Wives, Widows, and Concubines

Wives, Widows, and Concubines

The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India
Mytheli Sreenivas
Distribution: World
Publication date: 06/13/2008
Format: Paperback 4 b&w photos, 1 maps
ISBN: 978-0-253-21972-5
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Winner of the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences, American Institute of Indian Studies

The family was at the center of intense debates about identity, community, and nation in colonial Tamil Nadu, India. Emerging ideas about love, marriage, and desire were linked to caste politics, the colonial economy, and nationalist agitation. In the first detailed historical study of Tamil families in colonial India, Wives, Widows, and Concubines maps changes in the late colonial family in relation to the region's culture, politics, and economy. Among professional and mercantile elites, the conjugal relationship displaced the extended family as the focal point of household dynamics. Conjugality provided a language with which women laid claim to new rights, even as the structures of the conjugal family reinscribed women's oppression inside and outside marriage.

Published in association with the American Institute of Indian Studies.

Author Bio

Mytheli Sreenivas is Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies at The Ohio State University.


“Whenever my husband felt amorous, he would occasionally cohabit with any woman and pay her occasionally. This is all. They were concubines.”
 — Muthuverammal, 1885

“The very principle of the joint family is against giving equal rights to females.”
 — P. C. Tyagaraja Iyer, 1935

“The Zemindar used to take his meals with me. The Zemindar used to sleep during nights in the upstairs of the new palace. I and he used to sleep in the same bed.”
 — Menakshi Sundra Nachiar, 1893

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Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration

Introduction: Situating Families
1. Colonizing the Family: Kinship, Household, and State
2. Conjugality and Capital: Defining Women's Rights to Family Property
3. Nationalizing Marriage: Indian and Dravidian Politics of Conjugality
4. Marrying for Love: Emotion and Desire in Women's Print Culture
Conclusion: Families and History