Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 16, Aug. 04 - 17, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU


Table of Contents

BOOKS

Of studies on women

PARVATHI MENON

Ideals, Images and Real Lives: Women in Literature and History, Alice Thorner and Maithreyi Krishnaraj (eds.); Sameeksha Trust for Orient Longman, 2000; pages 353, Rs.350.

THE book under review is a collection of articles published in Review of Women Studies (RWS). The first issue of RWS was published by Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in April 1985 as a supplement devoted to studies on women. RWS offered a forum of publication for the growing research interest, from a social science perspective, in women as a category of academic analysis. RWS became a regular feature, carried as a supplement in the fourth issue of EPW in April and December each year. Once launched, there was no dearth of contributions to RWS, which slowly built a formidable body of contemporary research on women.

Alice Thorner and Maithreyi Krishnaraj, who brought the idea of RWS to fruition, were associated with its organisation and publication for several years. The present book was conceived as the first in a series of Sameeksha Trust publications of selections from RWS. An unusual thematic thread binds the articles in the book. They compare the actual lives and experiences of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the models that the society of that day prescribed for them. "The tensions between the promises held out to women as a result of political and economic changes, and the limitations which hedged them in, are brought out against the historical background provided by colonial rule and the rise of the nationalist movement," explains Thorner in her Preface.

The first part of the book deals with the real lives of women through the lens of their own writings. Srabashi Ghosh looks at the unusually large body of autobiographical literature available in Bengali written by women during the turn of the 19th century and in the 20th century. Most of these accounts are by upper-class women but there are also the writings of women who were social outcastes in their times - singers, social workers, and an anonymous commercial sex worker. The decision to put their thoughts on paper was itself an aspect of their individual assertion. Their descriptions of the social practices and strictures of the day that tied down them or their daughters or other female relatives and friends ranged in tone from the acquiescent to the neutral to the angry. Nevertheless, each voice in choosing to be heard struck hard at the patriarchal social order and paved the way for change. Rasasundari's passion for education forced her to seek learning stealthily in a hostile home environment; the anonymous author of "Vidya Darshan", when confronted at the age of 16 with the uncouth old man she was to marry, saw prostitution as an escape route.

The autobiographies were published at a momentous time, when social reform legislation that addressed some of the issues that the women wrote about was under discussion or was being passed. How did they react to this? Ghosh makes the point that although there occurred the "first sparks of protest and heroic struggle" during this period, the conscious contribution of women towards their self-emancipation in the 19th century reform movement was marginal.

Meera Kosambi and Meena Alexander, in their respective studies of Pandita Ramabai Saraswathi, the feminist and social reformer of late 19th century and early 20th century Maharashtra; and the Gandhian nationalist and poet Sarojini Naidu, present analyses of the creation of a public consciousness by women who chose the path of revolt. For Pandita Ramabai, the path was in a sense much harder, as women of her days had not entered the public domain. Educated, outspoken and unorthodox, Ramabai lived her life on her own terms, while working for the social emancipation of women through institutional initiatives such as shelters for widows as well as through her writings and active public life. Kosambi draws attention to an aspect of Ramabai's perspective that almost anticipated the human development approach towards social and economic progress, namely, her belief that a society which oppresses its women and discriminates against them can never progress.

The social and political milieu had of course undergone radical change by the time Sarojini Naidu, the firebrand nationalist and poet, entered politics. Although a Congresswoman, and personally close to Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu's nationalist vision was far more militant than Gandhi's. As a feminist, Sarojini Naidu would appear to have spoken in two voices, one through her poetry and the other as a public figure. It is this dual feminist consciousness that Alexander explores in her study of the poet. Her early poetry establishes a theme which is never overcome in her career as a writer, and in her romantic and orientalised portrayal of the Indian woman Sarojini Naidu "embraces for herself the world-weary sensations, the stasis, the unmistakable agony of women who have nowhere in the world to go," says Meena Alexander. As Sarojini Naidu's political exposure grew - in 1925 she became the first Indian woman to become President of the Indian National Congress - a new portrayal of Indian womanhood enters her poetry. This is India as the slumbering Mother who must be awakened by her daughter.

The most sexually explicit and erotic of her poems appears in her last volume, published when she was 38. The poems are replete with the emotions aroused by repressed desire, unrequited passion and the yearning for the male beloved. In her public speeches and political utterances Sarojini Naidu used a form of domestic imagery to describe the tasks that lay before her and her Congress co-workers vis-a-vis British rule. She talked of giving back to Mother India the control of her own home.

The articles in the second part of the volume, entitled ''Fictional Heroines'', deal with the ideals and social standards set for women by the society in which they lived, which found literary expression and interpretation in the works of male writers of the time. Both Tanika Sarkar and Jasodhara Bagchi analyse the 19th century nationalist Bengali literature, which created images of woman and womanhood that did not in fact call for changes in the women's role outside the circle of the family. In a fascinating study of the writings on women by the Gujarati reformer and writer Govardhanram Tripathi (1855-1907), Sonal Shukla shows how a reformer as sensitive to the oppressions of women as Govardhanram compromises with existing notions of the woman's role in the family. Govardhanram actually chronicles the lives of his wife and daughter, both of whom he dearly loves. His inability to stand up to some of the most cruel practices of the day causes the death of his daughter.

Geetanjali Pandey's study of the Hindi novelist Premchand's vision of the woman's place and role falls in a similar category of analysis. Many of the central characters in Premchand's novels are women who remain, according to Pandey, "the hidden forces behind their men".

S. Anandhi has written on Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar of Tamil Nadu. A devadasi of the early 20th century, Ramamirtham broke with the devadasi system to take up the fight for women's rights within the Dravidian Movement. The novel she authored in 1936, which deals with the lives of devadasis, came during the time of a raging debate over the devadasi system. Anandhi's article argues that the radical consciousness of the author as revealed in her novel is one step ahead of the devadasi debate. This led eventually to the Devadasi Abolition Bill, which became law in 1947.

The Gandhi-led freedom movement brings about a sea change in the prevailing notions of women's role. Women enter the public arena of politics against British rule, and usher in path-breaking changes in the woman's situation.

Sujata Patel examines Gandhian ideology and its impact on women's thought and practice in the third section of the book entitled "Men's Ideals''.

The mass struggles of the decades before Independence of course paved the way for women's participation in political movements, which included struggles specifically organised around women's demands in the post-Independence period. As Thorner put it, the early Gandhian movements had an important influence on women as "the possibility of asserting themselves on a larger scale was engraved in their memories".

Sameeksha Trust will hopefully continue the practice of making the best of their contributions on women available in a book form.


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