Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's article "Female World of Love and Ritual" brought to light the largely ignored experience of intimate, loving friendship between two women. According to Rosenberg, women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America "routinely formed emotional ties with other women" and acceptable same-sex friendships ranged from "the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women." In this female world, men had but a "shadowy appearance."(1) Smith-Rosenberg's most significant contribution in analyzing the same-sex relationship was providing an alternative approach to past female relationships that was distinct from an "exclusively individual psychosexual perspective."(2) Smith-Rosenberg's methodology relied on viewing female friendships "within a cultural and social setting," which entailed studying the "structure of American family and the nature of sex-role divisions ... within the family and in society generally" and she based her study on correspondence and diaries of women and men.(3) Smith-Rosenberg's contention was that several factors present in American society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as rigid gender-role differentiation within the family and society as a whole, led to both physical and emotional segregation of women and men. In turn, this division bound women together intimately.
Smith-Rosenberg's observations regarding same-sex friendships among American women in the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are paralleled in homosocial societies of South Asia. My contribution to this retrospective focuses on family and kinship patterns that are conducive to same-sex bonding in southern India. I discuss the lived experiences of women in the Indian joint-family system--a system marked by sex segregation and rigid gender-role differentiation. Within such family orders, homosocial spaces exist that engender female bonding. As Smith-Rosenberg pointed out in the context of North America, I contend that such female spaces do not enable women to opt out of marriage, but, rather, love between women is quite compatible with heterosexual marriage. While Smith-Rosenberg related female friendships "to the structure of the American family and in society generally,"(4) I link female bonding in southern India to sex segregation, joint-family system, and the presence of unusual legends that celebrate female bonding. Moreover, literary sources often sanctioned and validated same-sex bonding among women. The literary sources differ largely, some having their foundations in the Brahmanical orthodoxy that believe in the absolute authority of the Vedas, while the others originate in subversive liberal folk and other art traditions that may not accept the Vedic authority.
Both traditions have coexisted a long time. The folk tradition has survived in many regions of India and still exists. More often than not, it departs from patriarchal norms codified in orthodox texts. The folk tradition consists of oral compositions, many of which were not written until centuries later. Nonliterate women as well as men of oppressed castes composed this tradition.(5) By contrast, literate upper-caste men authored the conformist mainstream literary tradition. Inspired by Smith-Rosenberg's method of studying same-sex relationships among women, I locate bonding between Indian women in cultural and literary sources as well as the social setting of family structures in the context of India. Despite rapid industrialization and breaking up of large, joint-family units, such a study is applicable to present-day India.
The article is divided into two sections. In the first, I highlight two texts that typify the woman-led kingdom. Such literature legitimized same-sex bonding among women. In the second part, I briefly discuss the family …