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.
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.
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