Marriage and Modernity

Family Values in Colonial Bengal

Marriage and Modernity

Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 42 photographs, 2 tables Published: April 2009

Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

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 larger, 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.

Majumdar examines three broad developments related to the modernity of arranged marriage: the growth of a marriage market, concomitant debates about consumption and vulgarity in the conduct of weddings, and the legal regulation of family property and marriages. Drawing on matrimonial advertisements, wedding invitations, poems, photographs, legal debates, and a vast periodical literature, she shows that the modernization of families does not necessarily imply a transition from extended kinship to nuclear family structures, or from matrimonial agreements negotiated between families to marriage contracts between individuals. Colonial Bengal tells a very different story.


“Majumdar taps an unsual archive—of photographs and documents, marriage invitations, pamphlets and even jewellery catalogues. It is a fascinating and meticulous study which is likely to stir up debate and discussion on an aspect of everyday Indian life.” — Chirosree Basu, Telegraph India

“Majumdar’s gripping first study. . . . Marriage and Modernity is a provocative history of the institutionalization of arranged marriage in Bengal.” — Ruby Lal, Feminist Studies

“Rochona Majumdar’s monograph ... raises interesting questions about the relationship between wealthy landed families and aspiring urban professionals in Bengal... [An] invaluable research and teaching [text] that can be put to very good effect.” — Catherine H. Warner, Feminist Formations

“[T]his is a timely book that takes a fresh look at marriage in colonial Bengal. . . . Majumdar’s monograph adds a refreshing new chapter to the scholarship on gender on the subcontinent—on the that undoubtedly will clear ground for further debate. In its scope and argument, the book will appeal to historians of South Asia and to gender specialists, in particular to those who are interested in rethinking gender from a postcolonial perspective.” — Varuni Bhatia, Journal of Asian Studies

“Majumdar’s engaging and well-written study stages a provocative argument: that arranged marriage and the joint Hindu family in India are modern historical forms. . . . Majumdar has compiled a rich and unique archive of social memorabilia for this project. . . . Majumdar has offered a sharp and readable study that will provoke interest and debate among historians of colonial and postcolonial India, feminist scholars, and anyone interested in the complexities of global modernity.” — Rachel Sturman, Asian Studies Review

“Majumdar's discussion of the matrix of influences that impacted arranged marriage is a fascinating study in the modernization of customs.” — Eirene Faust, Feminist Review blog

“Rochona Majumdar’s Marriage and Modernity is a fascinating discussion of the evolution of modern marriage practices in Bengal and India. . . . This book makes accessible in English a wide range of new and important Bengali-language materials. . . . South Asianists who believe that Bengal has been ‘over-studied’ and can contribute little new to the study of Indian or South Asian history will have to rethink their positions on reading this book.” — Judith Walsh, H-Net Reviews

“The beauty of this elegant study is that it explains modern ideas of love as sacrifice, of family duty and devotion to one’s husband by setting them within a larger and material set of modern transformations that include consumer products and new institutional networks.” — Francesca Orsini, Social History

“Modern marriages, Rochona Majumdar tells us in this engaging and insightful study, are not the same everywhere. The arranged marriages of privileged families in colonial Bengal turn out to have innovative standards, rituals, and property arrangements, which together reveal key dimensions of the contested relationships—among individuals, conjugal couples, and extended families—characteristic of Indian modernity.” — Barbara D. Metcalf, co-author of A Concise History of Modern India

“Rochona Majumdar’s provocative argument about Bengali arranged marriages as a sign of the colonial modern in India will generate both widespread interest and debate. This fresh and sparkling account of arranged marriages—constructed, in large part, on the basis of a richly rewarding archive made up of wedding invitations, menu cards, jewelry catalogues, and family photographs—succeeds at an important level; that is, in giving arranged marriages a history. No longer do these marriages appear only in their incarnation as markers of cultural tradition; rather, arranged marriages come to represent a complex field of social practices that are shaped by the tensions and contradictions of particular contexts. Marriage and Modernity is the kind of ambitious and imaginative book that will speak to multiple constituencies.” — Mrinalini Sinha, author of Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I. The Emergence of a Marriage Market

1. Looking for Brides and Grooms 23

2. Snehalata's Death: Questions of Dowry 54

Part II. Culture and the Marketplace

3. Marriage and Distinction: New Critiques of Vulgarity 93

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

Part III. Marriage and the Law

5. A Nineteenth-Century Debate: Law versus Ritual 167

6. Nationalizing the Joint Family: The Hindu Code Debate, 1955-56 206

Conclusion 238


1. Wedding Invitations 244

2. Jewelry Catalogues 253

Notes 259

Glossary 301

Bibliography 311

Index 337
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4478-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4462-9
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