A review of Sexual Figures of Kerala: Cultural Practices, Regionality and the Politics of Sexuality, by Navaneetha Mokkil Maruthur.
Navaneetha Mokkil’s dissertation brings together a range of sources to look at non-normative sexualities in Kerala, South India, a subject that has received little attention. This is a fresh piece of work – well written, accessible and clear. It focuses on two figures which have disrupted the normative image of women in the region: the sex worker/ prostitute and the lesbian. In particular, her study is a departure from a long preoccupation with the somewhat exoticised Nair matriliny and women’s sexuality. Discussions on sexuality in Kerala then have tended to be focused on ‘upper’ caste women and have predominantly assumed heterosexual desire. Non-monogamous relationships, if at all addressed, have been within the context of Nair matriliny.
One of the frames of Navaneetha’s work is the much touted ‘Kerala model’, which described Kerala’s high human development indicators achieved with a comparatively low income and what is considered low economic development. The human development indicators show, for example, a high sex ratio, low level of infant mortality, high life expectancy for women and men, and high levels of literacy among women and men. Critiques of the Kerala model point to issues of gender in the state: high rates of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and an ideal of domesticity. Navaneetha engages with the work of scholars like J. Devika, Praveena Kodoth, Sharmila Sreekumar, Rekha Raj and Jenny Rowena, and adds to this debate very significantly by building on the insight that the “domestic woman is foundational to the making of Kerala as a model state” (p. ix).
Further, she points out that non-dominant women (both in terms of sexuality and caste) have been absent from the Kerala Model picture. Instead, it is the image of the emancipated women that has been centre stage. It is this focus on empowerment and progress that she seeks to move away from. In looking then at the figures of women who have been marginalized – the sex worker and the lesbian – she examines claims to subject positions that were made in the post-1990s within the cultural context of the region. This shifts the focus to, as she says, “locate forms of resistance that are tenuous, tactical and marked by affective excess” (p. ix). Navaneetha engages with a range of scholarship on sexuality written from multiple locations, such as the work of Judith Butler, Laura Kang, Gayatri Gopinath and Nivedita Menon. She also engages interestingly with the arguments made by Avery Gordon (1997) to frame her argument that exclusions and invisibilities produce material effects.
The dissertation is divided into six chapters. The Introduction lays out the background to the dissertation and its framing in relation to the Kerala Model and non-normative sexualities. Of the three central figures in Navaneetha’s work – the sex worker, the lesbian and the domestic woman – the first two are the focus of two chapters each, while the ‘domestic woman’ is discussed as their ‘other’. In Chapter 2 Navaneetha looks at the representation of the figure of the prostitute in Malayalam cinema through a detailed discussion of two films, one from the late 1970s and one from the late 1980s. In Chapter 3 she discusses two autobiographies by a sex worker Nalini Jamila that were published in the mid 2000s. She explores the critique of a normative sexuality that emerges from these, particularly in relation to the NGO focus on health – particularly the fear of AIDS.
Chapter 4 brings together a discussion of two films – one from the 1990s and the other a film from 2004 heralded as the first lesbian film set in Kerala – in order to disrupt a linear understanding of change from “silence to speech” (p. 16). Thus, although the 1990s was a period that marked a break in terms of issues of sexuality, she argues that what needs to be challenged is the idea that the post-1990s marked a period that was more progressive. Chapter 5 looks at the narrative tropes through which the figure of the lesbian enters the Kerala public sphere. Navaneetha engages with the discourses on lesbian suicides in Kerala to “complicate dominant modes of thinking about sexuality, representation and subjectivity” (p. 189). In each of these chapters she pays special attention to the narrative forms through which discussions and debates on these non-normative figures enter the public sphere in Kerala. This nuanced attention to the aesthetic form deployed in the films, posters, and autobiographies, as well as the form of the protest march, is what makes this research rich and textured.
Navaneetha’s work is important for its critique of a body of scholarship in cultural studies in which “the text itself is presented as if it exists in a vacuum” (p. 233). Navaneetha distinguishes herself by bringing together a range of sources such as film, autobiography, press reportage, and a fact finding report on lesbian suicides brought out by an independent activist group that supports lesbian and bisexual women in Kerala. With these she weaves together “a thick description of the regional public sphere” (p.233). It is through this that she draws out the way “the contingencies of a region determine the imagination of sexuality and subjectivity” (p. 233). The work is simultaneously valuable for her analytic style that refuses closure. Again as she writes in the conclusion: “The labor of this dissertation has been to forge reading practices that retain the tensions and incompleteness of technologies of subjectification. I insist on the need to be wary of the longing for closure and worked-out strategies of political action” (p. 234).
Finally, Navaneetha’s work draws from a now rapidly expanding body of literature on gender and sexuality in Kerala, such as the work of J. Devika, G. Arunima, Praveena Kodoth, Sharmila Sreekumar, Jenny Rowena, and T. Muraleedharan. The dissertation advances our understanding of the region of south India, and Kerala in particular, and moves the terms of debate and discussion out into areas that have until recently received little attention.
Department of Sociology
Delhi School of Economics
Malayalam language films
Fact finding report
University of Michigan. 2010. 265pp. Primary Advisors: Anne C. Herrmann and Maria Sarita See.
Image: Red Ribbon Express AIDS awareness campaign in Calicut railway station on July 9, 2008 (Kerala, India) (Photograph by Navaneetha Mokkil Maruthur).