The history of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj dates back at least a century, to the 1920s, since when the organisation has sought to uplift its community. Made up of artists or kalavants and devadasis in the past, this Bahujan group counts many legendary figures among its members, including the singer Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle. But the Samaj is little studied in South Asian history, thus speaking to the very caste hierarchy the community challenges.

“Even as a child, I was fascinated by the paradox of our story: we were both everywhere and nowhere in Indian history,” says Anjali Arondekar, a professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the United States, where she is also the founding director of the Center for South Asian Studies, and the author of Abundance: Sexuality’s History. “The mythology of the kalavants of the Samaj was well-known, yet little was written about their devadasi past, or the challenges they posed for histories of caste and endogamy,” she said.

Arondekar’s latest book seeks to change this. Drawing from archives of the Samaj in Goa and Mumbai, this book challenges the perception that when it comes to the historical study of sexuality, one can only contend with the notion that such pasts are lost, or maligned.

In her rendition of the “Bahujan history of the Samaj”, Arondekar says she wanted to cull the power of the “Bahu”, or the many and the divergent, “to give my readers a glimpse into what we choose to know (the kala of the Mangeshkar sisters) and what we choose not to know (the kala of sexuality and the archive)”.

“Reading in a register of abundance is to embrace the messiness of all of these histories,” she told Scroll in an interview. Excerpts:

Anjali Arondekar.

While it might be apparent that as a member of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj yourself, the idea of writing a history of the community may have been one that developed over your lifetime, how did the book take its present shape, and how does this research fit into the work you do more generally?
I did indeed grow up within the raucous, creative and bawdy environs of the Samaj. For me, the history of the Samaj was always living proof of the pride with which many of us survived, resisted, succeeded, and, yes, sometimes even surrendered to, the mandates of caste and gender oppression. Even as a child, I was fascinated by the paradox of our story: we were both everywhere and nowhere in Indian history. The mythology of the kalavants of the Samaj was well-known, yet little was written about their devadasi past, or the challenges they posed for histories of caste and endogamy.

As a scholar, I had spent years debunking the idea that histories of sexuality were lost or erased, and the Samaj’s self-archiving practices and self-reform projects were further evidence of my historical intuition, as it were. It was only after long conversations with my Baba, Ramakant Arondekar, who was himself an active member of the Samaj, that I embarked on the archival research for the book. Baba, an itinerant poet, mathematician and avid Ambedkarite, was always convinced that the Samaj’s historical self-staging (the “kala” of the archive, as he would call it) was cannily pragmatic and ordinary, and foundationally disruptive of any caste hegemony. And I wanted to tell that story.

On the one hand, members of the Samaj have been extremely visible in Goan and Indian politics, history, and popular culture. One may cite the first chief minister of post-Portuguese Goa, Dayanand Bandodkar (1911-1973) or even the sisters Asha Bhosle (born 1933) and Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022), whose voices are synonymous with the soundtrack of the golden era of Indian cinema and beyond. On the other hand, despite the efflorescence of the Samaj’s own archives in Goa and Mumbai, theirs is a history that appears to have hidden in plain sight.

Referring to themselves as ‘Bharatatil ek Agressor Samaj’ (an Aggressive Community in India), since its inception in the 1920s, the group has sought its own upliftment, never disavowing its own history of being lower caste or, in some cases, devadasis (a category of women artists often erroneously conflated with courtesans and/or prostitutes).

To be glib, is it these very categories of caste and associations with sexuality that one may easily point to in saying that the Samaj have been paradoxically obscured by and been rendered visible in South Asian history. Yet, as your book eminently highlights, these are the organising categories members of the Samaj have challenged, remade, or even used to their own advantage. What does this perspective do to upset the usual modes of studying South Asian history?
Simply put, my book refuses the historical common sense that loss is a fundamental ingredient of the history of marginalised communities in South Asia. Therein lies the rub. The Samaj poses a foundational challenge to our historical habits: its archives are not lost or forgotten; its members are robustly proud (for the most part!) of their past; and last but not least, the Samaj’s history makes markers of caste inherently unreliable.

Equally interesting is that the Samaj does not proffer any easy redemptive or inspirational story either – yes, while there has been considerable progress made by members of the Samaj as you alluded to in your question, there has been very little interest in creating solidarities with other caste-oppressed or minority groups. These are uncomfortable and even inconvenient histories for both the Right and the Left.

Dayanand Bandodkar, for example, was a lower-caste capitalist whose legacy is both about profit and progress, and not always in the most admirable ways. I was interested in culling the power of the Bahu (the many / the multiple / the divergent) in my rendition of the Bahujan history of the Samaj – to give my readers a glimpse into what we choose to know (the kala of the Mangeshkar sisters) and what we choose not to know (the kala of sexuality and the archive). Reading in a register of abundance is to embrace the messiness of all of these histories.

A constant lament I have is that of the absence of a field one might call Goan Studies (in my own research, this lacuna has to do with the surprise that is often expressed – even by Goans – when I say that my work is on Goan literature, for example; they ask if such a thing exists…).

Your book makes it abundantly clear, if you will permit this quip about the title, that the specificity of Goan Studies is indeed a possibility. However, while this is not a claim you make directly, what Abundance demonstrates is how (and why) to do Goan Studies differently. This is especially so if one could conceive of such a field outside of the usual confines of area studies (and the expected problems of such a discipline).

So, for instance, while you speak to the often ignored distinctions between Portuguese and British post-colonialisms in South Asia and how such differences affect(ed) Goa, you also note how the Samaj – a community spread across Portuguese and British Indias – was never invested in aligning itself with either dispensation and even questioned the place it had in a (then-to-be) post-European polity.

Instead, as your book delves into the Samaj’s publications, would it be correct to say that you consider how their itinerancy (what you call their ikde ani tikde, Marathi for here and there but not here or there) is a valuable lesson in rethinking area studies through the complexities of caste and sexuality as mobility?
Indeed. I wanted to think of the Samaj’s geographical locations (its geopolitics if you will) less as examples of how caste and sexuality existed across British and Portuguese India, and more as lessons in survival, delinked from attachments to regimes (colonial or postcolonial). Caste and sexuality were malleable, disposable and usable categories, even as they were sources of humiliation and dispossession. At least in its earlier writings (specifically between 1940-1950), the Samaj editorials in the Samaj Sudharak (the monthly journal of the Samaj, now called the Gomant Sharda) routinely speak of territorial allegiance as fickle and perilous. For the Samaj members, their kala was the geography of their imagination, and it was through their kala that they fashioned worlds of belonging. As I repeatedly say when I am asked about this work, I am not interested in a search and rescue history of caste and sexuality. We were never lost, so we can never be found. We are here, there, and everywhere. We are abundant!

Inasmuch as the book is a historical study, I see it also offering lessons for reconsidering the contemporary moment in South Asia (and perhaps elsewhere). A case in point is your treatment of the wonderfully designated ‘Evil Ladies of Girgaum’, who were a group of Samaj women from Goa believed to be indulging in sex-work in South Bombay in the early decades of the 20th century. As you resolutely uncover, the networks in which these women were said to be operating coincide with ‘various [then extant] struggles around land expansion and reclamation, gentrification and the increasing demands of native franchise’. As readers of your book will discover, this is very telling.

Is there a connection to be made here with the present-day haranguing of fringe or minority or ‘immoral’ elements only to shroud much deeper political issues?
Certainly. I think many feminist / queer and / or Bahujan / dalit scholars have been making this claim for quite some time now. Sexuality, caste, gender, religious difference – take your pick – become the cover story that shrouds the material and affective contexts within which we all live. The recent demand for gay marriage, for example, is less about marriage per se, and more about how we need to revisit the very idea of what a family is, what kinship is, and indeed what marriage is.

Similarly, the recent struggles around reservations for caste-oppressed collectivities (across religions) is equally about structural inequity, labour segregation, as it is about religious difference.

Finally, in what direction is your research taking you next and what work are you excited to be presently involved with?
I am still writing and thinking about the Samaj and its afterlives, and its importance for thinking more global histories of sexuality and empire. I’ve recently commenced archival research on the entangled histories of indenture and sexuality in Mauritius – a path I took only after Mauritius appeared in early Samaj Sudharak issues as a place of possible sanctuary. There is one tiny fragment, for example in the 1945 Samaj Sudharak that speaks enigmatically of the singing sisters of Mauritius and their connections to the Samaj – a story for another day!

R Benedito Ferrão is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies at William & Mary, Virginia, USA.