Book Review: Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh (Lisa I. Knight, 2011)

-Nicole A. Wilson

Editor’s Note: The author, Lisa Knight , is a SU Alumna (PhD 2005). She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Furman University .The reviewer, Nicole Wilson, is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at SU. Her research examines the construction of middle class womanhood in Tamil Nadu. Both women have been deeply engaged with the South Asia Center.

 In her 2011 ethnography, Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh, Lisa I. Knight builds on the intellectual pursuits of scholars such as Mahmood (2005) and Mohanty (1991) as she argues for multiple feminisms and conceptions of agency that highlight the capacity to act among her Baul interlocutors in West Bengal and Bangladesh. She contends that women’s actions should not be whittled down to whether or not they conform to or subvert patriarchy, and further, if women choose to conform to societal norms, that too should be understood as an agentive act.Contradictory Lives Book Cover

As is clear from the title, Knight finds that contradiction is endemic to how Baul women explain themselves and construct meaningful lives. This contradiction lies primarily between two sets of expectations, those ascribed to authentic Baul women and those that illustrate proper South Asian womanhood. As Baul women, Knight explains, her interlocutors conceive of themselves as somewhat “outside and even critical of normative society” (pg. 23). They often criticize societal norms in their singing performances for wider Bengali and Bangladeshi society, lamenting the continuing existence of the caste system and calling for gender, class, religious, and caste equality. However, Baul women in West Bengal and Bangladesh also speak of the immense societal pressure to be a “good” South Asian woman. “Good” South Asian women are required to participate in the practice of purdah (veiling, seclusion, and/or silence), as well as give deference to their fathers, husbands, and sons. Knight eloquently reveals the multifarious negotiations of her interlocutors as they navigate both sets of expectations in their daily lives and reinvent femininity and gendered spaces.

Knight’s work is multi-sited, providing the reader with a wider perspective of how Baul women are implicated in political and religious life across the span of two countries. She also briefly mentions Bauls living and performing in cities like London and New York (pg. 14). While it was not within the scope of this ethnographic project, I do feel that further exploration of Baul performances in western countries, as well as the Baul diaspora more broadly, would be significant in expanding our understanding of Baul womanhood. While many Baul women express the constant push and pull of Baul and broader South Asian societal expectations, how might Baul women experiencing western social norms understand what it means to be Baul? How might the dialogic nature of Baul women’s performances in London and New York influence their self-perceptions? Who are the audience members? How would the motivations and expectations of performer and audience inflect self (re)fashionings?

Although Knight readily acknowledges that self reflexivity in anthropological writing is nothing new, I did find her presentation of personal fieldwork experience to be especially genuine and instructive when reflecting on my own encounters in the field. She tactfully acknowledges and lays bare often unspoken confessions of the anthropologist, discussing a researcher’s internalization of local prejudice, as well as admitting the initial dismissal of some individuals who would later become invaluable to her project. These types of admissions are not only endearing, but also lend credibility to Knight’s inherently partial interpretations of Baul life.

Knight’s work addresses specific aspects of Baul communities and also challenges scholarly and lay assumptions about freedom, agency, and renunciation in a clear and concise fashion. It is an important contribution to many disciplines and is accessible to students and professors alike.


Mahmood, Saba

2005 Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade

1991 “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Pp. 51-80. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.