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Feminism & Modern Indian Women Writers

                                            By Rati Saxena

At this period of time, when discussions on feminism are considered old fashioned, when new theories of post feminism are being formulated, a symposium on feminist writings is a bold step, and can be taken as an opportunity to reread and understand the subject in our own surroundings. I assume that most of the aspects of this subject will be discussed and reviewed--the new dimensions and new areas of women's issues. While going through the subject given by the authorities I was particularly caught up with the word - Indian women’s writing. I am sure that the papers going to be presented here will cover most of the topics related to this subject, and surely open up active discussions regarding this issue that concerns world society in general.

Though modern feminist theory developed in the European countries and was later on discussed and adopted by thinkers of other countries, it is absolutely necessary to reread it in the context of the Indian society. There are number of issues which need proper rereading and internalized understanding. I do not want to discuss the definitions and various thoughts regarding feminism as I assume that a number of scholars are going to elaborate on those here in the symposium.

However, I would like to highlight the word Indian, and try to reread our cultural history to give an Indian vision of feminism. As Vikki Bell puts it, "feminism . . . is both historical and future for the contemporary commitment. It is both "historical" and futural, for the commitment is to a continuity that operates against time, that battles with the possibilities that these commitments may evaporate, and that time will let them be forgotten" ( "Feminist Imagination" – Page 6 ). To understand the continuity of the issue, let us go back to a period long ago, prior to the Vedas; we find two statues belonging to the period of our renowned Indus valley civilization -- the first statue is that of a man, who is surrounded by animals, sitting on a stool, and the other is of a woman wearing bangles and standing in a dancing pose. These two statues denote a clear distinction between the two personalities--the body, attitude, interest and the social aspects of both sexes. Where a man surrounded by animals sitting on the stool certainly shows the power, a woman with ornaments standing in a dancing pose shows delicacy.

The Vedic literature, mainly Vedic Samhitas, give a glimpse into man-woman relationship. The marriage hymns in the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda give an account of the position of the woman in the family. There we find a clear-cut division of work for both the sexes. There is no doubt that the woman enjoyed a better position in the society during the Vedic age compared to later periods. The marriage hymn shows the important position given to women.

There is a very significant dialogue between Yama and Yami, in which Yami is inviting her twin brother to marry her, but Yama does not accept the proposal, telling that it is against Rita. Yami gives her own interpretation about man-woman relationship. The boldness of Yami is something highly unusual in Indian society.

The hymns of Atharva Veda reveal a society where women comparatively enjoyed freedom, where a woman could take her husband to court, if he proved unfaithful to her.

अहं वदामि नेत् त्वं सभायाम् त्वम् वद। ममेदसत्तवं केवलो नान्यसां कीर्तयाश्चन।। अवे. 7/38

There is even a hymn where a woman is threatening to make her husband impotent, if he did not leave the woman for whom he had abandoned her.

I would like to quote a Mantra from the Atharva Veda from a marriage hymn, in which a husband is inviting the newly married wife to lead a socially oriented life. He says:

I am he
You are she
I am song
You are verse
I am heaven
You are earth
We two shall
here together dwell
becoming parents
of children

This verse explains the difference between man and woman very well. Vedic man accepts the individual identity of his wife. For him the wife is as soft as a poem and he has to be as strong as systematic verse. The wife has to look after the family as the Earth does and he has to keep watch and support the wife just as the Heaven looks after the Earth. In spite of being different personalities, they have to go together and become the parents of children for the sake of society.

The Upanishad period was not very different for women, our social system talks proudly about Gargi and Maitreyi. When Yajnavalkya was ready to depart for his Sanyas Ashram, he asked his wives to go for proper division of the property. Maitreyi is not impressed by this idea and asks her husband whether wealth alone is sufficient to attain Moksha. This question is very important in the context of women’s rights. Later on, the same Yajnavalkya challenges the scholars of the king’s court and here for the first time we find Gargi, the first woman who could question Yajnavalkya. Though she was not treated with respect by Yajnavalkya, who threatened her saying, ‘O Gargi, do not ask such questions about the Supreme God, otherwise your head will roll on the earth.’

सहोवाच गार्गि मा चतोप्राक्षोर्मा ते मूर्धा व्युपप्तवनतिप्रश्न्या वैदेवतामति पृच्छसि ...ततो ह गार्गी वाचन्व्युपरराम।। बृहदारण्यकोपनिषद् – (3rd chepet,-4th brahmana, 8 karika)

At the end of the Vedic age, we find three streams of knowledge which held their sway over Indian society for a long time The first one was that of the Dharmshastras, which were later developed as Smriti books, the second was Neeti shastra, and the third was the Kamashastra--these three schools are almost contemporary, but their treatment of women was quite different.

Dharmshastra assigns no freedom to women, whereas the Smriti books introduced changes and created new classes in the society through giving punishment to an erring woman. While explaining marriage relations, the Oshana Smriti talks about the maximum punishment for a woman belonging to the higher class. Most of the subclasses, other than Kshatriya and Vaishya, came into being on account of this punishment. For example, the son of a Brahmin woman and a Kshatriya man would be called Suta, and would not be permitted to read the Vedas or rule over the kingdom. The son of a Brahmin woman and a Suta man would be Venuka, but the son of a Kshatriya woman and a Suta man would be a cobbler. If a Brahmin woman marries a Vaishya man, their children would be Magadh ( charan- whose work is to praise kings.)

The list is too big, but in short, all the working class or the so called lower castes were created through the punishment given to women belonging to higher castes. In this way, they put a restraint on the freedom of choice of their women folk. This is to be noted when we associate feminism with the class system. The higher class women were greater sufferers. Though a Shudra and a woman were kept in the same category, both were not allowed to speak Sanskrit or read or even listen to the Vedas.

Chanakya did not have a very good opinion about women3, but he did not hesitate to use women for political purposes, and thus indirectly opened the way for women to enter politics. Anyway, he knew very well that woman was not the weaker sex; in certain ways, she was more powerful compared to a man. -
"Women have hunger two-fold, shyness four-fold, daring six-fold, and lust eight-fold as compared to men".-(Neeti Shastra –Chapter first -17)
It is possible that woman has the power to create fear in the mind of a man and that is why the man tries to control her.
Kamashastra created a different world for woman where sometimes she is superior and sometimes just bhogya or a useful thing. The woman’s body also got importance during this period. Art and sculpture followed the Kamashastra, most of the dance forms were also derived from the Kamashastra. Vatsyayan emphasized 64 art forms to be mastered by the women folk, so they can look after themselves, if deserted by their husbands. The body and sex was discussed so openly at this time, though these aspects were already in the society in earlier times too, as we find a number of hymns in the Atharva Veda, where having a good sexual life was given importance.
Later literature like Mricchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) by Shudraka and dramas of Kalidasa followed the Kamasutra theory in their representations.
The strange thing is that we can find lesbian relationship also represented in the sculptures of famous temples like Khajuraho and Puri, where the art follows the guideline of Kamashastra.
Kamashastra gave proper instructions to a housewife on how to please her husband and also created a picture of a free woman as public woman--Nagar Vadhu or Ganika. Interestingly, Ganikas were treated with respect in society according to the Kamsutra.4
Indian society followed all three views regarding the treatment of woman, which is followed even today. The strange kind of mixed culture of this land tends to treat woman in a different way even in modern times.

The period of the epics was very much influenced by Smriti literature, where the woman had to be the ideal- the role model like Sita and Dropadi, these intelligent women were presented by these books as dumb women, who could never say anything against any type of suffering. It is notable that these two women became the center point of feminist writing and were represented by a number of writers. Puranic literature was very colorful, in which the corrector Radha devolved, which is very much against the traditional model. Not only Geet Govind but a number of other songs also developed around this character. She could be taken as a free woman, who left her husband and society for her love and interestingly occupied an important position not only in the mind of the common man, but also in literature and temples.

The women of the Bhakti cult gave an interesting dimension to womanhood. Women saints transferred the object of their devotion and their duties as the "lovers" or "wives" of their Divine Lover or Husband. Andal Thiruppavai (a 10th century Tamil poetess), Akka Mahadevi (a 12th century Kannada poetess), Janabai (a 13th century Marathi poetess), Meera Bai of the 16th century in Hindi and Madhavi Dasi in the same century in Oriya literature were some poetesses who wrote exquisite poetry that has been passed on through bards and singers throughout India. There are a few other poets, who were not called saint poets, but become popular in folk, they were Habba Khatun and Roop Bhavani of Kashmir, who sang for freedom of their love. Madhavi Dasi was one of the few women disciples of Sri Chaitanya Dev and remained in direct contact with the saint. Though she was a saint poet, she became famous for her love for Haridas.

The modern writing in India under feminism can be read in four categories.
In the first category are writers who wrote about freedom or emotions of the woman without knowing anything about feminism as a theory.
In category two, we find writings that came out of sufferings, and they are bold, though unconsciously.
The third category comprises writers, who do not call themselves feminists but are very bold or loud in their writings.

And in the fourth and last category are the writers who boldly declare themselves as feminists.

A number of writers come in the first category, for example – Balamaniyamma, (Malayalam) Mahadevi Varma (Hindi) Subhdra Kumari Chowhan (Hindi) Annapoorna Devi (Bengali) etc.

Most of the time, writings of these writers were misinterpreted or wrongly read, for example Balamaniyamma was called a poet of motherhood, because she wrote a few poems about the relationship between the mother and child-delegating the mother status to a woman is very convenient for the male world. Her poems which talk about the rights of a woman were never read in the right way. Her poem ‘Valmiki’ talks directly about the pain and sorrow of the Valmiki's wife, which questions the creation of Ramayanam, In her poem 'Kubja' is represented a woman of the lower class, who learned from Krishna to live a graceful life. Women’s voices in her poems are strong but not bold, and she was not able to write love poems except a poem called 'Oru Prema Katha.' Balamaniyamma was one among the very few women writers, who enjoyed the freedom to write, and had their own writing space.

A very strong poet of Hindi belonging to the early twentieth century, Mahadevi, has written very strong love poems, and very bold memories, but all her poems are attributed the quality of spiritualism and she is hailed as the modern Meera. She was also very bold in her own life, she did not accept her childhood marriage. If we read her childhood memories, she was certainly a courageous child, who was born to break the boundaries. The male dominated world of Hindi literature could not accept her as she was. Taking her as a spiritual poet was easy for them. There are a number of writers, like Annapoorna Devi ( Bengali), Mannu Bhandari in Hindi who keep on writing about woman and lived a life of their own choice up to a certain limit. Until the eighties it was easy for male critics to accept women writers within the limitations made by them. They could not anyway avoid these writers because of their bold writings. That may be the reason why we do not find any good poet in Hindi for a long time after Mahadevi, as such boldness was not possible for a number of Indian women in the Hindi belt, or they might have been suppressed by their own family members. A significant fact is that most of these writers belong to a section of society, where the ordinary sufferings of women were not directly affecting their personal life that much.

In the second category, we have writers who expressed their own sufferings in a very powerful manner, and these include some of the very important writers like Indira Goswami ( Assam) , Indira Goswami had expressed the widow’s deprivation of body, passion, emotion, and woven it into a perceptive text. She admits that her writings are her own experience: "I try to write from the direct experiences of my life. I only mould these experiences with my imagination."

Goswami spent two years amidst the Radhaswami sect widows in Vrindavan, entering their fold as a compassionate member but also as a researcher. Her novel, Neel Kanthi Braja (translated by Prafulla Katoky as Shadow of Dark God, 1986), is an amazing narrative combining fact and fiction, autobiography and reflection. As Indira Goswami introduces the novel, "I have tried to show how the mental and physical state of a young widow takes a different shape and how this change affects her life after her widowhood."

Her work provided insights into the many levels of isolation women of her powerful orthodox community experienced. Krishna Sobati (Hindi) is important from the point of view of language, as her women characters speak very bold language. The journey of these writers has not been easy as they had to face criticism from the male dominated society. At times, pressure on the woman writer is too intense to bear. We can take the case of Rajalakshmi (1930-1965) who illustrated the persistence of the suffocating domesticated woman. Rajalakshmi wrote about father-daughter relationships and the choking effects patriarchal figures could have upon women, particularly those who were accomplished and imaginative. The serial publication of her novel Uchaveyilum Ilam Nilavum (Midday Sun and Tender Moonlight) was cancelled because of protest from readers who found her attack on the hypocrisy of idealist men too close to home. She found it impossible to continue her writing career and took her life.

K. Saraswati Amma (1919-1975), the author of Purushanmarillatha Lokam (A World without Men), did not take her life, but lived single and isolated, her work applauded only after her death. Her last book Cholamarangal was published in 1958, and she virtually disappeared from the scene.

In the third category there were very few women writers until some time ago, who were very bold in their writings, so bold that they could not be affected by false rereading. Some important names in this category are Amrita Pritam ( Punjabi) , Kamala Surayya English and Malayalam), and Shobha Dey ( English). We all know that these writers have very important positions in Indian writing. These writers prepared the ground for upcoming writers, who want to speak out their heart. These writers were criticized for their writings as well as lifestyle, but could live with pride. We must admit that the boldness we see in contemporary Indian women writing has been largely inspired by these writers.

We find a number of writers who can be considered as feminist writers – like Sarojini Sahoo, Anita Desai, Sara Josaph, Maitreyi Pushpa, Malathy Maithry, Kutty Revathi, Sugirtha Rani, Salma ( Tamil) and many more.

Among these writers Sarojini Sahoo is following very strong lines of feminism and has touched almost all issues of feminism in her writings. Sarojini Sahoo (b. 1956) - Indian feminist writer, is considered India's equivalent of Simone de Beauvoir.

The subject or issues before Indian feminism are slightly different compared to the western world. The Indian woman had to fight until very recently for freedom of education. Freedom of love is still not accepted in our society. Economic freedom is also a strong issue in front of Indian writers. That is why feminism finds a rather different expression in Indian writings, for example the “bra burning” movement was part of western feminism, and a number of Indian writers have taken up this issue in their writings; the fashion industry has taken considerable advantage of this idea. Noodle straps and strapless blouses have become common fashion now. However, in Kerala there was a time when womenfolk had to fight for permission to cover their breasts, and it was an important feminist movement. In spite of the fact that Kerala is now known for its traditional acceptance of women's equality, its matrilineal heritage, there was a time, when women of certain classes were not allowed to cover their breasts. For them securing the right to cover their breasts was a huge and important movement.
Most of the dance forms for women in India are related to the practice of Devadasi, or the bride of Deva (God). The struggle to get rid of this practice was more important than the freedom to learn dancing and singing. The freedom for education is the right of a woman, but sometimes this freedom is seen limiting her space for herself. Working women understand the pain of double burden – family and work. Usha Priymavada's famous novel Pachapan Khambe lal divaren talk about this problem from a different angle, where an educated working girl is suffering more because she has to forget her own emotions when looking after her younger brother and sisters. The dowry problem is so strong that nowadays girls are accepting it as their right, minimizing clothes, cutting hair are no more problems, as these are confusing subjects like cutting hair is freedom, or keeping long hair is womens loves. It is said that European women (Romans) loved their long hair very much, but they had to cut them during war time to make strong ropes for their country’s fighters. The fassoin of short hair is copies by other countries women to show their freedom.

In the same way, living together is a sign of freedom for the western woman, but limits the right of the Indian woman as she loses economic benefit by not inheriting family property.

Women's writing in India has a different face as a number of women writers do not accept themselves as feminists. Maybe because this might limit their space in the world of writing Indian women have.

If we talk about media and film, a number of experiments have been done in this field. A few films were made about womanhood and woman’s dignity, most of the films still represent women struggling for the freedom of love and sex. There are a number of good films like Aparna Sen’s film Sati (1995). In the film Sati (The Virgin) developed after Kamal Kumar Majumdar's story, we find a mute virgin girl is married to a tree following the religio-social regulations. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil represented mostly the 'exploited Indian subaltern women' type characters in films such as Sati, Mirch Masala, Paar, Chakra, Akrosh etc.

But films or TV serials highlighting these issues are rare, if none. Recently a Hindi serial which became very popular "Sas bhi kabhi bahu thi" has completely changed the face of the social system and presented an unhealthy massage. This soap opera was directed by a woman Ekata Kapoor, but sadly enough, highlighted the dark side of woman's nature. For unknown reasons, this serial became extremely popular, and limited the place for thought provoking stories, especially on the small screen.

While rethinking about Indian feminist writings, we must deal with the problem carefully. Indian society is still quite different from European or western society. We have certain problems like dowry, women’s education and economic freedom, which need to be handled with care. There is no meaning of freedom for woman if we cannot get rid of the problem of dowry or education. We have different layers of women’s issues, and all these should be understood in detail and addressed appropriately. I feel that instead of putting on the skin of feminism, we need to understand India's multicultural and multilayer system. We still need to fight a number of problems at the root of our society, and until and unless we get rid of the dowry system and ensure economic freedom for women, we cannot ask for bodily freedom or freedom of love.

The way this problem was taken by a few activists, feminism has lost its grip and importance. That may be a reason why a number of good writers, who advocate women’s rights, do not like to be called feminist writers. Indian writers have to make their own space and search their own way to fight this issue, rather than merely adopting it from the western world.

AV.15.2.71, Translated by Remando Panikker.

2-"O Yajnavalkya, if everything is otaprota ( warp and woof) with water, with what is water otaprota?" The reply comes: "Gargi, with air." Then, with what is air otapr"a? "With antariksha." With what is antariksha otaprota? "Gargi, with Gandharva loka." With what is “With Aditya loka." Then, Aditya loka with Chandra loka, Chandra loka with Indra loka, Indra loka by Prajapati, Prajapati with Brahma loka. Then Gargi asks, "Where is Brahma loka?" Then, Yajnavalkya gets angry.

3-Untruthfulness, rashness, guile, stupidity, avarice, uncleanliness and cruelty are a women's seven natural flaws. Chanakya Neeti shastra- chapter -2-1

4- A NagarVadhu, endowed with a good disposition, beauty and other winning qualities, and also well versed in the above arts, obtains the name of a Ganika, or public woman of high quality, and receives a seat of honour in an assemblage of men. She is, moreover, always respected by the king, and praised by learned men, and her favour being sought by all, she becomes an object of universal regard. The daughter of a king as well as the daughter of a minister, being learned in the above arts, can make their husbands favourable to them, even though these may have thousands of other wives besides themselves. And in the same manner, if a wife becomes separated from her husband, and falls into distress, she can support herself easily, even in a foreign country, by means of her knowledge of these arts. Even the bare knowledge of them gives attractiveness to a woman, though the practice of them may be only possible or otherwise according to the circumstances of each case. A man who is well versed in these arts, who is loquacious and acquainted with the arts of gallantry, gains very soon the hearts of women, even though he is only acquainted with them for a short time.
Kamsutra- Chapter -3



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