Monday , 25 March 2019
Politics of Sexuality

Politics of Sexuality

Author and associate professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Anjali Arondekar is in Goa to participate in the seventh edition of Goa Art and Literary Festival (GALF). In an email interview with NT BUZZ she speaks about the politics of sexuality in India, need for more issues related to gender and sexuality in Goa, and Gomantak Maratha Samaj, the subject of the next book

Anjali Arondekar is associate professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research engages the poetics and politics of sexuality, colonialism and historiography in South Asia. She is the author of ‘For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India’ and winner of the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award, Modern Language Association (MLA), 2010. She is currently writing the history of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj in colonial British times.

Q: Your research engages the poetics and politics of sexuality, colonialism and historiography in South Asia. What lead you to this research?
As a member of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj, I was raised to be a feminist by the women in my family, and so have always been interested in questions of gender and sexuality. When I started doing research on 19th century colonial India, I realised there was a dearth of scholarship on the role of sexuality in India’s past. And once I began spending time in the archives (both in Goa and Maharashtra), it was clear that there was so much to tell, and so much to learn.

Q: Whenever we refer to sexuality and India there is a reference made to the ‘Kama Sutra’. How far do you think has this text shaped the sexual history of India? Are we overemphasising this text?
The Kama Sutra is only ONE of many hundreds of texts that shape our understanding of sexuality. If we start referring to the Kama Sutra as our primary link to histories of sexuality in India, we are no better than the Orientalist European tourists who come to places like Goa looking for sexual freedom and other such nonsense! To understand the role of sexuality in India (and this role is very different in Goa and Maharashtra, for example) we need engage with a wide range of sources: legal records, family histories, literary sources, to name a select few. In short, there is no one text that has shaped our understanding of sexuality, but a confluence of multiple sources, histories and geographies.

Q: You are currently writing a book on the Gomantak Maratha Samaj which was formed to give dignity and status to the people of Kalavanth samaj (sub group of Devdasis). While elaborating on the project share with us your perception of the success of this Samaj?
My book (called *Abundance: A History of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj*) addresses the unusual story of the Samaj by focusing on its history as “Bharatatil Ek Aggresor Samaj.” I draw attention to the fact that unlike other histories of marginalised communities which are lost or not documented, the history of the Samaj is quite different. The Samaj (from its inception in 1929 and before) constituted its own massive archive of documents and continues to do so to this day. I have spent the last eight years reading these materials, and have only read about 60 per cent of what is available —that should give you some sense of how massive the Samaj archive is. The materials are in Kannada, Konkani, Modi and Marathi. What is curious is that despite the abundance of such archival materials, Goan scholars have still chosen to not read or access these archives. Secondly, the Samaj has always been proud of its relationship to histories of sexuality and never disavowed that relationship. I, for example, was raised to be proud of the fact that I came from a community of kalavants and devadasis, and not to cede my history to any Brahminic discourse of shame or humiliation. Thus, even as we celebrate the important contributions of Dayanand Bandodkar, we often erase his roots in a history of sexuality —that fact is conveniently swept aside as something we would rather not talk about!

Q: How you look at the role of Goans in speaking about Kalavanths from Goa and fighting for their rights during Portuguese regime? Do you think that the Goan society was more open to speaking about these issues compared to other states of the country given that this campaign was fought in remote southern villages of Goa like Poinguinim in Canacona?
If you look at the available archival materials of the Samaj (ranging from minutes of meetings, monthly magazines, property deeds, fiction, biograhies), there emerges a clear sense that the Samaj felt no particular loyalty or even interest in the Goan liberation movement till perhaps the very last decades of colonisation. In fact, the Portuguese state initially sponsored many of the activities of the Samaj, and provided land and resources for school buildings and libraries. I think the emergence of Bandodkar was almost an anomaly since the Samaj (as a collectivity) found very little political commonality with marginalised groups at the time. I think it’s important to emphasize this fact because there is a tendency to assume that just because a community is disenfranchised it is necessarily political in a simple and oppositional way. The Samaj was primarily interested in its own reform, and it was a reform that focused on their dependence on sexual and artistic labours.

Q: Do you believe that there is enough research done on the topic of politics of sexuality, in Goa? If no, what sort of research is required to understand this topic more deeply?
Absolutely not. What’s missing in Goa (as is the case in other parts of India as well) is attentiveness to the role the past continues to play in our understanding of sexuality. If we look at the current hypocrisy of the Goan state (where we police women’s sexual freedoms, even as we champion Goa as an idealised tourist mecca for such excitements), there is ample evidence of what I am saying. The current debates on tolerance/intolerance have a lot to do with the role of history in such discussions. This fantasy that is presented to us of an untarnished, chaste, Hindu, past conveniently passes over the decades of research that have emphasized that no such fantasy can ever be sustained. If only our RSS friends actually decided to read a book, or actually do some real thinking, there would be less of this nonsense. The politics of sexuality, like the politics of any other volatile issue, is messy, variegated and has no singular story.

Q: How you look at the current gender and sexual issues in India. Do you believe that we are turning into more regressive in terms of these issues when compared to colonial India? Yes/No. Why?
This is too large a question for me to answer in an e-mail interview! I will just say that there are certainly linkages between the colonial and the postcolonial moment. Also, let’s be clear. Goa is not like the rest of colonial India. Portuguese colonialism endured for over 450 years and its afterlives can be seen even to this day.

Q: What according to you is the reason that we still consider speaking about sexual issues taboo and not much part of our mainstream conversations?
I think this is not quite the case. I think we speak of sexuality incessantly, and in every arena of life. Even when we are refusing to speak of sexuality, we are speaking of its presence by calling for its absence!

(Telling Tales: Sexuality, Gender, Goa, a panel discussion being held at the GALF on December 11 at 10 a.m. at Mandovi Hall ICG will feature Anjali Arondekar, R Beneditio Ferrao and Albertina Almeida)

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