Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

Modernity at Home:
Leisure, Autonomy and the New Woman in India

Abigail McGowan

Being a modern middle class woman in late colonial India appears to have been a lot of work.  As one provocative sample poster from the Empire Calendar Manufacturing Company [Fig. 01] suggests, maintaining new standards of cleanliness alone could fill a day.  Here various women exhibit key cleaning practices: of bodies, via the woman in the bathtub clutching her bar of soap as suds rise around her; of dishes perhaps, which the woman seated underneath the clothesline appears to be washing; and, most importantly, of clothes.  Indeed, care of clothes dominates the image, as demonstrated by the woman seated in the foreground who scrubs a piece of fabric, but also by the woman behind her hanging the family clothing—both a man’s shirt and pants and a woman’s saris—on a line air, and the neatly dressed woman in white examining a rich pink cloth, perhaps for stains.

Cleanliness, here, is clearly a multi-stage affair, involving a lot of diligent effort.  It is also demonstrably a marker of modernity.  This is evidenced both in the novel practice of bathing in a tub full of water rather than under fresh, running water, and in the centrality of novel commodities—specifically the gleaming industrial soaps produced, presumably, in the factory puffing smoke in the background.  And yet, even while celebrating cleanliness, the image also subtly questions the work involved in achieving it.  Thus, the woman scrubbing cloth in the foreground is neither dressed for her work, nor appears to be thoroughly attentive to it.  She wears a richly bordered sari, loosely draped over her head, with profuse gold ornaments at her neck and ears; rather than prepared for laundry work for which a practical cotton sari tightly tucked in would have been appropriate, she looks as if she was called away from a party.  Her gaze cements the impression of distraction; rather than focusing on her work, she stares off into the distance, while the bucket of water filling behind her threatens to overflow.  Without outright shirking her duties, the scrubbing woman implies that cleanliness was a chore, not a pleasure.

Texts confirm that being a modern woman could be a chore.  Lilabai Patwardhan (born circa 1908?), for one, had all the markers of modern womanhood: she studied at the Women’s College in Poona, delayed marriage until after her education, and broke social conventions by taking walks with her husband—Marathi poet and intellectual Madhavrao Patwardhan—in public and sitting with him in movie theaters.  And yet, despite all those markers of liberation, Lilabai’s life was dominated by household responsibilities—much to her husband’s disgust.  As Lilabai recalled in her memoir, when the couple moved into their own apartment in 1928, Madhavrao “wanted me to spend some time reading and writing and urged me not to be doing housework all the time ‘like uneducated women’.”  She wrote, however, that, “I hardly ever found it possible.” Madhavrao’s solution was to assign Lilabai yet more work; in the early years of their marriage he set passages for Lilabai to read every day, checking her comprehension regularly.  To master the readings to her husband’s satisfaction, Lilabai noted, “I had to give up my afternoon nap.”  Still, she wrote, “I gradually got used to it.” Even Madhavrao had to admit defeat, though, when their children were born, at which point the added duties of childcare made reading all but impossible.1

Balancing housework, child rearing, and the demands of husbands, modern women like Lilabai struggled to keep up with their household responsibilities.  Of course, heavy domestic chores were hardly new to Indian womanhood.  In the first autobiography in Bengali, published in 1876, for instance, Rassundari Devi told of a mid-nineteenth century life weighed down by endless, crushing work.  She married into a large, wealthy family, but her in-laws kept no servants to do housework.  The result, as she wrote, was that:

There was nobody to do the household chores in the inner quarters.  I was the only one.  As was the custom, I had to do all the work and look after the children as well.  I had to work right through the day and night, without a moment's rest.  Suffice it to say that I had no time to think about my own health.  So much so that I often did not eat either of the two meals.  There were days when the pressure of work did not let me even have one meal during the course of the day.

On top of cooking and cleaning for the extended family, Rassundari herself bore twelve children between the age of eighteen (c. 1828) and forty-one (c. 1851).  Reflecting on her time raising children, Rassundari wrote: “God only knows what I had to go through during those twenty-three years.  Nobody else had any idea either.”2  

On the other side of India, women’s responsibilities were equally demanding.  Thus Anandibai Karve (b. 1865), wife of the prominent Maharashtrian social reform D. K. Karve, noted that she had been responsible for running a household by the time she was eleven—duties that included not just cleaning the house, preparing for the worship of family gods, hauling water, washing clothes, cooking meals, and cleaning dishes, but also outdoor work tending livestock and supervising field hands.3

1 Lilabai Patwardhan, “Our Eleven Years,” in The New Brahmans; Five Maharashtrian Families, ed. Dinakar Dhondo Karve (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 295, 296.
2 Rassundari Devi, “Amar Jiban [My Life],” in Women Writing in India, ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), 196.
3 Anandibai Karve, “Autobiography,” in The New Brahmans; Five Maharashtrian Families, ed. Dinakar Dhondo Karve (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1963), 64-65.

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