The Naṣṭā Woman:
Women’s Agency in 18th-Century Bengali Erotica - "Naṣṭāmo kathā ebang strīloker barnanā" (1785)
Tahmidal Zami and Debadrita Saha
The archive of native accounts of love and sexuality in precolonial Bengali literature presents an array of synchronic dispersion and diachronic shifts in mores and attitudes around representation of sexuality in contemporary Bengali society. While the role of women was largely restricted to heteronormative functions of reproduction or continuation of patrilineal descent and protection of patriarchal honour, there were complex segmentations in the social structure where women could engage in non-normative sexual practices that veered away from reproductive heteronormativity. In this context, we argue that women situated in divergent caste, religion, and class positions can explore libidinal possibilities beyond the confines of heteronormative domesticity through critical reading of an early colonial-era Bengali poem. The particular poem of study, “Naṣṭāmo kathā ebang strīloker barnanā” (1785), reveals how a woman could venture out for sexual pleasure beyond conjugal domesticity in eighteenth-century Bengal and the structural limitations that such a pursuit could face. The poem also offers analysis of early understandings of polyamory that defies modern liberal beliefs by promoting such non-conjugal, consensual love.
To explore the agential possibilities of 18th-century women, this essay first examines the fissures and differences in the field of discursive power that women could reconfigure in acts of bricolage. Cultural discursivity as instantiated in premodern Bengali literature could assign various values and adopt various approaches to sexuality. There were poems that idealized domesticity as a devotional vocation for women while contrariwise there were also poems highlighting stories of love beyond the confines of marriage. Thus, while the Siva-Gauri cycle of stories focused on the virtues of domesticity and wifely fidelity, the Radha-Krishna mythology in contrast centred on the female subject’s antinomian and abject love for the divine beloved Krishna that pulls her beyond domesticity. In Islamicate poetry as well, the Yusuf-Jolikha narrative highlighted the perils of seduction of extra-marital affairs, while the Layli-Majnu narrative stressed the antinomian devotion to one’s beloved beyond the confines of domesticity.1 These divergent narratives on the praxis of love in relation to conjugality offer a discursive repertoire that builds a bricolage within which we situate this essay’s analysis.
In general terms, poetic representations of such non-normative lives were stylised constructions intended for enjoyment and sources of metaphorized spiritual learning. The non-orthodox and non-conjugal love presented in the above-mentioned poems did not offer role models that common folk would emulate in their personal sexual trajectories. Such literature was usually meant to offer a certain erotic spirituality that operated with an anagogic logic whereby lowly carnal desires would be channelled towards a union with God through a process of metaphorization. In a sense, such literature helped a certain reconciliation of the transgressive displacements that desire could cause with the social purpose of domesticity and docility precisely by allowing imaginative possibilities in the literature that could not be realized in ordinary life. Meanwhile, though secular Sanskrit poetry or kavya celebrated erotic sentiments as the first-ranking aesthetic affect, it can also represent non-conjugal sexuality, albeit under a thick layer of stock metaphors and well-worn poetic devices that place such narratives in relation to an ancient tradition. This displaces the stories at a far remove from contemporaneity. Yet, as we will show, the myths and concepts presented in such narratives of non-conjugal love articulate alternative forms of libidinal practices beyond domesticity. These stories do not describe non-conjugal sexual praxis of the common 18th-century woman. Instead, given the domestic heteronormative roles assigned to women in dominant social discourse, such idiographic narratives of profane, contemporaneous women engaging in non-conjugal love could appear only in lowly registers such as pornographic texts. Remarkably, the extant corpus of premodern Bengali literature as handed down to our times hardly includes any pornographic text true to its name. Absence, however, is not proof of non-existence. It may be hypothesized that pornographic texts were produced and circulated back in those times, but such texts lacked a robust support system for their preservation into the present day.2 Solitary reading was uncommon before the arrival of printing press technology, which did not spread in Bengal before the 19th-century, and ordinary people mostly enjoyed literature in the form of recitation in public settings. Pornography proper probably had a lower likelihood of being read aloud before a crowd in public. We may surmise that if ordinary people wanted to enjoy pornographic texts, they would need to have a certain degree of literacy and access to print culture. Such restrictions have made it difficult to find written premodern, native idiographic narrative descriptions of non-conjugal sexual praxis by contemporaneous women in Bengal.
Against this background, a small manuscript titled “Naṣṭāmo kathā ebang strīloker barnanā” dated 1785 CE stands out as one of the earliest – if not the earliest – extant pornographic poems. It is a narrative poem of explicitly erotic content written in obscure handwriting (see Figure 1).
This essay is the first, to our knowledge, to analyze this premodern text.3 The poem, hereafter shortened as "strīloker barnanā," is written by a certain Kubirnāth collected by the French in the 1780s. We retrieved the text in the form of a small manuscript preserved in the online Bibliothèque nationale de France archive. The Bengali collection the text was housed within was for French merchants immigrating to Bengal, mainly to help them learn Bengali. This pornographic text comes down to us as an outlier that defies the above-mentioned limitations on circulation and preservation, which seems to be the result of the French having curated it, presumably as an interesting specimen of a native narrative of eroticism.
The poem fits our bill as it offers a very rare premodern, native idiographic narrative description of non-conjugal sexual praxis by a contemporaneous woman - imaginary or real - in Bengal. The poem avoids the tradition-laden, highly stylized descriptions of imaginative stories of non-conjugal sexuality as found in Sanskrit high poetry. Shunning the stylistic elaboration of poetic forms found in Sanskrit high poetry, the poem embraces lowly vocabulary for titillating, no-holds-barred descriptions that can be retrospectively identified as pornographic. It also shuns the “aksharabritta” meter suitable for long narrative poems and follows a “swarabritta” meter following the 4+4+4+2 formula that is suitable for smaller pieces, a size congruent with its limited, lowly ambitions. Such features of the poem support our hypothesis that the poem was intended as a pornographic poem avant la lettre with circumscribed addressivity and circulation. Identifying itself as a “narrative of licentiousness and description of women,” it seeks to entertain, titillate, as well as warn other men in the audience about femmes fatales. It creates a hic-et-nunc effect by deploying first-person narration, which also sets it apart from traditional indic kavya that usually avoids first-person narrations except in the colophon. The narrative persona of our poem identifies himself as Kubirnāth and pretends to describe the author’s own experience. Whether the men and women in the poem are imaginative or real, the hic-et-nunc context of the poem makes it an idiographic portrayal of the contemporary. Thus, this poem provides glimpses into the kind of non-conjugal love and sexual praxis a woman could engage in to explore alternative agential possibilities. The poem also shows how such practices could be imagined and represented in marginal literary productions, which could be also relegated to the pornographic register.
A pornographic text like this one - with its titillating, male-centred purpose - may be a challenging site for divining women’s alternative forms of agency. Yet, our subsequent exposition in the following paragraphs will demonstrate how the poem defies its phallocentric, pornographic purpose due to a subtextual heteroglossic shift of subject-positions within language. The rhetoric reverses the narrative from that of a titillative account of the nāyaka’s erotic objectification of a woman into the story of a lower-caste woman from early modern Bengal seeking out partners outside of the limits of marriage, thereby pursuing a sexual spirituality of antinomian love.
In conjunction with our aforementioned proposition, the poem begins on a firmly male-centred footing, where the narrator’s male gaze objectifies and reduces women to potential sources of erotic pleasure. The narrator – subsequently identified as the nāyaka (the male protagonist) – recounts a sexual rendezvous he has had with a woman from a lower caste. On a dusky afternoon, the leisurely nāyaka was lounging in his veranda when he spotted an attractive woman from the gandhabene (perfumer) caste passing along with an old chaperone. He then delves into a graphic portrayal of her appearance and bodily comportment. The woman’s self-presentation is described through a male gaze engaging in an eroticized mapping of the female body, borrowing stylized motifs of the head-to-toe descriptions (nakhaśikha darshan) from the classical Indian literary tradition of characterizing heroines (nāyikās). From the perspective of the narrator, the woman begins to exist as an event only through her availability for scopophilic enjoyment represented in language. The narrator elevates and reduces the woman’s material body and comportment into the terms of a perennial, ideal sexual aesthetic of a feminine figure. He perceives the feminine body as the work of a divine sculptor, thus highlighting how patriarchal imagination could reduce the woman’s body to an erotic artefact arising from an erotogenic poiesis by a male agent (Austin 2021, 9-26).
During the contemporary context of this poem, there were profoundly unequal power relations between men and women, which were underwritten not only by gender but also by other socio-economic factors like caste and class. The nāyikā is identified as a perfumer’s daughter (gandhabener meye), i.e., she is relegated to her caste index at the very beginning. This caste index frames the sexual positionality of the nāyikā: The perfumer caste claimed themselves to belong to the third Hindu caste of Vaishya, but mainstream Hindu caste literature identifies them as “sat śūdra,” i.e., located in the fourth, lower caste (Bhatta 1904, 80). Early marriage was common among this sub-caste, which makes it likely that she was married early to a man who could not fulfil her sexually. Unlike the upper castes where polygyny, i.e., a man taking multiple wives, was common, monogamy was the norm among the perfumer subcaste. Divorce, widow marriage, and infidelity were strictly prohibited – as mentioned by the author of ViśwakoSh - a modern Indian encyclopedia (Vasu 1894, 231-32). The gender and caste-specific regulations restricted the woman’s socially sanctioned sexual agency, while her lower-caste position made her an easier prey to the lust of upper-caste men compared to an upper-caste woman’s vulnerability to the lust of lower-caste men.
Adding to the protagonist’s vulnerability, there are certain indications in the poem that suggest she might have migrated to Bengal and spoke a North Indian dialect: Maithili, Bhojpuri, or Hindi - making her an ethnically heterogeneous other. For example, phrases like “pākkaṛ” and “kāyājāge” all tilt toward this possibility. In the 17th-18th centuries, North Indian migrants flocked to the commercial quasi-conurbation centred on Hooghly in Southwest Bengal,4 as did European companies that set up factories for international commerce along the Hooghly River. This historical context suggests the protagonist was an immigrant in an entrepot where the commercial economy was so vibrant that kaṛi or cowrie shells could garner anything from the market, including the pudeur of the clan-wife or kulabadhū, as mentioned in Vidyāsundara. The inferior caste location of the woman, therefore, seems to be compounded by her position as an immigrant in such a commodified reality.
Moreover, the situation seemed favourable to the man’s sexual intent, exposing the woman to the influence of the upper-caste man. The old lady accompanying the young woman – probably a co-wife, a chaperone, or a lady procuress for the woman – sees the mesmerised narrator and winks at him. Since it was forbidden in Hinduism to engage with non-related men in a friendly manner, such a suggestive gesture hints at sexual agency. The wink is interpreted by the narrator as a hint about the nāyikā’s experience of affective enjoyment (rasa), although nowhere do we see the old woman or the young nayika (heroine) explicitly affirming this thought. This, therefore, reinforces the patriarchal assumptions about a woman’s sexuality. Encouraged by his prospects, the man later shows up at the woman’s house and takes lodging there in the guise of a traveler. When midnight strikes, the nāyikā comes and wakes him up. The two satisfy their lust, a consummation that is presented in sufficiently graphic detail to titillate the audience. Remarkably, in both describing the woman’s body as well as the sexual act, the poet uses a low register of language. By doing so, the bawdy, lowly vocabulary creates a hic-et-nunc effect that often borders on the comic,5 which starkly contrasts the classicized, metaphor-laden erotic effects of Sanskrit high poetry. Likewise, the French collector of the poem characterised its language in terms of a “stile poissard” or vulgar style – a genre of French literature featuring lower-class linguistic styles. Yet it is precisely this lowly style that made the narrative amenable to dwelling on the exceptional theme of a woman’s alternative sexual agency, as we will see.
At this point, the power relation in the tryst between the man and the woman begins to manifestly reverse. The next morning, the man offers remuneration to the woman as a quid pro quo for the satisfaction of his lust. The payment of money would close off the exchange between the man and woman, and mark the woman as a sex worker and/or someone who is merely a commodity in the eyes of the man. The woman, however, flatly refuses the money and says she only looks for amour with a connoisseur of affective enjoyment (rasika). This initiates a subversion of the power dichotomy, for she resists the man’s economic control over her and maintains that her amorous escapades remain within the structure of an infinite gift economy of love rather than the finite transactional scope of a one-off exchange. In so explaining her rationale, she uses the first-person plural pronoun:
"āner pārā teman morā tākār bhuk nai/ kebal piriter marā preme bharā thākā rātrodine"
Translation: We do not lust after money as others do. We remain dead with passion, filled with love all day and night.
The referent of this indexical, i.e., the first-person plural, is not entirely clear here. She may be using this indexical to designate any woman who subscribes to the non-normative ethic of rasa and love. In a more culturally-specific context, the nāyikā may also be expressing a socially localized libidinal ethic of Sahajiyā women: a certain non-normative somato-spiritual praxis where sexuality is not conceived in terms of procreation or transaction but instead experienced as a spiritual praxis involving one’s own corporeal existence in an intersubjective heterosexual companionship (Lorea 2018, 169-213). In any case, whether the woman speaks in terms of a generic ethic of love or a more localized somato-spiritual tradition, it is a profound articulation of the surplus of feminine desire beyond both the social responsibility of procreation as well as the limited equivalence of exchange-value.
Having asserted her disinterest in money - and thus refusing to dismiss the exchange as a one-off transaction - the woman now leads the pursuit of their liaison. Suggesting that going out of the house in broad daylight would pose a danger to the man, she hides him in a trunk. The man’s spirit dampens as he lies locked up. Over the next thirteen nights, the woman and her quasi-prisoner repeat their lovemaking. The ground has begun to shift: The man loses his sense of control as he remains locked in the trunk in the daytime, a subtle metaphor for the reversal of the usual patriarchal practice of relegating women to the domestic sphere. Now that the woman’s desire has become the driving force, she incessantly engages his body in the carnal play for her own sexual gratification in a terrifying counter-possession. It is evident that the woman’s participation in promiscuous, non-monogamous sex contributes to an agential project invested with certain intentionalities and meanings. We ask: What kind of motives and intentionalities could she have from her social marginality in engaging in non-mono-heteronormative love-play? Or, overall, in what ways does this engagement expand the scope of her agential participation?
We argue that despite the antinomian nature of the woman’s sexual agency, she did not fashion it as an ex nihilo act of deviation nor out of perversity. Her promiscuity is not divorced from deep-rooted subjective meanings or emotional commitments; rather, she stresses her devotion to love (prema) and psychosomatic affects (rasa) as opposed to mere money.6 The subjective intentionalities of the woman probably draw on the imaginative possibilities available in the repertoire of myths and concepts found in certain strands of precolonial Bengali kavya. As we already suggested, the narrative has undertones of a Vaishnavesque theme. The hero expresses his devotion to the syncretic Vaishnaveque figure of Satya Pīr popular in Southwest Bengal. The manuscript also begins with a salutation to the Vaishnavite deity Sri Krishna. In this vein, our nāyikā interpreted her unconventional sex life precisely in terms of prema and rasa that follow the Vaishnava-Sahajiya notions of antinomian love. However, as opposed to the mainstream interpretation of parakiya or antinomian love that stressed the metaphoric and spiritual meanings of the Radha-Krishna narrative, the woman recombined and altered its meanings to justify her unusual lifeway. Being a “subaltern” subject, i.e., a heterogeneous subject living at the margin of history, she could not establish her non-conjugal love ethic as a socially acceptable lifestyle, so she locally reconfigures the discourse and practises it in her life. Moreover, her non-conjugal affairs are complemented by an active sexual role, whereby the normative power relation between a man and a woman gets reversed in the sexual act. Both her non-conjugal love-ethic as well as active sexual role combine and build upon available ideologemes from the Vaishnava-Sahajiya tradition.
In view of the woman’s clear avowal of a non-conjugal relationship, we wonder the extent to which we can identify her relationship style as “polyamorous”? Such a question can be answered only once the assumptions behind the act of naming can be clarified. The term “polyamory” has emerged in a Western social context defined by liberal notions of explicitly negotiated relationships among autonomous agents within certain broad social norms that include, among other things, mono-normative marriage laws. The context of our poem is spatiotemporally remote from the liberal West, and hence interpretively applying this term to the woman’s relationship style would seem anachronistic. On the other hand, if we deploy “polyamory” as an analytical category, the possibility of exploring the compatibility of various earlier manifestations of non-monogamous, non-conjugal forms of relationship with the category becomes feasible. The nāyikā’s pursuit of multiple partners and rationalization of such relations through a bricolage of existing ideologemes covers two aspects of mainstream notions of polyamory: having multiple consensual relations justified by a moral-ideological framework. In the modern liberal Western discussion on polyamory, the concept is given an ideological locus by stressing complete honesty with one’s partners. Given modern liberalism’s clear stress on the personal autonomy of adults as well the principle of non-harm, being transparent to one’s partners in pursuing polyamory is taken to be sufficient authorization for unconventional practice. Whether polyamory aligns with broader social conventions is not held to be important. However, in other social contexts, any deviation from social orthodoxy-orthopraxy on the relationship would be deemed perverse, giving short shrift to the personal choices and mutual negotiation of the agents involved. Thus people who could not negotiate their non-normative desires could not make the virtuous choice between faithful marriage or a publicly asserted non-mono-heteronormative relationship. Should we identify the non-monogamy of our nāyikā as adultery or polyamory? The question may represent a differend as defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard. There was no liberal ideological infrastructure authorizing the woman to negotiate unconventional relations such as taking multiple partners. On the other hand, her defiance to marital fidelity cannot be reduced to the reductive term “cheating” precisely because she was not socially recognized as a free agent who could continue or end her marriage with her husband at will. From this discussion, it becomes clear that terms like polyamory, cheating, or monogamy assume specific meanings only against the backdrop of broader ideological frameworks. In the absence of a totalizing liberal ideological framework, the woman’s virtuosic bricolage of a love-ethic bringing preexisting ideologemes into play is remarkable but destined to be hidden from view: an unavowable avowal, a subaltern agency that cannot set its own terms in public discourse.
Precisely because of the unavowable nature of the woman’s self-fashioned agency, her virtuosic relationship-making is always already fragile and reversible. This is manifested in both the unspoken coercion that characterized her liaison with the man, as well as the ease with which the man would break the liaison. Meanwhile, our nāyaka becomes restless and terrified after being locked in the truck during daytime and (having to) engage in erotic play with the woman at night. Repeated intercourse makes him scared of being sapped of his somatic juice – a sort of mortal fear of eternal repetition (Reader 2006). Feeling trapped in the wiles of the woman, he finally gathers himself to tell the woman that he needs to take leave for a while and promises to return in about five to six days. The woman stands devastated at his proposal of departure. The man manages to run free, jubilantly offering thanks to the guardian Saint Satya Pīr that he has been saved from the fatal trap of a clingy nymph. The patriarchal voice of the narrator concludes with a caution about the risks that sexually autonomous women could pose for men who can behave foolishly under the influence of lust. The power relation has now come full circle: the woman could become dominant over the man only at an interpersonal level, and that, too, is a contingent negotiation with no socially sanctioned foundation. At the macro-social level, there was no way that the lower-caste woman could enforce any rights over the wealthy, upper-caste man. The contingent power of the woman in relation to the man was thus easily thwarted, and that is where the poem ends.
As an occasion for reflecting on the alternative agency-construction by 18th-century women in their sexual lives, the premodern poem thus presents a series of two reversals: first the woman’s subversion of casteist-classist masculine domination to foray into a woman-led amorous dalliance, which is then exploded by the man’s easy and indefeasible escape. The heteroglossic text manifests unstable structures of meaning that symptomatically manifest the malaise of the hegemonic power structure that could be contingently reversed at micro-levels. Beginning with the dominant patriarchal narratorial voice with its pornographic thematics, the sexually acquisitive, powerful male seeks to appropriate the woman’s sexuality while reducing her to the status of a purchasable body in a highly commercialized social context. From there, the poem makes a first reversal when a counter-theme of a sexually autonomous willful heroine irrupts across the narratorial framing as an irrepressible alterity. The woman’s agency surfaces despite her derogatory portrayal by the male author since she would defy the power of money in her bid for finding love and jouissance. The love-ethic of the promiscuous woman does not dovetail with the modern concept of polyamory because she did not have socially sanctioned autonomy in negotiating her relationships. Alternatively, she constructed a discursive justification for her promiscuous life by combining preexisting ideologemes, like rasa or prema, which are borrowed and repurposed from the Vaishnava tradition. Thus, the subaltern woman’s deviation from the normative script of sexual agency in a highly structured, male-dominated social context shows the agential capacities that could often be exercised by subaltern subjects under favorable circumstances by employing existing elements of cultural discursivities in a bricoleuric act. Yet, in the last section, the woman’s contingently constructed sexual agency reveals its precarity and unavoidability when the man runs away from her. The subterranean subjectivities of these women could only be inscribed into marginality, precarity, or perversity as far as mainstream patriarchal representations are concerned. The Naṣṭā woman as a subaltern subject does not speak aloud, but whispers for those who are willing to hear.
1 Siva and Krishna are two key Puranic deities worshipped along with their consorts by large devotional communities in Bengal and beyond and are also staples in premodern Bengali poetry. Layla-Majnu and Yusuf-Julaikha are Islamicate-Persianate narratives popular in the Indian subcontinent.
2 Pornography is not mere graphic representation of sexuality, but necessarily involves splits in terms of cultural meaning (taboo and transgression), conditions of possibility (normative prohibition vs. secret circuits of circulation and treasuring), transparency (private consumption vs. public silence), purpose (elevation vs. arousal), and so forth. The word pornography was invented in Victorian times when discovery of ancient Roman erotic art in Pompeii was discovered and stashed away in secret museums. In Christian Europe, pornographic production avant la lettre was facilitated by print culture. See Carver 2017; Uebel 2003, 490-493.
3 Mukherjee (1983) provides following description of the manuscript: “Fol. De garde (papier ordonaire) recto: <<Ind. 71>>; verso vierge. Fol. De garde final du ms. 1a: <<Meyen-sur coby, nochtomir koby ou le Parnasse libertin Extrait de leur Grecour En stile poissard. / 1785. F. Ouessant n° 8/ Striloca varnana, avec description des femmes, en langue Bengali. >>” Note: The word “avec” [with] is not there in the original, rather there is “ou” [or].
4 For a brief discussion on Satya Pir in a mixed Vaishnava and Islamicate context, see Zami 2020.
5 For example, instead of “nitamba” (buttocks), the author uses the term “pāchā.”
6 Spirituality in this case means representing a goal or telos that transcends the narrow boundaries of one’s mundane social existence. For a collection of essays that link esotericism and spirituality in the West, see Hanegraaff and Kripal 2011.
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