The Return of the Sati: A Note on Heroism and Domesticity in Colonial Bengal

By Chowdhury-Sengupta, Indira | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall/Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

The Return of the Sati: A Note on Heroism and Domesticity in Colonial Bengal


Chowdhury-Sengupta, Indira, Resources for Feminist Research


A feeling of distress informed the formation of the nineteenth - century Bengali cultural identity. This distress was an outcome of repeated colonial assessments of the Bengali male as weak, effeminate, essentially non - martial and incapable of serving in the army or even occupying higher administrative posts.(f.1) Against such notions, Bengali cultural identity drafted for itself specific icons of heroic resistance. Of these, Jasodhara Bagchi has studied in rich detail the icon of motherhood within nationalist thought (Bagchi, 1990), while Tanika Sarkar has looked at notions of conjugality within early nationalism that guided the articulation about a nationalist self (Sarkar, 1989). In this paper I look at the nineteenth - century Bengali discursive construction of the sati (literally the "virtuous woman" but also the specific practice of burning the widow on the husband's funeral pyre) and what it came to signify for a hegemonizing middle class constructing for itself a nationalist self - image.

Sati, a practice banned by law in 1829, re - entered the discourse of cultural identity as a metaphor for the heroism of which women were capable. The spectacle that had in the past generated emotions of awe, terror and worship was replaced with a reconstructed heroic content in nineteenth - century Bengal. In this paper I shall analyze the ways in which this shift became possible.

While significant aspects of the connotations of sati have been looked at by scholars of Hinduism (see Leslie, 1990), historians have looked at the complex way in which the debate on sati rendered the woman's body a site for the definition of what constituted "tradition" (Mani, 1989). The banning of sati, together with numerous legislations that followed it, had focussed on the Hindu family and especially on the woman's body as the last unconquered space (Sarkar, 1989). I shall argue that despite the ban in 1829, the fascination with the spectacle of sati in the 1870s and 1880s was an important impulse behind the insistence on the spiritual dimension of the sati within discursive constructions which enabled the burgeoning Bengali/Hindu cultural identity to congeal around certain icons of resistance.

Moreover, as a competitive metaphor sati was constructed to proclaim the superiority of Hindu culture in the face of colonial denigration. Simultaneously, an attempt to domesticate the violenceof the act also persisted. The male articulators of this reworked identity, despite recognizing that much within Hindu tradition required reform, remained fascinated with this spectacle of suffering as a display of Virtue and Purity. Situated at the very heart of the contest between the British administrators and the Bengali nationalists was sati, one of the most important gendered icons of resistance.

On the other hand, the women articulators gave expression to its domesticated aspect through the theme of pativrata -- the devoted and chaste wife. As we shall see, this was not only an instance of middle - class women being drawn into the hegemonic fold (see Bannerji, 1991), but also a concern for preserving the endangered conjugal space.

The particular kind of Hindu identity of which the continuing discourse on sati was part, was of course generated by the educated middle classes of Calcutta who saw themselves in the role of leaders in a cultural revolt in the face of negative colonial assessment. In the field of history, the imaginary genealogical link between the Bengali and the Rajput attempted to reclaim some of the lost glory (see Kaviraj, 1988). However, this discourse on cultural identity was a gendered discourse within which the Hindu/Bengali woman was invoked both in her heroic mythological apparel as well as in her domestic aspect. She was an exemplary figure when contrasted to the European woman who apparently cared little for chastity or virtue.

The use of mythology was common to the analytical project of writing history and was one way of contesting rationalistic imperialist arguments commonly extended in nineteenth - century India to disparage Hindus in general and Hindu women in particular.

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