Pub. Date:
Duke University Press Books
Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal

Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal

by Rochona Majumdar


View All Available Formats & Editions
Current price is , Original price is $27.95. You
Select a Purchase Option (New Edition)
  • purchase options
  • purchase options
    $15.52 $27.95 Save 44% Current price is $15.52, Original price is $27.95. You Save 44%.
    Note: Access code and/or supplemental material are not guaranteed to be included with textbook rental or used textbook.
  • purchase options


Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal

An innovative cultural history of the evolution of modern marriage practices in Bengal, Marriage and Modernity challenges the assumption that arranged marriage is an antiquated practice. Rochona Majumdar demonstrates that in the late colonial period Bengali marriage practices underwent changes that led to a valorization of the large, intergenerational family as a revered, "ancient" social institution, with arranged marriage as the apotheosis of an "Indian" tradition. She meticulously documents the ways that these newly embraced "traditions"-the extended family and arranged marriage-entered into competition and conversation with other emerging forms of kinship such as the modern unit of the couple, with both models participating promiscuously in the new "marketplace" for marriages, where matrimonial advertisements in the print media and the payment of dowry played central roles. Majumdar argues that together the kinship structures newly asserted as distinctively Indian and the emergence of the marriage market constituted what was and still is modern about marriages in India.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822344780
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/13/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rochona Majumdar is Assistant Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She is a co-editor of From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition.

Read an Excerpt


Family Values in Colonial Bengal
By Rochona Majumdar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4462-9

Chapter One


"You too will marry a boy I choose," said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas.... "Hmm," she said. This annoyed her mother further. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

Arranging suitable matches for various characters constitutes a central theme of Vikram Seth's 1,349-page novel A Suitable Boy. Mrs. Rupa Mehra decided that in order to qualify as "suitable" for her daughter Lata, the prospective bridegroom would have to be "a good, decent, cultured, Khatri boy," and she spent the bulk of her time utilizing the train passes inherited from her dead husband in traveling from place to place in search of just such a boy. For Amit, the Calcutta-born young poet, son of Justice Chatterji, "an arranged marriage with a sober girl," divined his father's elderly clerk, Biswas Babu, was the solution to all problems thrown up by life. These resolutions, seemingly incongruous with the temperaments of the rebellious Lata and the quirky Amit, are humorous because they are bizarre. Yet they offer an astute insight into a central preoccupation of most Indian parents and guardians, namely, to seek out a suitable match for their wards based on a set of socially determined criteria.

The flourishing existence of arranged marriages among Indians is for many proof of the firm hold of tradition on present-day Indian social life. The negotiation of such marriages via matrimonial advertisements is treated simply as a modern transmutation of an age-old custom. The dichotomy between the modernity of the advertisements and the so-called traditional character of arranged matches does descriptive and analytical injustice to the phenomenon of negotiating arranged marriages, giving the institution the appearance of a holdover from the past. The practice of brokering marriages assumed a specific character during the colonial period and found its place among other institutions of colonial civil society and was tailored to suit the needs of people in a modernizing, urban, social milieu.

In this chapter, I explore the colonial history of the institutional machinery of ghataks (traditional matchmakers), matrimonial advertisements, and marriage bureaus at work behind the institution of arranged marriage in the city of Calcutta. This and the next chapter delineate the marriage market as it evolved in Bengal in the late colonial period. My aim here is twofold. The first is to investigate the history of the rise of marriage advertisements and the predominance of this form of seeking brides and bridegrooms over the traditional matchmaker. The second is to analyze the contents of these advertisements and their contemporary critiques in order to elucidate a contradiction at the heart of the patriarchy that consolidated itself in Bengali Hindu families in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. This contradiction, best captured in contemporary discussions of dowry and ideals of womanhood, centered around the fact that the same patriarchal cultural politics that valorized domestic virtues in women actually contributed to reducing their economic worth. This in the end proved injurious to the interests of both men and women. Women were cast in roles that confined them to the domestic space and portrayed them as unsuitable for any positions of responsibility in public life. Men, in their turn, suffered as fathers and guardians of daughters, for they now had to face the burden of offering dowry in order to arrange marriages for their daughters. The debates around matrimonial advertisements draw our attention to this contradiction. My analysis covers the period 1870 to 1940, years in which Calcutta grew into a teeming urban metropolis with a thriving popular press, schools and colleges, and an expanding and diverse population. Matrimonial advertisements, which from the early years of the twentieth century assumed more importance than individual ghataks in the process of arranged marriages, did not represent an aberrant mutation of a traditional practice. Rather, mapping the rise of this advertisement culture and the corresponding decline of the traditional matchmaker in wedding negotiations will demonstrate the ways in which notions of a new Hindu patriarchy, one based on a novel understanding of caste and an aestheticized image of the bride, came to mark the lives of a new middle class that developed in Calcutta. By focusing on the process of marriage negotiation and the shifts within that process, I foreground the impact of capitalism and related social forces-such as the rise of the modern city, a marketplace culture, and the burgeoning of a new print culture-upon the institution of arranged marriage. Viewed thus, Seth's fictional Mrs. Rupa Mehra ceases to be a tyrannical busybody meddling in her daughter's future. She epitomizes a much more realistic figure of Indian modernity, one among hundreds of Indian parents trying to gather as much information as they can about prospective bridegrooms in order to determine a suitable match for their ward.

The research presented here mines a hitherto unused archive of matrimonial advertisements that started appearing regularly around 1909 in caste association journals such as Kayastha Patrika, Kayastha Samaja, Jogi Sammelani, Prajapati, and Ghatak and then constituted a regular feature of newspapers such as Amrita Bazar Patrika, Bengal Times, and Anandabazar Patrika. Interestingly, even though some of these journals were the mouthpieces of particular castes-Prajapati called itself a Sadgop caste journal-they published matrimonial advertisements from other castes as well, namely, Brahmans, Kayasthas, and Baidyas, the three high-status castes in Bengal. I also use articles, letters, autobiographical accounts, and essays on marriage negotiation that appeared in both periodical literature and books during this period.


Marriage advertisements appeared in newspapers and periodicals in large numbers and on a regular basis from the early years of the twentieth century. Even though there were instances of a few stray advertisements soliciting brides and bridegrooms before this period, the task of negotiating marriages belonged to the traditional matchmaker, the ghatak (male) or ghataki (female) as he or she was referred to in Bengali. We need to explore contemporary opinions on traditional marriage negotiators, for it was the critique of these individual intermediaries that set the stage for more impersonal matrimonial columns, and by the 1920s for the rise of marriage bureaus.

The urban historian S. N. Mukherjee has demonstrated that the early merchants and bankers who moved into Calcutta during the 1760s and 1770s and were the first group of Indians to settle in the city established family deities, patronized Brahmans and ghataks, and entertained Europeans as a Mughal courtier would do. Ghataks had an important place in the social organization of Bengal and early Calcutta. The late nineteenth-century accounts of their decline were rendered meaningful precisely because of the role they played in caste organizations and marriage until the first half of the nineteenth century. In his account of factional politics in Calcutta, Mukherjee describes how Nubkissen (Nabakrishna Deb), an important landlord of old Calcutta from the mid-eighteenth century, patronized ghataks. It was with the aid of ghataks, argues Mukherjee, that Deb raised his social status by marrying his grandson Radhakanta Deb into a kulin (highest rank among the upper castes) Kayastha family. Mukherjee noted that ghataks exercised an "unusual hold" over high-caste Bengali society for centuries. Their main function was to select appropriate matches. To this end they kept registers "of marriages, of important social events and decided the social status of the kulas [families]." In addition to brokering marriages, ghataks functioned as genealogists, who determined caste ranks and catalogued the position of people within the caste hierarchy. Their vast knowledge of family histories allowed them to adjudicate in disputes over the social rank of families within particular castes. Nabakrishna Deb, for instance, was able to establish his influence over the Kayastha caste through the mediation of ghataks. As an important patron to many ghataks, Deb got the Kayastha Kulagrantha (a digest of family genealogies) systematically recorded and exerted considerable authority within the Kayastha caste. His efforts were crowned when he was declared goshthipati (chief) of his caste in Bengal. In light of such evidence Mukherjee argues that in early nineteenth-century Calcutta ghataks generally "had considerable power over society."

In Tribes and Castes of Bengal H. H. Risley also mentioned the respectability ghataks enjoyed in Bengali society. He marveled at their remarkable memory, observing that often a ghatak could offhandedly "repeat the names of all members of the main as well as collateral branches of any family in his particular part of the country; of the families with which they have married, and of the issue of such marriages." He wrote that rich families claiming higher status would often offer bribes to ghataks, which the latter usually refused: "Disputes," wrote Risley, "are common, and the ghataks who favour a claim that is fallacious, and who attend at an unauthorized marriage, fall in the estimation of those who have questioned its soundness and declined to be present. The scruples of a single pradhan ghatak [principal ghatak] often mar the otherwise perfect satisfaction of a parent on the marriage of his son to a family of higher rank than his own; and should all the leaders unite in forbidding the marriage, it is impossible to win any permanent promotion beyond that laid down in their registers."

It appears from these accounts that ghataks functioned as repositories of upper-caste social memory in Bengali society. Before newspapers and caste newsletters became widespread, ghataks performed the task of social registers. Why and how, one wonders, did the profession of ghataks slide into one of utter disrepute? In tracing the steady deterioration in historical perceptions of the ghatak into a petty and unreliable mercenary, we hear doubts voiced about this profession as early as the mid-nineteenth century, doubts that were soon transformed within the space of a few decades into a firm condemnation of this group of professionals. Risley's praises may be contrasted to those of other early nineteenth-century commentators, who raised questions about the ghataks' righteousness. George Johnson remarked in a travelogue published in 1843 that ghataks were "men of a fawning and flattering disposition" who in the "assemblies of the Hindoos" would "often panegyrize some individual as much for his giving them a few rupees, as they would satirize him for not listening to their adulation. They sometimes involve parties in difficulties by getting up matches of a disreputable character; yet, nuisances as they are, their services cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of Hindoo marriage continues, which does not admit of an interview between the bride and bridegroom before the wedding night." The skepticism voiced by Johnson gained general social consensus by the late nineteenth century and certainly the early years of the twentieth century. An essay entitled "Kayastha Ghatak" (1919) that appeared in the periodical Kayastha Samaja observed that famous ghataks of the past-Edu Misra, Harinath Acharya Chudamani, Dvija Vacaspati, and others-were remembered with great respect in Kayastha society precisely because they were much more than simple matchmakers. In fact, the essay claimed that these ghataks never negotiated marriages. Instead, they were men who devoted themselves to the sole task of maintaining genealogies. It was as genealogists and not marriage contractors that ghataks earned the title of kulacharya (arbiter of a lineage) and commanded social respect in particular samajas (caste councils). The author narrated tales of some legendary ghataks, such as Nandaram Mitra, a famous ayurvedic practitioner who abandoned his occupation as a healer in order to be a genealogist, and to that end became a student of Kamalakanta Vidyavagisa. It must be noted here that the names of Mitra and Edu Misra recur in much of the caste literature published in late nineteenth-century Bengal, such as Lalmohan Vidyanidhi's Sambandhyanirnaya (A Digest of Family Relationships) and Nagendranath Basu's monumental Bangera Jatiya Itihasa (The National History of Bengal). The details of these works are often contradictory, and any resolution of the precise historical situation of these individuals awaits further research. Nandaram Mitra went on to become a great genealogist of the Dakshin Rarhiya Kayasthas, a task that had hitherto been performed by his teacher, a Brahman. From this account it appears that being a ghatak involved mastery of ancient manuscripts, a privilege reserved for Brahmans until Mitra's advent in the seventeenth century. His erudition earned him the title of sarbabhaumya, a sovereign among his distinguished ghatak successors Anandiram, Govinda Chandra, Dinanath Mitra, and others. Once some Dakshin Rarhiya Kayasthas distinguished themselves as genealogists, kulin Brahmans ceased performing that task in Kayastha society. The writer of this essay, Hridayanath Basu-Varma, identified himself as an heir in this remarkable line of scholars and lamented the absence of this knowledge among current practitioners of the trade.

A similar image of the ideal ghatak was supported in Nagendranath Basu's Visvakosa, the Bengali encyclopaedia put together between 1888 and 1911. According to Basu, a ghatak should be able to determine and have detailed knowledge of kula (lineage) and its various branches. Simply knowing the names of families or persons did not qualify a person as a ghatak.

The fact that ghataks had ceased being genealogists and were simply concerned with negotiating matches was attributed to a structural transformation in the occupation of ghatakali (the trade of ghataks, a word considered synonymous with matchmaking by the end of the nineteenth century). "Bibahera Ghatakali" (Matchmaking in Marriage), an article published in 1886 in the journal Prachar, pointed to the decline in the nature of the profession during this period, indicated by the rise of female negotiators, or ghatakis. The increase in the number of ghatakis, the author argued, was due to the increased power that women in Calcutta were claiming in the decision-making processes of the family. "Spending, clothing, social etiquette, socializing are all in their hands," the author commented. As a result, "in marriage negotiations too they are the chief arbiters. Male ghataks do not enter the inner quarters of households, hence they no longer get matchmaking deals and have had to abandon that business. They have been replaced by female ghatakis." In other words, the rise of the ghataki was symptomatic of another unwelcome feature: women's modernization and consequent professionalization.


Excerpted from MARRIAGE and MODERNITY by Rochona Majumdar Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction I

Part I The Emergence of a Marriage Market

Chapter 1 Looking for Brides and Grooms 23

Chapter 2 Snehalata's Death: Questions of Dowry 54

Part II Culture and the Marketplace

Chapter 3 Marriage and Distinction: New Critiques of Vulgarity 93

Chapter 4 The Not-Quite Bourgeois: The Couple Form and the Joint Family 126

Part III Marriage and the Law

Chapter 5 A Nineteenth-Century Debate: Law versus Rituals 167

Chapter 6 Nationalizing the Joint Family: The Hindu Code Debates, 1955-56 206

Conclusion 238


1 Wedding Invitations 244

2 Jewelry Catalogues 253

Notes 259

Glossary 301

Bibliography 311

Index 337

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews