Dangerous Outcast: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal

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Seagull Books, 1998 - Prostitutes - 228 pages
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Like other pre-colonial socio-economic formations, the profession of prostitution also underwent a dramatic change in Bengal soon after the British take-over. Dangerous Outcast explores the world of the prostitute in 19th century Bengal. It traces how, from the peripheries of pre-colonial Bengali rural society, they came to dominate the centre-stage in Calcutta, the capital of British India thanks to the emergence of a new clientele brought forth by the colonial order. This work examines the policies the British administration implemented to revamp the profession to suit its needs, as well as to screen its practitioners in a bid to protect its minions in the army from venereal diseases (the harsh measures adopted for this foreshadowing the present day attempts at persecution of AIDS victims among prostitutes). It also analyses the class structure within the prostitute community in 19th century Bengal, its complex relationship with the Bengali bhadralok society and, what is more important and fascinating for modern researchers in popular culture the voices of the prostitutes themselves, which we hear from their songs, letters, and writings, collected and reproduced from both oral tradition and printed sources. This is an area which has hitherto received little serious attention from historians and scholars. It acquires relevance today in a situation where the heirs to the profession described in this book are themselves getting organized in different parts of India to seek justice and demand rights, thus reviving the old debate over legalization or prohibition of their professional work. One of the most misunderstood communities of commercial workers, they were condemned by 19th century Bengali society (and are even today relegated to the underworld), which failed to see them in a social, psychological and political context. Sumanta Banerjee breaks new ground by situating them in this context, and analysing the intersection which they occupied in a colonial Bengal where different segments of the population ranging from British soldiers to Indian workers converged and crossed each other for a brief while. Exhaustively documented and illustrated, drawing upon contemporary records both official and popular Dangerous Outcast is a major contribution to the ongoing research on 19th century Bengal in general, and feminist studies in particular. Sumanta Banerjee, born in 1936 and educated in Calcutta, was formerly with The Statesman newspaper. He is best known for his The Simmering Revolution: The Naxalite Uprising and The Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry, two seminal texts on the Naxalite Revolt. His milestone study, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in 19th Century Calcutta, was published by Seagull in 1989. He is at present based in New Delhi, doing research on the popular culture and religion of Bengal.

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