Indian Women Writers

A world of words, lost and found:
a brief overview of women's literature in India from the 6th century BC onwards

by Sherin Koshy


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The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout;
"No good may come to a woman."
I was born with a woman's body
How am I to attain truth?
"They are foolish, seductive, deceptive -
Any connection with a woman is disastrous."
Bahina says, "If a woman's body is so harmful,
How in the world will I reach truth?"
[Bahinabai (1682-1700)]


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Much of the world's literature has been dominated by a canon that nearly dismissed women's writing more than two centuries ago. The counter-canons that have emerged as the result of this exclusion have helped to establish women's writing in mainstream culture, but still in some ways fail to acknowledge women's literature coming from non-white countries. This essay is an attempt to highlight some of the works produced by women in India over the ages.

Although India has a history of ancient civilisations such as the Harappa and Mohenjodaro, and of matrilineal societies in the south, no written records of women's literary prowess exists predating the 6th century BC. The emergence of the first body of poetry by women in India could be attributed to the advent of Buddhism. Perhaps it was the freedom offered by the religion, the way of life it offered to women, and the principle of equality that it propagated which allowed women to pen their thoughts for the first time.

Buddhism offered women the opportunity to break away from the restrictions of home life, a major factor in the rise of Indian women's literature in the early 6th century BC. The earliest known anthology of women's literature in India has been identified as those belonging to the Therigatha nuns, the poets being contemporaries of the Buddha. One of these, Mutta, writes,

So free am I, so gloriously free, free from three petty things - from mortar, from pestle and from my twisted lord. [Tharu and Lalita p.68]

Mutta's works, translated from Pali, offer an explanation through their interpretation. Religious escapism was the only way out for many women who were frustrated with a life inside the home. They chose to join the Buddhist sangha (religious communities) in their attempts to break away from the social world of tradition and marriage. Thus emerged poems and songs about what it meant to be free from household chores and sexual slavery.

Although the early forms of writing addressed the issue of personal freedom, the poetry that followed later was a celebration of womanhood and sexuality. The Sangam poets that dominated the era between ca. 100 BC-AD 250 wrote extensively about what it meant to have a female body. The translation of Venmanipputi Kuruntokai's 'What she said to her girlfriend' reads,

On the banks shaded by a punnai clustered with flowers, when we made love my eyes saw him and my ears heard him; my arms grow beautiful in the coupling and grow lean as they come away. [Tharu and Lalita p.73]

The content of the poem is bold for its time because it is expressing a woman's pleasure in sex. The poems written around this age echo a sense of sexual liberation.

S. S. Kalpana says that the 'commentaries that accompany these poems mention songs women used to sing while transplanting seedlings, drawing water and husking paddy' [Tharu and Lalita p.71]. Women apparently sang to keep vigil on the ripening grain and to ward off spirits. These songs took the form of poetry when written down.

According to A. K. Ramanujan, who translated most of the poems of the Sangam age, disparities in gender are evident in the way women have written about their experiences. Some of the poems echo the need for bodily love and passion, the foolishness of war and the 'spears' that men left with to wage wars.

The ten anthologies and eight long poems of the Sangam age are the oldest and most prominent body of secular poetry extant in India. According to S. S. Kalpana, the absence of mythological references and Sanskrit words suggests the possibility that they were written before the Aryan take-over of northern India. This was also the time when the University of Nalanda was set up (c.a. 100 BC), which opened its doors on an equal basis to women. Most of the university records have been lost, but one can assume that the women scholars contributed to the expanding body of literature

Among the poets who wrote in the 12th century AD came the medieval Kannada poet, rebel and mystic, Akkamahadevi, whose life and writing challenged the patriarchal dominance of the world at large. She is supposed to have wandered naked in search of divinity.

The spread of Buddhism and the rapid acceptance of Islam forced Hinduism to rethink the caste system. As Hinduism underwent a revision of spirituality and basked in the new-found outlook of the Bhakti movement, so did the men and women associated with the religion. This is evident in Akkamahadevi's writing as she uses the image of her body to defy her critics when she says,

Brother, you've come drawn by the beauty of these billowing breasts, this brimming youth. I am no woman brother, no whore. [Tharu and Lalita p.79]

As a radical mystic it is no surprise that she uses the image of her genitals to convey her understanding of the Bhakti tradition and the Hindu idea of rebirth when she says,

Not one, not two, not three or four, but through eight four hundred thousand vaginas have I come. I have come through unlikely worlds guzzled on pleasure and pain. [Tharu and Lalita p.80]

Another poet of the Bhakti tradition was Sule Sankavva, who according to Vijaya Dabbe wrote poetry that could startle contemporary sensibility with its combination of the sacrosanct and the sacrilegious. Writing as a prostitute, her sentiments about the duplicity of society at large are strongly echoed in her only surviving poem, in which she says,

In my harlot's trade having taken one man's money, I daren't accept a second man's, sir. And if I do, they'll stand me naked and kill me, sir. [Tharu and Lalita p.81]

The poetry which followed a century later reflected the economic hardships of most women. It was still in the tradition of the earlier poets who used religion and god, and the discriminatory alignment of the oppressive caste system that worked against them, to define their writing.

Among the women who wrote was Janabai, the Varkari saint poet of the low caste Sudra community of Maharashtra, who in defence of her lower-caste status lowered the position of god to that of a fellow sweeper who aids her when she is tired and doesn't mind shovelling dirt for her. The same trend was observed with other lower-caste women who wrote to criticise the Hindu caste system which the Bhakti tradition had failed to eliminate.

This was also the period in India's history that witnessed invasion and gradual settlement by the Persian Empire. The rise of Islam, not only as a religion but also as the framework of the Mughal dynasty that ruled India for almost three centuries thereafter, brought a new set of experiences and influences to women's literature in India. Muslim women had to be literate to comply with the requirements of the Holy Koran which made it mandatory for every Muslim, male or female to pray. Women made use of this rule of the religion to write about themselves and their experiences. One of the earliest to write was Princess Gul-Badan Begum who in 1587 completed the Humayun Nama which details the life and history of one of India's most powerful Mughal kings. She wrote so 'beautifully' in Persian that when translated into English in 1898, her translator Annette Beveridge described it as the first novel-biography ever written by an Indian woman.

In ca. 1730, Muddupalini, a courtesan in the kingdom of the Nayaka kings of Tanjavur in the south of India, was born. Since the rulers of the Nayaka dynasty were scholars and poets, lovers of music and literature and patrons of the arts, they granted extensive patronage to women educated in the art of dance and music. There were other distinguished women poets and scholars in their courts who were recipients of this patronage. One of them, Ramabhadramba, writes about women in the Tanjavur courts who composed poetry in eight languages.

Maddhupalini's Radhika Santwanam consisted of five hundred and eighty four poems about the relationship between Krishna and Radha. In an unusual third section, Krishna complains that Radha insists on making love even though he doesn't want to. According to K. Lalita, no other Telgu poet, man or woman, has written about a woman taking the initiative in a sexual relationship. Her compositions created a stir in the literary world when they were published almost two centuries later. The erotic poems in her most reputed work, Radhika Santwanam, stunned even the most liberal of readers and critics.

Traditionally the only women who had access to scholarships and the arts of literature and dancing were courtesans. Their status in society was of high standing, and because of the wealth they accumulated due to patronage, their property endowed them with the ability to choose their lovers and friends.

Another courtesan who was raised within the Asaf Jahi Sultanate in the Mughal Empire was Mahlaqa Bai Chanda, who received an 'elaborate education and composed beautifully' [Tharu and Lalita p.120] as a court poet and songwriter. Her poetry was collected and published after her death in 1824 as Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa (Mahlaqa's garden of flowers). According to Afeefa Banu most of her poems are composed in the Ghazal form which originated in Iran.

Around the 18th century, however, a combination of factors led to the decline of women writing in India. The East India Company, established in 1600, whose initial purpose had been to trade, gradually took over as rulers and thereafter the British government established its rule in India. As a result of princes and kings losing their kingdoms, and being restricted by a small privy purse, there was loss of patronage to women in courts. Since these were women with education, the association of educated woman with 'bad' women became common. This led to the loss of education for women and the production of women's literature almost came to a standstill.

The trend of educating women began again in the late 19th century with the rise of the reformist movement in India which saw more women's participation in rebelling against British rule. This led to a new stage in the development of women's literature in India. The body of work produced was often related to the freedom struggle and the reform and nationalist movements. Although there were still women such as Bhabani and Jogeswari whose writings in the early 19th century questioned the patriarchal dominance of their husbands, the majority concentrated on the freedom struggle.

The earliest woman writing during the reformist period was Savitribai Phule, who along with her husband championed the cause of women's education. She was the first woman teacher in modern Maharashtra and together with her husband started the first school for girls. Her writing carries the mark of an activist and scholar who wholeheartedly believed in the cause of the untouchables.

Among the women writers who followed was Pandita Ramabai Saraswati who was educated both in English and in Sanskrit. In her The high caste Hindu woman she argues against the patriarchal reading of the Hindu scriptures and early scholarly works of learned Brahmins which encouraged a repressive and demeaning interpretation favouring the suppression of women.

Sarojini Naidu, dubbed the nightingale of India, published her first set of poems at the age of sixteen and went to England where she was educated at King's College in London, and later at Cambridge. Her writings as an activist and as the governor of Uttar Pradesh reflect her honest and heartfelt concerns about the situation of her country.

Towards the mid-nineteenth century more and more women began to write in English. Some of them, such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, created a world of feminist ideologies. In Sultana's Dream she talks about a world dominated by women; a world which has imprisoned men in a male equivalent of zenanas (women's quarters). She creates a world that is much better than the one men managed. In her woman's world, there are no wars and there is constant scientific progress and love for the environment.

Women's writing in the 20th century moved towards a medium of modernism in which womanist and feminist statements were combined with political messages. The writings of women such as Hamsa Wadkar conveyed an honest impression of a world of professional women whose careers in television and stage segregated them as a class apart, yet subjected them to the same brutality and force of patriarchy. In her autobiography, Hamsa Wadkar talks about her life as an actor from the age of eleven, her marriage to a suspicious and abusive husband, the birth of a daughter, her life after eloping with another man, the imprisonment she faced at his home along with two of his other wives, and her rape by a justice of peace.

Women writers such as Mahashwetadevi combined women's causes with political movements. In Draupadi Mahashwetadevi creates a world of tribal rebels whose fight against a political system of enforced capitalism has driven them to become Naxalites (supporters of a Chinese-style Communism). Others such as Sashi Deshpande build a platform of universal female experiences. In Binding Vines she examines the experiences of women coming from different echelons of society.

Over the years and throughout the political instability which affected Indian society at large, along with a myriad of other influences which have affected culture, language and social patterns, women's literature in India has evolved to show common experiences, a sense of sisterhood and a range of female experiences that question the recurring face of patriarchy.

Bibliography
Tharu, Susie and Lalita, K. (Eds). Women Writing in India Volume 1, 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. 1991. [Hereafter referred to as Tharu and Lalita]
Banu, Afeefa (Ed). 'Mahlaqa Bai Chanda', in Tharu and Lalita p.120
Dabbe, Vijaya (Ed). 'Akkamahadevi', in Tharu and Lalita p.77
-------- 'Sule Sankavva', in Tharu and Lalita p.81
Kalpana, S. S. (Ed). 'The Sangam Poets', in Tharu and Lalita p.70
Lalita, K. (Ed). 'Muddupalini', in Tharu and Lalita p.116

© Sherin Koshy, November 2004

Essays on Indian Literature
   
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R K Narayan's Vision of Life  
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