Anthropology India, Masculinity, Identity
by
Harjant S. Gill
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0291

Introduction

Throughout modern history, much of Indian society was and remains staunchly patriarchal—a society in which men control access to power, property, and resources. Coming of age in India, most cisgender men grow up being told that they are stronger, more capable, and more powerful than women and minority genders. Aside from some regional variations in descent and residence patterns, most Indian societies are also patrilineal and patrilocal. Family and kinship play a crucial role in shaping the lives and life choices of most Indians. While daughters are expected to leave behind their natal homes to join their affinal kin and become part of their in-laws’ household after marriage, in most Indian families, sons inherit family property and assets almost exclusively. Women are further disempowered in workplace and in public, where they confront persistent sexism, misogyny, discrimination, harassment, and gendered violence. Patriarchy remains enshrined within the very fabric of social life in India, empowering men economically, politically, and socially. Indian manhood is defined through this assumed and often unquestioned supremacy of men over women and minority genders. Yet the power and privileged status that Indian men enjoy accompanies with it a whole set of responsibilities and limitations. Patriarchy restricts their gender identity, expressions, and desires. Despite being in positions of power, Indian men have a lot less control over whom they can love or marry, what kinds of families they are allowed to have, and the kind of educational and professional opportunities they are allowed to pursue. Their choices are limited by their parents, their extended families, and their caste and ethnic communities. In this way, Indian society can be characterized as “Macholand,” as a society defined by male supremacy and patriarchy in which men relish in the privileges that accompany being a man while simultaneously resenting the limitations that patriarchal family structures place upon their individual aspirations and personal lives. Indian men’s lives and the very definition of masculinity and sexuality in India are constituted through endogamous marriage, heteronormative family, and patriarchal kinship. Irrespective of the various coming-of-age ceremonies and initiation rituals boys undergo as they transition into manhood within different ethnic and religious communities across India, marriage and fatherhood remain the two most important rites that all men must undertake to become men. This article surveys the current body of scholarship exploring regional variations and nuances in how masculinities are developed, embodied, and performed in different regions of India, among different caste and ethnic communities, and within the Indian diaspora. Also included are accounts of men who challenge hegemonic or dominant constructions of Indian masculinities by refusing heteronormative marriage and refashioning family and kinship through queer frameworks of belonging.

Masculinities in Contemporary India

Alongside Hindi and Persian terms like purush and aadmi, the Urdu term mard is used widely across northern India, connoting “men.” More so than purush or aadmi, mard is coded in gendered meanings that imply performative characteristics and behaviors associated with being a man and with being masculine. Colloquially, “being a mard” also implies being macho. Being a mard calls for the conscious demonstrations of machismo or hegemonic masculinity in ways that affirm the power and control of men: of dominant caste men over oppressed caste men, of older men over younger men, and of all men over all women and minority genders. Similar to machismo, mardaani or mardangi is the personification of heterosexual masculine entitlement and male prestige that at times manifests into aggressive male posturing or violent male behavior, and into misogyny and sexual aggression toward women and minority genders. Bass 2020; Chakraborty 2015; Chopra, et al. 2004; Chopra 2006; and Dasgupta and Gokulsing 2014 explore contemporary Indian masculinity, examining how men are expected to repeatedly demonstrate their mardangi and participate in public performances of their masculinity to reassert and reaffirm their dominant status. While these performances of masculinity vary widely depending on the regional or cultural contexts within which they are enacted, they play an important role in constituting the ever-evolving framework of exemplar masculinity—one that other younger men are expected to emulate and celebrate. Alter 2011 explores how male athletes forged their understanding of masculinity through often contradictory frameworks of body, sexuality, spirituality, and Ayurvedic medicine. As documented by Gill 2014, mardangi fuels and is fueled by homophobia and transphobia, resulting in the subjugation of sexual and gender minorities. While a small number of dominant-caste, upper-class Indian men are able to occupy hegemonic masculinity or encapsulate exemplar mardangi all of the time, within patriarchal Indian society, where men’s dominance over women is enshrined in almost every social institution, all Indian men benefit from one degree or another from the patriarchal dividend associated with being a man. Chakraborty 2015 and Srivastava 2022 illustrate how caste, class, and religious identity also play a crucial role in determining men’s position within patriarchy, their access to power, and what kind of men they are allowed to become. Coming of age as a man in India varies widely for men who grow up in poor and working-class families, disenfranchised because of their caste status or ethnic background, in contrast with upper-middle class men who belong to the dominant caste Hindu families, as explored by Philip 2022 and shown in Roy 2000.

  • Alter, Joseph. 2011. Moral materialism: Sex and masculinity in modern India. New Delhi: Penguin India.

    Alter explores the intersections of male body, sexuality, spirituality, and Ayurvedic medicine in Indian sports such as kabaddi, yoga, and wrestling. Examining how male athletes regard their bodies and physical strength, Alter posits an understanding of masculinity in relation to semen as material substance shaped by culture. On one hand, celibacy is a way to self-discipline and control that athlete desire to perfect their bodies; on the other, its association with asexuality can be interpreted as effete or unmanly.

  • Bass, Michiel. 2020. Muscular India: Masculinity, mobility, and the new middle class. New Delhi: Westland Books.

    Building on ethnographic research among young men employed within India’s growing fitness industry, as personal trainers and bodybuilders, Bass maps the emergence of a contemporary urban masculinity that values muscularity and hypermasculine aesthetics. India’s fitness industry often attracts young men attempting to carve out nontraditional career trajectories, giving working-class men opportunities to interface with upper-middle-class clientele, yet their positions in this new service sector are often precarious and exploitative.

  • Chakraborty, Chandrima, ed. 2015. Mapping South Asian masculinities: Men and political crisis. New York: Routledge.

    Edited volume exploring masculine subjectivities in relationship to various forms of nationalisms, political fluctuations, and social changes in South Asian history, literature, and everyday life. It features essays on variety topics, from representations of masculinity in partition-era politics, to diasporic masculinities in the post-9/11 era, to popular depictions of queer masculinity and sexuality in South Asian diasporic novels.

  • Chopra, Radhika. 2006. Muted masculinities: Introduction to the special issue on contemporary Indian ethnographies. Men and Masculinities 9.2: 127–130.

    DOI: 10.1177/1097184X06287767

    Introduction to a special issue on Indian masculinities in the journal Men and Masculinities guest edited by one of the pioneering scholars in the field of masculinity studies in South Asia. Other essays in this special issue explore men’s lives in prison, in public, and in historical and popular cultural representations.

  • Chopra, Radhika, Caroline Osella, and Filippo Osella, eds. 2004. South Asian masculinities: Context of change, sites of continuity. New Delhi: Woman Unlimited.

    Among the first edited volumes on Indian masculinities, this work remains seminal in conceptualizing and understanding various aspects of men’s lives across South Asia through ethnographically rich essays, historical accounts, and explorations of popular cinematic representation. This volume also highlights regional gradations in Indian manhood, and the need for a more polysemous approach to the concept of masculinity itself by referring to Indian masculinities in the plural.

  • Dasgupta, Rohit, and K. Moti Gokulsing, eds. 2014. Masculinity and its challenges in India: Essays on changing perceptions. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

    Interdisciplinary collection of essays and articles exploring the intersections of masculinity and sexuality in India, with a special focus on desire, queerness, and the body. The volume was published against the backdrop of rapidly shifting attitudes in India on the topic of homosexuality and sexual minority rights.

  • Gill, Harjant, dir. 2014. Mardistan/Macholand. New Delhi: Public Service Broadcasting Trust of India.

    Ethnographic documentary unpacking contemporary masculinity in North India from the perspective of four men from different generations and social backgrounds. Through in-depth interviews, the film explores themes associated with patriarchy, including patrilineal inheritance, male supremacy, son preference, homophobia, and sexual violence against women. The film ends by imagining alternative models of Indian masculinity, and how men might divest from patriarchal structures to realize more fulfilling lives as fathers, partners, husbands, brothers, and sons.

  • Philip, Shannon. 2022. Becoming young men in new India: Masculinities, gender relations and violence in the postcolony. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781009158725

    Set in the streets of India’s capital city Delhi, this ethnographic study chronicles the experiences of young unmarried Hindu men in their mid- to late twenties belonging to upper-middle-class families. By documenting their interactions with each other, with women in public, and with others in positions of servitude, Philip shows us how young men transform Delhi’s streets into a homosocial space, at times hostile toward women.

  • Roy, Rahul, dir. 2000. When four friends meet. London: Royal Anthropological Institute.

    Set in a working-class colony on the outskirts of Delhi, this seminal documentary captures candid and intimate conversations among four young Indian men on the topics of manhood, sex, family, work, and Bollywood cinema at a time when the nation was undergoing a neoliberal transformation of its economy and witnessing the rise of new, more muscular, and more aggressive models of Hindu nationalism.

  • Srivastava, Sanjay. 2022. Masculinity, consumerism, and the post-colonial Indian city: Streets, neighborhoods, home. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781009179874

    Based in New Delhi, this sociological study considers the making and remaking of North Indian masculinities in relationship with ever-changing geographies of urban India, providing insights into how gender is shaped by everyday consumption, national politics, and the materiality of urban spaces.

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