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South Asia and Disability Studies

Redefining Boundaries and Extending Horizons


Edited By Shridevi Rao and Maya Kalyanpur

Incorporating scholarship that addresses the social, economic, cultural, and historical facets of the experience of disability in South Asia, this book presents the reader with a comprehensive, cogent, and nuanced view of the constructions of disability in this region. In doing so, it focuses on the lived experiences of people with disabilities and their families, analyzing such disabling barriers as poverty, caste, and other inequities that limit their access to education, employment, equity, and empowerment. It addresses the interpretations of disability within different South Asian contexts including policy, family, educational systems, films, and literary narratives. Situated in an interdisciplinary perspective that spans areas such as cultural studies, law, disability studies in education, sociology, and historiography, South Asia and Disability Studies presents a rich and complex understanding of the disability experience in South Asia. The organization of topics parallels the discourse in areas within disability studies such as identity construction, language, historical constructions of disability, and cultural representations of disability.
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Chapter 7 Corporeality and Culture: Theorizing Difference in the South Asian Context


Sitala…referred to as “the goddess of smallpox”…was understood to be a manifestation of her personality….Smallpox was conceptualized…as a form of divine possession, and the burning fever and pustules demanded ritual rather than therapeutic responses. (Arnold, 1993, pp. 122–123)

The concept of smallpox in colonial India described in the quote raises a fundamental but rarely asked question: How is disability conceptualized in India? Taking this question as its central concern, the chapter first describes recent articulations on disability historiography1 that have wrestled with the problem of documenting non-Western experiences of bodily difference in a conceptual framework that is predominantly Western. Second, drawing on scholarship from medical and cultural anthropology, the chapter recommends that we attend to what studies of South Asian contexts tell us about the conceptualization of corporeality. By corporeality, I refer to Margrit Shildrick’s (2009) notion as being “not simply the materiality of the body, but the manner in which the body is experienced and lived by an embodied subject” (p. 18). The chapter argues that it is important to consider the limitations of the disability concept as propounded and debated within disability studies in order to explore the possibilities of culturally different ← 154 | 155 → conceptualizations. In effect, I recommend that the question be rearticulated so that it may be answered as adequately as possible.

This chapter aims to bring a variety of diverse anthropological inquiries of the South Asian context in acquaintance with disability conceptualization that is predominantly Western....

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