Though women from India's ancient past have been generalised by early historians as a uniform group conditioned in the same way and conforming to the social codes, there were many of them who lived multi-faceted lives and exercised the freedom to pursue alternative paths of self-fulfilment, historian Romila Thapar said on Wednesday.

Delivering the “IWA Endowment Lecture” hosted by the International Women's Association and the Government Museum, Prof. Thapar said quite unlike their generalised portrayal, women in the history of Indian society were from diverse social backgrounds; therefore their activities were as diverse as their aspirations.

“However much the orthodox social codes may have wanted to iron out and straitjacket the lives of upper caste women, there were women who questioned the codes, to a greater or lesser degree,” said Prof. Thapar, who is Professor Emeritus in History, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Tracking the place of women through history, Prof. Thapar said though the initial assessment dating back to the Vedic times of around 1,000 BC was that women in general had a high status in society, it was most often the case that generalisations were made from evidence of women of the elite and applied universally for women across social strata. Pointing to the tendency among earlier historians to focus only on the narrative of the normative texts in generalising women in spite of the occasional deviations of some women from their pre-defined spaces through history, Prof. Thapar put forth a few questions that needed consideration---was there really such a strong conformity with the codes, and if so, why, and what was the context of these deviations. And where women resisted the norms, their resistance has to be recognised, she said. “We have to illumine these facets if we are to understand the woman of the past,” Prof. Thapar said.

According to the historian, the counterpoints to the normative texts ranged from the apsaras, the semi-celestial beings who were not bound by normative rules or condemned for breaking the rules and the queens and regents, whose distribution of largesse to different religious groups suggested that apart from patronage, these were acts of asserting choices within the limited autonomy, to the courtesans, the ordinary women who became grihapatis and whose only concession to their roles of any importance in the social order was the presence and participation in Vedic rituals, and the dasis who could be gifted as an item of property or were listed as a part of a monarch's wealth.

The other groups of women who contradicted the ideal woman of the dharma-shastras from the normative were the peripatetic singers ofwho spearheaded the Bhakti movement – from Lalla in Kashmir to Mira in Rajasthan and Andal in Tamil Nadu – and those who became Buddhist and Jaina nuns to perhaps lead lives dedicated to worship or simply escape the chores of a mundane existence, Prof. Thapar said. Thus, through history, some women have conformed to the social codes and some observed customary law, yet others, not unexpectedly of a smaller number, sought alternative paths of self-fulfilment, given to pursuits of prevalent religions or of pleasure, or various combinations of both, Prof. Thapar said.

C. P. Singh, Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums and Nina Kothari, IWA president also participated.