Social Scientist. v 21, no. 244-46 (Sept-Nov 1993) p. 130.


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UMA CHAKRAVARTf

Social Pariahs and Domestic Drudges:

Widowhood among Nineteenth Century Poona Brahmins

Throughout the nineteenth century the low status of women as exemplified by the plight of the child widow, condemned to a life of enforced celibacy, became the subject of a highly visible and widespread discussion. This debate and various stages of the accompanying movement for widow remarriage have been fairly well documented along with a detailed analysis of the issues raised in western India—the region which is the focus of my study on widowhood among the upper castes, especially brahmins.1 However, till now attention has been concentrated on the writing, speeches and actions of th^ men who were the visible participants in the debate. I propose here to shift the focus on how women understood the experience of widowhood and the issues they highlighted in order to expand the arena of our concerns. I shall use the writing of women themselves, mainly a set of essays on widowhood written in Marathi roughly around 19102 by widows who were inmates of the Poona Widows' and Orphans* Home instituted by D.K. Karve, and Ramabai Ranade's memoirs3 describing the domestic life of the Ranade household, to explore the lives of widows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the Poona brahmins.

Even a cursory look at the issues around widowhood that men focussed on reveals how limited their discussion was and how little it was concerned with the material dimensions of widowhbod among the high castes.4 In contrast to the men who tended to outline the dangerous consequences of enforced widowhood, particularly the effects of the repressed sexuality of widows upon society, or the cruelty involved in denying motherhood to them, the women showed considerable concern for the material and existential conditions of widowhood.5 The widows in particular addressed the economic vulnerability of the widow, and how the lack of property or other means of security put her in the power of male kin. While men almost never dwell on the labour performed by widows, the widows describe

Research Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teenmurti, New Delhi.

Social Scientist Vol. 21, Nos. 9-11, September-November 1993



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