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The Colonial Family

Kamlesh Mohan

By Durba Ghosh
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 227, Rs. 595.00


The centrality of the dynamics of the colonial family, a product of the inter¬racial sexual contact between European men and 'native' women, in the shaping of imperial policy during the company rule has received scant attention from scholars. In the formative phase of the British Empire in the 18th century the multi-ethnic/multi-racial families, comprising native mothers, European fathers and mixed race children, were perceived as a threat to its governance, stability and notions of racial purity as well as racial superiority. Apart from being one of the major building-blocks of the colonial state-in¬making, these families provided the foundations for the new social formation in British India.   Durba Ghosh's interesting book has focused upon the multidimensional and multilayered relationship between 'imperial erotic' and 'imperial policy'. The issues of the definition of the colonial family, the British subject and 'native' women's agency have remained in sharp focus in the process of 'making empire respectable' in Ann Stoler's phrase. According to Ghosh, this process was neither a straightforward nor a sequential process. Characterized by ambivalence, it was a highly gendered process.   Based on a variety of sources including archival, literary, court records and visual forms, especially paintings, the book under review is noted for the author's unconventional interpretation leading to the uncovering of the nature of agency of Indian women: begums and the numerically large lower class women. Their natal or original names were invariably replaced by their sexual partners' names which figured in the marriage and baptism registers. Thus, problems of identification of these native women which complicated their fight for inheritance showed that their identities were 'multiple, contradictory, partial and strategic' (Kamala Visweswaran, 1994).   Durba Ghosh begins her study with an engaging description of European representations of native women based on travelogues, memoirs, historical documents, novels and contemporary paintings. In her view, civil servants and military officials keeping indigenous female companions and adopting the Indian life style and social practices signified a liberal outlook and ambivalence towards cultural and racial hybridity in the early phase of the evolution of the colonial state. It may be pointed out that inter-racial sexual liaisons between European men and local women were seldom acknowledged publicly.   Despite anxious awareness about illicit cohabitation, or unrecognized marital relationships, the visual representation, i.e., paintings projected an appropriate and publicly acceptable version of British family life. It is evident from the family portraits commissioned by James Auriol (...

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