Tamil Bible Women and the Zenana Missions of Colonial South India

by Eliza F. Kent
Tamil Bible Women and the Zenana Missions of Colonial South India
Eliza F. Kent
History of Religions
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"Higher education," we are told "was to slay Hinduism through its brainw-though it has not done so yet! My sisters, you and I in all our woman's weakness and conscious insufficiency are here in In- dia to strike the death-blow, not at the monster's head but at his HEART, and by God's help we shall drain out his lifeblood yet! For I believe that the heart of Hinduism is not in the mystic teaching of the Vedas or Sharsters [sic], not in the finer spun philosophy of its modern exponents, not even in the bigoted devotion of its religious leaders; but enshrined in its homes, in the family life and heredi- tary customs of the people; fed, preserved, and perpetuated by the wives and mothers of India. .. . Let us in our Master's name lay our hand on the hand that rocks the cradle, and tune the lips that sing the lullabies. Let us win the mothers of India for Christ, and the day will not be long deferred when India's sons also shall be brought to the Redeemer's feet."'

Archival and field research drawn on in this article was carried out in 1996-97 in Tamil Nadu with grants from the Fulbright Foundation and the American Institute for Indian Studies. Generous grants from the Gender Studies Committee and the Committee on South- em Asian Studies at the University of Chicago as well as from the Woodrow Wilson Na- tional Fellowship Foundation made it possible for me to write without distraction for several valuable stretches of time. I am grateful for comments made on earlier versions of this article from Anne Hardgrove, Caitrin Lynch, and Mari Shopsis. Numerous people in Madurai, Bangalore, and Madras deserve special thanks for helping me with this project, especially Joseph Patway, Rita Wesley, and Sam, the dedicated library staff at the United Theological College.

' Miss Greenfield, "Women's Work in the Indian Mission Field," in Report of the Second Decennial Missionary Conference Held in Calcutta, 1882-83 (Calcutta, 1883), pp. 210-1 1.

O 1999 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved 0018-27 101200013902-0002$02.00

Protestant Christianity in South India displays a deep suspicion of popular religious practices that appeared to derive from the Hindu (and, less fre- quently, Muslim) pasts of converts. Such practices were especially suspect when they took place within the home, a site of considerable significance in indigenous traditions of worship. While churches and Christian schools were environments that could be controlled with relative ease, the home was seen as a place where the central project of the Protestant missionary endeavor-the gradual progression of India's population toward enlighten- ment, civilization, and Christian faith-was repeatedly and persistently un- done. As the persons held chiefly responsible for the nature and quality of "home life," Indian women came to be regarded as particularly formidable obstacles to progress; but, because of the norms of gender segregation that prevailed in almost every region of India, they were virtually inaccessible to male missionaries. With their amulets and charms, their daily devo- tions and rituals for ensuring the auspicious condition of the home and its inhabitants, Indian women had the capacity, it was feared, to unravel the tapestry of Christian understanding painstakingly created by Christian churchmen and their male students, converts, and inquirers.

The zenana missions, women's missionary organizations for the edu- cation and evangelization of Indian women, came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century, in part in response to the urgent need to contain what were seen as the subversive capabilities wielded by Indian Through lessons in literacy and needlework, Western women missionar- ies, with the help of educated Indian Christian assistants, were to trans- form Indian women into suitable wives and mothers for a new generation of "civilized" Indian men. As the impassioned speech of Miss Greenfield makes clear, the zenana missions were organized around Victorian ideas about gender, which glorified women's role as the moral guardian of the home. According to the prevailing (though not uncontested) "doctrine of separate spheres," men and women were by nature suited for work in dis- tinct arenas of life. Women's social responsibility was to create a home

The first society founded specifically for the evangelization and education of Indian women by Western women was the Society for the Propagation of Female Education in the East (SPFEE), which began in London in 1834 at the inspiration of an American missionary to China, Rev. David Abeel. At the close of the American Civil War in the 1860s, several American women's missionary societies were formed along denominational llnes as extensions of women's church auxiliary groups. These included the Baptist Ladies Missionary Society, Free Baptist Women's Missionary Society, Women's Board of Missions of the Congrega- tional Churches, Methodist Episcopal Women's Foreign Missionary Society, and Women's Foreign Missionary Society (Presbyterian). In England, the societies that supported zenana missions were the London Missionary Society, Baptist Missionary Society, Indian Female Normal School and Instruction Society, Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, and Ladies' Association for Promotion of Female Education (in association with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). Mrs. E. R. [Emma Raymond] Pitman, Indian Zenana Missions: Their Need, Origin, Objects, Agents, Modes of Working, and Results, Outline Mis- sionary Series (London: John Snow, n.d.), p. 45.

where weary husbands could retreat from the morally unsavory, market- driven world of the marketplace and where women could exercise a be- nevolent moral influence over their children. In keeping with this view, the zenana missions also embraced a concept of religion that downplayed belief and doctrine and stressed instead that the most deeply held religious commitments were embedded in the contours of everyday life, cultivated in children by women in the close, sheltered quarters of the home. Such rhetoric had strong popular appeal. In the promotional literature turned out in great quantities by Protestant foreign missionary societies and con- sumed voraciously by Christians in the metropole, these organizations were hailed as "one of the finest developments of Christian work" and the women missionaries lauded as "pioneers" of the missionary fr~ntier.~

Yet, despite the publicity they received, zenana missions achieved their stated goal of transforming Indian women into representatives of genteel Western Christian femininity, at best, only partially. As Geraldine Forbes reports in her study of the English women missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, many women who came to India as mis- sionaries were poorly trained and physically ill equipped for the rigors of life in the c~lonies.~

Much more effective as both teachers and evangelists were the educated Indian Christian women who worked as paid assistants within the zenana missions. Though sorely neglected in the official ac- counts, these women, often known as Bible women, were crucial media- tors between the culture of the mission stations and that of Indian villages and towns. They were to be the vectors of change, bringing Western notions of enlightened femininity, domesticity, and religion to the "natives," and the objects of change, demonstrating in themselves the redemptive effects of Christianization. A close examination of these important agents reveals the factors that limited the transformation of Indian womanhood along West- em lines and of Indian religiosity along Christian lines. In this article, I draw on the reports, tracts, and photographs that record Bible women's work in order to focus on three aspects of their mediating role in the ze- nana missions. First, I show how Bible women gained attentive audiences by creating bridges between Christian practices and those of their non- Christian students. Second, by focusing on how Bible women interpreted the popular religious practices of their students-such as the drinking of water brought from pilgrimage sites and the singing of devotional hymns to Hindu gods-I will show how they used those bridges ultimately as levers with which to destabilize the religious assumptions of their students.

John S. Chandler, Seventy-Five Years in the Madura Mission: A History of the Mission in South India under the ABCFM (Madras: American Madura Mission, 1910), p. 227; Pit- man, p. 21.

Geraldine H. Forbes, "In Search of the 'Pure Heathen': Missionary Women in Nine- teenth Century India," Economic and Political Weekly 21, no. 17 (1986): WS-7.

And third, I will show how they themselves were transformed through their mediation between the missions and their students among the elite- not into the paragons of wifely or material virtue envisioned in the pro- paganda of the zenana missions but into bearers of a hybrid form of female respectability that drew on both Western and indigenous codes of proper female conduct.

The zenana missions took their name from the Persian word for the inner compartments of well-to-do Muslim and high-caste Hindu homes where socially respectable women lived out their days. The practice of secluding women in these quarters was one element within a more general set of practices known as purdah, a term designating a broad range of norms and behaviors aimed at maintaining social distance between the sexes.5 Though Western women missionaries depicted the zenana as a dark and gloomy "prison" from which Indian women were to be liberated, they by and large accommodated the boundaries of domestic and female space marked out by purdah practices-all the literacy and needlework training that zenana education entailed took place within the symbolic shelter of the home.6 This is due, I believe, to a peculiar convergence in the discourse of the zenana missions of nineteenth-century, middle-class Western gender ideology and the gender ideology of indigenous elite groups in colonial India. Though based on very different arguments and assumptions, both the middle-class Western ideology of separate spheres and the elite Indian ideology that justified purdah practices measured women's social and moral status by their proximity to the home. Both ide- ologies held that women's moral constitution suited them "by nature" for lives lived out within the socially constructed limits of the domestic arena. Both ideologies were inherently class-inflected perspectives in that they denigrated the experience of working-class women (in the West) and low-caste or laboring women (in India), who by necessity worked outside the home, deeming such women less than feminine. Clearly, that women who traveled far beyond the confines of their own homes were responsi- ble for the dissemination of such ideas implies a contradiction. As we will see, this contradiction was resolved differently by Western women mis- sionaries and Indian Christian Bible women. Here, it is important to note that it was in the dynamic and continual negotiation between the different cultural assumptions behind these ideologies that a new model of ideal womanhood took shape in colonial India.

This study takes as its problem a phenomenon that has been richly explored by many scholars of colonialism. Several recent interventions into the historiography of colonialism have focused on the participation of

Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault, eds., Separate Worlds: Studies of Purdah in South Asia (Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1992).

The phrase "symbolic shelter" is Papanek's.

Western women in the imposition of metropolitan gender ideologies and notions of domesticity onto colonized peoples around the world.' A few important studies have examined the contribution of Western women mis- sionaries to the exportation of these metropolitan models of gender and social space to the colonies, and two of these have specifically focused on the role of zenana missions in the "domestication" of colonial India.8 Where Forbes focuses on the experience of English women missionaries in colonial Bombay, Jane Haggis, like myself, directs her attention to the ambivalent position of the Indian women who worked for the South Indian zenana missions. All of these studies have considerably advanced our understanding of the gendered aspects of imperial cultural politics, yet most of them underemphasize the importance of religion to the pro- cess of colonialism (a notable exception being the work of Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff ). Though attentive to the political dimensions of the missionary endeavor, especially insofar as these affected the social con- struction of gender in the colonies, feminist historians of colonized areas have tended not to explore in depth the symbolic and ritual aspects of the colonial encounter. This is a serious oversight, one that this article at- tempts to redress.

I begin this study of the Bible women of the zenana missions by placing their work in the context of the preoccupation of missionaries with reli- gious practice as a site for radical self- and social transformation. I would like to show that women's popular religious practices served as one of the

'Malathi de Alwis, "The Production and Embodiment of Respectability: Gendered De- meanours in Colonial Ceylon," in Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, ed. Micheal Roberts (Columbo: Marga Institute [Sri Lanka Center for Development Studies], 1997), pp. 105-43; John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, "Homemade Hegemony," in their Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992), pp. 265-95; Karen Transberg Hansen, ed., African Encounters with Domesticity (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Clare Midgely, ed., Gender and Imperialism (Manchester: Manches- ter University Press, 1998); Margaret Strobe1 and Naipur Chaudhuri, eds., Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

Recent studies of women's involvement in the nineteenth-century foreign missionary movement include Patricia Grimshaw, "Christian Woman, Pious Wife, Faithful Mother, De- voted Missionary: Conflicts in Roles of American Missionary Women in Nineteenth Cen- tury Hawaii," Feminist Studies 9, no. 3 (1983): 489-521; Patricia R. Hill, The World Their Household: The American Woman's Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transforma- tion, 1870-1920 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985); Jane Hunter, The Gos- pel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984); and Deborah Kirkwood, Fiona Bowie, and Shirley Ardener, eds., Women and Missions: Past and Present Anthropological and Historical Per- ceptions (Oxford: BERG Publishers, 1993). The two studies that have treated the subject of the zenana missions in India are Forbes; and Jane Haggis's recent article, "'Good Wives and Mothers' or 'Dedicated Workers'? Contradictions of Domesticity in the 'Mission of Sister- hood,' Travancore, South India," in Maternities and Modernities: Colonial and Postcolonial Experiences in Asia and the Pacific, ed. Kalpana Ram and Margaret Jolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 81-113.

many grounds on which colonial relationships of power were created through disputes over the discursive boundaries between religion and the secular and between truth and superstition. Then I discuss the actual work involved in zenana education and consider the social and ideological background of the zenana missions in light of the central metaphor of the home. Finally, I examine in close detail the reports written by Bible women in order to isolate the cultural and social factors that limited the assimilation of either Western models of ideal womanhood or Christian religious practice, which led to the formation of more hybrid forms.


In the effort to translate Christianity into forms and terms meaningful to local people, foreign missionaries in South India could not help but engage with and accommodate indigenous systems of meaning. In the mud-thatch chapels and high-steepled stone churches of the region, many missionar- ies created liturgy that they hoped would resonate with the lived experi- ences of Indian congregations. For example, Rev. Robert Caldwell of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, one of the most famous South Indian Protestant missionaries, created a church service for his Nadar con- gregation based on a ceremony that the Nadars had performed long before their conversion to Christianity. The Nadars' traditional occupation involved tapping the sweet sap of the palmyra tree for the production of toddy (a mildly alcoholic beverage made from fermented sap) and jaggery (a form of country sugar made from boiled sap). This was a dangerous and difficult job that entailed climbing trees forty to sixty feet high. At the start of the climbing season in March, Caldwell conducted a service in which members of the congregation brought to the altar the implements used by Nadar toddy tappers and offered prayers for a rich harvest and for protection from injury. Rev. Arthur Margoschis, of the Church Missionary Society, another Anglican missionary who worked closely with the Christian Nadars wrote, "Only the day was changed from that observed by the ~indus."~

Indian Christians themselves sometimes introduced into Christian ser- vices practices that derived elements of content or style from indigenous traditions, as in the Christian Harvest Festival. Though evidently pioneered in 1893 by two American missionaries connected with the missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Indian Christians

'This ritual is reminiscent of Ayudha Puja, a Hindu ritual in which people honor the tools of their trade with an offering of flowers, sandal paste, and so forth. The Nadars in the mid-nineteenth century were considered a polluting caste and were excluded from much temple-based Hindu forms of worship. That a group that was to a certain extent outside the fold of Brahmanical Hinduism had this kind of ritual is more evidence of the voluminous, eclectic, and hard-to-define nature of nineteenth-century Hinduism. Robert L. Hardgrave, The Nadars of Tamilnad: The Political Culture of a Community in Change (Berkeley: Uni- versity of California Press, 1969), p. 48; Edgar Thurston and K. Rangachari, The Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 7 vols. (Madras: Government of Madras, 1909), 6:363.

were primarily responsible for the subsequent development of the Harvest Festival. This celebration was generally held in the hot months of March and April when local Hindu villagers flocked to the annual jalliku~~uor bull-run festivals, and foreign missionaries retreated en masse to the cool- ing heights of the hill stations. At this time, church members made offerings of the season's firstfruits-jaggery, rice paddy, fowl, and other livestock-to be donated or sold for the maintenance of the church. The assembly of Indian Christians from villages and towns scattered far and wide was accompanied by great fanfare. Rev. John P. Jones of the Amer- ican Madurai Mission wrote, "On the afternoon of each second day we had a village procession when, with banners, umbrellas and similar emblems of joy and dignity and with a mighty use of voice and musical instruments, the Christians paid their respects to the Hindu community, who gaped with astonishment at this sudden manifestation of strength and enthusiasm

among the Chri~tians."'~ One wonders what these banners and umbrellas- potent symbols of sacred kingship-signified to Indian Christians and

their Hindu neighbors. From Rev. Jones's abstraction of the indigenous

meanings of these ritual objects, it seems clear that, for him, their Hindu

connotations were effectively neutralized by being placed in a Christian


This kind of indigenization of church liturgy was, however, more often the exception than the ru1e.l More frequently, popular religious practices were not assimilated into church liturgy but were assigned to the category of "superstition." Although what was identified as superstition varied over time and across the different missionary societies, what stayed consistent was the assumption of the authority to distinguish between superstition- outmoded, retrograde forms of understanding-and knowledge-Christian faith and Western science. Ecclesiastical disapproval of popular religious practices was directed most fervently at those thought to sustain caste differences, but it extended to any ceremony, gesture, or habit that appeared to express Hindu beliefs. In his study of conversion among the high-caste VellZr Christians of Pglayalikii{{ai, Dennis Hudson records the complaints of one disgruntled Indian Christian, Muttaiya Pillai, who wrote a tract condemning the efforts of missionaries to create "one life-style, one dress, one manner and one practice among Christians."12 In his tract entitled The Manners and Customs of Native Christians, and the Rules and Regulations

lo Chandler, pp. 422-23.
l1 The deliberate inclusion of elements of indigenous forms of worship into Indian Chris- tian liturgy is a rich area of contemporary research. Wo studies that have recently investi- gated the dynamics of "indigenization" are Susan Harper, "Ironies of Indigenization: Some Cultural Repercussions of Mission in South India," Bulletin of Missionary Research 19 (Jan- uary 1995): 13-20; and Zoe Sherinian, "The Indigenization of Tamil Christian Music: Folk Music as a Liberative Transmission System" (Ph.D. diss., Wesleyan University, 1998).

l2 Dennis Hudson, "The Life and Times of H. A. Krishna Pillai (1827-1900)" (Ph.D. diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1970). p. 445.

of European Missionaries, Muttaiya Pi!!ai wrote that the variety of prac- tices identified by missionaries as objectionable included

the public announcement of puberty for girls, the smearing of cowdung in houses, the painting of designs in doorways for auspicious occasions, the manner of wash- ing with water after excretion and of brushing the teeth; the practice of daily bath- ing, of bathing in the river, of taking oil baths on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and of washing one's own clothes for the sake of purity; chewing betel; showing rev- erence towards others by offering such items as sandalwood, flowers and betel; using words in the plural to show respect; and writing titles along with one's own name.13

Muttaiya Pi!!ai went to great lengths to argue that these were merely customs that were derived from the distinctive cultural milieu of South India, not from the Hindu s'dstras. The details of his debate with the mis- sionaries need not detain us here, but I do want to note that by drawing distinctions between cultural (i.e., secular) and religious practices, both Christian missionaries and Indian Christians were in effect attempting to impose or persuade one another to accept their own definitions of reli- gion. The numerous controversies that erupted between missionaries and Indian Christians over the problem of "caste practices" within the Chris- tian community appear in this light as battles over the constitution of the sphere of religion.14 Like the medieval churchmen whom Talal Asad con- siders in Genealogies of Religion, the Protestant missionaries in India strove continuously "to distinguish knowledge from falsehood (religion from what sought to subvert it), as well as the sacred from the profane (religion from what was outside it)."" And, like their medieval predeces- sors, Protestant missionaries in India set themselves up as the ultimate ar- biters of those distinctions. The boundaries between "caste" and "custom," between "religion" and "hygiene," were hotly contested precisely because the location of those boundaries entailed the acceptance of a particular view of the social order and of the moral truths that should guide its governance.

The process of categorizing different varieties of practice intensified in the second half of the nineteenth century as large numbers of the so-called low castes entered the church through group conversion. These poor and

l3 E. Muttaiya Pi!!ai, Kirisravarkalig rlcdrarnurn, Kururnrlr psrakamurn (The manners and customs of native Christians and the rules and regulations of European missionaries) (1894), reprinted in Madras by Sir David Devadoss (1950), quoted in Hudson, p. 445.

l4 For a thorough discussion of caste-related disputes between missionaries and con- verts, see Duncan B. Forrester's Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India (London: Curzon Press, 1980), esp. pp. 33-43, 122-27, 173-89.

l5 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 39.

largely uneducated converts were thought to be particularly attached to superstition. At this time, many missionary societies coordinated their efforts to establish firm categories for discriminating among various reli- gious, superstitious, customary, and caste-based practices. Missionary con- ferences made one declaration after another to distinguish between those customs that were harmless and those that were harmful to Christian faith and resolved to root out the latter while tolerating the former.16

The missionaries' obsession with identifying so-called heathen influences in the daily practices of their congregations was connected to their aware- ness of the religious dimensions of their own everyday lives. The evan- gelical leanings of most Protestant missionaries in colonial India has been well noted. Whether high church Anglican or dissenting Congregationalist, evangelicals placed great importance on an intense, personal experience of conversion. They are usually understood (and generally understood themselves) to be Christians "who believed that the essential part of the Gospel consisted in salvation by faith through the atoning death of Christ and who denied that either good works or the sacraments had any saving efficacy."17 But if, in their view, charitable works, communion wafers, and consecrated wine had no supernatural efficacy, this did not mean that they were indifferent to the significance of action for salvation. The evangeli- cal experience of conversion ideally awakened a desire to grow toward a greater realization of Christian virtue in this life through conscious atten- tion to self-improvement in one's actions and habits. Patterns of consumption, the organization of time and domestic space, and the shunning of practices such as smoking tobacco, showy dress, and gossip were significant not as signs of election to the ranks of the saved (as under strict interpretations of Calvinism) but as the means of earning salvation through the cultivation of virtue in one's day-to-day life (as in Methodist theology). Attention to the spiritual significance of everyday life by men and women of the church was closely linked with the moral reform of the worlung class in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and America. Social reformers of all stripes developed programs and campaigns that held out the promise to the working poor that cleaning up one's life would lead to upward social mobility.18

The missionaries' intense concern for the religious and social signif- icance of daily practice was shared by Indian converts from the so-called low castes, who were engaged in their own projects of social mobility

l6 Forrester, p. 71; S. Estborn, Our Village Christians: A Study of the Life and Faith of Village Christians in Tamilnad (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1959), pp. 8, 33-39. l7 Geoffrey A. Oddie, Hindu and Christian in South-East India: Aspects of Religious Continuity and Change, 1800-1900 (London: Curzon Press, 1981). p. 10. IS See E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966).

under the aegis of the sacred. Unlike high-caste VelJilar Christians such as Muttaiya Pi!!ai, low-caste converts sought to reconfigure the relations of power constructed through religious practices not by questioning the criteria that distinguished secular from religious but by questioning their right to engage in particular symbolically charged practices. For example, Christians from untouchable groups did not openly dispute the notion that carrying umbrellas was a sign of one's high social status due to associa- tions with the religious and royal symbolism of the umbrella constructed in Hindu temple-based worship. By carrying an umbrella themselves they challenged the long held assumption that they were unworthy of such signs of respectability. Through a wide variety of similarly potent ritualized ges- tures, converts from the marginalized segments of Indian society contested their ascribed location within the Hindu social order by violating taboos on the observance or nonobservance of certain practices. In the Telegu- speaking region of the Madras Presidency, converts from the untouchable leather-working caste stopped eating carrion, gave up playing the drums at village religious festivals, and refused to work on the Christian sabbath.19 In the princely state of Travancore, Nadars (regarded by many in the early nineteenth century as just above untouchable status) assumed the privi- lege of wearing garments that covered their torsos, a sign of dignity and status long denied to them.20 With these gestures and practices, low-caste converts attempted to redefine the social order through the ritualized in- stantiation of a self-perceived change in social, moral, and religious worth.

As the preceding sections demonstrate, religious practice was the ground on which the value of different conceptions of the moral and social order were contested by many different groups in colonial South India. This is not a characteristic unique to the process of religious conversion nor to social change under colonialism. But highly charged contests over the meaning of different practices, redolent with symbolic import, are per- haps particularly overt in the process of religious conversion under colo- nial rule. Here, the encounter between different systems of practice and meaning, each with their own distinct histories and their own internal di- visions, generates substantial conflict in a context of unequal power. Both the colonized and the colonizers, the converted and the unconverted at- tempt to reconcile the two conflicting systems of order in their favor-

l9 Emma Rauschenbusch Clough, Social Christianiq in the Orient: The Story of a Man, a Mission and a Movement (New York: MacMillan, 1914).

20 The so-called breast cloth or upper cloth controversies that took place in Travancore in 1858 have been the subject of numerous studies, including Robert L. Hardgrave, "Breast Cloth Controversy: Caste Consciousness and Social Change in South Travancore," Indian Economic and Social History Review 5, no. 2 (1968): 171-87; Clifford G. Hospital, "Clothes and Caste in Nineteenth Century Kerala," Indian Church History Review 13, no. 2 (1979): 146-56; and R. N. Yesudas, A People's Revolt in Travancore: A Backward Class Movement for Social Freedom (Trivandrum: Kerala Historical Society, 1975).

they give new meanings to old practices and apply old meanings to new practices. A number of different historical models have been proposed to make sense of this complex dynamic: articulation, hybridity, translation, improvisation.21 In this study, I have found useful the reflections of Stephen Greenblatt and Tala1 Asad on improvisation as a mode of behav- ior typical of colonialism through which old social structures or systems of meaning are subverted and replaced by new ones or turned toward new social projects. I prefer the model of improvisation because it is concep- tualized as a mode of behavior and therefore allows us to consider the ground of everyday life as the place where social change ultimately takes place, in interactions between and among people.

The concept of improvisation that Greenblatt developed in his study of Renaissance literature, Renaissance Self-Fashionings, to describe colonial power relations relies on two senses of the normal usage of the term. Though improvisation as a mode of power certainly evokes the sense of apparent spontaneity, the spur-of-the-moment quality of improvisation, it draws more on the idea that in improvisation one applies the elements of a given scenario toward a new set of meanings or toward a new purpose. Crucial to the success of improvisation is the identification of points of similarity between the preexisting system of meaning and the one that supplants it. As Greenblatt writes, "An ideology that is perceived as per- fectly alien would permit no point of histrionic entry: it could be destroyed but not ~erformed."~~

That an improviser first seeks to establish a com- mon base from which to depart in a new direction is what distinguishes improvisation from the simple destruction of preexisting social structures under colonialism, as in, for instance, the numerous epidemics, famines, and impulsive or systematic iconoclastic efforts to destroy culture, which are also a part of the history of colonialism.

Asad extends Greenblatt's understanding of improvisation as a mode of Western imperialism beyond the purview of cross-cultural colonial rela- tions to consider the intracultural variety of colonialism evident in, for ex- ample, nationalist movements in postcolonial states.23 The invitation Asad

On articulation, see John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); A. Foster Carter, "The Modes of Production Controversy," New Left Review 107 (1978): 47-77. On hybridity, see Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994). On translation, see Vincente L. Rafael, Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988); Tejaswini Niranjana, Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992). On improvisation, see Asad (n. 15 above); Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashionings: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

22 Greenblatt, pp. 227-28.

23 Asad, p. 12.

offers to consider improvisation with respect to relations between the members of the same culture is relevant to my investigation of the Indian zenana missions. Contrary to Greenblatt's assertion that Westerners excelled at this mode of behaving, I would argue that colonizers from the West at times displayed a remarkable lack of "ability to insinuate themselves into the preexisting political, religious, even psychic structures of the natives."24

Indeed, by examining the complex process of cultural imperialism at work in the zenana missions, one sees that Indian Christians were at times more gifted at improvisation than the missionaries. Bible women, as we shall see, were consummate improvisers. In order to redefine the religious practices engaged in by Indian women as "superstition," "ignorance," or "idolatry," Bible women had to isolate these practices from the web of taken-for-granted relations and meanings of everyday life, expose their allegedly wrong meanings, and propose suitable, persuasive alternatives. They used the very religious practices engaged in by Indian women to question preexisting relations of power and to insert new meanings into daily life. Before we examine their activities in more detail, I would like to give an overall picture of the nature of their work within the zenana missions, a detour that will allow us a basis for comparing Bible women's skills at improvisation with those of their employers.


The zenana missions were intended to make Indian women into better wives and mothers through the training of both their minds and their bodies. The two components of the work of zenana missions were instruction in read- ing and training in needlework. Drawing on a long-standing association between needlework and femininity in European traditions, Western women missionaries felt that sewing, embroidery, knitting, and lacework would inculcate in Indian women a particular style of genteel femininity.25 As Mala de Alwis argues in her study of Christian boarding schools in colonial Sri Lanka, "Sewing played a crucial role in the very moulding of Christian women, in the construction of a particular moral demeanor. It was a practice that insisted on neatness, orderliness, concentration, pa- tience, and precision."26 In addition, missionaries and Indians alike saw instruction in sewing as an inducement, an incentive offered to Indian women so that Western women could gain access to the zenana and preach the

24 Greenblatt, p. 227.
25 Rozcika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine

(London: Women's Press, 1984).

26 De Alwis (n. 7 above), p. 119.

27 Mary Chamberlain, Ftfi Years in Foreign Fields: A History of Five Decades of the WomanS Board ofForeign Missions Reformed Church in America (New York: Women's Board of Foreign Missions, 1925), p. 28. Women missionaries sometimes offered other inducements that similarly introduced Western goods and commodities into the colonial Indian house-

And yet, in the wake of debates over women's education that continued throughout the nineteenth century, the attention given to needlework in the zenana missions attracted considerable criticism. Considering it a point- less diversion from their attention to household duties, Mr. Bulloram Mul- lick, a judge in the Bengal courts, condemned the phasis paid to "fancy work" in the zenana missions. "What is wanted," he wrote, "is knowledge that will fit her for companionship, for bringing up children, for nursing her family, and for taking an interest in the welfare of all women."28 Though progressive Indian advocates of women's education appreciated the methods of the zenana missions, which allowed respectable women to study at home and protect their modesty, they were repelled by the overt proselytizing and apparent frivolity of zenana education. Subsequent to the success of Protestant zenana missions, many Indian reformers began their own institutions for instructing women.29 Perhaps in response, the missionaries redoubled their efforts to use women's education as a vehicle for spreading the gospel. Mrs. Sarah Capron of the American Madurai Mission reported that she taught no needlework in the zenanas but relied "solely on God's word."30 Amy Carmicheal of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society in Tirunelveli deplored the suggestion of one of her Bible women, Saral, that she could attract more women to hear the gospel by teaching them to knit. When Carmicheal refused the suggestion, Saral objected that "there was nothing in the Bible that bore upon pink wool and knitting needles." Carmicheal's thunderous reply, "Indeed there is! Zechariah 4:6, 'Not by my power but by my spirit,'" reflected a grow- ing missionary consensus that zenana education ought to be more serious, more explicitly evangelical, and concentrate more on Bible

Instruction in literacy in the zenana missions was organized around tracts, pamphlets, and readers produced in large numbers by missionary society printing presses. These lesson books introduced concepts such as the solar system, germ theory, and Christian notions of the good life through a series of increasingly difficult chapters. Designed to provoke discussion about the subjects of the lessons, the primers were to guide the readers and listeners to an appreciation of the greatness of the Christian God and the superiority of Christianity. In one English language lesson

hold. Women in Sivakasi still display the china figurines distributed by a Church of England Zenana Missionary Society missionary to reward students after they had progressed through a certain number of lessons (Devanesum, interview by author, Siva Kasi, Tamil Nadu, Octo- ber 27, 1996).

J. Murdoch, The Women of India and What Can Be Done for Them: Papers on Indian Reform (Madras: Christian Vernacular Education Society, 1888), p. 52. 29 Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 73 ff. 30 Henry Stanley Newman, Days of Grace in India: A Record of Visits to Indian Mis- sions (London: S. W. Partridge, n.d.), p. 315.

31 Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmicheal (Carlisle: Om Publishing, 1994), p. 100.

book, The Zenana Reader, written by Charlotte M. Tucker under the pseudonym of A.L.O.E. (A Lady of England), the fictionalized dialogue between a young Muslim wife (Sukara Bibi) and a Western woman mis- sionary (Miss Ada) gives a highly idealized representation of this style of teaching. For example, a lesson on the rotation of the planets culminates with Sukara Bibi's ecstatic wonder at the marvels of creation and its Cre- ator: "Great-glorious-most wonderful Being, who made all the suns, moons, and planets, who sends them all on their courses, and never lets them go wrong or fall!"32 Miss Ada brings Sukara Bibi to this rapturous moment through the patience with which she answers her student's ques- tions as well as her skill at improvisation: at one point, Miss Ada sticks a knitting needle through a ball of yarn in order to illustrate the way the planets rotate on their axes. Like all good pedagogues, Miss Ada here moves from the known to the unknown, from the mundane spherical nature of the ball of yarn to a cosmic vision of the planetary spheres rotat- ing in the heavens. But one wonders how persuasive a real-life Miss Ada might have been, especially if she had to use Tucker's lesson books.

In a discussion of Tucker's work, John Murdoch of the Christian Vernac- ular Education Society reviewed another of her books for women. It was published in Tamil in 1869 with the title "MBtarpficcaram" (Women, the garland of flowers), and by 1888 it had been translated into several other Indian languages. The chapter titles indicate that the point of entry for Christian values was identified as home life-sewing and washing clothes, bathing, cleanlinesslhygiene, food and drink, taking care of a sick person, giving medicines, worms and rashes. Murdoch wrote, "The results have been most disheartening. The need of such lessons seems never to have entered the mind of most [Indian] ladies. The book has after all these years had a very limited cir~ulation."~~

The kind of home life envisioned by Western missionaries-both the negative home life that needed refor- mation and the ideal toward which Indians were encouraged to strive- evidently did not evoke recognition in many Indian women.

Western women associated with the zenana missions were hampered in their ability to connect meaningfully with their Indian students (and some- times their Indian assistants) by their generally insufficient language skills as well as by the vast cultural distance that separated them from their stu- dents, a cultural gap that was frequently reinforced by racial bigotry. In addition, their commitment to a particular vision of the Indian home as the moral, hygienic, and social opposite of the English or American home

32 A.L.O.E. [Charlotte Tucker], The Zenana Reader (Madras: Christian Vernacular Edu- cation Society, 1880), p. 15. Tucker was the author of a popular series of English children's books, which shared with much children's literature of the time a propensity for saccharine sentimentality and pat moral lessons. Many thanks to Mari Shopsis for alerting me to the metropolitan significance of A.L.O.E.

33 Murdoch, pp. 27-28.

prevented them from assessing the true interests of their students. I will examine more carefully this image of the zenana in the next section, which treats the social and ideological factors behind the rise of the ze- nana missions.


Before the rise of the zenana missions in the 1860s, the only way for women with a strong sense of evangelical duty to enter the overseas mis- sionary field was to marry a seminary graduate bound for foreign lands. Missionary wives frequently established schools for girls and visited, where possible, with the wives of socially respectable classes. But such projects often floundered in the wake of domestic crises-sick children, sick husbands, or the sudden flight of servants-as the wives of clergymen discovered that the demands of family life took precedence over evange- lism. The emergence of the zenana missions, with their formal, organized evangelical and educational projects, depended on a number of condi- tions both social and ideological. Among the most important factors was the active recruitment of unmarried women who did not cany the respon- sibilities of housekeeping and raising a family. Overextended missionary wives themselves were the first to urge the denominational missionary boards to recruit single women as teachers for the girls' schools. They then formed zenana missionary societies to further the evangelization and education of Indian women. Zenana missions drew their personnel mostly from the unmarried graduates of newly established women's seminaries and normal schools. Faced with a shortage of suitable employment op- portunities in the United States and Britain, many women graduates looked to the missions for positions consistent with the ambitions culti- vated in these schools-to bring women's nurturing and edifying talents to the In England, by a fortuitous coincidence, the perceived ex- cess of single women in the mid-nineteenth century helped to supply the woman power necessary to realize middle-class women's interest in philan- thropy. The recruitment of single women missionaries capitalized on a widespread fear that Britain was overrun by "redundant females," a con- cern that was fueled by misreadings of the 1851 census report.35 In the United States, the experiences of female nurses on the battlefields of the Civil War made many people aware of the untapped resource of women's

34 Hill (n. 8 above), p. 40.

35 Erroneous interpretations of the 1851 census report of Britain published in 1862 argued that from 350 thousand to 1.1 million women of marriageable age were unable to marry be- cause of a shortage of men. Even though several commentators sought early on to counter this impression by noting that the "excess" of women consisted primarily of older widows and was due to the greater longevity of women, the myth persisted throughout the nineteenth century, fueling, among other things, the enthusiastic support of emigration for young women engaged in philanthropic endeavors. Cecillie Swaisland, "Nineteenth Century Recruit- ment of Single Women to Protestant Missions," in Kirkwood et al., ed~. (n. 8 above), p. 72.

"great executive ability and amount of energy."36 The rise in women's church auxiliary organizations was another important factor in the rise of the zenana missions. These organizations created fund-raising channels for women's projects that ran separately from those of the male-domi- nated denominational missionary boards and allowed women missionar- ies to pursue their own philanthropic ventures.37

As this brief account of the historical factors behind the rise of the zenana missions suggests, these institutions were in many ways built on the ideology of separate spheres, a complex set of beliefs, practices, and assumptions about gender that profoundly influenced gender relations in both western Europe and North America from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century.38 This ideology had its material basis in the sep- aration of the activities of production from those of reproduction in the organization of labor ushered into being by the industrial revolution and the accompanying accumulation of capital.39 But for the purposes of this article, what were more important than the causes of this discourse were its effects. Among other things, the idea of separate spheres lent force to the idea that women's moral influence through their nurturing activities could be extended beyond the literal home to a world felt badly in need of such influence. Such concerns legitimated the creation of separate women's organizations to further this cause.40 One may consider the women's foreign missionary movement as a particularly assertive interpretation of the ide- ology of separate spheres insofar as it involved the conceptualization of women's involvement in foreign missions as a natural extension of women's role as moral guardian of the home to encompass the whole world. But, while the rhetoric of separate spheres could be used to push the boundaries of women's involvement in public life, it nevertheless also had a deci- sively limiting effect. Unarguably, women missionaries focused consider- able attention on the literal home as a site of reform. Moreover, the home

36 Chamberlain, p. 8.

37 See Hill; Chandler (n. 3 above), p. 310; F. K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).

38 For a survey of the transformations the idea of separate spheres has undergone, both in American women's history and in scholarship on American women's history, see Linda K. Kerber, "Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's His- tory," Journal of American History 75, no. 1 (1988): 9-39.

39 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, Women in Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

40 Women's involvement in a number of political and social causes, from temperance to settlement houses, was legitimated by the extension of the concept of separate spheres. In the North American context, see Ian Tyrrell, Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1800-1930 (Chapel Hill: Univer- sity of North Carolina Press, 1991); Estelle Freedman, "Separatism as Strategy: Female In- stitution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930," Feminist Studies 5 (Fall 1979): 512-29; Kathryn Kish Sklar, "Hull House in the 1890s: A Community of Women Reform- ers," Signs 10 (Summer 1985): 658-77.

served as the central trope within the discourse of the zenana missions, a condensed symbol of what women missionaries were to strive for and against.

While lurid descriptions of the dark, cramped, and dirty zenana illus- trated vividly the oppression of Indian women at the hands of their men- folk, images of the zenana as a place where women cared for their children emphasized the crucial role women played as the primary educators of the next generati~n.~' As E. R. Pitman wrote in a tract extolling the impor- tance of the Indian zenana missions, "In the Zenana the influence of the mother is all-powerful. She is a devoted adherent of the old idolatry, be- cause she knows no better, and her bitterest invectives are heaped upon the heads of those who were the means of beguiling her son from the faith of his ancestors. But if the women were instructed, and led to Christ, what upheavals may we not expect, what numerous confessions, what progress in the faith of Christ?"42 Like the ideal Victorian mother, the Indian woman ruled the roost, as it were, through her moral authority. But an Indian mother's influence was felt to be "perverted to the extent that it was rooted in a staunch adherence to the "faith of the ancestors" and was expressed through myriad "idolatrous" practices.

At times, rather than being conceived as an active opponent to the civ- ilizing and Christianizing project of imperialism, the zenana was figured as an absence, a lack, that the West would fill. The famous Sanskrit lex- icographer Sir M. Monier-Williams, who in 1887 was the chairman of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, declaimed at a speech be- fore the annual meeting of this body:

True English homes are not to be found in India . . . there exists no word . . . in any Indian language exactly equivalent to that grand old Saxon monosyllable "home"

. . .that little word . .. which is the key to our national greatness and prosperity. . . . For home is not a mere collection of rooms . . . home is not a place where women merge their personal freedom and individuality in the personality of men; still less is home a place where husbands and wives do not work, talk and eat together on terms of equality. .. . Rather it is a hallowed place of rest and of unrestrained in- tercourse, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, male and female rela- tives and friends, gather together round the same hearth in loving confidence and mutual trust, each and all working together like the differently formed limbs of one body, for the general good and for the glory of the great Creat~r.~~

Monier-Williams's idealized representation of the home summoned up a range of associations. He evoked the idea of the home as the site of women's heroic work of nurture and moral upliftment, giving credit to English homes

41 Janaki Nair, "Uncovering the Zenana: Visions of Indian Womanhood in English- women's Writings, 1813-1940," Journal of Women's History 2 (1990): 8-34.

42 Pitman (n. 2 above), p. 28.

43 Quoted in Haggis (n. 8 above), p. 108.

for the material and moral successes of the British empire. He also played on a notion that came into prominence in the late nineteenth century, ex- pressed very vividly here, of the home as a sheltered space within which companionate marriage would flourish and generate harmonious social interaction around it.

We should bear in mind that not everyone at this period subscribed to this description of the Victorian home. Small but significant numbers of European and American writers and activists were questioning assump- tions about women's inherently and exclusively domestic nature. But these early feminists were probably not missionaries or missionary supporters. Patricia Hill has argued persuasively that the vast majority of women in- volved in the woman's foreign missionary movement in the late 1880s did not support the concurrent women's rights movement.44 The conservative nature of the women's foreign missionary movement suggests that by dwelling on the horrors of the treatment of women in India, missionary women deflected attention from the critique of gender relations that was emerging at the same time in Europe and North America. One of the iro- nies of the women's foreign missionary movement is that while the insti- tution of the zenana was repeatedly condemned in the movement's rhetoric, the missionaries did very little to eradicate it. Rather, the West's socially constructed image of purdah lent force to the notion that only women could teach, heal, or minister to India's women and thus opened up professional opportunities for women in India that were not available in their home countries.45

Life in the zenana appears very differently in the writings of many Indians, both Hindu and Christian. The distance between many indigenous representations of the zenana and Western ones suggests that the mission- aries' image was a stereotype. It was an exaggerated representation of Indian culture that obscured the enormous diversity of practices and be- liefs known as purdah and lent great force to the idea that Indian women needed to be rescued from their miserable condition, creating absences that Western intervention was to fill and perversions that missionaries were to set right. This is not to say that there could be a "real" or reliably accurate representation of such a hotly contested icon of social life at any time, let alone in the context of colonial society in which home life stood so often as a measure of civilization for colonizers and nationalists alike.46

Indians themselves had their own diverse ideas about the meaning of the home and of women's place within it. The gender segregation and the

44 Hill (n. 8 above), p. 35.

"See Haggis; Maneesha Lal, "The Politics of Gender and Medicine in Colonial India: The Countess of Dufferin's Fund, 1885-1888," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 1 (1994): 29-60.

"See Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds., Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989), pp. 1-26.

limitations placed on women's mobility that characterized purdah were an important part of the gender norms of Indian society, structuring relations between men and women and between different social classes. In the nineteenth century, the most common explanation for the practice of se- cluding women was that it had been adopted during the Muslim interreg- num as a means of preventing miscegenation. As such, it is bound up with golden age narratives of the subcontinent. According to many nineteenth- century experts, the decline of Indian civilization was hastened by the in- vasion of the Mughals, whose marauding hordes sexually assaulted Hindu women and thereby forced Hindu men to take extreme measures to protect them.47 Other accounts of purdah practices suggest that in the late eigh- teenth century recently wealthy families adopted the customs and values of the Mughal aristocracy, including the Muslim practice of female seclu- sion, in order to distinguish families newly arrived in the halls of Calcutta high society from their poor country neighbors. Explanations for purdah that assign the blame to an aggressive or imperialistic Muslim presence in India, and the need to mobilize against an outside other, shift attention from the important ways in which purdah has long served as a nexus for relations of power within the household. Uma Chakravarti and Nur Yal- man have suggested through very different studies that purdah ideologies may be derived from Brahmanical ideas of the importance of a woman's chastity to the honor and status of her family.48 Whatever its historical or- igins, the practice of purdah was well suited to carry meanings that signal prestige: at one stroke it demonstrated the delicacy of women who needed protection, the absence of compulsion for them to work outside the home, and visible evidence that the women were shielded from any contact with men outside the family that might lead to miscegenation.

A final perspective on the Indian home is found in the reports that Bible women produced for their supervisors. These reports convey an image of the home as an entity with relatively fluid boundaries. The picture that emerges from the Bible women's accounts is of the home as a dynamic meeting place, not a static cage. It appears that Bible women addressed a wide range of listeners as people gathered at the thresholds and verandahs of houses to listen to the Bible woman teach. Traveling sadhus, people re- turning from pilgrimage, and the husbands and male relations of the stu- dents all figure as interlocutors in the accounts of Bible women. Though the justification for the zenana missions rested on the instilution of purdah (specifically, the notion that only women could reach other women), Bible

47 Pitman, p. 7; Leigh Minturn, Sita's Daughters: Coming Out of Purdah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 75.

48 Uma Chakravarti, "Conceptualizing Brahmanical Purity in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State," Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 14 (April 3, 1993): 579-85; Nur Yalman, "On the Purity of Women in the Castes of Ceylon and Malabar," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 93, no. 1 (1963): 25-58.

women's reports suggest that in practice the codes of purdah were capable of negotiation and that Bible women taught and preached to both men and women, to anyone, in fact, who paused in the course of their paths to listen to them.49


In this final section, although I focus on the work of the Bible women who worked for the American Madurai mission, I also draw a comparison be- tween Indian Christian Bible women and another type of female religious specialist, the Vaishnavite women whose position in colonial Bengal has been richly documented by Sumanta Bane~jee.~~

I make this comparison in order to highlight the ways that Bible women drew on indigenous sym- bolic systems in the course of their work, turning Christian religious ideas toward Indian ones, and also to locate the social forces that led to the Bible women's adoption of a style of self-presentation that drastically lim- ited the assimilation of Western women's ideals of femininity.

As in many Protestant missions in other parts of India, the history of work among women in the American Madurai Mission began with spo- radic efforts by the wives of missionaries to reach Indian women through home visiting and by the establishment of schools for Indian girls. These two methods were consolidated with the founding of the Lucy Perry Noble Bible School by Eva M. Swift, an unmarried woman missionary. Swift, an American raised in Texas, came to India in 1884. At age twenty-two, she was the youngest missionary ever sent to a foreign field by the American Board. She worked at first among the schools for Indian girls established by the mission in Madurai. Then, in 1890, she began a training school for Indian women to improve their efficiency as zenana workers, Bible women, and teachers. Over the course of the next thirty years, Swift built the Bible School into a complex institution for women's work, including an industrial school, an elementary school, and a college for training Bible women. The Bible women's reports that I draw on were, with one excep- tion, written by women associated with Swift's school. These reports can- not be read as undistorted reflections on the activities engaged in by Bible women but must be considered representations of their own work in the best possible light. Given the degree of dependence that obtained between Bible women and their employers, it is not surprising that no record sur- vives of Bible women's "backstage" impressions of their involvement with the women's missionary societies. Yet, along with photographs, pamphlets,

49 See Ann Grodzins Gold, "Purdah Is as Purdah's Kept," in Listen to the Heron's Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India, ed. Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Ann Grodzins Gold (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 164-81.

50 Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nine- teenth Century Calcutta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1989).

and biographies, these reports give some indication of the tasks and roles Bible women assumed. As their reports reveal, they became quite skilled at a style of pedagogy that relied on improvisation, the ability to recognize and creatively act on opportunities to destabilize the assumptions held by their students.

Like the Indian Christians involved in the Harvest Festival, Bible women grounded their preaching and teaching in indigenous tropes that could convey the greatness and majesty of the Christian God to an Indian audience. Even the medium in which they worked proved remarkably effective at attracting and keeping attentive audiences. Like other indige- nous religious specialists, Bible women used music a great deal in their evangelism: they sang in order to attract people's attention and used hymns to answer questions put to them by inquirers and to comment on passages taken from the Bible. The agility necessary for this kind of improvisation is considerable, requiring an ability to identify the concerns of students and match their questions with appropriate hymns or verses from the Bible that could, potentially, grasp the moral, social, or religious structure alluded to in the question and move it in another direction. Pitman quotes from a report from a Bengali Bible woman in which one can see the bridges being made between the concerns of her students and her own agenda to preach the gospel as broadly as possible. The Bible woman wrote,

By this time, about fifteen women had gathered round. I told them about our Savior sitting by the well of Samaria; of the woman who came to draw water, and of His conversation with her. "What did He mean by the water?'asked one young woman. I told them He meant the Holy Spirit, which is given to every one that asks, and that He satisfies the soul, so that there is no more craving for the things of earth, and that whoever has the Holy Spirit in the heart will hereafter obtain eternal life in heaven. Finding them interested, I went on to tell them how the Holy Spirit had been obtained for us. One woman, I found, could read. I showed my books, and opening the Gospel of John, I pointed out the chapter which tells of living water. She bought the book, and then I went away. Asking Christ to go with me and direct my steps, I was led to go into a Babu's house. The door was open, and I heard two female singers singing. A number of the neighbors had collected, and I went in and stood with them. The singers sang the praises of Krishna. After they had done, I stepped forward and said, "I also know some good songs; let me sing one." So I had permission, and I sang Christian bhajan~.~'

The female singers mentioned in this report might well have been Vaish- navis, female devotees of Vishnu, who performed songs in the zenanas and bazaars of colonial Bengal. Christian Bible women had a great deal in common with these performers. Like the Vaishnavis, Bible women crossed barriers of caste and class in their work. Bible women and Vaishnavis both

51 Pitman, p. 38.

gained entrance to the zenana in spite of their social distance from their students so that they could give moral and religious instruction and literacy training to the nonliterate wives of the elite. And like their Vaishnavite counterparts, Christian Bible women drew on homely metaphors to occa- sion discourses or songs on topics having to do with religious history or theology.

The Bible woman in the example above skillfully threaded the motif of water through a variety of contexts-from the well in the New Testament story of the Samaritan woman, to a theological reflection on its meaning (spun in the direction of the material, this-worldly benefits of salvation), to the ready location of it in the Gospel of John. Bible women's facility with the Bible is a noteworthy religious practice that deserves some atten- tion as one of the things that distinguished them from other indigenous religious specialists. When done well, a Bible woman's ability to locate on the spur of the moment a particularly appropriate Bible verse or chap- ter constituted an impressive display of textual virtuosity. The reader, per- haps clumsy and unfamiliar with the thick book in her hands, thumbed through the pages to find the verse cited by the Bible woman, and the words of the verse appeared right in the exact place the Bible woman pre- dicted. If the words then read aloud were indeed relevant to the topic or question at hand, the effect of incontrovertibility, of the singular aptness of these words, would have been unmistakable. The magic of literacy, of being able to locate in an instant a passage or verse appropriate to the mo- ment, may well have been an important part of Bible woman's effective- ness as an evangelist (see figs. 1 and 2).

The ability to think on her feet and respond imaginatively to the ques- tions of her students or to unexpected events that took place in the course of home visits seems one of the more important evaluative criteria that Bible women themselves brought to bear on their work. The following report, which was written in 1893 by J. Jesuvadial, a Bible woman who worked for the American Madurai Mission, demonstrates how she juxta- posed her students' conceptions of divinity to her own and undermined the relations of power and meaning supported by these concepts: "When I read the Bible and sang songs in a new house, many people listened with interest. When I went there again a woman said, 'We don't want you to read here. If we read about your god, our house-god [erika! viguc cuvdmi ] will run away. Therefore you needn't read for us.' I replied, 'If a house-god runs away in the face of mere words about the true god, it is a false god indeed. If the house-god is powerful, why does he need to run?'"52 Tamil domestic deities [vifiuc cuvdmika!] were conceived as by nature fickle

52 United Theological College Archive (henceforth UTC), American Madurai Mission (henceforth AMM) box 26, Bible women's reports.

and difficult to please. With their acute sensitivity to proper treatment, domestic deities operated as barometers of the moral well being of a house- hold, revealing and punishing infractions of the moral order. If neglected, they would temporarily abandon the house, send sickness onto its mem- bers, possess one of the family members, and/or plague the household with numerous vague maladies and apparent accidents. The rituals and sacrifices undertaken to appease these deities helped to restore harmony among family members through the public airing and addressing of sources of tension. The causes for a deity's displeasure would be revealed through trance or divination, allowing subjects that were difficult to talk about to gain expression, and a sacrifice or ritual would give closure, at least tem- porarily, to the crisis. With her bald statement, "it is a false god indeed," Jesuvadial reduced the sensitive balance of power between family mem- bers registered by household deities to a question of the house god's power or lack of power in the face of a new god. If it runs away, it is not because it is furious at the household for trafficking with polluting outsiders, she claimed, but because it is afraid. One need not be a die-hard Durkheimian to note the ways in which social structure is reflected in the nature of a society's gods. By delegitimizing the household deities, Bible women were attacking the family structure that they governed, which women played a very important role in maintaining.

It is important to note that Jesuvadial did not immediately deny the re- ality of the household god, but rather she maintained that it was real so that she could argue that it was weak. According to her narrative, she per- suaded at least one listener to her point of view. Jesuvadial continued: "When I spoke about the true savior and his love, an older woman said, 'How long will we submit [ettagai ndlaikkuk kaJJuppaJuttaldmd] to a god who runs like that? As soon as he sees the good one, the bad one runs away. There are no gods, there are no demons. The creator is the only one. All ghosts are just mentally produced. [Cuvdmiyumillai, piitamillai. Unpik- igavar oruvar tan. P2yelldm magapp2y t~?~.]"'~~

Whether for reasons of rhetoric or descriptive accuracy, Jesuvadial put the most definitive state- ment of the irreality of Tamil gods in the mouth of her student, the older woman. It appears that this woman came perilously close to a position of complete skepticism, but this should be seen as an effect of translating the report into English. Cuvdmi is a word used very generally by Tamil Hin- dus to designate a wide range of supernatural beings from local deities (whose power is relatively restricted) to the gods of the pan-Indian Hindu pantheon (whose power is more encompassing). Here, the relative in- significance of all Hindu deities is reinforced by placing cuvdmis (the gods) in the same category as bhuts (demons) andpeys (ghosts), in contrast to the single creator God of the Christians, the Un~akigavar. In order for

53 UTC, AMM box 26, Bible women's reports

Jesuvadial to make her initial argument about the superior power of her deity, she needed to sustain the reality of the gods of her potential students. But in the end, with the older woman's statement, "all ghosts are just men- tally produced," they are reduced from being merely weak to being totally nonexistent except in the flimsy world of the mind.

Sometimes Bible women first established a basis of similarity between their own beliefs and practices and those of their students only in order to dramatize their ultimate difference, as in the above report. At other times, Bible women initially denied any connection between their own practices and those of their non-Christian students, only to subtly suggest that Christian practices worked along the same principle as Hindu prac- tices but more effectively, as in the following report by Jesuvadial.

When I was teaching in a house, a girl came bringing water [tannir]and the ash [sdmbal] that they smear on their foreheads and gave it to them. They received it with great care, drank the water and smeared themselves with the ash. When I looked at them and asked what it was, they answered it was holy water [tirttam] brought from Ramesvaram by a lady who had gone there. "If we drink it we can obtain merit [punniyam]," they said, "It is water given by a great man [periyavar]." I was astonished to see such ignorance. I said, "When I am sick, if you eat medicine will I become healthy? If she goes to Ramesvaram, how can you obtain merit? Is it possible that this water can cleanse our sins [pdvattai I? Our sins will not be absolved by the merit performed by an even bigger sinner than o~rselves."~~

Jesuvadial here appears to be energetically denouncing the beliefs and practices surrounding pilgrimage. She first starkly identified the interper- sonal relations structured through the exchange of holy water and ash from the "great man" to the pilgrim and from the pilgrim to her friends and relatives at home. Then she subjected the power dynamics that ani- mate these relationships to critical scrutiny, undermining the authority of the "great man" with her assertion, "our sins will not be absolved by the merit performed by an even bigger sinner than ourselves." Finally, she mocked the reverence with which her students regarded the social rela- tions and the understanding of sin and its management that are embodied in the ritual of pilgrimage and summed up her assessment of the pilgrim- age system with the statement, "I was astonished to see such ignorance." But, after this speech, Jesuvadial turned to an argument that, though per- haps not theologically correct from a Christian perspective, is nonetheless persuasive and familiar within the local context. She wrote, "I said, 'For the cleansing of sins, this water, these ashes and pilgrimage will not help. If we believe in the one who came to cleanse our sins and save us, if we confess our sins, and accept forgiveness [magnippu]from him, our sins will be cleansed by the blood that he spilled on the cross."'55 She argued,

54 UTC, AMM box 26, Bible women's reports.
55 UTC, AMM box 26, Bible women's reports.

in effect, that her God, her guru, was more powerful and effective than that of her students.

In the symbolism used by both the Bible woman and her students to convey spiritual power, one finds the point of similarity necessary to grasp the truths of the other. Through their absorptive, liquid properties, both the blood of Jesus and the water from Ramesvaram dissolve and wash away the sins of humanity. But rather than being supercharged by the moral qualities that derive from the multilayered sacred history of Ramesvaram and the austerities performed by the holy men who reside there, the blood to which Jesuvadial referred gets its power from Christ's redemptive suffering on the cross. Though the idea of gaining merit or spiritual power through physical suffering is a religious idea common to both Hinduism and Christianity, this avenue was not further explored by Jesuvadial. Rather, her staunch advocacy of the superiority of her God finally aroused resistance. "A man of influence [periyamaguksag] said an- grily, 'Don't spoil the work here. You are the only one who needs that. We don't need it.'"56 This man's reproach raises an objection to zenana evan- gelism frequently reported by Bible women, namely, that while Chris- tianity is perfectly well suited to the poor and socially marginalized Indians who converted in large numbers, it is not appropriate for people of influence and status.

Although the missionaries of the American Madurai Mission did not keep records of the castes of the women who became Bible women, ref- erences to the fact that they should ideally come from respectable families suggest that many of them gained access to elite households because they shared the same social background as their students. Yet, in her study of Bible women associated with the London Missionary Society in Travan- core, Haggis has found that the Indian women who worked in the zenana missions there were generally from low-caste backgrounds. Many other sources indicate that in general Bible women were of lower social and economic status than their students. In her novel, Saguna (1895), Kirubai Satthianathan, the wife of prominent church leader Samuel Satthianathan, suggests that the poverty of Bible women aroused ambivalence even within segments of the Indian Christian community. When the eponymous heroine expresses her desire to join a preaching tour, her brothers mock and tease her: "They called me a Bible woman, and gave me a few tracts and some battered, worn-out books which they told me to carry under my arm just as the typical Bible woman did."57

Nineteenth-century experiments in lay ministry among the urban poor of London provided the model for Bible women in India. The Ranyard Mis- sion, begun by Mary Ranyard in 1857 as the "Bible and Domestic Female

56 UTC, AMM box 26, Bible women's reports.

57 Mrs. S. [Kirubai] Satthianathan, Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life (Madras: Srinivasa, Varadachari, 1895),p. 132.

Mission," had an agenda similar to that of the Indian zenana missions: "to reach and purify the foundation of social influence by penetrating the home-life of our pe~ple."~' Motivated in part by Methodist anticlerical sentiments, Ranyard sought to bridge the social distance between her fel- low evangelists, for the most part educated and middle-class women, and their target audience, mill workers and factory girls. As she wrote, the people are "tired of what they call 'parsons' and 'humbug.'" What the peo- ple needed, she felt, was a new kind of agent, "a woman of their own class who could speak as they spoke, understand their difficulties and be as it were like themselves, only transformed by her faith and her Christian- ity."59 Like the "missing link represented by the Bible women of London, the Bible women of India, it was hoped, would be more effective at making contact with non-Christians than European or American women, whose grasp of the language and culture was understandably often less than com- plete. In addition, they would serve as role models, demonstrating in their person the transformative capacity of the Christian faith. To quote the founder of one of the first schools in India established expressly for the training of Bible women, Eva Swift: "The people will not come into a Christian church to be preached to, so we must send the preachers to them. And who so fit to go to them, as the people of their own tongue, those who themselves have been brought out of darkness, and can witness to the glory of His marvelous light."60

Whether Bible women themselves came from high caste communities (as the accounts of the American Madurai Mission suggest) or from those of lower castes (as Haggis's study suggests), their life stories reveal that many of them came to the missions after enduring considerable hardship and were for the most part marginalized from elite Tamil society. Many of them were widows or women estranged from their husbands. Without husbands and, thus, without the protection of the patriarchal household, widows and abandoned wives were vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation.61 One brief example of the trajectory of a Bible woman is given by Gnanaprahasiammal, one of the most senior Bible women in Swift's school (see fig. 3). Gnanaprahasiammal was alternately abused and abandoned by her husband throughout her married life. The daugh- ter of a Christian school teacher from Tirunelveli, she achieved a certain

58 Mary Ranyard, quoted in Haggis (n. 8 above), p. 100.

59 Ranyard, quoted in Peter Williams, "The Missing Link: The Recruitment of Women Missionaries in Some English Evangelical Missionary Societies in the Nineteenth Century," in Kirkwood et al., eds. (n. 8 above), p. 47.

60 UTC, AMM box 19, folder 6.

Partly because of the fact that widows of many of the so-called low-caste communities of South India were free to remarry, widow remarriage became associated with low status and sexual promiscuity. Widows who did not or could not remany mostly faced the dim prospect of unpaid servitude in the house of a relative or a life of prostitution. The anxiety surrounding the supposedly uncontained sexuality of unmanied women was such that in many Indian lan- guages the word for widow is the same as the word for prostitute.

Gnanaprahasiarnmal found work with the American Madurai Mission. Through independent study of the Bible, she prepared herself to work as a Bible woman for Swift's predecessor in the department of women's work. Swift, Gnanaprahasiammal's biographer, notes with some satisfaction that she lived to the ripe age of seventy-one and outlived her husband, who died contrite and utterly dependent on her.62

As with Gnanaprahasiammal, Bible women's association with the Prot- estant missions gave them an opportunity to craft new personae for them- selves, to develop skills and a degree of independence unusual for women at the time. And yet, there were firm limits on the extent to which they could construct new identities. These limits were imposed not only by the ideals of domesticity promoted by the zenana missions but also came from pressures within colonial Indian society. Bible women faced the same kinds of pressure that successfully banished the Vaishnative singers from the zenanas of the bhadralok, the Bengali colonial middle class. With their frequently bawdy lyrics and unmarried condition, the Vaish- navis were considered at best a bad moral influence on the genteel ladies of the bhadralok, the bhadramahila, and at worst prostitutes. As Banerjee writes, "What used to be innocent fun, now held a threat to domestic sta- bility, thanks to the 'enlightenment.'"63 Bible women were by no means as likely as Vaishnavite singers to spice up their narratives with sexual allusions. But, as unattached women who moved around in the course of their work, Bible women, too, were constrained by the new strictures of colonial Indian standards of respectability.

Like Vaishnavis, Bible women had to negotiate the prevailing gender norms, which took a dim view of women who moved outside the safe and respectable boundaries of the home. Whereas the wandering typical of Bible women's work was not considered extraordinary for men, for Indian women of respectable families, it was highly unusual. Itinerancy in colo- nial India was associated with two groups of Indian women, neither of whom garnered much social status: working women from lower castes who were engaged in trade and wandering religious women who were of- ten associated with pro~titution.~~

At a time when the mark of respectabil- ity for women was their restricted mobility, Bible women had to develop strategies for projecting an honorable, respectable image in order to carry out their vocation.

One way that Bible women were able to transgress these social codes was by projecting an image of superchastity. Bible women worked within

UTC, AMM box 19, folder 6. 6' Sumanta Banerjee, "Marginalization of Women's Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal," in Sangari and Vaid, eds. (n. 49 above), p. 153.

64 Besides the Vaishnavis of Bengal, consider, for example, the descriptions of Basavis of the Kannada-speaking regions and the Matangis of the Telegu-speaking regions in the series by Thurston and Rangachari (cited in n. 9 above).

established definitions of femininity to craft personae that made them non- threatening guests in the zenanas of elite women. In a fundraising pam- phlet produced in 1916, Swift writes, "When I first came to India I used to hear it said that the chief qualifications for Bible-woman's work was 'age and ~gliness."'~~

As was mentioned in my earlier discussion of purdah, the ideology behind the prohibition on women inhabiting public space in India had to do with protecting their chastity and thus the honor of their male family members. On account of being physically unattractive, or having passed beyond the stage of being perceived as a sexual person, middle-aged Bible woman "earned," so to speak, the right to move freely in public space denied to most Indian women. As ostensibly nonsexual beings, they were neither threats to the dominion of wives within the zenana nor targets for sexual predation in public. In their style of self-presentation, Bible women went to great lengths to de-emphasize all traces of their sexual desirability or availability. They removed their jewels and wore white saris, drawing on widely recognized markers of virtuous widow- hood in its ascetic and asexual mode, and carried enormous cloth-covered Bibles as a visible sign of their vocation as religious women (see fig. 4).66

This manner of self-presentation is clearly not a straightforward adop- tion of the notions of female respectability engendered by Western women missionaries. The Bible woman here is not the refined "angel of the house" of the Victorian imagination. But neither is she the genteel bhadramahila of the Bengali bhadralok imagination. By drawing on a variety of local sartorial conventions, mainly from the highly stigmatized tradition of Indian widowhood, Bible women conveyed the image of an independent woman who could move between the worlds of the Protestant mission and the local Indian environment.


The Protestant missionary project of religious conversion did not simply involve a change in the beliefs or the mind-set of Indians. Like any pro- cess of religious change it was intricately connected with the meanings and structures of nonreligious aspects of life. In fact, I would argue that the ideological work of the missions consisted in great measure in the as- sertion of criteria that distinguished religious and nonreligious practices and symbols and further distinguished salutary religious practices from ones harmful to both spiritual and material well being. In the churchmen's relentless struggle against "superstition" one senses an implicit aware- ness of the ways in which the signs and practices of the everyday life worlds of Indians harbored rival cosmological and moral meanings. Such outmoded forms of belief and practice were felt to stand in the way of the

65 UTC, AMM box 19, folder 2.

66 D. S. Batley, Devotees of Christ: Some Women Pioneers of the Indian Church (London: Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, 1937), p. 130.

general enlightenment of all Indians, whether staunch Hindu, curious in- quirer, or believing Christian. Insofar as the home was considered the seedbed of popular religious practices construed as "superstition" or "idol- atry," it became a privileged site of intervention.

From the point of view of the zenana missions, supple techniques of ex- posure and persuasion were required for the task of establishing the truth of Christian ways of living and transforming the home into a space that would produce "enlightened" subjects through the cultivation of Christian habits and dispositions. I have argued in favor of considering this process of transformation an improvisational mode of relating. In terms of their personal interactions with Indian students, British and North American women may have been clumsy improvisers; but, from a broader perspec- tive, one can see that through their collusion with the colonial state and through the apparatus of the larger missionary project (including schools, presses, and vast fund-raising networks in the metropole), they enabled exactly the kind of insinuation into everyday life that is the hallmark of colonialism. Building on top of preexisting systems of gender segregation manifest in purdah practices, Western women missionaries attempted to turn these toward a new sociomoral project-the transformation of Indian women into "enlightened wives and mothers according to a Victorian ideal. But they were limited, as they themselves recognized, in terms of their face-to-face encounters with Indian women. Bible women were far more skilled than their employers at identifying points of intersection between the ideas and practices of Christianity and those of indigenous religious traditions through which new meanings and structures could be introduced. And yet, in order to make the Christian concept of God per- suasive and comprehensible to their audience, Bible women attached local meanings to their deity, arguing that, for example, the blood of Jesus was better at washing away sins than water brought from Hindu pilgrimage sites. Bible women achieved a compromise position between Western and Indian modes of femininity as well. Far from contesting the gender ide- ology characteristic of high-caste Hindus and Muslims, the zenana mis- sions worked within established definitions of respectability, which held that the honor of a community depended on its ability to control the move- ment and sexuality of its women. Through their style of self-presentation and in addition to their work of education and evangelization, the Bible women helped to disseminate a new ideology of femininity among Indian Christians and the wider population. Bible women instantiated an ideal of respectable femininity that became very important in early twentieth- century India, according to which women's physical mobility and partic- ipation in public life was made contingent on the erasure of her sexuality.

Denison University

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