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Posts tagged ‘India’

24. The Contested Sari

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The sari as national dress was contested across the early twentieth century as people imagined visions of postcolonial national futurity. Amongst Indian Muslims, many scholars have identified an Islamisation in dress reform from the late nineteenth century. National, religious, regional and transnational modalities ceded into dress debates within various Urdu periodicals read by cross-religious Urdu reading publics. Women’s magazines also discussed local and transnational shifts in conflicting identifications of a unifying mulki [national] or qaumi [community] dress. This comportment project emerged long before a separate nation for Muslims became a viable reality.[1] In 1927, an Ismat article entitled “Hamari Labaas” (Our Clothing) was written in response to a 1926 article on Muslim women’s clothing by male author, Mohammad Zafar. The disgruntled Hamshir Nalwar from South India contested Zafar’s assertion of the superiority of pajama dupatta [trousers and veil] over saris. According to Zafar, saris displayed the nakedness of the body. Nalwar, in contrast, states that Muslim women tie their saris in a different way to Brahmin (high-caste) women so that they remain identifiable from Hindus through wrapping techniques and supplementary clothing items such as jackets, sari corners [anchal] and skirts [lengha]. In doing so, she exalts southern regionality over religion in observing dress customs. This response questions the homogenous construction of a “qaumi Muslim labaas” [national Muslim dress] and reminds us of the distinct junctures of race and class between northern and southern India. Reformers discussing “qaumi Muslim labaas” variously cited Islamic sources of authority (Quran and the Sunnah), questioned the sari’s regional popularity in east Bengal and drew on localised connections across the Indian Ocean (Burma, Malaya and Jeddah) to argue that different Muslim communities had their own dress. Others looked beyond the distinction of saris and shalwars [trousers] to argue that dress was “qaumi” if it was comfortable, modest, simple, and economical [iqtisadi] and “pak saaf” [ritually pure and clean]. This simpler, purer choice was actually very similar to the gendered elements of dress reform advocated by Hindu reformers.

Image: Ravi Varma, “Woman holding a fan” (c.1895- 1900), this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas.

[1] The Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 formally advocated the establishment of a separate homeland for Muslims.

6. Travelling to India: a handy list for the whole family

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

As a colonial officer in India, it was paramount that one knew what to expect and how to prepare for the sweltering climate. The mid to late nineteenth century saw a surge of advice books and manuals, mainly written by men, for families voyaging to the Subcontinent. One such book was entitled Real Life in India, embracing a view of the requirements of individuals appointed to any branch of the Indian Public Service (1847) by ‘An Old Resident’ which detailed precise lists of items required, ranging from home furnishings and hygiene products to clothes and ladies’ equipment for the ship. This list included white cotton stockings, white silk dittos, white muslin clothing and white nightdresses alongside soap, perfume and toothpowder. The emphasis on white represented the colonial preoccupation with purity, propriety and health in a climate that was perceived to be exotic, degenerating and dangerous, especially for women. Many of the items listed also attempted to transport and replicate the perfect English home from the metropole to the colony and such manuals were aimed at middle-class women, in particular, who would be able to afford to hire a host of ‘native’ servants (a departure from their lives in England). Resources from the colonies also enabled a more diverse consumer culture to flourish in the metropole, one that allowed a housewife to purchase branded ‘Windsor’ soap and choose from a variety of other cosmetic products sold by local producers and international companies.

Image: By an old resident, Real life in India, embracing a view of the requirements of individuals appointed to any branch of the Indian public service; the methods of proceeding to India; and the course of life in different parts of the country, London: Houlston and Stoneman (1847), Wellcome Collection, London, pp.145-146.

The Wagah Border: a site of uncomfortable contradictions

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The Wagah (or Wagha) border is the Punjab border between India and Pakistan. It is approximately 29 km from the city of Lahore on the Pakistani side and 27 km from Amritsar on the Indian side. Whilst undertaking archival research in Lahore, I was told about the daily lowering of the flags ceremony or parade which takes place at the border. I attended the parade one weekend alongside hundreds of other spectators. These border ceremonies are popular tourist attractions on both sides and are well attended by eager residents and visitors, especially on weekends and national holidays. Other parades, such as the Beating Retreat ceremony on Independence Day, are also held at the border. For me, as an historian of South Asia and a British Pakistani without the patriotic zeal of my fellow spectators, the parade was a bizarre tableau of contradictions.

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The challenges and potential of Lahori libraries and archives

By Mobeen Hussain | (@amhuss27)

On my first visit to the Punjab State Archives in Lahore this summer, I met with the archive’s Director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the Research Officer and Director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. Coupled with this enthusiasm is the “chai and chat” culture of Pakistan; before delving into your research, you may well spend some time waiting, chatting, and being introduced to people. While researchers, including myself, will be in a rush to get started, these conversations have proved to be fruitful and a great way into the history and archive culture of Lahore. For instance, through conversations with the Director of the State Archives, I found out about materials at the Punjab Public Library and ended up spending a lot of time there. Indeed, the archives and libraries provide a snapshot of the vast archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore and are great, untapped treasure troves.

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Constructing an archive: a reflection on British Library collections

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive.[1] Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database.[2] For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites.[3] World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it.[4] One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.

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Capturing the Raj: visual narratives of British India

By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition. Read more

Revisiting Kipling’s Kim

By Jeremy Wikeley

Over the summer I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim for the first time. I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to. Kim tells the story of an Irish orphan who, growing up in India, has a series of adventures, first as the protégé of an elderly Buddhist monk and later as an agent in ‘the Great Game’. Kim enjoys the excitement of espionage but he misses the freedom of life on the road. Kim is a ‘boys own’ tale, but the verve and colour of Kipling’s descriptions of India and its diversity of peoples and cultures give the novel a wider appeal, as does the theme: everyone’s torn between what’s expected of us and what we really want to do.

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