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Women writers have been marginalised in Hindi literature for far too long

Increasing gender awareness and feminist discourse is slowly shining a light on the creative contribution of women writers.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Although renowned Sanskritist Michael Witzel questions the widely accepted belief that there were nearly 30 women rishis (seers) who composed Rigvedic hymns, he has to come to terms with the possible existence of five such women poets, besides two prominent Upanishadic women — Maitreyi and Gargi. He says, “This does not mean, of course, that women did not compose poems (of whatever nature) during the (Rig)Vedic period, but it was not regarded important enough to be preserved…”

The first women poets we encounter are the Buddhist nuns whose poems are collected in Therigatha, the world’s first anthology of women poets. Some of these poems, written in the Pali language, were composed during the lifetime of the Buddha and some as late as the third century BCE. Here too, one cannot but notice that the poems written by the Theris (senior nuns) were considered important enough by only the Therivada. Other Buddhist schools simply ignored them. Tamil literature of the Sangam period (300 BCE to 300 CE) too had at least 26 women poets while the works of so many others perished and their names remain unknown.

The Buddhist text ‘Therigatha’ is the world’s first anthology of women poets.

The Buddhist text ‘Therigatha’ is the world’s first anthology of women poets.  

In Hindi literature, conservative male perspectives have largely dominated literary criticism and historiography. However, increasing awareness of gender issues and introduction of feminist discourse have brought about a measure of change in the situation and scholars have begun to pay attention to the creative contribution of women writers. This has resulted in the publication of two books, among several others, that discuss these issues and bring to light the hitherto unknown oeuvre of women writers. Regrettably, they have also suffered the same neglect that their subject has.

Jagadishwar Chaturvedi, who retired as professor from the Hindi department of Calcutta University in 2016, published a book titled Streevadi Sahitya Vimarsh (Feminist Literary Discourse) in 2000. Later, he collaborated with Sudha Singh, professor at the Hindi department of Delhi University, to bring out another book titled Stree Kavyadhara (Stream of Women’s Poetry) in 2006. While the former is a critical, historiographical and theoretical analysis of the way literary historians have dealt with women’s writings and the key issues that they have thrown up, the latter is a veritable treasure trove of women’s poetry written between 1388 and 1950, spanning nearly six centuries. Most of the poets in this anthology have not been easily accessible and therefore remain largely unknown. Both the books have been brought out by Anamika Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

‘Streevadi Sahitya Vimarsh’ (Feminist Literary Discourse) published by retired Hindi professor Jagadishwar Chaturvedi in 2000.

‘Streevadi Sahitya Vimarsh’ (Feminist Literary Discourse) published by retired Hindi professor Jagadishwar Chaturvedi in 2000.  

‘Stree Kavyadhara’ (Stream of Women’s Poetry), 2006, by Jagadishwar Chaturvedi and Sudha Singh is a treasure trove of women’s poetry written between 1388 and 1950.

‘Stree Kavyadhara’ (Stream of Women’s Poetry), 2006, by Jagadishwar Chaturvedi and Sudha Singh is a treasure trove of women’s poetry written between 1388 and 1950.  

Ramchandra Shukla (1884-1941), whose Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas (History of Hindi Literature) was published in 1929 and later revised and updated in 1940, has acquired canonical status in the past nine decades because of his success in offering a judicious mix of the critic’s insights with the historian’s exactitude. Even today, he is widely regarded as the greatest Hindi critic. However, he devoted just one-and-a-half pages in this book to as great and significant a poet as Meera Bai, who was active in the16th century, and a mere three disparaging paragraphs to Mahadevi Verma, the greatest woman Hindi poet of the first half of the 20th century.

Even Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, credited with establishing Kabir as a central figure of the Bhakti movement and considered second only to Shukla in the hierarchy of literary historian-critics, merely mentioned Bavari Bai, Meera Bai and a few other women saint-poets. Thus, women poets were by and large ignored by the most influential literary critics and historians. The same fate fell to the lot of women fiction writers.

In a long introductory chapter titled ‘Stree-Sahitya ke Itihaslekhan ki Samasyaen’ (Problems in the Historiography of Women’s Literature), Chaturvedi draws attention to the fact that awareness of the short shrift given to women writers began to make its presence felt in the first years of the 20th century when Munshi Devi Prasad brought out the first collection of women poets titled Mriduvani (Soft Speech) in 1905. It contained the writings of 35 women poets as well as biographical notes on them. This pioneering effort was followed by several such anthologies of not only poetry but also fiction.

Rama Shankar ‘Rasal’ wrote a critical account in the form of a long article and, for the first time, differentiated ‘men’s literature’ from ‘women’s literature’. Chaturvedi further develops this categorisation into ‘women’s literature’ and ‘feminist literature’ and explains that while women’s literature is that body of writing wherein women give expression to their life experiences, feminist literature can be written by both women and men. He also makes an important point that so long as women continue to define themselves with reference to men, their writings can never be free from the corroding influences of patriarchy.

Stree Kavyadhara introduces us to the works of 41 women poets of the medieval period and most of the names are unfamiliar to us. To name a few — Albeli Ali, Indramati, Uma, Kavirani Chaube, Dayabai, Champade Rani, Shekh Rangrejan and Hariji Rani Chavdiji. The same applies to the 37 women poets from the modern period. One is familiar with the names of only a few such as Mahadevi Verma, Kirti Chaudhary, Shakunt Mathur, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, Sudha Chauhan and Rameshwari Nehru.

Not many would, however, be familiar with the names or poetry of Gopal Devi, Bundela Bala (Gujarati Bai), Toran Devi Shukla ‘Lali’, Vidyawati Kokil, Ranchhor Kunwari or Rajdevi. In this respect, this collection could be described as one of the findings of a literary excavation that lays bare the hidden recesses of the past and makes us aware of its richness. One hopes that many more of such collections continue to make an appearance so that the literary wealth created by women can be appreciated by one and all.

The writer is a senior Hindi poet and journalist who writes on politics and culture.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 6:33:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/women-writers-have-been-marginalised-in-hindi-literature-for-far-too-long/article36203140.ece

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