Over the course of the colonial period in India, female sexuality became foundational to the scientific study of Indian social progress. Indian intellectuals deployed a new science of sexuality to delineate an object for scientific inquiry: their social world.

As an emergent social and political force, elite Bengali men wrote extensively about sexual practice in order to illustrate new norms for a “modern” Indian society. Their textbooks on science and evolution employed discussions of sexuality to distinguish themselves from British colonial depictions of Indian savagery and custom—where a generalized “Indian society” was the primary object of civilizational critique. While these men drew extensively on Victorian “scientific” understandings of sexual danger, they selectively used the new Victorian scientia sexualis alongside their own theories of Indian social hierarchy and sexual impropriety. Unlike many European studies of sexuality of the same period, there is a clear absence of discussions about homosexual behavior in Indian society. Instead, these textbooks focus on the danger of female sexual desire to Indian society.

Within these publications, one concept continuously stands out: the figure of the sexually deviant woman—variously named in these texts with the English word “prostitute” and a wide range of Bengali terms, including beshya (a promiscuous woman), ganika (a woman had by many), kulatadasi (a woman expelled from her caste), and barangana (a woman outside the home). She came to encompass a wide range of behaviors and practices seen as socially and sexually “deviant.” Bengali intellectuals and reformists used this figure to delineate new norms of gendered hierarchies of class, caste, and conjugal behavior while also deploying a flexible scheme of translation to signify a range of practices and behaviors tied to the prostitute and Indian social degradation. Their theories of social development tied the scientific study of Indian society to a ubiquitous form of reasoning where all forms of female desire and extra-marital sexual behavior correlated with the dangers of the figure of the prostitute.


Two remarkable Bengali texts on the development of Indian society held pivotal places in this discourse on sexuality and the social world: Gyanendrakumar Maitra’s Rati Yantradira Pida (1923) and Santosh Kumar Mukherji’s Prostitution in India (1934). In each, history, philology, hybrid theories of science, and sociology became ways to understand the scientific nature of Indian society.

Physician and author Gyanendrakumar Maitra’s Rati Yantradira Pida (Sexual and Venereal Evils) claimed status as an indispensable guide to the harms of illicit sexual behavior and homeopathic remedies for sexual diseases. In a section titled in English “Venereal Disease and Prostitution” and in Bengali as “Ratijo Pida o Ganikagomon,” Maitra wove an extraordinary narrative of the evolutionary biological roots of the ganika—a woman of, or had, by many (gana)—in society. In the context of twentieth-century Bengal, Maitra’s narrative reflected circulating ideas about the evolution of society and the necessity for a history of Indian people. For Maitra and others, this scientific account of the past would help Bengali elites fashion a strong samaj (society) for the future.

Maitra presented a theory of a civilizing Indian society that extended beyond discourses of social reform and into the realm of scientific fact. Through the figure of the ganika, the textbook not only sought to understand the limits of the divide between the natural world and man, but the passage back and forth across this nature/culture frontier. The ganika appeared as a paradoxical figure in the text. She was the remnant of barbarity, the result of undisciplined sexuality of primitive instinct, and a symptom of modernity, a perversion of the “normal” woman by modern institutions, particularly western education. She served as the pivotal intermediary figure between the advancement of man and the potential return to his former primitive self. The person who most threatened man’s ability to discipline sexuality was the ganika, whose sexual laxity stood in contrast to all social institutions which were most evolved, those institutions of marriage and family that were the only legitimate, “normal” social forms in modern Bengal.

The essay began with a bold assertion: those reformers who “seek to prevent venereal diseases and prostitution …do not bring into consideration biological facts” (57). Maitra asserted that one must use a “phylogenetic approach,” a taxonomic model of evolution, for questions of sexual diseases to produce reasoned understandings of sexual instinct and prostitution. Social reform, for Maitra, was to be rooted in science, not the shastras: “we do not want to mention any rules and regulations from the Shastras. We will only describe the rule of copulation that has been introduced in this society according to evolution (kramōtkarṣa)” (63). A scientific narrative based on objective truth was necessary to understand the evolutionary source of social ills in Indian society.

Following general statements on the nature and differences in sexual urges, Maitra constructed his theory of the roots of human sexual behavior from “lower animals” in nature. Maitra referred extensively to Lewis Henry Morgan’s thesis on the origins of man and family in his Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871) and Ancient Society (1877). In these influential ethnological accounts of modern society, Morgan argued that the patriarchal family emerged from human development. This genealogy of the original family held that the first moment of sexual development in man was “primitive promiscuity.” The story of man, according to Morgan, was one of the gradual additions of restrictions on the natural passions of man; man’s evolution is a moral one, where each stage was an “unconscious reformatory movement” testifying to the “growth of the moral idea.”


But it was the restraint of sexual instinct that distinguished modern man from his savage form, and it was the institution of monogamy that harnessed male power for the advancement of civilization.


Maitra’s essay translated and redeployed Morgan’s ideas of moral development, traveling through different stages of human evolution, beginning with animal urges and the appearance of male polygamy and female monogamy in animal species. Maitra’s use of ethnology reflected the misogynist underpinning of influential ethnological theories like Morgan’s Systems and Ancient Society and the extraordinary influential writing of Henry Lewis Maine, whose theories on primitive society and law were crucial to the codification of law in colonial India. Maitra suggested that females carry the burden of sexual attraction to bring males into the act of sexual intercourse, and that science explained the continued existence of ganikagomon in advanced forms of civilization. “In terms of scientific research,” visiting the ganika “has an easy biological and physiological truth” as “lower animals reveal the natural inclination of men to the mate with many women” (60). Women attracted and receive male sexuality, as “sexual attraction of males originates (gajānō) in females and males naturally mate with many females” (60-1). The danger of sexual attraction resided within the female: it was her mere presence, rather than male sexual urge, which threatened the progression of man. The perverse temptation of sex, held within the woman’s body, irrevocably bound man to instinct.

The narrative then shifted from the origins of sexual instinct to the key difference between humans and other animals—consciousness and the control of behavior. Maitra built on his extensive discussion of the natural evolution of society and the genealogy of the family unit with a commentary on the social difference of sexuality in the modern man. In this scheme of social development, monogamy appeared only after the long transformation of man from savage creature into civilized being.

Monogamy was, in Maitra’s eyes, a radically new institution in the evolution of human society. Maitra emphasized that since early civilization, man had satisfied sexual desire beyond the intent for reproduction, a habit not unlike eating and sleeping. But it was the restraint of sexual instinct that distinguished modern man from his savage form, and it was the institution of monogamy that harnessed male power for the advancement of civilization.

Against those doctors that did not promote a civilized sexuality, Maitra asserted that, “medically as a physician, morally as a Hindu, and compassionately as a fellow human being, we record a solemn protest against this false treatment of sex. It is better for youth to live a continent life” (63). Maitra argued that there were no known roots of the Indian prostitute, as there were no “proper histories” of ancient India. In order to understand the roots of prostitution, the history of ancient Greek civilization must substitute for a genealogy of ancient India. By placing a scientific narrative of evolution and society alongside a “knowable” archaeological history of the Greek prostitute, Maitra constructed a “scientific theory” of the prostitute in contemporary Indian society.

Victim to their own perverse instinct, society was most evolved when it excluded these “deviant” women from respectable life. Maitra warned of the dangers of respectable women falling into disrepute: “sexual instinct arises beastly desire in women in weak moments and disgraceful matters these patita [fallen women] are exposed and after this they become a known as a ganika” (66). This was the paradox of modern society, where the natural sweetness of woman became perverted through modern institutions like education, leading to the continued presence of barbarous sexualities in abnormal women and a persistent danger to men.

The narrative of biological and historical advancement does not simply give rise to modern civilization. Rather, the very process of evolution, for Maitra, was fraught with danger. Every minor drive and every slight display of excess threatened to produce pathological aberration in the path to modernity. In Maitra’s narrative, ganikagomon required a scientific, reasoned narrative of origin. The contrast between primitive and civilized family and sexual life made sense only by postulating that the former had evolved into the latter. That, in other words, the ideal bhadralok monogamy was not natural, it was something better: it was the final culmination of a millennia-long development, the very point to which all recorded history had been heading. Monogamous conjugality, with the virile man at its helm, was the profound result of the labor of history, of the conscious departure of man from his savage past and the desires of women.


In 1934, Mukherji published a definitive 517-page study in English entitled Prostitution in India. It sought to trace and analyze the history of Indian sexual practices using what Mukherji insisted were the unique insights of a medical doctor who had personally examined prostitute patients. Like Gyanendrakumar Maitra and his essay on social evolution and sexuality, Santosh Kumar Mukherji, a prominent medical doctor in Calcutta—he was awarded the Padma Shri for Medicine in 1962—deployed the figure of the sexually transgressing woman to understand the contours, limits, and possibilities of a modern samaj (society).

Prostitution in India expanded on his earlier study entitled Indian Sex Life and Prostitution. Republished in 1986 and hailed as the definitive account of the history of prostitution in Bengal by Bengali sociologist Biswanath Joardar, Mukherji’s textbook circulated widely and was printed in several editions after 1934. The textbook reflected earlier Bengali scientific ideas about the figure of the prostitute and social regeneration, and also provided new, in-depth philological interpretations of Hindu mythological texts to understand the historical development of this figure in modern India (iv). Mukherji betrayed his communal bias against Muslims, tying the Muslim conquest of Bengal to the sexual perversion of women and the rise of prostitution (like many contemporaneous writings on Banglar samajik itihas—the history of Bengali society). Mukherji’s studies positioned prostitution as an anchor to philological method and sociological inquiry into the basic structures of marriage, family, kinship, and reproduction in Indian society.


Mukherji shared Maitra’s suspicion of modern institutions and their role in exposing and corrupting Indian girls: organizations like “girl schools” in India were, he argued, primarily sites for the production of prostitutes.


For Mukherji, much like Maitra, marriage was the “product of civilization”: women became prostitutes because they were enslaved by their “animal nature” (2-4). In this scheme, the appearance of the prostitute in Indian society was the result of “degeneracy” or reversions to “the primitive man” (5). In his descriptions of the science of social evolution in India, Mukherji united a biological evolutionary model with social evolutionary ones. He used the language of both biological development and ethnology of primitive promiscuity alongside an in-depth philological engagement with Sanskrit texts, including the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Sanskrit “erotics,” especially the Kamasutra. The book provided extensive analyses of sexual relationships featured in a range of ancient Hindu texts. Ultimately, in his narrative, chastity became the sole imperative the “Hindu woman.” Prostitution, then, was the “byproduct of marriage,” a remnant of man’s primitive instinct.

For Mukherji, temporality was key to understanding prostitution, as its continued presence testified to the significance of primitivity in contemporary life. He emphasized how “prostitution has therefore rightly been described as a dark shadow out of the past falling now upon family life…” (26). Yet in Mukherji’s narrative of history, the continued presence of the prostitute was not only the result of instinct, but also of perversions brought first by the “Muhammedan” conquest of India. Mukherji inflammatory, communalist language sits under the guise of a scientific philology as sociology, where he deploys ancient texts to equate Muslims in India with violent conquest, the exploitation of women, and the persistence of prostitution and sexual violence in modern India. With this conquest came sexual violence and the enslavement of Hindu women in harems—to Mukherji, nothing more than brothels (70-3). European colonialism only magnified this sexual decay. For Mukherji, Europeans were indecent, indulging only in gambling and perverse sexual pleasures. In this history, colonialists introduced syphilis to India and were themselves more diseased than Indians (103). Mukherji shared Maitra’s suspicion of modern institutions and their role in exposing and corrupting Indian girls: organizations like “girl schools” in India were, he argued, primarily sites for the production of prostitutes.

Mukherji justified these extensive discussions of primitivity and the history of sexual promiscuity by emphasizing that different types of prostitutes emerged over hundreds of years. These many types required detailed elucidation and analysis (33-6, 107-130). Throughout this discussion, Mukherji produced an equivalence between a range of Bengali terms for the sexually deviant woman and the English classification “prostitute,” translating a range of practices outside the conjugal home to the classification “prostitute.” In his view, all women outside the purview of Hindu monogamous marriage risked becoming prostitutes.

Indeed, he emphasizes that all women had the potential to become prostitutes. He includes married Muslim women, performers, maidservants, female cooks, women laborers in the mills of Calcutta, nurses, the panwalli (girl selling beetle leaf), and even women in companionate love marriages who did not see marriage as a permanent institution, whom he equated with concubines (34). In footnotes to his book, Mukherji devoted his attention to the many different Bengali words which he translates as prostitute: kulatadasi (a woman from a bad family or fallen outside the clan), kulata (a bad woman), swarini (a self-assertive woman), nati (actress/female performer), rupajiba (a woman who lived by her beauty), magi (whore or slut), beshya (promiscuous woman or prostitute), and many more. This figure of the deviant woman, the potential prostitute, is always outside of the permanent, monogamous, conjugal home, vulnerable and simultaneously dangerous through her public exposure. Mukherji saw his study as comprehensive: he dedicated chapters to the types of women who became prostitutes in colonial Bengal, the social origins of sexual deviance and prostitution, and the causes of a “woman’s fall” (155).

For Mukherji like Maitra, the scientific study of the roots of prostitution in Bengal was of vital importance to the health and social welfare of the Indian people. The historical project of naming and translating the history of prostitutes in India, in its character, terminology, and behavior, was fundamentally an ethical project. Prostitution was the most pressing social issue; it signified the largest threat to the progress of Indian society towards an enlightened modernity. Mukherji invokes the powerful imagery of the sexually deviant woman—always a potential prostitute—and in doing so constituted society as an object of a scientific study.


These textbooks produced clear theories of sexual difference: man can fall prey to instinct but has the capacity for conscious self-restraint and enlightenment, whereas woman is incapable of discipline. Alongside the delineation of sexual difference, these textbooks marked difference through a temporality of sexual restraint, those properties that make the man of the present different from that of the past. There is a sense of a deep-seeded anxiety in the imagination of the woman, fallen out of society, the ultimate temptation to man’s devolution. Here, in these theories of society, was a call to patriarchy to prevent the loss of one’s sovereignty, not only over one’s dominion, one’s family and women, but also over the self.

Through a complex process of translation of the sexual sciences and social theory, these texts characterized the supposedly “dominant” position of monogamy as the most anxiety ridden of all. It was complex and unstable: the Indian man on whom it depended had to render and abide by its limitations—consciously and unceasingly. Monogamous marriage was one of various human sexual possibilities; it was not a natural institution, but the result of a slow struggle away from nature. Presented as precarious, procreation restrained a natural compulsion which could quickly become perverse with drastic consequences. With the continued presence of the figure of the prostitute in modern India, “sexual excess” threatened to become an inevitable part of modern society. The progress of society was haunted, by the deviant woman, with sexual danger, savagery, and even complete demise. In the context of debates about caste difference and an increasingly pervasive and powerful rhetoric of Hindu masculinity in the face of colonial and (perceived) Muslim aggression, the deviant woman was a key site for new scientific claims to social sovereignty.

The deviant woman entered into and transformed the science of social progress, whether under the name of prostitute, ganika, beshya, barbonita, or barangana, throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In colonial eastern India, philological, ethnological, scientific, and historical discourses converged powerfully through the utility of female sexuality. Female sex was both a method and mode through which different writers made the “social” an object of analysis. The deviant woman cohered new relationships between scientific forms (from philology to biology to ethnology to psychology to history), defined technical processes of translation, and constituted new forms to scientific expertise. Through the figure of the prostitute, Indian social progress became a universal object of study, one that could be mapped onto a scientific imagination of a primitive past and modern social future. An exploration of this history of social scientific thought offers new perspectives to understand the power of paternalistic and deeply violent claims about sexual norms in the postcolonial world today. These histories reveal the enduring authority of scientific claims to “tradition” that equate social good with the control of women’s free will and desire.

Durba Mitra is an intellectual historian in the Department of History at Fordham University. She specializes in histories of sexuality and science in modern South Asia. For the 2015-2016 academic year, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Humanities Forum for the year of “Sex” at the University of Pennsylvania.

This article is adapted from “Translation as Techné: Female Sexuality and the Science of Social Progress in Colonial India,” in History and Technology 31.4 (2015).


Image from Flickr via Bhavishya Goel


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