Skip to content


The Colonial Origins Of Sexuality

In Sanskrit, the word ‘Rand’ means a person incapable of producing children. The feminine gender of the word is ‘Randa‘, which means Infertile. Over time, the meaning has expanded, evolving into ‘Rnar‘. There are three meanings of the word Rnar in dictionary… Infertile, Widow and Prostitute. From Infertile to Widow, and from Widow to Prostitute… it is not difficult to guess the underlying thought process of this journey. In fact, various ideas about prostitution were there in India long ago. Instead of assessing Prostitution as a profession, Indians were more interested in explaining women’s intractable sexuality from the patriarchal point of view! In her latest publication ‘Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought‘, Durba Mitra has made an attempt to document the history of this thought process. The author has concentrated mainly on Colonial Undivided Bengal (or the eastern Indian Province of West Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh).

It may be noted that Sanskrit is the primary Sacred Language of the prevailing Indian Culture during the ancient times, and it has been used as a Philosophical Language in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Sanskrit is a standardised dialect of Old Indo-Aryan, originating as Vedic Sanskrit as early as BCE 1700-1200.

The Sanskrit Language

In the documents pertaining to that of Colonial India, prostitutes were virtually all those who used to stay outside the monogamous Hindu marriage system (p. 4). Among them were Tawaif (dancer/courtesan), Baiji (professional female singer and dancer), Devadasi (a dancing girl and courtesan of a Hindu temple), stage artists, musicians, street artists, upper caste Hindu widows, polygamous women, Muslim women workers, female beggars, nurses, wives of sailors, and maids. Mitra has repeatedly reminded the readers that Prostitution was not just a Profession in Colonial India, but also a Concept, and on the basis of that Concept, everyone was equally enthusiastic about talking, discussing, reviewing, judging and analysing the prostitutes. For both the Britons and the Indians, the existence of the concept of Prostitution was an alienable part of Social Thought. It was also one of the foundations of the Indian Society.

Durba Mitra

There are five chapters in the book… Origins, Repetition, Circularity, Evolution and Veracity. In these five chapters, Mitra has discussed the roles of linguistics, criminal law, forensic medicine, ethnographical documents and statements of popular literature to portray the position of women in the (Colonial Indian) society. The chapter on Evolution stresses on the place of Prostitutes and intractable sex in the practice of ethnography. According to the author, the emergence and impact of Evolution ushered in a new era in the practice of ethnography. A number of books on this subject were published in British India. In those publications, the authors discussed different stages of evolution of Indian Civilisation and Society, its past glory, contemporary misery and the possibility of revival in an evolutionary framework. Mitra has analysed the contents of those books to explain that sexual control was considered as an important yardstick to measure evolution. Furthermore, sexual immorality and visiting brothels were being identified as the two main causes of social degradation.

Indian Sex-workers

Mitra has found a kind of circularity in the medical-forensic examination, inquest documents and the logic of the social structure in those books, published in the first half of 20th Century. At that period of time, majority of authors had made an attempt to link incidents, such as rape, abortion, infanticide and murder of women, to female bodies through the forensic scanner. Then, ideas about the Social Status of women, the causes of events and the assertive character of women were getting formed. With the help of those ideas, the contemporary authors had explained the signs of trauma and violence in a female body (Chapter 3). Hence, forensic dissection, classification of intractable sex and crime had created an inseparable triangle. One can find terminologies, like characterless, loose character, widow, prostitute, etc., in the reports that were prepared after examining the bodies of women who had died due to abortion. In his ‘Report on the Medico-Legal Returns Received from the Civil Surgeons in the Bengal Presidency during the Years 1870, 1871 & 1872‘, Robert Harvey had clearly mentioned that the moral character of Indian women was not good, as they often resorted to abortion in order to cover up their pregnancy (p 112).

Sumanta Banerjee had already discussed about Prostitution in the 19th Century Bengal in details in his 1998 publication ‘Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Bengal‘. Banerjee considered Prostitution as a specific Profession, stressing on the Britons’ headaches with the prostitutes and the Indians’ duplicity.

However, Durba Mitra’s work is not limited to the discussion about a particular profession. She has also made an attempt to describe Prostitution from the Social Perspective. She has found a vast treasure trove of written documents, where Prostitution repeatedly appeared as a Concept, with various meanings and interpretations. From official documents of Colonial British Rulers to indigenous books, the presence of the concept of Prostitution was there as an integral part of Social Thought and also of projects to control sexual activities. Her publication is a valuable addition for those interested in the Social History of British India.

Boundless Ocean of Politics on Facebook:

Boundless Ocean of Politics on Twitter:

Boundless Ocean of Politics on Linkedin:

Contact us:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: