Aging and Adjusting: Development Experts, Elders and Families in India (1940-80s)


Lawrence Cohen’s No Aging in India has long been valued by readers for the multiple perspectives it offers as springboards from which to analyze and frame our overlapping, shared intellectual agendas. Each time I have read Lawrence’s book over the past few years, I have taken away different and often distinct insights. In this case, my most recent re-reading of No Aging in India occurred a few years after I had begun research for a book on aging. I was particularly drawn to Cohen’s nuanced and pioneering exploration of old age and aging bodies as sign of the shifting political imaginings and reach of the Indian state, and of the perceived disappearance of imagined, core values in Indian culture. My interest in this analysis drew me to the voices and politics of contemporary gerontological ‘experts’ concerned about changes in a normative, Hindu, Indian family and its kinship ties. Twenty years after its publication, Cohen’s work continues to offer a useful framing within which to understand how these ideas and voices about an intersecting, overlapping social and national, political lifecourse are projected through developmental and modernizing discourses regarding collective interests.

In No Aging, Cohen probes how knowledge about aging and of aging bodies is understood in terms of the body and its behavior over time. The most fascinating sections are those in which Cohen describes how Indian gerontology is built, tracing its discursive and political milieus through narratives of inevitable decline – both of the universal joint family and of older people’s minds and bodies as a result of neglect by their families and children. Seva is a crucial framing in Cohen’s work in exploring old age and its relationships. He explains that Seva implies in its ‘epitome’ a seamless attentiveness to parents, and a life of devoted service that gives meaning to the relationship between older people and adult children; with family members and even politicians seeking to deploy the proper flow of seva as “obeisance” in transactional ways to reinforce social and political roles. Cohen frames bad Seva as a social gaze, and deficit, and a lens to see and recognize “old age.” Further, Cohen discusses his own role in bringing an imported medical gaze “to see definitively and to fix blame scientifically” (101).

In No Aging, Cohen explores the related norm of adjustment among the Indian bourgeoisie. He points out that this has been a concern in American social science earlier in the 1950-60s relating to the maladjustment in older ages. And in a separate paper published in the Annual Review of Anthropology (1994), Cohen examines the origins of the subdiscipline of ‘geroanthropology’ or the anthropology of old age; where he offers a somewhat (and I use his words) ‘heretical’ reading by situating the work of social gerontologists (such as Carol Estes and others), and also stressing the need to articulate the internal politics of generational difference between the expert/anthropologist and the subjects or people being studied. He also articulates a concern to open up local epistemologies to help understand how aging is differentially constituted in specific local, social worlds.[1] Cohen’s work on aging is of particular value to historians as he looks at contingencies and intersectionalities beyond cultural influences alone; and in No Aging he reinforces other critical axes of difference. It is this pioneering and original aspect of his thought, and the continued promise it offers in terms of the contextual nuances of local politics and urban alignments in north Indian towns, their neighborhoods and in larger cities, in party politics and political imagery that is rewarding to read. Cohen juxtaposes these ideas with aging and includes crucial, and prescient comments about Hindu national identity building and its nationalist consolidation that are now part of India’s dominant, cultural politics and party leadership.

Maladjustment as a Developmental Transition

This paper focuses on the intersection between individual maladjustment among the aged and the interpretations of modernization, industrialization, urbanization and ‘westernization’ that have shaped ideas about maladjustment in old age.  I am also interested in exploring shifts, such as old age that was understood in terms of family and kinship begins to be transformed beyond these norms. To this end, I identify two historical conjunctures when developmental experts were shaping and trying to recast Seva. In doing so, I analyze how the locus of Seva is translated and shifted to social welfare provisions by the state. I further examine the state’s contingent attitudes towards assuming the responsibility of paternalist Seva in a newly independent Indian society, at a time when citizens were perceived as needing new pedagogical guidance on rights, responsibilities and behavior.[2]

Through this paper, I will reflect on the political imaginings that No Aging suggests in order to draw out the complex genealogies of modernization and family discourses that Cohen highlights in his work. I examine middle class social workers and elite scientific experts whose writings articulate concerns about the way political and developmental shifts linked to modernization in India could lead to ‘maladjustment.’ In these writings, aging and its embodiments in family behavior and relationships are portrayed as a gap or absence that the nation and its developmentalist plans will bridge through progress and modernization. Early inquiries into aging in India during the 1950-60s were born partly out of a suggested binary and contrast between the East and the West with regard to development. The perceived East/West distinction in developmental stage was rooted in demographic differences; however, the old in India were represented in contradictory ways, as separate from while also being part of a pre-colonial past, and, at the same time as modern citizens whose futures still needed to be negotiated. The latter representation emerged from a messy, unclear, unresolved shift in the narratives that I have examined in the 1950-60s. And yet, social experts and scientists now began to identify the aged as also being socially fettered and needing to be mobilized by the paternalism of the developmentalist state that could potentially take the place of an older generation.

I will examine three historical intersections and distinct sets of voices and actors to elaborate on No Aging’s relevance to the debate around family, maladjustment and aging in the context of the developmental and post developmental state in India. I aim to thereby demonstrate the different origin points of these discussions about aging and tropes of maladjustment. I trace this as a historian not only preoccupied with a historical past, but with an interest in the tropes of transition and translation voiced by experts about families and the place of the maladjusted, misplaced aged. These experts were preoccupied with the future rather than a mythical past and were focused on the nations developmental and post-developmental prospects or the rhetorical terrain and aspirations of the nation and its modernity. Using Cohen’s framings in No Aging it is also interesting to further pose the question of the politics of translation – specifically, the politics surrounding the process of translating western gerontology and recasting it in India; even as those who translate assert its authoritative framings, they resist it and offer newer categories.

Great Expectations and Emerging Anxieties (among an urban, scientific elite) (1947-50s)

In 1955, Vasant Ramji Khanolkar, arguably India’s best known pathologist, sought to weigh in on the problem of aging in Indian society. Khanolkar was Director of the Indian Cancer Research Center in Bombay, which had grown from a small radium center and hospital (the Tata Memorial Hospital, founded in 1941) supported by the Dorabji Tata Trust. Khanolkar had persuaded the Government of India to fund a research institute that was expected to be India’s answer to Johns Hopkins, which led the field of medical research in the U.S.[3] Khanolkar was a longstanding and prominent member of a medical and scientific elite that supported Nehruvian modernism in terms of development planning, and aimed at Indian science and scientists leading the way towards improved social and health outcomes. Khanolkar was a friend and colleague of Homi Bhabha’s in the project to harness atomic energy for peace and mobilize its benefits for medicine; he was present some years later at another larger spectacle: the inauguration of the Apsara reactor by Pandit Nehru at the newly founded atomic energy institute.[4]

The social transformations that needed to occur for these modernization plans to take off, however, worried Khanolkar, who was interested in both cancer pathology and population studies and development. In his writing on aging and the aged in India, he saw the rapid social changes occurring in India as having implications for India’s future. He wrote that many ‘modern’ ideas relating to the functions and responsibilities of the individual, the society and the State had crept in from the outer world and had firmly taken root in “eastern countries.” In India (at a conjunctural, historical moment when its new political elite was defining their social vision for an independent nation), the care of the poor and aged had been accepted as the responsibility of the state. At this time, Indian political leaders often reiterated their commitment to visions of a welfare society that offered social security, maintenance and medical care for infirmities, disabilities and diseases peculiar to old age, through the future establishment and maintenance of well-equipped medical institutions. India, Khanolkar observed, had been under a feudalistic rule (referring to British colonialism and the indirect rule of dynasties in the erstwhile Princely States in India), and such types of government had not been interested in the  well-being of the people they ruled. They had focused on the extraction of wealth and raw materials, and as a result, the utilization of preventive and curative medicine had remained small, public sanitary conditions were deplorable, and the relatively small population of old people did not call for further, immediate measures.

However, Khanolkar noted that in a predominantly rural country, winds of modernizing change were blowing, and the nation had adopted a planned economy as the basis of its development. Under these Five Year Plans, the health and well-being of the people was receiving consideration, with measures for eradication of disease, and attention to limit the increases in population. These measures, if carried out effectively, would lead to a proportional increase in the population and “create problems which are not conspicuous today.”[5] The family has thus far accepted responsibility for people as they age, and the question of care and maintenance were settled within the four walls of the family house. He noted, as cities and towns were set up, and big and small industries installed within them, a gradual shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy begins. With this shift, family allegiances have loosened and the provision for the aged is no longer considered to be an obligation of the family. It was not simply development but ideas too that had shifted.[6] The stratification of human life dating back from Aryan period, ending when the old renounced and took Sanyas,[7] was unworkable except for all but a small class of Aryan people. Nonetheless, this stratification had a powerful subconscious, social effect in Hindu society, which had eroded by Western ideas implanted and rooted in the minds of young Indian people, and has led to the fusion of an individualist and social stage in society, but never complete displacement of the Aryan, family phases.[8]

European society according to the French demographer, Alfred Sauvy had moved more definitely from the family phase, the individualist phase to the social phase, and  Khanolkar was bringing out two kinds of continuities and discontinuities in his essay that diverged from Sauvy’s work. He was referring to India’s family relations not having followed the same historical stages as the West, as described by the French demographer who had assigned three distinct phases that European society had undergone in its attitudes towards and support for the aged and needy. According to Khanolkar, the family phase of support was a subconscious attitude rather than a rigid, moral compass had persisted in India and was now overlapping with a phase during which the Government was likely to intervene and mediate in the near future. [9] There was no decline as the family was handing over responsibility to the state, but older values of extending support to the aged and expectations of care from older persons persisted among the changes occurring nationally due to the welfare and development planned by the new Indian state.

Khanolkar also assumed the role here of an expert who was helping to translate and renegotiate the terms of a new modernity that brought in new terms of improvement.  These improvements were unlike changes that had occurred during the colonial past, which had marginalized Indians and polarized them, by attributing differences and fractures that separated modern and traditional societies, colonial accounts differentiated between the advances of  ‘western’ medicine and ‘indigenous’ medicine and healing. Gyan Prakash has described this as a “disjunctive modernity.”  (Somewhat disturbingly, Khanolkar’s work was already distilling a vision of aging and families that could trace its genealogy to an original ‘Hindu’/Indian family.)

Others, especially demographers were more forthright in seeing aging and old age as a fracture and impediment in empowering larger modernizing forces. (Younger family members, especially educated women who were on the cusp of entering the labor force, were a significant worry for demographers, as they were seen as being impeded from working outside). C.P. Chandrashekhar, a leading Government demographer and sociologist who had led several census operations in the post-colonial census surveys, consistently held the view that the aged in a Hindu joint family and their values made the joint family a seat of conservatism and reactionary attitudes. Although the extended family had served a mixed purpose in the past, it now represented the exalting of elders irrespective of ability and validated authority over the innovation and independence associated with enterprising individuals by pulling down all members to the same mediocre levels.[11] Chandrashekhar was trying to establish that the joint family stood between the new state and the individual, and civic loyalty was being sacrificed for family loyalty.[12]

Chandrasekhar expressed these views often, and at times found great support for his ideas. In a reader’s forum in the columns of the Illustrated Weekly of India, middle class readers of the magazine wrote, repeated and echoed each other as they condemned the joint family.  As readers observed, the state was coming to assume the role of the “superparent” and advocates of the joint family system no longer held valid ground for its reinstatement; meanwhile, others observed that the needs and aspirations of young women and couples had to weigh over those of an illiterate older woman. In advanced countries, medical science has created a longer life span, and old people were becoming more of a common problem. Though well cared for, these unwanted old people need to be needed, wrote a reader. She added, “In a joint family such problems do not exist, but weighing this and other pros and cons, it is clear that the joint family has no place in modern India. From a female perspective it was also probably never useful.”

In these writings, repetition has both value and significance. Experts repeatedly stressed that the marginalized joint family and authoritarian elders were out of place. These assertions about family structure and generational relations were anchored in specific ideologies – class-based aspirations that centered on the promise of a capitalist modernity, tempered by social democracy –that a scientific elite represented by Khanolka and Chadrasekhar judged was India’s imminent future. Experts such as Khanolkar and Chandrasekhar used different approaches to stress the maladjustment of traditional families and the aged but in fundamentally similar ways they endorsed forcefully the idea that bodies that were productive and youthful belonged to the new nation and its industrializing modernity and were of it; while others were hanging between a disintegrating or threatened family structure and the newborn Indian state’s paternalism. What we have here is, as Cohen points out, a class-specific discourse that emerges from an urban, middle class bourgeosie who refer to a universalizing frame of the joint family-in-decline in order to support developmentalist goals and place aging and older persons outside this unfolding, progressive process.

What were the specific developmentalist projects that shaped these views? The successes of population control and community development programs were hovering over and colored these anxieties about modernization (especially its developmentalist projects); anxieties frequently articulated in reports and writings by social workers who were the ‘experts’ in the field. After the launch of India’s community development programs (henceforth, ‘CD’) in 1952, there was a bid to train and sensitize social workers and to expand social work education to train these front-line workers in the community. Concerns were also voiced about the family, and the fact that the success of CD depended on its acceptance by local communities; particularly older persons who were in positions of authority.

Looking beyond the rarerified social and technoscientific worlds that Khanolkar and Chandrasekhar inhabited in Bombay and Delhi, their views and anxieties about a crisis of family life was echoed by social experts in other parts of India.  “The function of social work,” wrote a faculty member in a social work school in Rajasthan, “was to offer professional intervention only when social structure has failed to provide safeguards for its members.” He added, however, that the time had come to be better informed of the real condition of the aged in Indian society. During this era, politicians based in the Health and Family Planning Ministry were suggesting that a chain of subsidized homes for the old could ensure that people would not need to have more children to depend on. However, social workers also referred to the different expectations of care between generations. As R. R. Singh (YEAR) writes

“For instance, the problem of the aged who were born before independence and those born afterwards will vary a great deal because these two groups will have quite different perceptions of the role of the aged in society, and expectation from children. I say before independence and after independence because before independence the values such as individualism, equality, freedom and self -dependence, and social justice were less pervading than they are likely to be afterwards. Thus the population which will be regarded as old, at the turn of the century will have a different image of what they will expect from themselves, their children and society than the aged individuals now called old.”[14]

The Aged in the Countryside: Social Work Experts and Modernization (1960s)

The aged in the countryside were rarely a focus of interest for social workers preoccupied with their long-time, persistent concerns regarding urban labor migration, policing moral hygiene in industrial settlements, and beggary and indigence in cities. I have focused on a small study here undertaken by H.M. Marulasiddaiah, a social worker and a social anthropologist by training who was a lecturer based at the School of Social Work at the Karnatak University in Dharwar.[15] He undertook, in the words of his mentor, a modest study of a single village and its agrarian community in Western Mysore (in a multi caste village of about 315 households near Dharwar between 1960-63), and explored how a peasant society and its aged were affected “as a developing polity in a nascent country… [was] subjected to forces of industrialization and urbanization.” India’s planned economy, Marulasiddaiah, noted was introducing democratic socialism and welfare, and the young were migrating to the cities as the old stayed in villages. In the meanwhile, CD (see reference on p.8) Programs were changing the outlook of rural people. Old age pensions were being offered to those above the age of 70 years, means-tested at about Rs. 15 per month.

Marulasiddaiah later published this study in the form of a book (Old People of Makunti, 1969). He stayed during his study at a village dominated by the politically powerful and dominant Lingayat community where many knew him as being part of a priestly Jajman caste.[17] There he recorded a range of experiences that were different from the associations made regarding generational support within the family as discussed by the urban readership in the columns of the Illustrated Weekly of India that was discussed earlier. Marulasiddaiah’s focus was to trace the changing kinship networks that supported many of the old whose children had migrated or were childless. He also narrated experiences of a life that was not made of binary oppositions with Western gerontology and the Indian experience, but explored the wide differences in experiences of leisure and aging within the village he studied. In one such meeting, older women who were quite poor laughed at Marulasiddaiah’s questions about whether they celebrated their longevity through rituals such as shashtiyapurthi or the completion of 60 years of life, saying that these are the preoccupations of those in the city, who have money to spend and waste on sweets.

Marulasiddaiah also narrated the constant, seasonal cycle of agrarian labor and noted that there was no dramatic transition for the agriculturist as there was for the worker retiring from industry; as such, there was no need to plan beforehand to adapt to the new situation. In other words, adjustment was part of an industrial work cycle where planning for later life was needed, as Western gerontology advises. Marulasiddaiah interviewed people jn an agrarian society: Jevura Gangayya, a widow, 70 years old and an active labourer, Sanimanni Danapppa who tilled the land, Badagera who made wooden ploughs and Budikayi Fakirappa who was 80 years old and took his cattle for grazing in the meadow (though he had pain in the knees).  He inquired from one of them: “Don’t you retire from this work, Yajaman?  Kotabaggi Malappa, 70 years who was asked this question was turning mud with the help of a Mumti to make the water flow into his field. “Mr. Malappa wore a gunny sack turned into a cover that ran from his head to his knees, I was holding my umbrella and wearing shoes. Malappa raised his head looked at me, looked at me with a smile: Do you want me to die early, he asked. Saying this Malappa ran to another place to open the water channel. That was a rather strange reply for me and I assured him that  had not thought of his death as I asked him about retirement.”

Malappa’s reply made Marulasiddaiah reflect on adjustment and retirement in the South Indian countryside. He wrote that the age of retirement was perhaps not a clue for old age in India; rather, one had to rely on the field material and “the ideas of people” in understanding old age. Marulasiddaiah was in a difficult position as an aspiring social worker writing up a thesis where he needed to address Western gerontological texts, and he takes that approach at the outset only to fall back on his ‘field material’ as he terms it, to return to a theme that comes up repeatedly in Cohen’s No Aging in India: the use of social gerontology and its Western framing as an opening, only to return to local, contextual epistemologies.[18]

Finally, in his closing narrative about Makunti, Marulasiddaiah writes that he had tried to identify or locate the criteria of old age in the village. He wrote, “Makunti’s people have different terms to identify the elderly Yajamana, Hiriya, Muduka (the elder, the leader, the older person); and Yajaman means additionally the owner or employer. But he noted that though Muduka meant older person, younger persons were also referred to as Yajaman and Hiriya as terms of honor. “Who are the Hiriyas of this village?” When I put this question to a young man, he responded” Everyone is a Hiriya in this village these days.” He was perhaps pointing out to the growing leadership of younger persons in the village, and the changing authority of the old.”[19]

Marulasiddaiah outlined the social changes that had come about in the village in recent years (even though the people of Makunti had not been exposed fully to the shocks of industrialization) and he shared that Makunti’s residents were the same people that Kusum Nair, author and journalist (Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development (1961) met in her sociological travels in the 1950s to document the state’s community programs. Nair had later championed the cause of farmers facing the onslaught of Nehruvian projects of modernization, and termed these adverse impacts as the lost and unaccounted “human factor in development.” At Makunti, Marulasiddaiah noted, she had termed the people as being generally unaware of larger issues and as being “illiterate as the wind.”

Marulasiddaiah observed that in recent years, Panchayati Raj (PR or village/local government) institutions with adult suffrage had been increasing, as had the number of CD programs, transportation and cooperative credit societies, and mechanized flour mills. This implied that the aged who had occupied important positions as repositories of authority in sub-caste councils and various factions (the elders had a role to play vertically in uniting the village, and horizontally says Marulasiddaiah, in integrating the village into its environment) were being challenged gradually. The PR institutions had empowered some groups; as Marulasiddaiah noted, they had brought the untouchables to power. PR bodies and their elections had given them the opportunity to have the feeling, if not the experience of equality with upper castes.

But Marulasiddaiah (in line with Desai’s observations) observed that the older persons (presumably, upper caste older persons?) were losing their grip on younger persons, and there were new words and whole developmental lexicons that were emerging and attested to these shifts: Nyaya (justice). Arogya (health), abhivriddh (development), planning, co-operative society and Universities. Among this seemingly egalitarian and progressive vocabulary of development, Marulasiddaiah’s narrative turned more skeptical. He was less convinced about differentiating between the feeling and promise of developmental change and projects, and the real changes, though he hinted that adjustment of the old and their ability to transition was being tested as the power of the developmentalist state to intervene was ever present and the old were being relegated from public authority to the intimate, realm of family and kinship and their social authority was therefore in a stage of decline.

The End of Expectations: “Feelings” but No Change (1970-80s)

In the decades that followed, the feeling and promise of development was still not leading to widespread change, and through the 1970-80s the rhetoric of development and social adjustment was punctuated with growing disquiet. In fact, voices leading development economists, would look back on these ominous signs as being evident by the Second Five Year Plan: that the plans to industrialize and modernize were bypassing the poor and needy, and pointing out that in the countryside, subsistence itself was under the threat by economic and developmental rationality.[21]

In the 1970-80s, experts working on urban poverty, rehabilitation and displacement of families met over several meetings and conferences held in India at a time when aging as an international issue was gaining traction and the Indian government was beginning to gather data on priorities for a national aging policy. In their research on aging and family support they offered a significant critique of the old, aged person as a seamless, gerontological concern.

Walter Fernandes and Alfred De Souza (from the Indian Social Institute offered a critique of studies that focused on the structures of an extensive, Indian joint family, and the perceived decline in ties that affected the social security needs of the aged.[22] The urban poor, De Souza wrote, did not have joint family networks and were mostly embedded in nuclear families with local, neighborhood and some kinship ties serving as support for the aged. Western gerontology stressed social isolation and discussed the reintegration of older people, and in the case of the urban poor they were well integrated in their social and economic neighborhoods, but it was their coping mechanism in sickness and decline that needed attention. Instead, the narrative of decline and disadvantaged elders drew attention away from the need for the Indian state to spend resources to support families and neighbors in the form of social assistance to care for the old; instead De Souza noted, the state’s efforts were directed at intervening only in cases of destitution and to offer to be a “substitute” for family. The government stressed the filial piety of Indian offspring and the crucial role of families but did little to foster their welfare, or to help build solidarities across generations (No Aging discusses this in Indira Gandhi’s speech at the Vienna Aging Meeting). Instead, the state planning budgets demonstrated the very opposite: family planning with the nuclear family at its core was still the modernizing ideal of health policy makers, and they had allocated in the 4th Five Year Plan (315 crores) and a fraction of the budget for social welfare (41 crores).[23]

Walter Fernandes, a founding member of the Indian Social Institute based in Delhi, is an Indian sociologist and activist who had become interested in aging and urban displacement. Fernandes wrote that apart from a few elderly in India and Nepal who enjoyed security after retirement and found ‘social aging’ traumatic; for the rural and urban poor working in the informal sector,  and noted that employment itself was  a game of survival as the bottom 20% living below the poverty line had to spend 85% of their income on food alone.[24] Of this population, the lowest castes and bonded laborers were an even greater proportion, and doubly disadvantaged, and these were the aged that were  affected by migration, who, after the loss of rural jobs, sought informal work in the city and were aging in precarity. This category, he noted, were said to euphemistically die of old age, “and may in reality die of starvation.”[25] They worked for survival and not for comfort like the middle class pensioners. Poverty was itself the chronic root cause of illness and morbidities, as “most illnesses affecting people in the informal and rural sectors are what can be called “deficiency illnesses” caused by poor hygienic conditions, lack of drainage in slums, malnutrition, and absence of health services.”[26] The old were further compromised by their lack of resistance, and those who were poor, Fernandes noted, were alienated from access to doctors who belonged to the upper classes; their attitude to diseases was that they would go until their disease symptoms disappeared not till they were cured due to expenses, wage loss, and difficulties of movement with old age.

Fernandes conveyed a socially complex picture of aging in a societies in South Asia that had not fully ‘modernized.’ In his writings, both individual and social transitions from the traditional to the modern  were not homogenous or discrete, and unlike others who referred to a more ethical, social inclusive traditional past, he focused on an immediate past (a colonial one) that had been exploitative, and a present characterized by to precarity and vulnerability and cumulative inequalities of class, caste place (rural/urban), poverty, malnutrition experienced by the old, and a work life in the informal sector that extended without ‘retirement’ until death. He also placed aging within the larger framing of a changing international economic order and the politics of colonization and partial, inequitable industrialization. “In the West, the main problem of the aged is their social marginalization after their retirement and the need for re-integrating them in the political and cultural life of the country and helping them get over loneliness caused by the loosening of the child-parent bond and the consequent distance between generations. In the South Asian and Third World countries it is a question of the economic survival of the family as a unit.”[27]


Lawrence Cohen’s No Aging is extremely relevant to my narrative of these historical voices as they use the trope of maladjustment initially as an anxiety and concern, seeing the aged in India as static barriers and stumbling blocks to the state’s modernizing project. Later, maladjustment also becomes a mirror of the challenges of a nation-in-the making and how it has addressed or not the needs of older populations who are viewed as being dependent and vulnerable.

The voices of upper caste, scientists and elite experts such as V.R. Khanolkar and Chandrasekhar echo a persistent faith in the sacrifice, discipline and self-control that were needed from the aged and from families, (especially the authoritative structure of the Indian joint family) to satisfy the nation’s call for social cooperation, and need for labor and industrial productivity. At the same time, the Indian state’s vision and promise of linear progress was nebulous. It was clouded by vague references to socialistic support and welfarist schemes. Leading experts were unable to state in concrete terms what it would provide in the present to those from whom these adjustments were demanded. Khanolkar winds up his musings on “What of the future” hastily, alluding to the Indian government’s community development schemes in villages that could serve as hubs to provide care to dependent elders in case families are unable to offer maintenance or to paraphrase Cohen, if they do not advance support through Seva. The second section shifts focus to understand the sites and spaces of rural communities that were the focus of ongoing local government and community development based ‘social experiments.’

In Makunti, Marulasiddaiah, a social anthropologist-cum-trainee social worker is caught documenting changes in the village, finding a lack of fit for the categories and norms he has arrived to test, such as aging, retirement, leisure and generational shifts. Instead, he finds Makunti’s farming elders caught between peasant time and labor and the contingent futures of shadowy developmental projects that are trickling down to villages. But concrete changes are hard to document in the daily, lived life of farm labor and social passages of time that he witnesses, with older persons and villages showing initiative and resilience in adjusting with social changes in village government and power, and also hinting at how they are re-adjusting or shaping the intent and plan of community development.

Finally, the third and last conjuncture and voices that are explored are of urban sociologists and activists, who see a future that aging at a population level will increase in India, and their fear for it is not as a demographic apocalypse as experts had often predicted. They interpret aging and its social-political shifts from the urban ground-upwards. Forces of emerging neoliberalism and a “neocolonial economy” are incipient in the 1980s, and pressures on poor families were increasing and straining limited resources and forcing them to adjust their ‘seva’ in fabor of younger members rather than the old.

Both Desouza and Fernandes focus attention on those from whom the gaze of development has been consistently and consciously averted. Such as aged persons who form part of a population of informal labor, who have neither leisure nor retirement to adjust and adopt (much like the farmers who laughed when Marulasiddaiah  asked them about retirement). It is these vulnerable populations that are not captured fully through state support programs, and nor are they privileged to merit Seva because family life and the families has been further undermined due to the migration of young members to the city and lack of  real social and educational opportunities. These aged populations have borne the brunt of the cumulative injustice of developmentalist and post-industrial projects in India.

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan is a historian of global health history and health in modern South Asia. She is Associate Professor, Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. She works on Global Health and Aging Research at the Robert N. Butler Center for Aging and is Faculty Director of the Yusuf N. Hamied Faculty Fellowship Program at Columbia University. She is a faculty member of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health and actively associated with the Center for Science and Society and its Global History of Science programs at Columbia University.


[1] Lawrence Cohen, “Old Age: Cultural and Critical Perspectives, “Annual Review of Anthropology, 1994, 23:137–158.

[2] I draw here from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument (and that of historians of childhood in India) about the pedagogic and performative aspects of nationalism; and also stress certain continuities in these attitudes of late colonial efforts to reshape and discipline childhood through child pedagogical writings in popular Hindi, Bengali and other vernacular literature to draw attention to stress the need to understand childhood in the family (and to distinguish it from adulthood, and girlhood from boyhood) as a means to effect changes in fast changing colonial society. Dipesh Chakrabarty,  ‘The Difference-Deferral of a Colonial Modernity: Public Debates on Domesticity in British India’, Subaltern Studies VIII, Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds), (OUP, Delhi, 1994), pp. 50-88; and Shobhna, Nijhawan, “Hindi Children’s Journals and Nationalist Discourse (1910-1930),” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 33 (Aug. 14-20, 2004), pp. 3723-3729.

[3] Special Feature,” India’s Contribution to Cancer Research: Years of Steady Progress,” The Times of India, Wednesday, 31 December 1952, p.8; “Cancer Talks in Bombay,” reported in Townsville Daily Bulletin (January 5, 1953).

[4] See, the tributes to V.R. Khanolkar in his felicitation volume by a India’s scientific elite and well known International scientists, especially by Homi Bhabha, S.S.Sokhey,C.G Pandit, B.B. Dikshit and by E.V.Cowdry. Khanolkar Felicitation Volume (Khanolkar Felicitation Committee, Parel, 1962). At a time in the 1950s of great political possibilities and opportunities, Khanolkar’s ideas represented that of many of his contemporaries who shared an interest in fostering ‘development’ or initiatives that broadly promised greater prosperity and productivity, and a confidence of going forwards. Being modern and progressive also implied a departure from Eurocentric notions of race and culture, and being increasingly freed from a colonial “cosmology of progress” as Prasenajit Duara terms it, and instead, it was viewed by ideologues in Asia and Africa as an “ethnographic concept” that allowed a multiplicity of traditions that conceded new and alternate passages to modernity. Cited from Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, As the World Ages: The Making of a Global Demographic Crisis (HUP, 2018), please see chapter 3 for a discussion of Khanolkar’s research on cancer and aging. See, also Robert S. Anderson, Building Scientific Institutions in India: Saha and Bhabha (Montreal, 1975). For a discussion of Bhabha and Khanolkar’s collaborative work, see, V. R. Khanolkar, Slawomir Denis and Jan Sablinski, Wybuchy jądrowe (Atomic Explosions) (Warsaw, n.p, 1961). Homi Bhabha was also a key figure in the International Atomic Energy Commission. See Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta, A Masterful Spirit: Homi J. Bhabha, 1909–66 (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2010).

[5] V.R. Khanolkar, “Care of the Aged in India,” Excerpta Medica, Section 20: Gerontology and Geriatrics, Vol. 2, 1959, pp. 523-26.

[6] V.R. Khanolkar, “Care of the Aged in India, pp. 523-24

[7] Sanyas, a stage of renunciation and purification in the traditional, Hindu stages of life. European society according to Sauvy had moved more definitely from the family phase, the individualist phase to the social phase

[8] Ibid, 525

[9] Ibid, pp.525-26.

[10] Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1999).

[11] In the context of a new Indian democracy that was a “transitional social economy” the persistence of the joint family implied that it was still locked in traditional labor and social relations.

[12] Chandrashekhar, “Hindu Joint Family,” Social Forces, No.3, March 1943, Volume 21, 327-33. I have also consulted the Chandrashekhar papers at the University of Toledo, and this is part of a larger piece that I am writing on him.

[13] Illustrated Weekly of India.

[14] RR Singh,”Welfare of the Aged,” The Indian Journal of Social Work, January, Volume 30, Issue not specified, 1970, pp. 327-333, quote from p.331. Singh was based at the  School of Social Work in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and he was not part of a prominent scientific elite such as Khanolkar and Chadrasekhar, but tasked with the implementation of state level community development programs, it is intereting that his views echo those of a Bombay and Delhi (Chandrasekhar lived in both cities) based elite in this case.

[15] My fascination for H.M. Marulasiddaiah has only grown ever since Lawrence Cohen and I have discussed Cohen’s passing meeting with him, and shared the need to articulate how social workers and aging ‘experts’ traveled to villages and narrated changes in the ‘status’ of the aged, assuming a static uniformity and unchanging roles among the ‘aged’ that were being assumed, but also curious to understand what they set out to ‘see’ in the Indian countryside.

[16] H. M. Marulasiddaiah, Old People of Makunti (Dharwar: Karnatak University, 1969). Interestingly, people about 55 years were defined as ‘old’ in his village study.

[17] The Lingayats have been a powerful community and political voice in the politics of the modern state of Karnataka where Marulasiddaiah was undertaking research, they considered themselves often as anti-brahmanical and have made demands to be recognized as a separate, upper caste. Marulasiddaiah’s reference is trying to indicate here that since he was from a priestly caste and they knew it, he was accorded some respect or deference.

[18] Like Jack Goody says in his writings, Production and Reproduction: A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.Rather than aspire to write about another culture by studying it intensively during fieldwork, Goody is a historical subject as he comes of age in the Second World War and reaches Africa at a critical conjuncture of decolonization.

[19] H. M. Marulasiddaiah, Old People of Makunti, p.65.

[20] M.N.Srinivas, Caste in Modern India, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Aug., 1957), pp. 529-548; I.P. Desai, Caste and Politics, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 2, No. 17, April 29, 1967, pp. 798, 797-99. Marulasiddaiah’s caste identity and bias come through here, though he is perceptive to record the difference between the affective, feeling of power and of the ‘practice’ of it in the arena of interventions and practice, see also contemporary caste related analysis by Srinivas and I.P. Desai who offered different renderings of these social changes. Srinivas argued that lower castes were gaining mobility due to these political-development projects, and local elections but not the “untouchables”; and Desai argued more broadly that “caste elders cannot exercise their authority with the degree of confidence that they could in the past.

[21] Medha Kudaisya, Developmental Planning in ‘Retreat’: Ideas, instruments, and contestations of planning in India, 1967–1971, Modern Asian Studies 49, 3 (2015) pp. 711–752, see pp.714-15.

[22] The following discussion is from this work by Fernandes and De Souza and draws from the Introduction, Alfred De Souza and Walter Fernandes, Aging in South Asia: Theoretical Issues and Policy Implications (New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1982), 8, 1-23

[23] Alfred De Souza and Walter Fernandes, Aging in South Asia, pp.3-4, 9-10.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Fernandes, p. 17.

[26] Alfred De Souza and Walter Fernandes, Aging in South Asia, pp.18-23.

[27] Alfred De Souza and Walter Fernandes, Aging in South Asia: Theoretical Issues and Policy Implications (New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1982), 8, 1-23 (Walter Fernandes, “Aging in South Asia as Marginalization” in the same book).

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