A recent seminar coinciding with Saraswati Bai Rajwade’s centenary mapped the contradictory forces that shaped the persona of this early Kannada writer of forthright views

The beginning in fact came long after the end. When the Kannada interest veered itself towards Saraswatibai Rajwade, she had shed her literary self. “There is no one called Giribaale here,” she told Dr. Shreevalli, who went in search of this writer, decades ago.

Speaking at the day-long seminar “Saraswatibai Rajwade Noorara Nenapu” organised by K.V. Subbanna Apta Samuha with the support of Karnataka Nataka Academy and Karnataka Sahitya Academy, Shreevalli remembered how after dogged persistence Saraswatibai Rajwade finally relented to say that she was indeed the writer Giribaale. “It’s a finished story, why do you trouble me by raking it up?” she had irritatedly retorted during Shreevalli’s visit to the writer’s Udupi home. Putting out a huge pile of manuscripts, “take everything,” she had said, as if in a hurry to erase the few remaining connections with her literary persona.

The output of Giribaale – the pen name of Rajwade (1913-94) – was huge. She wrote stories, essays, columns for magazines and journals, and she wrote about every conceivable subject. In her column “Akkana Olegalu”, Shreevalli recalled Rajwade’s writings on education, dowry, tonsuring a widow’s head…so on and so forth. She condemned math seers openly and for the health magazine Nisarga she even wrote health and beauty columns. Rajwade came under criticism for writing in a magazine that carried pictures of a woman’s nude body, but she was forthright in her views, “I am not ashamed of what nature has endowed us with.”

For someone who was given to progressive views, and brought out a journal like Suprabhata, it was hard to accept her in her spirituality garb. “We knew of her, had read her, but when we came to know of her spiritual leanings, the rationalists in us prevented us from meeting her,” explained Dr. B.N. Sumitrabai, who had conceived the seminar. Speaking for women writers and critics of her times, she said, “We appreciated her writing and her views immensely, made our selection and rejection, and wrote reviews, but stayed away from her personality which was problematic to us. Till we read Vaidehi’s memoir of Rajwade, we failed to understand her holistically,” Sumitrabai stood to be corrected. “Her personality flowed in many directions, literature and journalism were a few of them.”

Developing on Sumitrabai’s observations, Dr. M.S. Ashadevi felt that memoirs and autobiographies are the most important genres of contemporary literature, helping us foreground erasures of history and give them their due importance. “We have to re-narrate history, and map memories differently. When we do this, I feel that Rajwade’s attachment to the goddess Sharade in her later years manifests itself as an extension of the feminine energy, and not a sudden donning of religious character.”

“It is time for us to relook at her literature,” echoed Sumitrabai. Rajwade believed that literature should never become a “voice from the high heavens” but must be a reflection of everyday life. “Her social consciousness was sharp, but at the same time she became a spiritual thinker, divorcing herself from the physical world. It is imperative to understand that her personality blossomed and evolved under extremities. She lived and did everything from a sense of personal urgency, never ascribing importance to the self. Rajwade had everything, and also the power to let go of it all,” observed Sumitrabai, summing up the complexities of Rajwade as an individual.

“To me Rajwade’s feminism is primordial. It was not an external force that shaped her feminist instincts; it was an organic expression that came from the depths of her personality,” Ashadevi said, sharpening her argument. Rajwade could take her rebellion – the fire in her being – to a logical end, and that’s a personal achievement.

Kannada writer Vaidehi in her inaugural address mapped the contradictory forces that shaped Rajwade – “She was mohi and a nirmohi. She did everything she wanted to do during her own lifetime. She believed in right action and didn’t do anything for the world to take note of her.”

Most women writing during this period didn’t identify themselves with any mainstream movement of the time. “They wrote for their personal liberation,” said Dr. Sabeeha Bhoomigowda, who recalled writers like Padukone Seetabai, Leelavati Kamath and others. “They neither wrote for fame or entertainment, it was their life’s purpose and a tool to find their own inner voices,” she added.

Each speaker resonated the other’s views, and also took it forward (Dr. N. Gayatri, Vivek Shanbhag, Dr. Vijayamma, and Subramanya also participated). They all agreed that reading and writing were Rajwade’s routes to liberation. However, she did not nurture bitterness to people who wronged her. Rajwade, as Ashadevi observed, is indeed an amalgamation of will power and creative power. At once, she re-maps history and therefore the present, reaffirming her importance in the scheme of things.