Mumbai at Home and in the World: Gender, Sexuality, and the Postcolonial City

About Syllabus Photos and Videos Faculty Profiles


In keeping with its commitment to scholarly and pedagogical excellence in an era of new global affiliations and exchange, Barnard College held its inaugural interdisciplinary Winter Seminar: “Mumbai At Home and In the World” in Mumbai from January 9 to 16, 2013.  The goal of the project is to ensure that any knowledge produced is meaningful to all participants, and to find ways of sustained engagement with those cities that have hosted one of Barnard’s annual global symposia, such as the Women Changing India Symposium.

Faculty affiliated with the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s (BCRW) Transnational Feminisms Initiative and the Barnard Global Symposia are:

  • Building new institutional and individual professional collaborations for the specific purposes of creating truly global classroom experiences;
  • Facilitating scholarly exchanges with faculty at multiple, related sites;
  • Encouraging student exchanges;
  • Deepening ties between Barnard College and other institutions.

The interdisciplinary Barnard Winter Seminar “Mumbai at Home and in the World” consolidates these aims by focusing on three topics that intersect in the global city of Mumbai. Each of these topics understands the centrality of gender to all discussions of class, ethnicity, race, religion, nationalism and politics. These topics are:

  • The relation between history and contemporary urban space in a global city like Mumbai (considering, for example, gender and performance in public space; women in politics; women and political representation; women negotiating public spaces);
  • The relation between historical and contemporary Mumbai and Indian Ocean diasporic communities (considering, for example, “Mumbai in Durban” and other littoral cities in which Mumbai has had a major impact);
  • The city as archive (considering, for example, the city’s historical as well as contemporary urban spaces; how the city itself becomes an living archive of the many, disparate peoples who have migrated from or maintain links with rural or other centers).

The seminar was hosted by Sophia College and taught by faculty from Barnard, Sophia, and Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. The student body for this seminar was drawn from Barnard (8 students), Sophia (50 students) and Lady Shri Ram (2 students).

Faculty used a number of different pedagogical methods, including lectures, small group discussions, film screenings, and a live performance of Urdu storytelling. Barnard, Sophia, and Lady Shri Ram students built connections between their respective experiences and locations through intensive and dynamic classroom discussions. Because Barnard and Lady Shri Ram students were housed on the Sophia College campus, discussions in the classroom carried over outside the seminar, and students built strong ties to each other. Barnard alums and those in the Barnard/Columbia network attended lectures, as well as a closing dinner and reception on the last evening.


As a student of gender studies, a feminist, and someone who spent most of her life outside of the US, I wanted to be a part of the Mumbai seminar for the ways in which it brought my academic interests–feminism, postcolonialism, performance, transnationalism, etc.–into the context of a global South Asian city, somewhere that is “not-US”. I wanted to see how the perspectives and theoretical tools I gained in the classroom at Barnard would change, or if they would at all. How would these often abstract theories inform or alter the ways in which I experience a city which: a) has a colonial history, b) is still strongly involved in feminist struggles, and c) is constantly undergoing cultural, economic, and social change due to the influences of the West and of capitalism, very much like my own home of Taipei?
– Nicci Yin ’14, “Occupying Space: A Transnational Feminist Dialogue

I spent two fleeting days at the Mumbai Winter Seminar. And yet, it served as a crucial conduit between my Barnard experiences (notably the Global Symposium in Mumbai) and my new position at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. Connecting three women’s colleges across the globe; transporting and translating ideas, philosophies, literatures, values.
– Shilpa Guha ’12, “Engaging the Production of Violence

Walking around Mumbai constantly challenged me to rethink my notions of public affection, public space, friendships and romance…learning to find the queer community in Mumbai taught me that …Mumbai’s queer scene is still very much vibrant and alive.
– Liz Gipson ’13, “Safe Spaces, Queer Spaces & Public Spaces

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January 9, 2013

Morning Session: Mediating the Event Horizon

From “3rd” to “Digital” Cinema: Representation at its Limits
Professor Jonathan Beller

Social Realist Cinema, Third Cinem,a and Digital Cinema have mobilized various strategies to dynamize the struggles of the urban poor against their oppressive conditions of existence. By way of thinking about the contemporary moment in which 2 billion people live on less then 2 dollars per day we will consider some of the strategies of Third Cinema alongside it’s political and indeed metaphysical assumptions. These latter include a theory of imperialism, of class struggle, of “colonial mentality,” and of “the Real.” We will then consider how globalization, finance capital and digitization have changed the terms of both struggle and representation.


Afternoon Session: Transnational Feminist Affiliations

Patriarchy and Violence in Comparative Perspective
Professor Catherine Sameh

How do we understand contemporary forms of violence, from the recent rape and beatings in Delhi to the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora? What connections can we make between “local” forms of violence, so often perpetrated by boys and men? What are the conditions of possibility within global modernity that produce different forms of violence, and how and why are such violences so deeply gendered? This session will explore these and other questions, with a particular focus on the possibilities of transnational feminist alliances against patriarchal and militarized violence at local, national and global scales.


January 10, 2013

Morning Session: The Marriage Brokers: A Documentary Film on Arranged Marriage in India
A film preview and discussion with Sarita Khurana, Director and Producer and Smriti Mundhra, Director and Producer

Over the course of two years, The Marriage Brokers follows the lives of three young women on the search for an arranged marriage in India. With the help of astrologers, matchmakers, the newspaper’s matrimonial section, private detectives and consultants, they endeavor to join the scores of Indian women who have had arranged marriages. Set against the background of a rapidly gloabalizing India where the position of women is constantly being contested, The Marriage Brokers explores themes that lie at the core of human experience: the conflict between tradition and modernity, old generations and new, and the universal need for companionship.

Afternoon Session: Gendered Youth

Gendered Youth: An Inquire Into Fast Food Eating Out Culture In Delhi
Professor Anjali Bhatia

Commonplace references and images of youth in popular culture, manifestoes of political parties and the market, is a hallmark of contemporary India. It could be hypothesized that this is a reaction to demographic projections that by 2015, 55% of India’s population will be under 20. To my mind, it is crucial to investigate the preponderance of youth in these spheres in order to understand how global capitalism and neo-liberal forces use demography to penetrate the social fabric. I am particularly struck by how the marketers’ capitalization of demography is reflected in fast food eating out culture wherein youth is delineated as a distinct category with a distinctive way of life. Herein, youth is segmented from the child and adult, and associated with a modern lifestyle. This lifestyle combines work with leisure; erases markers of caste hierarchy; instils dignity of work; promises democratic participation of girls and boys in the domains of work and leisure; features pre-marital romance. The aim of this lecture is to examine these representations and construction of youth in fast food eating out culture. I argue that the category of youth is not unitary; rather a gender fault-line is a defining feature of youth. Also, I deem it critical to ask whether or not, these representations reflect social reality. In other words, in Indian society, is there is social group identifiable as youth?

January 11-12, 2013

The Centrality of the Bombay Fort area to the Development of the City

The Departments of History, Economics, Education and English of Sophia College, in collaboration with the Sophia Centre for Women’s Studies and Development

Bombay Fort is today an idea, more than a physical reality. The Bombay Fort and its vicinity offer a rich terrain for the exploration of the historical, economical and cultural development of the city, into the vibrant centre of life that Mumbai is today. Many forces have contributed to the formation of its institutions, culture and open spaces. While the Bombay Fort no longer exists, the architectural development of this area and the living experience in and around the vicinity, have provided citizens with an enduring image of the city. It has left deep impressions on poetry, music, art, photography, architectural style, education, public transport, trade, commerce and government. Its art galleries, libraries, museums, theatres, universities, financial institutions, the docks, bus and train terminuses, water-fronts, and public spaces have left their mark on the construct that is Mumbai. Today the burgeoning land prices and population have forced the expansion of the city northward but this area continues to be the political and economic nerve centre of the city.

  • Ms. Rashna Poncha – ‘Kala Killa – The Story of the Bombay Fort’
  • Dr. Miriam Dossal – ‘Mirroring History – Mumbai’s Fort Precinct’
  • Dr. Mohsina Mukadam – ‘Fixed Prices , Fixed Menu: A Study of Khanavals’
  • Dr. Neelima Diwakar – ‘The gender gap in various district and various categories under the University of Mumbai’
  • Dr. Madhavi Gupte
  • Poetry Panel: Adil Jussawalla, Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto
  • Nilakshi Roy and Preetha Nilesh – ‘Fashioning a Heterotopia in South Mumbai: The Kala Ghoda Festival’
  • Dr. Abhay Pethe
  • Dr. Sriraman – ‘Transport in Mumbai’
  • Dr. Alka Parikh – ‘Mumbai – Financial Capital’
  • Dr. Vibhuti Patel – ‘Demographic Shift of Population’
  • ‘In the shadow of the Fort walls – A Virtual Walk’
  • ‘Transformations in the Tertiary Sector’
  • ‘Statues in Fort Area’
  • Sabyasachi Mukherjee – ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalya’
  • Dr. Sushma Paudwal

January 14, 2015

Sex, Gender, and Sexed Labor
Professor Anupama Rao and Professor Neferti Tadiar

In this session we consider how the social difference of gender and sexuality are mutually entailed in spatial processes, and reflected in built form. We take up two distinctive sites in the global South, Mumbai and Manila, at different points in time to ask the following questions: What sorts of comparisons we might draw regarding how female sexuality is regulated and made visible in the city? How did colonial capital structure Bombay neighborhoods, and the forms of life possible in them. And how did race and caste map onto female bodies? To what extent do late capitalist dreams of speed and efficiency impact perceptions of urbanity, and urban social experience? How do gendered subalterns–from sex workers to bar dancers experience the city and its distinctive neighborhoods?


  • Rao, Anupama. “Caste, Colonialism and the Reform of Gender:Perspectives from Western India” in Gendering Colonial India, 2012.
  • Tadiar, Neferti. “Metropolitan Dreams,” in Fantasy Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order, 2004.
  • Tambe, Ashwini. “Racial Stratification and the Discourse of Trafficking,” in Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay, 2009.

January 15, 2015

Archiving Feminism, Performing the Body
Professor Shayoni Mitra

Women have been conflated historically with bodies of knowledge that are oral, informal and ephemeral. This has often become a political position in the twenty first century. Yet, scholars and practitioners rightfully feel the urge to record and document their work, while fully aware of the mutations that such imprecise and incomplete records enact. This session will ask the question then of what a feminist archive and an archive of feminist performance look like? Drawing on Phelan’s definition of the ontology of performance as always toward disappearance, we will explore how an archive can only be residual and processual. Further, looking at Taylor’s theories of the archive and the repertoire, we will weigh collectively the possibilities, and the losses, of the inscribed and the embodied respectively.

For the Indian context I will share of the difficulties and contradictions my own research has faced in collecting accounts of women’s performances,the performances during the women’s movement in the 1980s. As no surprise, major accounts of Indian theatre history chart it as a primarily male phenomenon, in the thrall of the star playwright or director. In a linked, equally problematic occurrence some of the major theatre archives and spaces are curated and overseen by women but overwhelmingly showcase the work of men. How can we critically interrupt such an imbalance? How can we retain the political critiques of the canon performed by feminism and yet have some accessible traces that flag our work?

Lastly, we shall see a performance of Dastangoi, a Persian derived South Asian storytelling tradition based on the tales of Amir Hamza. Women – both as practitioners and as desiring agents – were mostly excluded from this oral narrative. And yet perhaps this resurgence of creative storytelling in the urban context might suggest to us ways of negotiating the troubled terrain between the word and the body.


  • Phelan, Peggy 1993: “The Ontology of Performance: Representation without Reproduction,” Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Routledge: London and New York.
  • Taylor, Diana 2003: “Acts of Transfer,” The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press: Durham and London.


    • Dastangoi, adapted and performed by Danish Husain & Mahmood Farooqui, based on the Tales of Amir Hamza

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Faculty Profiles

Shayoni Mitra works at the intersection of performance and politics. Her interest in political theatre stems from her years as an actor with Delhi based street theatre group Jana Natya Manch. She is currently revising toward publication her manuscript, “Contesting Capital: A History of Political Theatre in Postcolonial Delhi,” which interrogates the ever shifting, adapting expressions of political theatre under different configurations of power. It is a historical look at both proscenium and street theatre from the decade of Independence in the 1940s to the twenty first century. The manuscript covers a range of styles including folk and revolutionary singing troupes,  large open-air performances, topical agit-prop plays, intimate and improvized activist pieces and feminist performances. This understanding of what it means to be political in changing times, is linked fundamentally with the life and profile of a city. New Delhi, the new capital of postcolonial India offers a unique nexus of local, regional and national power from which to understand and interrogate the ways in which cultural policy functions in creating identity for a new nation and its multiple peoples. Read this way, the history of political theatre in Delhi becomes metonymic for the oppressed and marginalized populations of this ever expanding global city. Prof. Mitra has taught courses on Indian, Asian and non-Western performances as well as modern Theatre History and Performance Studies. Her teaching bridges the gap between the global North and South, putting into dialogue the histories of Western Realism with classical, folk, stylized, avant garde and improvized forms from around the world. She actively embraces the scholar-practitioner-activist role encouraging the connections between pedagogy and praxis. Before coming to Barnard, she taught at Brown and New York University in the United States and conducted lectures and theatre workshops in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia University and Delhi University in India. Among her current projects is her collaboration with a group of sex workers in Sangli, Maharashtra, India examining the ways in which they use theatre for their political mobilization.

Catherine Sameh is Assistant Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at University of California, Irvine. Her research interests include gender and Islam, women’s human rights, social movements in Iran and the Middle East, and transnational feminisms. Her current book project investigates a campaign among feminists in Iran and the diaspora to reform Muslim family law, and explores the role of transnational networks in coalescing new political cultures. Previously, Catherine was Associate Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and managing editor of The Scholar & Feminist Online.

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