Dr. Elena Valdameri (Fellow, ETH, Zürich)

Physical Education and Femininity in India (1900s – 1950s): Global Trends and Local Politics towards Crafting Women Citizens

1 November 2018 – 30 April 2019

During my six-month fellowship, I could conduct preliminary research on physical education, femininity and citizenship in the period from around 1900s to 1950s, which is a new field for me. Both literature review and archival research showed that this is a promising topic, which has been neglected so far not because of lack of sources – which are instead many and of different kinds – but because scholars have aligned with the phallocentric language of both nationalist and colonial narratives.

At the National Archives of India and at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, both in New Delhi, India, I could access a great deal of interesting material, ranging from private correspondence, to government reports, proceedings of political parties and women’s organisation, autobiographies and photographs, etc.

In particular, at the National Archives of India, some useful departmental collections I have started consulting are the Home Department proceedings pertaining to the Public, Jails, Police, Medical, and Judicial branches; Home Political; Legislative, Foreign; Revenue; and Agriculture Department. In particular, the Home Education collection contains useful information on physical training for boys and girls.

In the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, I could find important nationalist and British loyalist dailies and journals, such as Indian Social Reformer, The Leader, Bombay Chronicle, The Vedic Magazine, Dnyanprakash (Marathi), The Indian Spectator, Bahishkrut Bharat (Marathi), Times of India and Indian Opinion. These are useful not only for the detailed information they provide on issues linked to our topic, but also for visual material that can complement our reconstruction of physical training and fitness schemes. Journals like Indian Ladies Magazine (English), Chand (Hindi) and Roshni (English, later bilingual), Panchal Pandita (Hindi) have been consulted. The library and archives at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library need to be consulted also for the papers of All India Women Conference (AIWC), National Council of Women in India, All India Congress Committee, Indian National Social Conference, and Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and Servants of India Society, among others. Other collection that might prove useful in my future research, but I could only preliminarily consult due to paucity of time are the Delhi Police Records, Delhi Police Special Branch, Central Intelligence Department. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library holds also private papers of individuals that played a prominent role in encouraging or implementing programs of corporeal citizenship, like N.S. Hardiker, H.N. Kunzru, B.S. Moonje, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Annie Besant, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. I have started exploring some of these. The Nehru Library has also a considerable photography section which covers all the period under purview and in which I could find fascinating material. More material on the AIWC is kept in the AIWC library, New Delhi, where I have identified some literature and visual sources that I will investigate during my following research trip.

During my fellowship, I also spent three weeks in Pune, in January. In this period, I got in contact with the Women’s Studies Centre at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, where I was invited later on in March to present my research. I met also other scholars based in other academic institutions who have been working on physical cultures in Maharashtra, which is a very important region to study if we want to shed light on the initial indigenous attention to physical schemes aimed at ‘uplifting’ the masses. In Pune, I visited the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, which possesses the original book collection of the Servants of India Society, a social service association that was active in physical education of women. I was also invited to give a talk by the Director of the Gokhale Institute. In addition, I met people working at the Seva Sadan, an organisation similar to the Servants of India, which runs several schools for unprivileged girls and women. I also visited Huzurpaga College and Rani Laskhmibai School, which have been pioneering institutions in physical fitness for women since the early decades of the twentieth century. Although for a set of reasons I could not have yet access to any documents in these two colleges, establishing contacts was very useful in order to facilitate my research during future stays. Moreover, I went to the National Film Archive of India, where I watched two 1942 documentaries dealing with the ‘empowerment’ of Indian women and taking into account also aspects of physical activities.

In addition, I could also create an initial topography of schools, colleges, institutions across India that are worth studying in the period of focus of my research. Some might prove irrelevant and others might be added as the inquiry proceeds.

In February, during the ICAS:MP week I have presented a paper based on my preliminary research in the archives. Once finalised, I intend to submit it to Gender and History.

In order to be able to go on with this research, I have also applied for a Swiss National Fund grant with Prof. Harald Fischer-Tiné (ETH-Zurich). If the project is successful, besides my postdoctoral research on physical education for women, two doctoral projects will deal with other aspects of physical cultures in colonial and post-colonial India and Pakistan, with a particular focus on children and Muslims, target groups which, like women, have been largely neglected by scholarship. For a wider dissemination of the research outcome, the project intends to develop a digital compilation of source materials which will become public at the end of the project. While contributing to the growingly significant field of digital humanities, this online knowledge portal will allow researchers to further investigate issues linked to the current project and teachers to download and reproduce sources in the classroom for teaching purposes.

Ultimately, in addition to progressing with studying Hindi, whose knowledge already allows me to consult documents in this language, in my six months in Delhi I have also studied Marathi, as I intend to explore material in this regional language in the future.


I am a historian working on the history of modern South Asia, with specific interest and expertise in intellectual history, the history of political thought and the transnational circulation and adaptation of ideas. I received my Ph.D. from the State University of Milan in 2015, with a dissertation on the political thought of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, which will soon be published as my first book. After completing my PhD, I taught at the University of Pavia and I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair for History of the Modern World, at ETH-Zurich. My current research focusses on the varying political constructions and experiences of citizenship in India in the first half of the 20th century.

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