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Activism breathes life into her stories

K. Neela Photo: K. Murali Kumar

K. Neela Photo: K. Murali Kumar  

A vocal feminist-activist, Neela's writings reflect her sources of inspiration. She believes that an intellectual debate not backed by people's movement is barren.

Vachana literature of 12th Century Karnataka and Leftist ideology find a common ground in the writings and activist work of K. Neela. The Karnataka State Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), a vocal feminist-activist and a creative writer of distinction, draws inspiration from these apparently diverse sources.

This synthesis, recalls Neela, started early in life. Her father and his friends, during their discussions, referred to the leader of the Vachana movement Basaveshwara and his followers, as “Basava and his comrades”. Particularly inspirational to Neela were the lesser-known women poets of the social reformist Vachana movement who came from humble backgrounds, like Satyakka and Sule Sankavva.

The place where she was brought up — Basavakalyana in Bidar — was a place rich with diverse influences. It was the land of Sufi poets, and their poetry and music resonated alongside the Vachanas. In spirit, both these traditions aspired to break away from the shackles of conservatism. Basavakalyana, being close to the Maharashtra border, also presented a world of vibrant language diversity. The growing Dalit movement was another major influence.

“All these diverse movements related to caste, class and gender shaped my sensibility and that of many people like me,” says Neela. “Savitri Bai Phule was my sister's ideological icon and mine was Bhagat Singh. We often argued over it!” Her short stories and columns on political and social issues reflect all these influences.

For the underprivileged

Neela, who started her work as an activist in a cultural troupe, became a full-time activist when AIDWA's Bidar unit was started in 1989. “Our organisation started at Shahaganji slum area in Bidar with 150 members,” she recalls. Since then they have mobilised people for a wide range of issues — from seeking reserved seats for women in public transport to demanding fair implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Neela is proud of their continuing campaign against corruption and mismanagement of the employment guarantee scheme in Hyderabad-Karnataka districts, which together form the most backward region in Karnataka.

“I saw as I toured the State that there is a systematic attempt to deny the poorest of poor not only land, but even work with decent wages,” she says. Tracing the history of this pattern of denial, she adds that during the land reforms, the landlords in the Hyderabad-Karnataka districts in particular ensured that the landless did not even apply for lands. “The same landlords went on to acquire political power,” says Neela, explaining how political and economic power came to be concentrated in the hands of the old feudal order.

Neela sees a clear link between the question of land and the developmental agenda. “The question of women too has to be seen in this matrix.” Another illustration of her perspective on gender is the work she and her associates, with the Women Studies Department of the Hampi Kannada University, did on the pattern of rehabilitation work after the devastating floods in North Karnataka in 2009. It showed how dismal rehabilitation work had hit women, especially from lower castes and classes, the worst.

The fiery activist does not see a dichotomy between her work as an activist and her creative writings. In fact, they always provide a foil to each other. For example, her work Baduku Bandeekhane is an account of the plight of women prisoners that she witnessed when she was imprisoned with other activists during the agitation demanding justice to toor dhal farmers. The stories in her collection Jyotiyolagana Kanthi show how her roles as an activist and a creative writer are inextricably linked. The seed of many of these stories came from what she saw and experienced during her extensive travels as an activist. The collection of poetry she brought out with her husband Kodandaram, Baduka Beediya Payana, also reflects a similar amalgamation.

“A movement that is not backed by reflection and debate is blind. And intellectual debate not backed by people's movement is barren,” says Neela. “When I write a story, the discipline I have learnt as an activist and my social responsibility as a citizen stand guard on either side.” In a striking metaphor, Neela says that writing a story for her is like “picking one mug of water from a vast and endless ocean of stories of people's lives.”

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 8:47:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/activism-breathes-life-into-her-stories/article2403048.ece

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