Women in war

A project by historian D. Kirti Narain documents the scores of women who participated in the Revolt of 1857.

January 23, 2016 08:24 pm | Updated September 23, 2016 02:38 am IST

Dr. Kirti Narain, Project Director, Indian Council of Social Science Research, during an interview in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran

Dr. Kirti Narain, Project Director, Indian Council of Social Science Research, during an interview in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran

Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh. Rani Belawadi Mallammma of Belawadi. Rani Chennamma of Kittoor. What do these women share in common? They all fought the British at various times but the reports of their participation have been muted by history.

In a recent project, historian D. Kirti Narain uncovers the veil of anonymity surrounding scores of women — royals, aristocrats, courtesans, and commoners — who participated in the Revolt of 1857. They were rulers or warriors, supporters of revolutionaries or spies. The project, ‘Participation and Position of Women in the Uprising of 1857. Redefinition of Social Status: Then and Now’, is in two parts, one about the women who participated in 1857 and the second linking the status of women during the time to the present. Narain is Project Director, Indian Council of Social Science Research, Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow. Excerpts from an interview:

What made you take up this subject?

I have always been deeply interested in the Revolt; this is my third book on the subject. The participation of women is an area that needs to be researched. I have also dealt with women who were role models for those who challenged the British in 1857 and thereafter. Their participation was extremely commendable in an era when resistance and governance were considered male prerogatives. They epitomised bravery or female power and were authoritative in demeanour. Men, even the lesser men who participated, are spoken of, but women are not given their due. There were countless nameless and unsung women who passed on information, cooked for the men, and gave them refuge.

Which regions did the women belong to?

The women were spread across the country. Unfortunately, the South has not been given its share of attention. Much before the Revolt, in the 17th century, Rani Belawadi Mallammma of Belawadi in Belgaum district fought against the British and the Marathas; Shivaji later returned her husband’s kingdom to her. Rani Chennamma of Kittoor in Karnataka fought the British for her kingdom, as did Rani Velu Nachiyar, the queen of Sivaganga in the 18th century. Many of these women were trained in horse-riding and fencing.

What was the contribution of Dalit and tribal women?

Jhalkari Bai was part of Jhansi’s women’s army. She was a look-alike of the Rani and helped the queen escape by taking her place in disguise. When Mayawati was Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, she highlighted and reinvented the contribution of Dalits. A poem on Jhalkari Devi was composed similar to ‘ Khoob Ladi Mardani ’, the popular poem on the Rani of Jhansi by Subadhra Kumari Chauhan. The unknown lady’s bust in Sikhandarbagh in Lucknow is now dedicated to Udadevi, a Dalit woman from Awadh who brought down many British soldiers. Tribal women fought alongside men in the Bhil and Koli uprisings and the Santhal rebellion. Rani Shiromani Chuar, queen of the Chuars (tribal farmers), led the uprising against the British when they protested against taxes.

What were your main sources?

We delved into records, archives, newspaper accounts and oral narratives. But the most valuable information was obtained from interviews with the descendants of leaders who participated, such as Sultana Begum, a descendant of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who now runs a tea shop in Kolkata. The families had evidence in the form of seals, medals, and portraits.

Tell us a bit about the second part of the project.

I consider this a sociological study. The (gender) issues, good or bad, that existed during the mid-19th century exist even today. It defines the position of women in society during an extremely significant period of history when several socio-political issues were surfacing. What was the climate of the times that made women take up arms valiantly? What does this say about the attitude of men during the period? The fact that their leadership was accepted by the armies and by other leaders in some cases displays pragmatism among the men. In such cases, purdah, sati , and other social practices were circumvented.

Kausalya Santhanam is a Chennai-based features writer and critic

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