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Janet Chawla's Biography

Janet Chawla, an American by birth, has lived and worked in India for 30 years. She is married to Kanwarjit Singh Chawla and is the mother of three children, and the delighted grandmother of two.

Ms Chawla started her working life in India teaching natural childbirth classes to women and couples, helping them prepare for non-medicated, non-surgical birth. Her frustration with the over-use of invasive obstetrical practices led her to begin investigations of ‘indigenous’ natural childbirth, Indian pregnancy and birth traditions, and dais (traditional midwives).

Ms Chawla has researched, lectured and consulted on indigenous concepts of ‘reproductive health’ nationally and internationally. She is currently Director of MATRIKA, an NGO active in research and advocacy for humane and traditional birth practice.


Spoke at the Dai Sammelan April 21, 2007 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Attended by 1500 dais, the meeting was organized by the “Dai Association of Gujarat” (mainly Chetna, Sewa Rural, Sewa Ahmendabad, and other prominent NGOs) Encouraged dais to hold on to their traditional knowledge and customs—lone voice in the calls for cleanliness and institutionalization.

Presentation on Indigenous Health & Healing Traditions, a panel of presentations at the 10th International Women’s Health Meeting held in Delhi, September 2005. Organized and conducted a seminar Dharti Ma, Dai Ma – indigenous birth knowledge as a cultural resource. This was an exchange of perspectives between 30 medical doctors, public health professionals, NGOs, activists and scholars and accompanied the exhibition of the same name. (November, 2004)

Through Sahaj, Society for Alternatives in Health and Development, advocated ‘natural childbirth’ practices with NGO’s holding workshops in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Delhi, 1990-91. Began identifying similarities between natural childbirth and traditional Indian birth practice.



Generated and produced MATRIKA exhibition “Dharti Ma, Dai Ma: A Remix” (Earth Mother: Midwife Mother) drawing upon MATRIKA research and Indian cultural imagery of the fertility of the female body and the earth. Habitat Visual Arts Gallery, New Delhi (November 2004) Film Co-produced the film ‘Born at Home’ (Video. 60 Minutes with English Subtitles) observes indigenous birth practices in parts of North India. Poised between social reality and the eternal mystery of childbearing, the film presents an intricate portrait of the dai (midwife) who is almost always a low-caste, poor woman. The dais methods are holistic, conceiving of childbirth, not as pathology but as continuation of organic life. Gender and class issues are juxtaposed with the filming of the miracle of an actual birth. Sublunar films, Sameera Jain director. Camera: Rita Banerjee, Editing: Monica Bhasin

The film has participated in the Margaret Mead festival in New York, the Mediawave film and video festival in Hungary, the Film South Asia at Kathmandu and also the Traveling Film South Asia, and in several festivals in India [MIFF, Prakriti, are among them]. It has been shown at the `Humanisation of Childbirth' conference in Brazil, and other health/academic/gender forums in the USA.
Magic Lantern is currently distributing the film.


Organized, presented and acted in the play “Birth” scripted by a New York playwright and based on her interviews of women on their experiences of giving birth. The play “Birth” was performed in cities throughout the US and abroad as a part of a project BOLD--Birth On Labor Day to give expression to women’s experiences of childbirth, their joys and sufferings and thoughts on the medical handling of birth. New Delhi on US Labor Day, 1 September 2006


Courses Taught

  • Vidyajyoti Institute of Religious Studies, Delhi--initiated and taught one of the first gender-sensitive Indian theology course at that institution--“Gendering God: The Goddess in the Indian Traditions”. (1994)
  • American Embassy School, Adult Education, New Delhi “Gendering God: The Goddess in the Indian Traditions.” (1995)
  • Taught natural childbirth classes in Delhi from 1980-1995. Trained with Rahima Baldwin’s Informed Birth and Parenting.

Lectures and Presentations

  • Power point visual essay on Yoni, traditional birth and dais’ cultural understandings of the body at the ‘Grandmothers’ Wisdom’ gathering at Navdanya in Dehradun, February 2-5th 2007
  • Main speaker at the Workshop on the Dai and Ayurvedic Tradition, November 2006. Organized by AVTAR in collaboration with the Department of Prasuthi and Stri Roga, RVS Ayurveda College, Coimbatore. Attended by Ayurvedic physicians and students as well as nurses.
  • Showed MATRIKA produced documentary film “Born At Home” and facilitated discussion on village birth practitioners for home-birth midwives in Vancouver, Canada and students/faculty at the New College, in San Francisco, USA. (August 2005)
  • Presented “Midwifery and Female Power” at international conference on Globalisation at Teen Murti Library, New Delhi (January 2005)
  • The Female Body as Battleground of Cultural Meaning at School for International Training, Jaipur (2005)
  • Understanding Narak, Rethinking Pollution for “Pollution and Safety: the dirty side of women’s health” at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom (June 2004)
  • Towards Indigenous Mappings of the Female Body, India Habitat Centre (2004)
  • Presentation on Dais’ Knowledge, Skills and Culture at Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts sponsored symposium “Gender in the Context of the Culture of India at Utkal University, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa (March 2003)
  • Power point “Mutual Learning: A Methodology for Conversing with Indigenous Midwives” at White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood “Saving Mothers’ Lives—What Works” (October, 2002)


Facilitated the development of a research methodology for documenting local health traditions at birth November 14-15, 2006. A Workshop organized by the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy and Hospital, Coimbatore. Attended by Ayurvedic physicians working at the hospital as well as researchers. Showed MATRIKA film “Born at Home” and led discussion.

Facilitated the development of a research methodology for documenting pregnancy, labour, birth, postpartum practices among the Bondo tribals, November 8-12, 2006 at Asha Kiran Hospital. Attended by nurses, doctors, Bondo tribal health workers. A workshop organized by Asha Kiran Society, Lamtaput, Koraput District, Orissa.

Scholar in Residence at the Five Colleges Women’s Studies at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts (2000-2001) where she researched, wrote, and lectured on “Building Bridges between Ethno-medicine and Biomedicine in India”

Dissertation for Masters of Theology at Vidyajyoti Institute of Religious Studies, Childbearing and Culture: Women Centered Revisioning of the Traditional Midwife, the Dai as a Ritual Practitioner, 1993

Conceptualized, developed and led MATRIKA research documentation of dais’ (TBAs) knowledge, skills and indigenous birthing practices. 1998-2001)


  • Supervised MATRIKA sponsored informal apprenticeship midwifery training by an experienced indigenous midwife with three apprentices. Tracked indigenous methods of communicating birth and massage skills. (September 2004-May 2005)
  • On organizing committee for White Ribbon Alliance India/Ministry of Health and Family Welfare meeting on “Skilled Birth Attendants and Emergency Obstetrical Care in Rural Areas”—inputting from dais perspective and advocating training for ground-level maternal health care providers who are actually conducting births. (January& February 2003)
  • Pathfinders, International –a resource person at workshop for developing innovative Dai-Training curriculum (November 2002: Patna, Bihar, Kurja Holy Family Hospital)
  • Conducted Training of Trainers workshop given by Catholic Health Association of Bihar and Jharkhand for health workers and nurses doing dai training (November 2002: Koderma Holy Family Hospital, Koderma, Jharkhand.)
  • Expert reviewer for Unicef, Patna produced Dai Training Syllabus (November 2002)



  • Birth and Birthgivers: The power behind the shame, Janet Chawla editor, Har-anand Publications Pvt. Ltd. (2006)
  • Childbearing and Culture: Women Centered Revisioning of the Traditional Midwife, the Dai as a Ritual Practitioner, New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1994

Contributions to edited books

  • "Understanding Narak Rethinking Pollution: An Interpretation of Data from Dais in North India” in Exploring the Dirty Side of Women’s Health editor Mavis Kirkaham, Routledge, 2007
  • "Negotiating Narak and Writing Destiny: The Theology of Bemata in Dais’ Rituals” in Invoking Goddesses: Gender and Politics in Indian Religions (ed. Nilima Chitgopetkar, 2002)
  • Daughters of Hariti: Childbirth and Female Healers in South and Southeast Asia (eds. Shanti Rosario and Geoffrey Samuels, 2002)
  • Saving Mothers’ Lives: A Field Guide for Implementing Best Practices in Safe Motherhood (White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, India, 2002)
  • Gender, Bodies, Religions—Adjunct Proceedings of the XVIIth Congress for the History of Religions (ed. Sylvia Marcos, 2000)
  • "The Female Body as Battleground of Meaning” in Mental Health from a Gender Perspective (ed. Bhargavi Dawar, 2000)
  • "The Female Body as Battleground of Meaning” in Mental Health from a Gender Perspective (ed. Bhargavi Dawar, 2000)
  • "Hawa, Gola and mother-in-law’s Big Toe: On understanding Dais’ imagery of the female body” in Re-searching Indian Women edited by Vijay Ramaswamy
  • A paper in Shaktika on the Ascent: Reframing Gender in the Context of Culture of India, Madhu Khanna ed. (IGNCA and OUP) in press


  • Celebrating the Divine Female Principle, September 16th Women’s Feature Service
  • Learning from the Knowledge and experience of Midwives, Manushi
  • Hawa Gola and Mother-in-law’s Big Toe in Midwifery Today (issue 52) Alternative Practices
  • Women’s Voices with Meera Chatterjee, Seminar (1993)
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