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A Long Time Ago In Our Own Country: Meet The Stars of Indian Sex-Ed

‘Modern’ India has had many doctors, activists, researchers, and writers doing very important work like beginning programmes for birth control, saying women have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure and talking about the never-satisfied public’s sex dilemmas.

Vatsyayana, the Indian philosopher, might have down in history with a giant legacy as the author of the Kama Sutra. But let’s not forget that sex ed in India did not end with that sex manual.  From the 3rd century onwards, many other books that have been written, but it’s not only the ancients who were keeping the sex-education flag flying.
‘Modern’ India – from the 19th century onwards basically -  has had many doctors, activists, researchers, and writers doing very important work like beginning programmes for birth control, saying women have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure and talking about the never-satisfied public’s sex dilemmas. Quite like Kinsey and Masters and Johnson in the USA.
We give you a list of some of these pioneering Agents of Ishq and how they tried hard to give sex a good name.

1. Raghunath Dhondo Karve (1882 - 1953)

It’s not often that a mathematics professor can double up as a pioneer in birth control reform, but that’s what Karve did. He studied at Fergusson College in Pune, and taught mathematics at Wilson College, Mumbai, but was then forced to resign because he had openly talked about women’s sexual rights, women being free from unwanted pregnancies, and issues surrounding family planning.
Together with his wife, Malatibai Raghunath Karve, he started the first birth control clinic in India in 1921, where he was the first person to introduce diaphragms and cervical caps. But he had to keep this set-up a secret, and apparently, avoided keeping any records of his patients.
The couple also started a controversial magazine called Samaj Swasthya in 1928, which had scientific information about sex, contraceptives, masturbation, same-sex love, and women’s right to sexual pleasure. And according to a play about his life that was put up in March (and took its name from the title of the magazine), three cases of ‘vulgarity’ were slapped against Karve, and his lawyer for one case was none other than Dr. BR Ambedkar. He remains little known, even though Amol Palekar made a whole film about his life, called Dhyas Parva.
Trivia – there is a road named for Karve in Mumbai – which sits alongside the Oval maidan in Churchgate.

2. Shakuntala Paranjpye (1906-2000)

Shakuntala Paranjpye had many feathers in her cap. She was a playwright, a novelist, a social worker, a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, and Rajya Sabha, and one of the foremost figures in Maharashtra’s family planning policy. She also had a career as an actor in several Marathi and Hindi films and studied mathematics at Cambridge. And the story goes that she was the first woman to ride a bicycle and smoke in public in Pune.
Apparently, it was her cousin, the Dr. Karve we have mentioned above, who introduced her to the world of family planning. He wanted her to be his associate so that she would be able to speak to women about birth control. She then opened a clinic at her house, and in 1933, she travelled across rural Maharashtra to talk about birth control. But she also introduced a frightening bill, the Sterilisation of the Unfit, in November 1964, which said that lepers shouldn’t reproduce. And although it wasn’t passed straight away, it was one of the precursors to the compulsory sterilisation drives that were to crop up in the next decade. So her legacy is a mixed one.

3. Alyappin Padmanabba Pillay (1889 – 1956)

Dr Pillay was a sexologist based out of Maharashtra, who eventually helped found the Family Planning Association of India. He published several books that addressed sexuality, including Sex Knowledge for Girls and Adolescents, in which he talked about women having a right to sexual satisfaction. He said masturbation was a ‘harmless method of relief’, and was very big on thinking ‘rationally’ about sex and rejecting the stigmas associated with it.
One of his most popular books, The Art of Love and Sane Sex Living, was published in 15 editions, and said outright that “the irksome religious dogmatism and anti-sexual taboos and tyranny still persisting are incompatible with biological needs and scientific findings”.

4. Shakuntala Devi (1929 -2013)

A writer and child prodigy, who was also known as a ‘human computer’ because of her ability to conduct unthinkable mental calculations, this incredible woman wrote the first study on homosexuality in India in 1977. The World of Homosexuals, far ahead of its time, demanded the decriminalisation of homosexuality as well as “full and complete acceptance — not tolerance and sympathy”.
She wrote it after she realised her husband was gay, and she wanted to find out more about homosexuality. The book is a collection of interviews with gay men and one same-sex couple — these include a company executive who plans to lead a double-life between his male lover and the wife his family has chosen for him, a man who came out to his parents by explaining how he never wanted to be married to a woman, and even Srinivasa Raghavachariar, head-priest of the Srirangam Temple in Tiruchirapalli district in Tamil Nadu, who opined that same-sex lovers must have been opposite-sex lovers in a previous birth. With some of her original commentary about morality and sexuality, this was a landmark book that advocated for the destigmatization of homosexuality in India.

5. Banoo Jehangir Coyaji (1918 - 2004)

Coyaji was an Indian physician, a trained gynaecologist, newspaper publisher, and a family planning activist. She was director of the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Pune, where she started as an OB-GYN in 1944 but ended up staying and practicing medicine for 55 years. When she joined, the hospital was a single-floor, 40-bed barracks, and once she became a director, she oversaw its growth to a 550-bed medical research institute. Less than 5 feet tall, she used to perform surgeries standing on a stool.
She initiated a family planning programme amongst community health workers in rural Maharashtra, and eventually became an advisor to the union government, and an internationally recognised expert, winning the Padma Bhushan award. In 1972, she started the Vadu Rural Health Project, which has now grown into Shirdi Saibaba Hospital, which caters to several villages. Based on its success, she launched a community health centre scheme in 1977 with a team of 600 local girls trained in nutrition, hygiene, sanitation and family planning.
In the mid-1980s, she noticed that the needs of adolescent and pre-adolescent girls were almost neglected. She started the Young Women’s Health and Development Project in 1988 and introduced community welfare workers to 11 villages. Amongst other things, it provided information about women’s health and family life and encouraged discussions about caste and gender relations. A wonderful but little-known detail about this great woman? She loved Mills and Boon romances.

6. Suniti Solomon (1938 - 2015)

Solomon, a Padma Shri awardee, was a pioneering activist, teacher, clinical pathologist, and microbiologist, who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in India and then kick-started research on the disease in the country. When she first started, Suniti's husband was a little worried for her. "[He] didn’t want me to work with HIV-positive patients, most of whom at that time were homosexuals, those who self-injected drugs and sex workers. And I said, look, you have to listen to their stories and you wouldn’t say the same thing,” she said.
When HIV became an epidemic across the world in the ’80s, she derailed what could have been a huge AIDS crisis in India. While the government was choosing to ignore the prevalence of AIDS, Solomon tested 100 sex workers in Chennai and found that six tested positive for HIV. And in 1993, she started India’s first voluntary testing centre in Chennai, called the YR Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education, which has since provided thousands of people with information about AIDS.

7. Dr. Mahinder Watsa (1923/4 - present)

The 92-year-old sexologist Dr Watsa gives us some life goals. He spent his childhood in Punjab, and a little time in Rangoon, before completing his education in Mumbai and working for a while in England as a hospital Houseman and registrar. Although he began writing columns in the 1950s, perhaps his most popular column was one started at the age of 80 for Mumbai Mirror, called ‘Ask the Sexpert’.
In 1972 Watsa, was writing a health column for a magazine named Trends, which was later renamed Femina. He used to get bombarded with questions about sex, which were often sent by young girls on the brink of marriage, or women who had been sexually abused. He eventually decided that the problems were so serious that they needed a separate forum to be addressed, and decided to become a sexpert.
His typically sassy and sarcastic responses to hysterical questions have made him legendary, and in his book It’s Normal, he answers a host of panicked questions, including ones from men who swallow the I-Pill instead of their girlfriends, with the same brusque humour. Here’s an example. To this question, “I am a twenty-one-year-old man. Last week, I was oscillating my penis while masturbating. I turned it upside down and sat on it. I heard a snap but experienced no pain. Have I fractured my penis?” Watsa had this ingenious reply: “Why would you want to do bhangra with your penis? Pray that you have not injured it. Do not sit on it again.”

8. Prakash Kothari (1942 - present)

“I’ve saved so many marriages prescribing Viagra,” boasts Kothari. One of India’s top sexologists today, he has worked in the field for over 40 years. He put together India’s sexual medicine department in KEM hospital, Mumbai, and is also the Founder-President of the Indian Association of Sex Educators. He’s treated everything from erectile dysfunction and people concerned about premature ejaculation to NRIs who fly in to confirm that their wives are virgins because they didn’t bleed during the first sexual encounter. He also has a collection of erotica, which he started when the author Mulk Raj Anand gave him some Kangra miniatures. Over all these decades, he once said, “people have been asking the same questions.” In 2002, he was awarded the Padma Shri.

9. Kailash Puri (1924 - 2017)

Kailash Puri’s biography Pool of Life tells her amazing story of how she left school at 14, was married off at 15 to an Indian based in London, and had to leave Rawalpindi for England, and later accompanied him to West Africa. Along with her husband, she started a women’s magazine called Subhagwati in the ’50s, and like Dr Watsa, realised that women were sending in questions about romance and sex. Soon after, Puri became a well-known agony aunt and sexologist, making an appearance on British radio and television. Women sent her letters and rang her on the phone too. She once said, “People were so repressed in those days. Women were not allowed to share their grievances or their hardships. They just suffered. I was the one to whom they could talk in confidence. They asked me questions about love-making, romance, all sorts of things." Her book Sej Uljhana, nevertheless faced a lot of resistance for its frankness.
A lovely obituary describes how Puri didn’t think twice about the obstacle that many words for genitals or sexual hygiene didn’t have Punjabi counterparts; she just invented words. She called pubic hair pashm (silk) and the clitoris madan chhatri (cupid’s umbrella). Because ‘all sorts’ of questions need all sorts of ingenious translations.
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