I am Arnav Bhattacharya, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. I just cleared my candidacy exam in the end of May and am gearing up to begin research for my larger dissertation project, tentatively titled, “Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India (1880-1960).” I am presently in the third year of my graduate study moving on to the fourth. I hope to complete my dissertation by 2023 to 2024 at the latest. I am originally from Calcutta, West Bengal in India and I shifted to Philadelphia in the Fall of 2017.
My larger dissertation project explores the history of sexual science in India. For anyone who has visited India, one may have come across advertisements for “sex clinics” claiming to provide a cure for “secret diseases” (gupt rog in Hindi). I had been broadly interested in the history of medicine, gender and sexuality and was fascinated by the discipline of sexology in contemporary India, which as can be gleaned from the advertisements, isn’t unheard of in India but at the same time there is a certain amount of secrecy and awkwardness surrounding the subject. Sexuality in recent years, has managed to enter broader discussion in the public sphere in India, most visibly following several cases of sexual violence and also after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2018. In my dissertation I take a broader historical view on the subject to show how sexology or the idea of understanding sex scientifically was a part of the bigger project of modernity in colonial India. Indian sexologists were reading and appropriating a lot on sexology from the works of British and German sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld. At the same time, they were also trying to understand the relevance of the science of sex with respect to issues as child marriage, widow remarriage or inter-caste marriage which were relevant in the Indian context. Moreover, Indian sexologists were perhaps some of the earliest figures in modern India to openly discuss subjects such as homosexuality and sex education.
Keeping in mind my larger project, over the summer, I would like to explore the online archives of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University. Established in 1947, by the well-known American sexologist, Alfred C Kinsey in 1947, the Kinsey Institute has been the most important site for sexual science research in the United States. Fortunately, the online archives of the Institute have been made available through the Penn Library. Based on my initial skimming of the records, there are quite a few letters, correspondences and other materials relating to India in the Kinsey Institute Archives. Researchers at the Institute were interested to know more about Indian sexuality and wrote to people in India requesting books and photographs. Several Indians wrote to the institute with a wide range of requests ranging from sex advice, permission to translate Kinsey’s studies in Indian languages and request material and advice to establish sex ed curriculum or courses on sexuality . Over the course of the summer, I want to explore, study, and find out more about these interactions to understand the significance of the Kinsey Institute in the development of Indian sexology and sexuality from 1947 to the 1990s.
The availability of an online archive has made it possible for me to access the documents, despite the present travel restrictions. An initial challenge that I think I might encounter as I explore more of this material is trying to put all these documents in context. There is a lot of material and it is difficult to find out further details about the individuals making these correspondences, especially the Indian actors. I have thus decided to contextualize these documents thematically- What was the intention of Indians to write to the Kinsey Institute? How did India become a point of interest for the researchers at the Kinsey Institute? How do these documents relate to the wider sexual and socio-economic and political context of Cold War America and Post-Independence India? These are some of my initial research questions and I would love to receive further feedback on the topic.