Kerur Vasudevacharya’s Indira comes across as a novel that professes an orthodox point-of-view on women’s emancipation

Social-reform from a conservative standpoint

Published - March 06, 2020 12:20 pm IST

Kerur Vasudevacharya’s Indira , published in 1908, comes across as a novel that professes an orthodox point-of-view about women’s emancipation to the point of being seen as an ‘anti social-change’ novel. This is in stark contrast to almost all the early Kannada social-realist novels that spoke positively about women-centric social change and against injustice to women. We get an insight into the author’s world-view as early as in the ‘introduction’ itself where he says: Today we see many young women, educated under the existing system, bringing happiness to everyone without causing any harm to ‘streejati.’ But we also see women who rebel against the present social structure and want to be more independent than men. They feel that they should follow women of other countries and that men need not be given the same kind of respect that they have been receiving till now. There is no dearth of such free women who have started to destroy our social equilibrium.

Indira is essentially a story of the romance between Indira and Ramakantha. Ramakantha's father, Kamalakantha, Indira’s father, Jayarao, and Devayani, a young educated widow, were friends in their youth in Bangalore. Kamalakantha and Jayarao were both students in Mumbai and were positively inclined towards social change. They return to Bangalore and meet Devayani, and both develop a liking for her, but she has a soft corner for Kamalakantha and wants to marry him. Jealousy, lies, misunderstanding, dejection, and hurt – all these thwart their union. The men go their separate ways and Devayani chooses to remain a widow.

Jayarao shifts to Srirangapattana, and so does Devayani, who has now become an accomplished painter. Jayarao's business interests meant frequent trips outside his town and Indira grows up into an educated young girl under the loving care of Devayani. Devayani had not forgotten Kamalakantha and when she learnt that his son, Ramakantha, had come to Bangalore in search of a job, she wanted to see him and through a mutual friend, requests him to come and see her. Ramakantha comes to Srirangapattana and in course of time meets Indira in Devayani's house.

Friendship soon turns to love. Jayarao sees this growing intimacy with increasing concern. He wants to get his daughter married to an aristocratic young man, through whom he could acquire the ‘Rao Bahadur’ title from the British. He tries to separate them by offering jobs to Ramakantha in other cities. Many such attempts and misunderstandings later, Indira and Ramakantha come together finally to get married.

In between the many fluctuations in the romance between Indira and Ramakantha, Vasudevacharya introduces a group of ‘social change agents’ with whom Indira and Ramakantha are seen engaged in debates on women-centric social issues. Vasudevacharya takes this opportunity to lampoon well-known reformers and their reform activities.

Pandita Ramabai, who was well-known across the major cities of India during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a committed social reformer, is caricatured here as Pandita Radhabai. Pandita Ramabai‘s widowhood and her conversion to Christianity are mocked. In Indira , Pandita Radhabai is shown as having married three times and that she had converted to Christianity after her marriage to Father Cunningham. Seshadasacharya Adya (author of an early Kannada social play, Suvadana Bhaskara ) is lampooned here as Phanindracharya Adya. Phanindracharya is shown here as marrying Nagalakshmi, who has been widowed thrice and that he is not bothered about her not being a virgin-widow. The language used here is coarse as Nagalakshmi is described as a woman who was ‘savoured’ by three husbands previously.

The meetings of the reformers at the Upasana Samaj is described by Ramakantha as being similar to Church sermons and rituals, with chapters being read out from The Bible . Vasudevacharya makes it clear that he sees all these reform activities as Western and more specifically Christian.

In the novel, Indira and Ramakantha do not suffer any personal indignities, nor are the impending reforms going to affect them in any way. They seem to merely act as the author’s mouthpieces. On one occasion when asked by Radhabai about his opinions regarding remarriage, women’s education, and emancipation, Ramakantha says, “ Women should get higher education, but I cannot tolerate their exaggerated desire for freedom .” To a similar question, Indira says: “ I don’t know what you call independence. After we get married we go to our husbands’ houses and enjoy our rights to food, clothing and ornaments. From whom are we to become independent? Should we fight with our husbands who protect and take care of us and call that freedom? Now we see more of harassed husbands who are in the clutches of their wives. Do these wives need freedom, or do these poor husbands need freedom, who have become servants in their own homes?”

Vasudevacharya was a student in Pune during 1889-1890 and was witness to the reformist-conservative debates on women’s rights. These debates would have influenced Vasudevacharya and coming from an orthodox, priestly family, he seemed to have leaned towards the views of the conservatives.

Apart from presenting the contemporary conservative attitude towards reforms, Vasudevacharya makes the novel topical by introducing elements like names of newspapers that Ramakantha reads like Indu Prakash , Bengali Times , Bandhu , and Kesari , the Kannada-Marathi language debate, B. Venkatacharya‘s popular translation of Bankimchandra‘s Vishavriksha that Indira reads, names and activities of religious and social reformers and long discussions on reforms. Vasudevacharya was partial towards decorative classical descriptions of nature and one can see that in his depictions of the Cauvery river, gardens, and woodlands in Bangalore and Srirangapattana.

Kerur Vasudevacharya was a prolific writer across genres – he wrote novels, short stories, plays, and edited journals – and his name continued to remain in public memory during his lifetime and later too. As a result of this literary fame, his one and only social-realist novel, Indira , did not suffer from lack of attention from publishers and critics. Indira has seen at least five more reprints after 1908. In 2007, Manohara Grantha Mala, Dharwad, brought out Vasudevacharya’s collected works in three volumes.

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