South Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - The Exotic and the Banal: Women and Consumption in 19th-Century Calcutta

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Virginia Suite C, Lobby Level

The raucous world of Kaliprasanna Singha’s Hutom Pyanchar Naksha (1861) has at its centre the city of Calcutta. The text stands out as a testimony to the process of domestication of the exotic products of the colonial consumer economy: from the “English whisky” patronized by the babu to the chiming of the church clock. Largely missing in Hutom’s narrative, and subsequently from sustained critical attention, however, are perhaps some of the key consumers of the thriving consumer economy of colonial Calcutta — namely, the so-called Bengali bhadramahila.


Turning our attention to the archives, it is possible to witness an overwhelming, obsessive concern with feminine consumption in the literature of the period, even as women’s narratives speak of the excitement in the antahpur over the arrival of hawkers — often female, and from the lower orders in caste hierarchy — with products such as porcelain utensils, Japanese glassware, cosmetics, and books. This paper seeks to extend the question of consumption to the realm of the quotidian, arguing in favour of turning our attention towards the seemingly banal objects of everyday feminine consumption, hidden in plain sight, and examining them in the light of their ‘newness’.  The paper seeks to examine advice manuals written for women from the period, as well as contemporary women’s narratives, in a bid to propose a way of looking that makes possible to address the sea changes in material culture in colonial Calcutta in terms of women’s roles in the proliferation and consumption of material goods.

Swati Moitra

University of Calcutta, West Bengal, India

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4 - The Exotic and the Banal: Women and Consumption in 19th-Century Calcutta



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