Suttee as Modernism

Levine gives a brief history of the British in India, but makes little mention of the locals and their exertions. Therefore when Levine mentions the local Indian reformers Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (72), I am inclined to pay special attention to them, particularly Roy and his mission to outlaw suttee.

I would like to think of these Indian reformers as some form of modernists. Roy’s reform organization, the Brahmo Samaj, noticed that the traditional practice of suttee was outdated, if not redundant. They published a tract condemning suttee in both Bengali and English in 1818 that included “journalistic and literary accounts of women’s hideous screams of agony”, which, in my opinion, was a rather guerilla-like tactic to get the British’s attention. By publishing something that would generally be taboo to talk about at that point in time, it would serve to shock its audience, and therefore provoke new thoughts regarding the practice. This is similar to the way that advocates of modernism worked. This certainly proved to be a success, as suttee was eventually made illegal.

The repeal of suttee represents the dilemma of modernism. By outlawing suttee, one is effectively rejecting custom and creating a new alternative for the wives of the deceased. On the other hand, it also has the effect of reinforcing tradition, as Levine writes that the law “advertised the practice more widely, and also made it seem an act subversive of British rule”.