The Indian Modern Girl in the 1920s and 30s
Priti Ramamurthy (University of Washington )
To my knowledge, there is no scholarly study of the Modern Girl in India. This may suggest that there was no Indian Modern Girl. I will argue that, to the contrary, such a figure circulated widely in visual representations, in commodity culture, and in political debates about Indian modernity. The Indian Modern Girl, like her counterparts elsewhere, was an international phenomenon and a heterogeneous gendered identity that women inhabited imaginatively, vicariously, and sometimes, in reality. The most convincing figuration of her as “worldly and wicked” was as a star of Indian Silent movies: hugely popular with fans, commercial successes, and recognizably cosmopolitan, sexual, and, sometimes, masculinized. The first section of the paper will discuss how the Indian movie modern girl was a transitional identity between empire and nation and why she was unacknowledgeable as a national and modern gendered subject. The Modern Girl does, however, come into full view as an icon in newspaper and magazine advertising in the 20s and 30s. The second section of the paper traces how consumption was the field through which Indian middle class women were first constituted as political subjects by their participation in the Swadeshi boycotts of foreign goods in 1905-08. Women emerge as economic subjects when consumption is internationalized and Indianized by creating a market for “national” and modern products. Rather than simply through deliberate attempts on the part of nationalist intellectuals, male and female, to create a specifically Indian symbolic and gendered order through commodity culture, however, I will argue that nationalism came to be materialized through messy entanglements between international and local capital and the colonial state over markets and tax revenues. The paper will end by suggesting why engaging the Modern Girl is important for Indian feminist historiography and why engaging gendered consumption is important for understanding modern nationalism and capitalism.