“A Hindu woman speaks to you”

In January 1936 and October 1937 The Menaka Ballet performed in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1937 the ‘Journal de Genève’ published a short interview with Menaka under the headline: ‘A Hindu woman speaks to you. Moments with Menaka…’ [1] It appeared on the women’s page and Menaka shared her views on the position of women in India. Menaka is outspoken when she contrasts the life of her Indian and “European sisters”:

“What do I think of the condition of women in my country? Well I find it infinitely less bad than yours!” [2]
Asked about her opinion on European women, the interviewer observed Menaka smirked mischievously before answering:
“I find them nice and interesting, but…I do not envy them and not for anything in the world would I want to lead their existence!” [3]

The journalist introduced Menaka foremost as an artist and, “without her makeup, a deliciously fine woman.” Moreover, the tone of the interview stays lighthearted. Nevertheless, Meneaka’s words reverberate Indian nationalist thought that developed from the nineteenth century onwards.

Several scholars have strongly opposed the idea that nationalism is in essence a European ideology, that spread from Latin-America to colonized societies. Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh emphasized that non-Western communities combined their own traditions of political thought with pre-colonial religious beliefs about a righteous social order. Nationalist leaders reinterpreted these traditions in political terms and used them in the struggle for independence. [4]

According to Partha Chatterjee, nationalists created a domain of sovereignty within colonial society in the period 1820-1870. Chatterjee indicated a division of the societal domain into the material and the spiritual. The greater the successes in implementing Western skills in the material domain, the greater the need to protect the uniqueness of India’s spiritual culture. In everyday life, the contrast between the material and the spiritual was captured in the binary of ‘the world’ (bahir) and ‘the home’ (ghar). In the ‘world’, practical interests predominated and worldly needs were pursued. It was the realm of men. The home was the innermost core of Indian culture. It was a woman’s duty to protect the sanctity of this core from the profane, material world. [5]

Menaka adhered to the division:
“[..] in India women are still considered as such, they are respected; she kept her real role: mistress of the house, mother of a family, and she does not need to work […], only sometimes. Then it remains strictly feminine: sisters of charity, nurses.[…] Why should we infringe on men’s rights? Being a woman in my country is very simple and we find there, I believe, a happiness at least equal to yours.” [6]

Chakrabarti argued an ideal of Indian womanhood developed from the notion of women as guardians of the sacred. This ideal rooted in the construction of a Hindu-Aryan nationality by Indian intelligentsia. Intellectuals became enthralled with an Aryan golden age (c. 500 BCE – 200 CE), in which the men were brave, noble and deeply spiritual. Their wives were learned, free, and highly cultivated. Together they made sacrifices to the gods and were an embodiment of conjugal love. Only as a married couple could they fulfil their religious duties. [7]

In Menaka’s words: “We have, in my opinion, more freedom than you Europeans; are you not surrounded by conventions, dependent on the social conditions among which you are trying to make a living? In India, the woman is the goddess of the house, her role is sacred.” [8]

Chakrabarti asserted that independent women, among them dancers, were excluded from the nationalist image of womanhood. They had free access to the worldly space of the street, market and festival – the domain of the man. Here dancers provided for themselves through their secular performances, without any dependence on a marital partner. Nationalist intellectuals ignored these women in their study of texts from the Aryan era. [9]

Menaka alluded to the stigma cast upon dancers: “I will not hide from you having encountered terrible difficulties, strong opposition, starting with my family. Then, after my success in Europe, I ended up overcoming prejudices. There was an entire past to contend with, for if in ancient India even princesses danced, no one dared to make a career out of it, except courtesans and people of inferior status.[10]

The interviewer asked how Menaka was able to reconcile strong family traditions, that prevented “attempts to escape”, with a career as a world-famous dancer:
“I believe that a few years ago that would have been impossible; the artistic situation had fallen very low in India, for both men and women. We have evolved since, however, I am the first woman to step on the scene! […] Only one must admit one thing […] I could never have been a dancer if I hadn’t been married …[11]


[1] Marceline, ‘Une femme hindoue vous parle. Instants avec Menaka…’, Journal de Genève (October 22, 1937) https://www.letempsarchives.ch/page/JDG_1937_10_22/3/article/6418519/menaka
[2] Ce que je pense de la condition des femmes de mon pays ? Eh bien je la trouve infiniment moins mauvaise que la vôtre ! […]
[3] Je les trouve très sympathiques et intéressantes, mais…Mais je ne les envie pas et ne voudrais pour rien au monde mener leur existence !
[4] Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Ethnocentricity of the nationalist discourse’, Nations and nationalism 1 (1) (1995) pp. 25-52, p. 26 and pp. 47-48.
[5] Partha Chatterjee, ‘Colonialism, nationalism and colonized women, the contest in India’, American Ethnologist 16/4 (1989) pp. 622-633, p. 623.
[6] […] aux Indes la femme est encore considérée comme telle, on la respecte ; elle a gardé son véritable rôle : maîtresse de maison, mère de famille, et n’a pas besoin de travailler. […] quelquefois, mais restant strictement féminin : soeurs de charité, gardes-malades, etc. Pourquoi empiétonons-nous sur les droits masculins ?
[7] Uma Chakravarti, ‘Whatever happened to the Vedic Dasi? Orientalism, Nationalism and a script for the past’, in: Kumkum Sangari, Sudesh Vaid (eds.) Recasting Women. Essays in colonial history (New Delhi 1989) pp. 27-88, p.46 and p. 50.
[8] Nous en avons, à mon avis, plus que vous autres Européennes ; n’êtes-ivous pas entourées de conventions, dépondantes dus conditions aciales parmi lesquelles vous essayez de gagner votre vie ? Aux Indes, la femme est la déesse de la maison, son rôle est sacré .
[9] Chakravarti, ‘Whatever happened to the Vedic Dasi?’, p. 78.
[10] […] je ne vous cacherai pas avoir rencontré de terribles difficultés, une vive opposition, à commencer par ma familile. Ensuite, après mes succès d’Europe, j’ai fini par vaincre les préjugés. Il y avait à lutter contre tout un passé, car, si dans l’Inde ancienne, même des princesses ont dansé, personne n’osait s’en faire une carrière, excepté les courtisanes et des gens de condition inférieure.
[11] Je crois qu’il y a quelques années cela aurait été impossible ; la situation artistique étai tombée très bas aux Indes, aussi bien pour les hommes que pour les femmes. On a évolué depuis, cependant, je suis la première femme qui soit montée sur la scène ! Seulement il faut avouer une chose…Jamais je n’aurais pu être danseuse si je n’avais pas été mariée…