The Antahpur: Centre of female world in 19th century Bengal

Representational Image

There were strict rules for governing women’s behaviour in Bengali society, which applied mainly to the women of ‘Bhadralok’ in Calcutta. The women of the lower strata were however able to move with greater freedom.

The antahpur was the centre of the female world, serving as a separate space for women of the household. The only recreation spot for women where they got exposed to light was the rooftop. They were generally not allowed to cross the threshhold of antahpur into the public world which was supposed to be for men.

The oldest female or the ‘ginni’ looked after the household stores, arranged meals and supervised the behaviour of the other females. The smooth functioning of a Bengali household depended on the degree of harmony among its womenfolk. A symbolic distance was maintained by a woman covering her head with her saree, which she had to observe with all the males of the family.

The authority structure was strictly hierarchical. Men could maintain the mother-son link as the primary relationship even after marriage. Wives could not speak with their husbands during the daytime. A woman would move up in the household hierarchy by becoming the mother of a son, the progenitor of a link in the patriarchal system.

In this way, learning how households functioned in the past, can help us get a better idea about hoe familial norms function in a certain way in contemporary times.

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