they “perform” their power and authority as female ascetics in what is often defined as a male-dominanted tradition of asceticism. This paper examines how female sadhus’ practices and their performance strategies legitimize their power by constructing bhakti as asceticism. It also analyzes the sadhus’ interpretations of bhakti as a form of power; the models on which they draw in the articulation of their gendered experiences of power; and their use of performance to construct models of female power that challenge popular Western feminist notions. These female sadhus’ performances of authority engender an alternative asceticism to androcentric and Sanskritic representations. In the text-based models of male asceticism bhakti is predominantly absent, and power is constituted through performances of penance and knowledge.

Informal Networks and Political Patronage: Shiv Sena Women and the Gendered Politics of Urban Power
Tarini Bedi, University of Chicago, USA

This paper looks at the performative and discursive ways by which female political subjects are produced out of formal and informal political and cultural processes framed by a political party that functions both within, and outside the state. It examines the party politics of women of a militant, political party in urban India, Shiv Sena (Shivaji’s Army) to examine the emergence of urban female “patrons” and “power-brokers.” This is a unique form of gendered patronage that relies heavily on the deep involvement of the “patron” in people’s everyday lives, as much as it does on the perception of the patron as “protector” in some way. The paper attempts to shift the discussion of political patrons in South Asia away from the domain of elite politics and male centered political action. It does so by suggesting that urban political power at the local and often informal levels of party activity is a continually negotiated process where constitutions of gendered personality become critical to the production of personal and political power. Increasingly, the contest over urbanization that has been unleashed by transnational visions of urban space has opened up particularly significant spheres of influence for female party-workers at the local levels of Shiv Sena’s functioning. Using data from extensive fieldwork conducted with women of the Shiv Sena party, I focus on specific cases of urban contest in urbanizing Maharashtra to illustrate the emergence of female patrons and power-brokers and the performative constitution of gendered, urban political power.

The Broken Pot and the Beheaded Body: Chastity as Heteronormative Power
Perundevi Srinivasan, Claremont McKenna College, USA

My paper focuses on the discourses of chastity or “karpu” and its “power” in the Tamil narratives of Mariyamman, the goddess of poxes and certain skin infections, in south India. It analyzes the narratives of the goddess that foreground and advocate a condition of frugal sexual economy. By “frugal sexual economy,” I mean the existence and functioning of an economy of restraint concerning the utilization or expenditure of embodied sexual resources and energy. The narratives articulate that the less one spends these resources, the more one can accumulate these. Such accumulated resources are perceived as “containing” a certain power that can produce miraculous phenomena; the phenomena could be transformations of an entity or being or new manifestations. While the frugal sexual economy appears in connection with both feminine and masculine sexes, as one sees from the narratives on the woman/goddess, this economy in the name of chastity is enforced for a woman/goddess in particular. In the narratives of the goddess, if the goddess fails to function within the frugal sexual economy regulations, she entails punishment, especially in the form of violent acts such as beheading. My paper locates as well as deconstructs the operation of frugal sexual economy in the narratives of the goddess in terms of heteronormativity, and thereby opens up a new approach to theorizing the “power” of chastity in the south Indian cultural context.