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Social Reform and Women's Agency


Barnita Bagchi

CROSSING THRESHOLDS: FEMINIST ESSAYS IN SOCIAL HISTORY
By Meera Kosambi
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2007, pp. xvii 397, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 6 June 2007

Once in a rare while, an academic reviewer gets to write about a book that is exciting, analytically sound, densely researched, thoroughly useful, wideranging, and yet focused. Meera Kosambi’s Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History is just such a book. It encapsulates Kosambi’s lifelong work on women’s history in colonial Maharashtra, and will stand as a definitive work on that subject in the years to come.   The book consists of ten essays and an introduction. Of these, three are previously unpublished, while the rest appeared in journals or edited volumes previously. At the centre of these essays is a small number of Marathi reformist women. Kosambi, along with scholars such as Uma Chakravarti, Antoinette Burton, and Gauri Visvanathan, has contributed tremendously to our reappraisal, analysis, and appreciation of the extraordinary Pandita Ramabai. Predictably, therefore, Ramabai plays a stellar role in this collection. Along with her are Anandibai Joshee, Rakhmabai, Kashibai Kanitkar, Ramabai Ranade, Yashodabai Joshi, Laxmibai Tilak, Manorama (Ramabai’s daughter), Baya Karve, and Parvatibai Athavale.   Most of these women were born between 1858 and 1870, and were important figures in the social reform movement in late 19th century and early 20th century India. Kosambi places and fleshes out these figures and their agency in the wider context of Maharashtra history and politics. In particular, she discusses the contentious issue of social versus political reform (and indeed the viability of these two being posed in mutual antagonism) that emerged and crystallized by the 1880s. As we know, gender and the ‘condition of Indian woman’ became the crux of the issue. Put simply, all those working for greater gender equity found themselves caught between the devil of the British colonial state and the deep blue sea of revivalist, neo-patriarchal nationalists such as Tilak. While the former used the ‘degraded condition of Indian womanhood’ as a stick to beat Indians with when they demanded greater political liberty, the latter felt threatened and deeply hostile to movements for greater female agency and freedom in domains ranging from education and healthcare to politics.   Kosambi says, in answer to Rosalind O’Hanlon’s statement that there is relative paucity of women’s own testimony in nineteenth century Maharashtra, that in fact the region has ‘enjoyed rather a wealth of women’s articulations,…and the problem has been not their paucity but their retrieval and incorporation as source materials of social history.’ The use ...


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