Honouring a feminist historian

January 31, 2012 01:17 am | Updated October 18, 2016 12:34 pm IST

Insights & Interventions: Essays in Honour of Uma Chakravarti: by Kumkum Roy.

Insights & Interventions: Essays in Honour of Uma Chakravarti: by Kumkum Roy.

Uma Chakravarti, feminist historian, teacher, and democratic rights' activist, has inspired generations of teachers and students. Contributors to this volume, in the process of acknowledging their indebtedness to or by way of paying tribute to the never-say-done spirit of Uma, take off from and build upon the insights her varied and rich scholarship has brought to the discipline of History.

Roy's introductory piece takes the reader through, in particular, two of Uma's seemingly disparate but landmark publications The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism and The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation, providing a glimpse of Uma's deep engagement with “the socio-political in the broadest possible sense.” While also referring to other works by her, it turns the spotlight on the distinct trajectory she blazed in the pursuit of history.

V. Geetha's essay, “The Vedic Dasi and Other Missing Women,” begins with a discussion of how Uma ceaselessly strove to write of the past in ways that would enable her to make sense of significant moments in the present. Deploying Uma's historical method to the context of her own work on the Tamil anti-caste movements, Geetha makes some telling observations on ‘Dravidian Nationalism', in particular during the period after the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — the phase that also saw the women's question recede gradually. Her exposition of the gendered trajectory of the DMK's ‘imagined nation' that disenabled women from claiming their space is fascinating for several reasons, not the least for making us realise that “… the Vedic Dasi is a figure that haunts our various nationalist histories, especially in their hour of victory.”

In her essay, Sharmila Rege takes off from Uma's provocative remark about the more interesting work being turned out by feminist scholars independent of formal Women's Studies Centres. She provides a scholarly mapping of not only the trajectory of women's studies in India but also of the “new routes and roots of knowledge about and by women still being discovered” but coalesced into the term “women's studies.”

Discussing the present context and nature of the expansion of women's studies in the university system, Rege cautions against brushing off the uneven curricular practices across different centres as faulty protocols of learning. Instead, through a reflective analysis of the experience of the UGC-sponsored Women's Studies Centre at the University of Pune, she calls for re-imagining the practices of higher education, so that teachers, inter alia, can engage with a generation of students who have a lot more information but are disconnected from the history on which women's studies curricula are built. Rajni Paliwal's ‘Conversations on Caste' sensitises the reader to the everyday experiences and expressions of caste ideology that she was witness to in the course of her work in Eklavya. In a sense this piece is a concrete explication of Uma's recognition of the complexities that characterise the institution of caste, including variations across time and space.

The Eklavya intervention experience makes Paliwal ask and reflect on a whole range of questions that have no easy answers. For example: how the Brahmanic ideology is deliberately invoked and used by one lower caste against another; how location and education matter at one level, but at another level the increasing privatisation of education creates an alternative space for subversion of the formal goals of the Indian state; and how practices of discrimination continue without there being little or no backlash or boycott.


Bharati Jagannathan's narratives revolving around the themes of communalism and sexuality are a grim reminder of the complex terrain they occupy in everyday experiences. They are not just provocative but disturbingly real. The papers of Naina Dayal and Meera Visvanathan give fascinating accounts of how texts may be read and re-read for the many constructions that become possible with such multiple readings and interpretations. Visvanathan's piece in particular raises several pertinent questions about understanding the endurance, and the pervasive hold, of ideologies that allow the varna system to reinvent itself and become capable of resisting change.

In the concluding piece, Roy examines the “representations of friendships” in the Jatakas. It ends on a poignant note, reminding the reader of those who have been excluded from these narratives of friendship — the women. Uma could not have asked for a better tribute. The collection provides a peep into the way the discipline of History stands, when interrogated through a gender lens. Waiting to be written is a volume on how Uma, the socio-political activist, has impacted other disciplines as well.

INSIGHTS AND INTERVENTIONS — Essays in Honour of Uma Chakravarti: Edited by Kumkum Roy; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 795.

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