In 1910, Bangalore Nagaratnamma, described as “a patron of the arts, a learned woman, a musician, and a distinguished courtesan,” decided to reprint the Telugu classic, Radhika Santwanam (Appeasing Radhika) by the eighteenth-century poet Muddupalani “not only [because it was] written by a woman, but by one who was born into our community,” and because she found it “as adorable as the young Lord Krishna.” She added, in her afterword, “However often I read this book, I feel like reading it all over again.”
The author of the epic poem was an equally unusual woman (unusual to us and not, it seems, in her own time). Her autobiographical prologue—a convention of such work—reveals that she was a celebrated courtesan of the Thanjavur court in the reign of Pratapasimha (1739–1763), a poet who traced her lineage through her aunt and grandmother, and an accomplished dancer and musician. She writes of her beauty and learning and her status among other poets and scholars of the court with a straightforwardness and lack of coyness that indicate both confidence and security:
Which other woman of my kind has
felicitated scholars with gifts and money?
To which other women of my kind have epics been dedicated?
Which other woman of my kind has
won such acclaim in each of the arts?
You are incomparable,
Muddupalani, among your kind.
Nevertheless, Nagaratnamma—who had first found a reference to Muddupalani in a commentary on Thanjavur literature—had trouble in locating a copy of Radhika Santwanam and, when she did, found only a poorly printed version brought out in 1897 with many omissions and excisions. She managed to obtain the original manuscript and prepared a new version that was published by a small press which specialized in Telugu and Sanskrit classics. She had the misfortune of doing so in an age no longer receptive to such poetry. A leader of the social reform movement of the day denounced Muddupalani as “an adulteress. Many parts of the book are such that they should never be heard by a woman, let alone emerge from a woman’s mouth.” Since she was “born into a community of prostitutes and does not have the modesty natural to women,” she had filled her poem with “crude descriptions of sex.” Nagaratnamma defended the work stoutly:
“If that is so, it should be just as wrong for men who are considered respectable to write in that manner. But, [as everyone knows] several great men have written even more ‘crudely’ about sex.”
The excerpts from Muddupalani’s epic poem produced in the anthology edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita are brief but justify their claim that she brought the rhythms of classical Telugu verse closer to the spoken form, and that she celebrated a young girl’s coming of age and her experience of sex with an unexpected and sophisticated twist. Erotic poetry in India is traditionally cast in the form of the Lord Krishna wooing the milkmaid Radha; but in Radhika Santwanam it is she who takes the initiative and it is her satisfaction that is central. One finds oneself amazed that such a radical interpretation was accepted in her day.
In 1910 it was not. Queen Victoria was not only the Queen of England but the Empress of India and left her mark upon the Indian scene, which was, in the eyes of her administrators, a debauched, perverse, and horrifying one. Police Officer Cunningham seized all copies of Radhika Santwanam and charged the publishers with producing an obscene book. Although a petition was made and scholars and lawyers argued that such proceedings were “highly detrimental to the preservation and progress of Telugu culture” and pleaded that the case should be heard by a judge who knew Telugu, Nagaratnamma and the publishers lost the case. It was only in 1947, when India had won independence, that an influential chief minister who was a nationalist had the ban withdrawn, and in 1952 a new edition was brought out.
However, when the editors of the anthology under review searched for a copy, it proved hard to find. It is a testimony to their dedication and assiduity that it is included here along with other writing by women which they have collected in order that it might
illuminate the condition in which women wrote; bring more significant women’s writing to light; help us reevaluate writers who were reasonably well known but had been dismissed or misunderstood; give us a sense of the themes and literary modes women drew on and made use of; and help us capture that which is at stake in the practices of self or agency and of narrative that emerge at the contested margins of patriarchy, empire, and nation.
Muddupalani was only one of these writers but her story reads like an allegory of their intentions and achievements. Moreover, the publishing history of Muddupalani’s work covers the historical span of the two collections under review in that it moves from a pre-colonial, traditional age through one of social reform and nationalism to that of independence. Nagaratnamma could well be named the patron saint of the efforts of the editors of these anthologies; they have inherited her diligence, her dedication, and her values.
Muddupalani did not belong to the pre-Vedic age (the time before Hinduism was made a formal system by the act of composing its scriptures in the official language, Sanskrit), but can be said to celebrate its values in art—the values of a rural, agricultural, and tribal society that inhabited India before the Aryans began their invasion in 1700 BC, characterized by Lokayata—“that which is essentially this-worldly,” a materialist way of thought to which Prakriti, the female principle, was fundamental. The deities of the time were female, the religion fertility worship.
The collection of women’s folk songs presented here can be said to represent their largely oral tradition. Sung in celebration of the cycle of the agricultural year, they are set to the rhythm of agricultural tasks like threshing, winnowing, husking, spinning and weaving, and rocking the cradle. There are also songs that accompany wedding ceremonies—generally bawdy—as well as poignant songs of a bride’s leavetaking of her parents and pining for home:
O Boatman, brother from the up- stream country.
When you meet my father tell him about me. I watch
The boats come and go. So many of them!
If my brother doesn’t hasten to take me home,
Tell him he should bring a bam- boo bier to carry me to the grave.
Tell my mother, O brother boat- man, about me,
I throw myself at your feet.
The songs composed by the Buddhist nuns in the sixth century BC and written down around 80 BC belong to what was probably the earliest anthology of women’s literature in the world, the Therigatha. Buddhism was created as an ideology to counter the authority of the Brahmins and the sacrificial rituals of the Vedas, and represents a rebellion against patriarchy that the nuns expressed as the release of the human soul from worldly suffering in earthy metaphors easily recognizable even today:
A woman well set free! How free I am,
How wonderfully free, from kit- chen drudgery.
Free from the harsh grip of hunger
And from the empty cooking pots,
Free too of that unscrupulous man,
The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,
All lust and hatred purged.
To the shade of the spreading tree I go
And contemplate my happiness.
As for secular literature, Sangam poetry in Tamil of 100 BC–250 AD also gives us a great deal of textual evidence that it belonged to a pre-Aryan society. It has no references to Vedic gods and celebrates an agricultural economy—forests, pastures, well-watered valleys, and verdant mountain slopes, where cattle are the index of wealth and warriors who protect the settlements are extolled for their valor in battle. If there is a philosophy, it is animist: no transcendent or divine being is worshiped, but the spirit immanent in things. Chiefly it is love and the rites of courtship that are celebrated in the poems, with a fresh and vivid imagery drawn from the forests and fields, with that intricate and subtle interweaving of the religious and philosophical with the earthly and erotic that characterizes so much Indian art. The poetry of Akkamahadevi best represents the intimacy of the relationship of the human with the divine, while the prostitute-poet Sankavva juxtaposes the sacred with the profane with startling effect. She promises the god Shiva to give herself to no one but him:
In my harlot’s trade
having taken one man’s money
I daren’t take a second man’s, sir….
Ah, never, no. Knowing you I will not.
My word on it, libertine Shiva.
“In my harlot’s trade”
Although two hymns in the Rig Veda, the oldest and largest of the Hindu Vedas, are attributed to women, there is no other literature by women of the Vedic period—probably because women were not permitted access to Sanskrit, which was the preserve of men of the Brahmin caste only. No wonder, then, that the Aryan woman remains a shadow of the Aryan man, subservient, dutiful, and loyal, embodying male ideals of womanhood. Yet it is a period that must be studied since “ancient India” is generally regarded as Vedic India, and such studies were in fact undertaken by officials of the East India Company which needed a knowledge of the history, legal practices, and customs of the people they had set out to govern. William Jones (1746–1794) undertook the project and extended it into the study of Sanskrit. The leading Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller (1832–1900) thought that
so deeply have the religious and moral ideas of that primitive era taken root in the mind of the Indian nation, so minutely has almost every private and public act of Indian life been regulated by old traditionary precepts, that it is impossible to find the right point of view for judging Indian religion, morals and literature without a knowledge of the literary remains of the Vedic age.
Since these “remains” contain little or nothing by women, one might think the editors could overlook this particular period, but actually it is of vital importance to women’s issues, since Vedic society was a patriarchal society and, by eulogizing it as a utopia of the Romantic imagination, both Indologists and the nationalists who naturally preferred their benign vision to the harshly critical one of British officialdom and evangelical missionaries, endorsed the system and saw to its continuation.
Because such people “obscured and subordinated other schemes and narratives,” the editors have performed a valuable service in resurrecting these pre-Aryan and non-Aryan texts, sacred and secular, which belonged to the indigenous, non-Vedic culture of India. Of course a good deal of natural assimilation later took place—e.g., the male gods of the Vedas acquired “wives,” the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, and the favorite Lord Krishna was no fair Aryan but a dark indigene, and the female form continued to be a potent icon of fertility.
One has to wait, nevertheless, until the eighth century before one sees any more poetry composed by women, and then it was the bhakti (devotional) songs composed all over India in many of the regional languages—Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and Telugu being represented here. Bhakti was a protest movement against the patriarchy of Brahminic Hinduism, against pedantry and ascetic withdrawal, eulogizing instead the intensely subjective nature of mystical union with the divine. It was a people’s revolt against the upper castes and the rituals performed by Brahmin priests. It required no institutional place, it could be sung in a temple, court, house, or field, composed in any language, its imagery drawn from everyday life.
The appeal it had to women is obvious. Those who chafed against the limitations of family and home broke away and wandered freely, singing the songs into which they wove their names, for these were not recorded until two centuries later. A religious rather than a political movement, it was said to “destroy the stupor that prevailed in the hearts of women and sudras…and brought into their lives an activating faith,” but by the seventeenth century it became reduced to cults around Vedic gods and was absorbed into the temple rituals of the central system it had initially opposed. Even rebels like Mirabai (c. 1498–1565), who had scandalized society by abandoning her royal husband and home for the life of a wandering poet-singer on the pilgrim routes of India, became recast in the popular imagination to conform to respectable norms: a devotee of Krishna, she was depicted as his dutiful wife.
By the seventeenth century secular literature came to the forefront, and the accounts we have of the kingdoms of the medieval age, especially of the Moghuls, depict a society that gloried in painting, music, architecture, textiles, and poetry. Women are generally thought to have led confined lives in purdah but certainly the ladies of the courts were often highly educated and accomplished, and among them were powerful queens and consorts. GulBadan (1523–1603), the sister of the emperor Humayun, wrote an account of his reign that charms with its fascinating detail about the daily life of the court. In the excerpt chosen here, we have an astonishing account of the young girl Hamida, later the emperor’s wife, repeatedly refusing his offer of marriage and showing an extreme reluctance to accept one from a man so much older, “an opium eater and already much married.” When her mother argues, “After all, you will marry someone. Better than a king, who is there?” Hamida replies: “Oh yes, I shall marry someone; but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch, and not one whose skirt it does not reach.” Another patron saint for this anthology, surely!
Apart from the royal and privileged, there were other women who found in the courts rich patrons of their arts. Among them was Muddupalani of the Thanjavur court of the south, and in the north there were the tawaifs, or courtesans, often learned, accomplished women held in high regard, sought after and wealthy, able to endow caravanserais and public gardens and monuments, as well as own and run estates.
Such women suffered along with others when the British established economic, military, and administrative rule in India. The native rulers had to pay taxes to the British and could no longer support a retinue of artists and scholars who fell upon bad times and were reduced to penury and prostitution. The Indian peasantry suffered under new laws of taxation that were ferociously enforced even when crops failed, and the new tariffs made certain that Britain’s industrial revolution thrived, while Indian workers were out of work. Famines swept the country, and women found themselves losing their traditional jobs of sowing and transplanting, winnowing and husking, as well as spinning and weaving. Peasant revolts broke out everywhere and even an official of the East India Company lamented, in 1709, “This fine country which flourished under the most despotic and arbitrary government is verging towards ruin.” Yet this period of great oppression and struggle came to be known, through the efforts of British administrators and evangelical missionaries, as one of “progress” and “reform,” the reform marking changes in the family structure and system, not in the relationship of the economic classes as in the West.
Certainly much of the reform was necessary and beneficial to women—sati (the practice of burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres) was made illegal in 1829, widows’ remarriage legalized in 1856, women’s education given its first impetus in 1860, while in the 1880s and 1890s child marriage was discouraged. The editors however assert that these practices actually affected small groups of women and were not known among the poor (not quite borne out by the texts in which the ill treatment of widows and child wives is taken up by writer after writer), and that the creation of the new respectable middle class had the effect of delegitimizing and marginalizing many artists.
Bhakti singers who had once been welcomed into upper-class homes for their music and as teachers to their children now became unacceptable in “respectable” homes. Popular culture was discredited, and the sexuality of middle-class women contained. The census figures bear out the thesis of the editors startlingly: in 1891 there were 17,023 actresses, in 1901 only 3,527. One of them was Binodini Dasi who, in My Story, claims that she took on the responsibility of raising money to build a theater in Calcutta and was encouraged by her male colleagues to live with rich men for their presents, only to find that instead of naming it after her as she had expected, they called it the Star Theater and edged her out as soon as her mission was accomplished. Lalithambika Antherjanam’s story, “The Goddess of Revenge,” is based on a sensational trial that took place in 1905, when a woman accused of adultery named the men who had used her, many of them eminent and present at the trial; she was not allowed to continue after naming sixty-four of them, and the documents relating to the trial were destroyed by her husband’s family.
The truth was that, in casting a new system of private and personal law, the British studied “the scriptures” (as they termed the Vedas) and based the law upon Brahminical tradition, thus forging a powerful alliance between the new laws and an idea of the past that excluded local practices—e.g., the matrilineal system of the Nairs of Kerala—and extended over regions and castes that had had their own nonscriptural local laws and customs. Muslim law was “defined” and contained in a similar manner, often depriving women of what authority they had traditionally had.
Certainly there was a general agreement that education was a necessity for women, but there was a great deal of debate and controversy over what precisely constituted a suitable curriculum and, while the lawmakers were eager to devise a single system to suit all, it was actually the urban middle class that they had in view. Reformists wished to educate women to become “rational” beings in the Western sense, while traditionalists dreaded newfangled Western ways. Nor could they reasonably look to Western women for models. (There was the case of Cornelia Sorabji [1866–1954], who took the examination in law at Oxford in the face of much discouragement and opposition, but was not “called to the Bar” until thirty years later, in 1923, when women were finally admitted there.) Mokshodhyani Mukhopadhyay (c. 1848–?) wrote a hilarious satire on the Bengali babu aping Western ways (“He’s transported with pride at the thought of his rank—/But faced with a sahib, he trembles in fear!…/He flounders while speaking, and stumbles and stutters/But he’s speaking in English, you must come and hear!”), and argued that women in the West were not “free” but had “lost their dignity”; what women needed, she said, was not freedom but access to higher learning.
A large number of the journals and autobiographies collected here record the efforts of women to educate themselves—e.g., Rassundari Debi (1810–?), who taught herself to read and write by borrowing her children’s schoolbooks, a page at a time, and scratching the letters of the alphabet onto the blackened kitchen wall of her village home—and to teach others. Savithribai and Jotiba Phule started a school for lowcaste girls in Maharashtra, and one of their students, Muktabai, in 1855 at the age of fourteen, wrote a fierce attack upon the Vedas for cruelty to women and sudras (lower caste):
“Now obviously, if the Vedas are only for the brahmins, they are absolutely not for us…. Let that religion, where only one person is privileged and the rest are deprived, perish from the earth and let it never enter our minds to be proud of such a religion.”
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880–1932) is only now receiving the recognition she deserved as the author of the first utopian fantasy by an Indian woman, “Sultana’s Dream” (1905), in which the astonished—and pleased—narrator visits a land where men have been confined to the zenana (women’s quarters) by a piece of gentle trickery so that women might move about the cities freely and without veils, where women run the affairs of state in a fraction of the time it takes men since they do not stop for coffee and cigarettes, where solar power keeps the cities clean and free of pollution and transport is provided by aerial conveyances which use hydrogen balls to overcome gravity and electricity to move their wing-like blades. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was working on an essay, “The Rights of Women,” when she died.
Nationalism is generally considered to have played a major role in the emancipation of Indian women, and it is true that the civil disobedience movement launched by Gandhi brought out large numbers from the seclusion of their homes to join demonstrations of protest. Gandhi’s choice of symbols of resistance—the spinning wheel and a pinch of salt—raised these common household objects to an exalted level. There are those, however, who saw the choice as strategic and not idealistic, and some argued that if he was idealizing anything it was domesticity and the place of women in the household. It is a curious fact that during the period when nationalism replaced social issues as the central point of interest, few women wrote on the subject. The nationalist leader Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) continued to write lyrical and romantic poetry (although she also gave stirring speeches at nationalist gatherings, one of which is included here), and Mahadevi Varma (1907–1987) hardly ever referred to the political events of the time in her poetry and fiercely defended her belief that subjectivity alone was the basis of art.
What was important was how the portrayal of women changed in the literature of the nineteenth century. They were no longer presented as oppressed and uneducated, but as guardians of the nation’s spirit, and women felt empowered thereby. The popular Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterjee (1838–1894), in Devi Chaudhurani, created a heroine who was “a robber queen with an almost demonic power,” but the tensions and conflicts involved were most fully and subtly illustrated in the novels of Rabindranath Tagore. In The Home and the World Bimala is seen as embodying the spirit of Mother India and is also referred to as the goddess Durga, but runs into disaster and tragedy when she steps out of her home into the arena of politics. In Char Adhyaya there is more explicit criticism of militancy in women:
At last I see a real girl… you reign in the home with a fan in your hand and preside over the serving of milk, rice and fish. When you appear with wild hair and angry eyes on the arena where politics has the whiphand, you are not your normal self but unbalanced, unnatural.
No wonder women fell silent and felt confused: Were they to be modern and progressive, or traditional and nationalist? Modernization required criticism of tradition, while nationalism demanded its glorification. Compared to her quandary, that of Western women in the nineteenth century seems simplicity itself. (The editors, in fact, are highly critical of Western feminism for excluding issues of race and empire and failing to enlarge the scope of insurgency and resistance.)
There is a school of opinion that says the feminist question did not “disappear” under nationalism but was “resolved” by it: nationalism asked that in the material field Western ideas should reign, and in the spiritual field Indian; a balance was required between “the inner and the outer,” “the home and the world.” A balance or an irrationally divided personality? No wonder that women’s writing in the 1920s and 1940s concerns itself with the creation of a resilient self within the turmoil of changing times. As the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee puts it, a heroine had to be created who was not merely a good housekeeper but with whom the hero could plausibly fall in love. Popular literature concerns itself with such a heroine, and it is realistic rather than escapist. Women readers identified with it, as is shown by the large number of women’s magazines and journals in all the regional languages.
A review is of necessity reductive. It is to the credit of the editors of Women Writing in India that they never simplify the issues and situations but convey the full complexity and heterogeneity of Indian life. In an introduction that is intellectually rigorous, challenging, and analytical, they recount the adventures of exploring territory that had been lost or forgotten, and rediscovering authors by reading social histories and biographies, yellowed newspapers and legal documents in scattered archives. Libraries had not always preserved the books they owned so that pages were too brittle or faded or moth-eaten to reproduce and had to be copied by hand; in one instance, the library had just sold what the editor was looking for as junk. They also had bits of luck—meeting someone who was able to recite an entire poem they needed (Sr. Mary Begina’s Farewell to the World) and discovering that the ghost in The Goddess of Revenge was based on an actual person whose history they tracked down in newspaper reports of her trial. Getting biographical information was equally hard and serendipitous. Often even the children of the writers did not know their dates of birth or death—and knew them only as mothers who “also” wrote—while some writers were too poor or discouraged to have kept copies of their books. What is regarded as history by one age is not necessarily considered so by another: as the editors remind us, the biographies of Buddhist nuns of the sixth century BC provided information about their previous lives and recorded the occasions when they had achieved enlightenment and release from the cycle of birth and death, but nothing else. Testimonials were often colored by the thinking of their times: a writer would be praised not for her achievements but because she did not lose “the modesty or sensitivity natural to women” or because education did not “alienate her from her Hindu roots.”
Out of the initial list of six hundred, the editors chose 140 writers, in eleven of the Indian languages. Problems of translation then arose, but they remained doggedly ambitious: not content with the usual translator’s aim of a rendering faithful to the original that also reads well, they
tried…to strain against the reductive and often stereotypical homogenization involved in this process. We preferred translations that did not domesticate the work either into a pan-Indian or into a “universalist” mode, but demanded of the reader too a translation of herself into another sociohistorical ethos. We have taken pains, therefore, to preserve the regional grain of the work, and to create a historical context that might open the text up for a materialist and feminist reading.
Aware of the foreign readership the book is likely to attract, their decision to do without a glossary is debatable, but not their seriousness of purpose in asking the reader to “learn slowly, as she relates to the objects, the concerns, the logic of the worlds women have inhabited over the years, to live a mode of life, and not just read about it.” This of course brings them close to sociology or Orientalism, both of which they are anxious to avoid as being “colonial disciplines,” and might have influenced their decision to do without elaborate transliterations.
One cannot help feeling a glossary would have helped in acquiring that “logic of the worlds…a mode of life.” Certainly an index worthy of the name is required in place of the totally inadequate one provided. The “headnotes” containing biographical material are invaluable since they also provide one with the historical and cultural background of the texts, but one wishes claims such as “the greatest,” “the finest,” and “the best” were not made quite so often since they are not always borne out—e.g., Swarnakumari Devi does not reveal the talent claimed for her, while the popular writer Ashapurna Debi, criticized for not carrying her feminist views to radical conclusions, contributes a splendidly funny, lively, and spirited short story, “On With the Show,” that makes such criticism superfluous. The absence of Toru Dutt from the collection is inexplicable, and it is sad that the editors did not feel they could include the work of Attia Hosain, one of whose short stories would have beautifully illustrated precisely those conflicts and tensions between the upper and the lower classes, the colonizers and the colonized, the modern and the traditional, that they have labored to display.
These are minor bones, perhaps, to pick in a meal where the meat is so satisfying. One can say that the editors and their large team of assistants and advisers have put together a book that is revolutionary, and presents a view of Indian life and history never coherently put together before, and which it will be impossible ever again to ignore. It will be considered a landmark no matter where feminism might take Indian women in the future.
The Feminist Press, by its collaboration with the Kali for Women Press of India, appears to have made a sincere commitment to bring to light precisely such literature as Susie Tharu and K. Lalita wish to make known. Truth Tales is, as a collection, a miniature compared to their mammoth anthology; it consists of a mere seven stories, but they are dense with those customs, manners, and objects that usually remain locked within regional languages because translation robs them of their flavors, tones, and rhythms without clarifying what can seem so mysteriously alien. Some of the translations are more successful than others—the raw vigor and bitter sarcasm of Mahasveta Devi’s “The Wet Nurse” come across, and so does the defiant jauntiness of Mrinal Pande’s teen-ager in “Tragedy, in a Minor Key,” although much detail will remain obscure. The one story in English, “Midnight Soldiers,” reveals that the problem lies not only in language but in tone: in India it would be read as brutally realistic, in the West it appears loaded with melodramatic excess. All require of the reader that effort “to live a mode of life, and not just read about it.” Those who make the effort will understand why Meena Alexander, in her introduction, says, “the place prescribed for women becomes a fault line, a site of potential rupture.”
January 16, 1992