Love in pre-colonial times

As part of Sunaparanta’s ongoing online lecture series ‘Listen In’, a lecture on ‘Friendship, Same-Sex Love and Marriage in Indian Literary Traditions’ is scheduled for July 22, 8 p.m. NT BUZZ gets talking to the session speaker, author Ruth Vanita, ahead of the session


An academic, author and translator, focusing on issues of gender and sexuality, Ruth Vanita has penned books like ‘Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema’ (2017), ‘Gender, Sex, and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, 1780-1870’ (2012), ‘Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West’(2005), ‘Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society’(2001), and  ‘Same-Sex Love in India’(2000), co-authored with Saleem Kidwai).

A professor of English at the University of Montana, USA, she was formerly associate professor at Miranda House and the English Department, Delhi University. She was also founding co-editor of Manushi, India’s first nationwide feminist journal, and worked on it as a volunteer for 13 years. Her first novel, ‘Memory of Light’, has just been published by Penguin. Her next book will be on gender, species and dharma in the epics.

Her talk on July 22, as part of the ‘Listen In’ series, will illustrate how pre-colonial Indian societies and cultures cherished love and had different constructions of affection and desire. She will talk about her novel, and her research on courtesans ‘tawaifs’ who were female intellectuals of the past.

Excerpts from an


Q. You’ve done quite a bit of research on love, various communities of women, same-sex love etc in the Indian sub-continent.

My novel, ‘Memory of Light’, is a love story between two women. The women live in a community of courtesans and they have several male friends, who are mostly poets. The novel also depicts love between a courtesan and a poor poet, which faces obstacles. This is based on a true story. My research is on the depiction of love, friendship, and marriage, in Indian literature and cinema as well as in English literature.

My 2017 book, ‘Dancing with the Nation’, is about the depiction of courtesans in Mumbai cinema, based on 235 films. My book ‘Love’s Rite’ is based on reports in the Indian press since 1980, of young couples from all over the country marrying each other by religious rites or committing joint suicide, or both. These couples are from all communities, including Dalits and tribals. They include factory workers and farm workers. Most of them are female, mostly from low-income, non-English speaking groups. Most of them had no contact with any movement and did not know any word like ‘gay’. They simply fell in love and decided to marry. The first joint suicide was reported in 1980 and the first marriage (of two police women in Madhya Pradesh) was in 1987. This is much before the international movement for marriage equality. These unions occurred and continue to occur all over the country. I was most interested in why these women choose the language of marriage and of death, and why some of their families, after initial disapproval, agreed to celebrate their weddings. I also looked at the religious, historical and legal aspects of these unions.

Q. Talking about love and sex still remains a sort of taboo in Indian homes, while India is the largest consumer of porn, and sexual assaults, rapes are rife in India. What do you make of this?

That is a misleading statement. First, statistics show that India is far from having the largest number of rapes or assaults. South Africa, the US and even Sweden have more. Marital rape is rife everywhere. The media has stereotyped India as the worst place with regard to this, but it’s not true. Which doesn’t mean it is fine. It isn’t fine but it is not the worst place. Since India has the world’s largest population, the consumption of porn would presumably be more than countries with smaller populations, and we cannot obtain reliable statistics from China. One would need to look at percentages, not just numbers.

It is always awkward to talk about sex with one’s parents. As long as information is available in media, and in books, I don’t see any great advantage in talking about the details of one’s sex life with family members; it is better discussed (if one wants to discuss it, which many, including me, would not want to) with friends. That said, heterosexual love and sex are openly talked about during pre-wedding rituals, and have always been talked about in films, which are viewed by families on TV.

Q. A lot of your research for books is based on films, and in the past our Indian films have depicted love, affection and marriage in several ways. Tell us about your findings and observations.

Yes, popular films have done a great job in depicting a wide range of relationships, very often in most unconventional ways. From the very beginning, popular movies depict love in all kinds of unusual and socially disapproved situations – between people of different communities, the widowed and divorced, courtesans, and the disabled and underprivileged. Indian cinema is also unique in celebrating romantic friendship between men, where a male friend is often the most important person in his friend’s life. Indian literature has a long tradition of such depiction, and it is prominent in cinema and in film songs, from ‘Dosti’ (1964) to ‘Anand’, ‘Sholay’, ‘Namak Haraam’ etc.

Q. How much has changed in India currently and what are the factors that have led to the change if any?

Much has changed, due to various factors – media, literature, cinema, scholarly research into Indian history, LGBT movements, people (both famous and not famous people) coming out publicly, all of which led to the abolition of Section 377 and the familiarisation of the public with the fact of same-sex love. Also, increasing urbanisation, new types of jobs, and changes within families have made possible the growing acceptance of different types of relationships and friendships (for example: male-female non-sexual friendships).

Modern homophobia developed in India after the British formally took over, following the defeat of the 1857 revolt. They brought in Section 377 and laws that turned courtesans into sex workers. Their educational, legal and administrative systems destroyed many Indian communities’ ways of life, such as matrilineal communities (including courtesans), polygamy, polyandry. They destroyed Indian education systems and inculcated the idea that the only good relationship is a heterosexual, monogamous one.

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