Shriya Patnaik new

Shriya Patnaik

PhD Researcher in International History and Politics
SNF Doc.CH Fellow, IHEID Gender Centre Affiliate
Spoken languages
English, Hindi, Oriya, Sanskrit, French
Areas of expertise
  • Gender and Sexuality Studies
  • Human rights
  • International History
  • Minority Rights
  • Oral History
  • Social and Cultural History
  • Imperial History
  • Postcolonial Studies
  • South Asian Studies
Geographical Region of Expertise
  • South Asia
  • India
  • United Kingdom

PhD Thesis

Title: Re-constructing and Re-imagining the Now Extinct Community of Mahari-Devadasis in Orissa: Gender, Subalternity and Human Rights Projects in Late Colonial and Postcolonial India

PhD Supervisor: Nicole Bourbonnais, 2nd Reader: Aditya Bharadwaj, External Co-supervisor: Frédérique Apffel-Marglin (Professor Emerita, Smith College)

Expected completion date: 2024

Shriya’s research focuses on the historical genealogy surrounding discourses related to prostitution, trafficking, sex worker rights, human rights paradigms, and civil society movements in late colonial and postcolonial India. She does this through the case-study of the now-extinct community of Mahari-Devadasis in Orissa (performative ritual specialists and temple-dancers in the Jagannath Temple of Puri, whose kinship structures and practices of religiosity entailed being wed to Hindu deities over mortals). Devadasis have historically constituted female communities of hereditary temple-performers across various regions in India with matrilineal kinship practices, who were classified as “religious prostitutes” from the colonial period onwards, under Contagious Disease and Prostitution Abolition regulations. Under the colonial disciplining of deviant sexualities together with racialized bio-politics across British India, the quotidian cultures of hereditary communities of female temple-performers, homogeneously categorised as “The Devadasi System”, were conceptualised, categorised, and criminalised as “culturally sanctioned prostitution” in official discourses. Shriya’s thesis underscores historical continuities in the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial, owing to exclusionary colonial abolitionist paradigms inscribed into postcolonial legal-political structures in the Indian nation-state. It consequently illustrates how the abolition of the tradition did little to improve the material factors or situational circumstances of such women, who came to be conceptualised predominantly through paradigms of sexual degeneracy, delinquency, crime, and moral turpitude in independent India. Taking into account such historical developments, her research narrows in to historicising the regional community of temple-dancers in the eastern state in Orissa in India, colloquially known as ‘Maharis’, and examines their distinct quotidian cultures, caste networks, and kinship structures through an ethno-historical analytical lens. The thesis is methodologically reliant on oral histories, archival records, along with UN/ILO humanitarian conventions on the rights of marginalised communities in the Global South. Her work spans across archives in India, the United Kingdom, and Geneva, and also deploys fieldwork, thereby being a work in multi-sited ethnography. Consequently, upon the extinction of the Mahari-Devadasi community in Orissa in 2021, the thesis methodologically incorporates her interviews with the last living Maharis – Sashimani and Parasamani, alongside testimonies from regional interlocutors, through which it articulates iterations of collective memory, popular culture, bodily agency, and the complex teleological subjectivities of such subaltern subjects. In incorporating the experiential narratives of this community, it delineates their changing life circumstances across mutating socio-political contexts in India, thus establishing the need for rights-based paradigms such as legal and healthcare frameworks for such historically underrepresented actors under international humanitarian conventions. Through a critical examination of the politics of disenfranchisement for concomitant groups of stigmatised women living on the fringes of civil society in postcolonial South Asia, this research thereby situates such bottom-up, oral narratives from the margins within transnational historiographies of gender, sexuality, postcoloniality, and subalternity.



Shriya Patnaik is a PhD researcher at the Department of International History and Politics, where her research has been supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation Doc.Ch Grant (2022-2024), Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship (2020-2022), and the IHEID Community Scholarship (2019-2020). She has pursued her Bachelor’s in History from Cornell University (Magna cum Laude Honours) in 2014, and has subsequently pursued a Double Masters’ in International History with a focus on Gender Studies from the Columbia University-London School of Economics Dual Degree MA-MSc program (with a Distinction) in 2017. In her undergraduate years, she was part of a Study Abroad Exchange program at Oxford University’s Mansfield College, where she undertook tutorials in History and Political Science. During her academic trajectory so far, she has been closely involved in conducting archival and qualitative research for various university’s data driven projects such as The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, The Cornell Future of Minority Studies Project, LSE Women’s Library, and Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. Besides her scholarly interests, she has also worked in the public policy and NGO sectors on gender and human rights projects across India, the United States and the United Kingdom, and these experiences have played a crucial role in shaping her research focus on women’s rights and minority rights initiatives at a transnational scale. In terms of her linguistic abilities, she is fully proficient in English, Hindi, and Oriya, has medium-level proficiency in Sanskrit, and beginner-level proficiency in French. 


Academic Work experience


Research Experience

  • International Organisations Stipend Research Fellow at Swiss Network for International Studies (2021)
  • PhD Research Affiliate at IHEID Gender Centre (2020-2024)
  • PhD Research Affiliate at IHEID Global Migration Centre (2021-2024) 
  • Archival Research Assistant at Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (2015-2016)
  • Research Assistant at Cornell University Future of Minority Studies Project (2010-2014)
  • Research Assistant at Cornell University Language Acquisition Lab (2011-2014)

Research Interests


  • International and Global History
  • Indian History and South Asia Studies
  • Gender and Sexuality 
  • Humanitarian Approaches of International Development Organisations
  • Civil Society Movements
  • Histories of Marginalisation
  • Subaltern Studies
  • British Colonial History
  • Decolonization
  • Women’s Rights

Relevant Publications and Works



Fellowships, Grants and Awards

  • Swiss Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Award (2023) 
  • SNSF Doc.Ch Grant, Swiss National Science Foundation (2022-2024) 
  • Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship, Federal Commission for Scholarships, Switzerland (2020-2022)
  • Graduate Institute Community Scholarship (2019-2020)
  • Graduate Institute Tuition Waiver Scholarship (2019-2020)
  • Swiss Network for International Studies, International Organizations Research Stipend Fellow (March-July 2021)
  • North American Oral History Association Conference Grant (2021)
  • Pierre Du Bois Foundation Travel Grant (2021)
  • Davis Projects for Peace Award (2016-2017)
  • Women’s International Leadership Award – International House, New York (2015-2016)
  • Columbia University Alliance Fellowship (2015)
  • London School of Economics Merit Scholarship (2016)
  • Cornell University Tata Scholarship (2010-2014)
  • Cornell University Anne Macintyre Litchfield History Award & Cornelis W. Dekiewet History Award (2013-2014)


  • IHEID Gender Centre
  • IHEID Global Migration Centre