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

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


By the late colonial period, the contours of middle class women’s work had changed, as households shrank in size, women had fewer children, families employed more domestic servants, elite women retreated from farm work, and eating out became more common.  Thus in an image from mid-century [Fig. 02], women are so freed from chores that they appear seated alongside men, enjoying the attentive service of waiters who bring them food and drink prepared in a restaurant kitchen; here children have disappeared, colonial innovations like the exclusive club are turned to the service of Indian patrons, and the extended family has shrunk to manageable units of two or three people—the number that can be comfortably seated around a restaurant table.  Despite the occasional escape to eat out, however, women still had a lot to do. 

Indeed, the example of Lilabai Patwardhan reminds us that modernization in the home often meant that old duties gave way to new ones, filling women’s time almost as thoroughly.  Scientific understandings of hygiene and nutrition demanded new cleaning practices and stricter attention to food preparation and storage; the feminization of consumption put women in charge of household purchasing, but also held them responsible for balancing the family budget; concerns about race and national strength demanded that women take responsibility for children’s bodily health and moral education.  Just as importantly, the stakes attached to proper performance of women’s work had gone up dramatically.  By the early twentieth century the home was seen as a refuge both for individual men escaping the grinding, British-dominated world of work and for a nation anxious to hold onto its unique cultural identity in the face of the Westernization of public space.4   That vision assigned new importance to women’s work in the home, making it essential to national success.  But it also imposed new consequences for failures in that work, since an unhygienic home or poorly brought up children now signaled not just individual but national catastrophe.

Whether they saw their household work in national terms or not, women often felt anxious about the new expectations they faced.  Many felt unprepared for their new duties, and uncertain of their chances for success.  Wife of the prominent judge and nationalist Mahadev Govind Ranade, Ramabai Ranade (1868-1924) wrote in her autobiography that, when her husband told her to take over household budgeting she had little idea what that entailed.  Perhaps not surprisingly, her first attempt failed miserably; when her funds dried up she had to go, mortified and in tears, to Mahadev’s side to ask for more money.5   Nor did Ramabai have female guidance in her efforts; instead, the older women in her husband’s family recognized Ramabai’s budgeting as an attempt to sideline them from power, and so provided little assistance.6   Anandibai Karve, for her part, struggled to keep a household going on the very limited allowance D.K. gave her, routinely turning to friends and family for food and clothing.  Her reward?  As her daughter-in-law Irawati Karve remembered it, the children resented Anandibai—not D.K.—for all the privations: “They often recall, ‘We never had the courage to take any of our friends to our house’; or ‘I got my first jacket when I was in the B.A. class’; or, ‘I have helped Mother to wash the cooking utensils.’”7

4 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Difference: Deferral of (A) Colonial Modernity: Public Debates on Domesticity in British Bengal,” History Workshop, no. 36 (Autumn 1993): 1-34; Partha Chatterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question,” in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988), 233-253.
5 Ramabai Ranade, Ranade: His Wife's Reminiscences, trans. Kusumavati Deshpande (New Delhi: Publications Division: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1963), reprint, 60-61. Originally published in Marathi in 1910.
6 Uma Chakravarti, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998), 232-235.
7 Irawati Karve, “Grandfather,” in The New Brahmans; Five Maharashtrian Families, ed. Dinakar Dhondo Karve (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 83.

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