(Last Updated on : 31/10/2012)
Feminism in Indian literature, as can be most commonly conceived is a much sublime and over-the-top concept, which is most subtly handled under restricted circumstances. With advancement of time, however, feminism has been accepted in India, setting aside the patriarchal predomination to certain extent. Leaving aside the activists and crusaders of the political and social scenario, perhaps massive work of feminism is also accomplished through Indian literature. Yet, prior to comprehending a more intense look into feminist literature in India, it is necessary to grasp the essential concept of the term 'feminism' in the country's context, beginning from its inception. The history of feminism in India can be looked at as principally a "practical effort".
Beginning from the first inception of the Universe, there is a fascinating myth associated with the creation of woman by the Supreme Creator, Lord Brahma
. And indeed, beginning from Brahma Himself, the idea of feminism in Indian literature, both oral and written, had begun to be established, though perhaps not as blatant as is today. It is said that Brahma had first created man and in his generosity, had desired to give man a companion. But by then he had depleted all the material in the creation of man and hence he had borrowed umpteen components from the handsome creation of nature and had thus made woman out of them. Lord Brahma had introduced woman to his earlier creation man stating, "She will serve you lifelong and if you cannot live with her, neither can you live without her". The primeval myth carries an unambiguous implication of woman's image in life and literature for centuries.
World's two of the most prehistoric greatest epics, Ramayana
written by two sages Valmiki
and Ved Vyas
have been composed pivoting around two central characters Sita
, both women. It was during this time that the nascent stages of feminism was born in ancient Indian literature, the illustration of which needs no further introduction - the tribulations of both Sita and Draupadi is perhaps realised by every Indian presently. The key role women played in literature and life in the past and present in both parts of the globe is equally significant. In ancient Vedic literature, women were elevated to Devis (Goddesses); they were turned into myths and legends. Her real identity of a woman however was provided by the primordial myth, that is social stereotypes which have been suggested, are two poles of feminine experience in the world. Sita absorbs all harshly imposed desolation and mortification of the male ego, whereas, Draupadi challenges the male ego to the epitomic limits of human excellence. Sita accepts, accommodates and withdraws; Draupadi resents, rejects and involves herself in the process of life as a protagonist. These two feminine archetypes define the limits of feminine experience in reality, especially the Indian literary reality. Even in the present day Indian literature, the gender division moves between new 'iconisations' of these two bold and prehistoric figures.
If coming down more down the line, keeping aside the predominated 'Hinduistic' beliefs of Vedic Period, the post-Christian era in its just-blooming period, also has retained visions of feminism, not surprisingly from a woman, but from a man. Times during those that is being mentioned, the Indian indigenous cultural background was not much doused within anti-womanly sentiments and badgering the fairer sex with ungainly measures. Literature was not a subject that needed to be left behind, which with time, had gained pace, thus beginning to carve a new way of introducing feminism in Indian literature. It is rather ironical that in India, the premier people who had come forward to claim 'women's rights' were not women but were men. Balaram Das, a poet well known in Orissa
was a pioneer of feminism in India. It can be said that long before the idea of feminism had come up in Europe Balaram Das, a poet of the 16th century had brought forth the concept of male domination of women in a strictly patriarchal society.
Poet Balaram Das was also known as revivalist of Vaishnavism
. Popularly known as Panchasakha he had a considerable influence on Oriya Literature
. Lakshmi Purana composed by Balaram Das was an example of a piece of literature which talked of women liberation and had given birth to the spirits of feminism. But in reality Lakshmi Puran was written to popularize a Brat or Vrat. (Vrat or Brat means a custom of fasting which is observed by the women to please a particular god or a goddess. Every Vrat or Brat has a legend associated with it which is to be recited while worshipping that god or goddess.
After the introduction of western education, significantly with the advent of colonialism in India under the British Empire, reformist movements, promotion of women's institutions, the freedom movement and so on, life had begun to change once more. In post-Independence India, where education of women had already commenced, the New Woman also had begun to emerge. Education had inculcated a sense of individuality amongst women and had aroused an interest in their human rights. It was then that the feminist trend in Indian literature had appeared on the horizon and women came into conflict with the double standards of social law through ages and the conventional moral code. Feminist ideology in Indian literature, which had come into India precisely from the west and the women's liberation movement are not widely spread into India, as fighting for human rights of women has been misinterpreted as movement against Indian womanhood.
In post-Independent India, the educated New Woman with economic independence and a search for identity does not belong totally to either of the two former categories - Brahmavadini or Sadyobadhu (the former denoting the ascetic kind in quest of truth, knowledge and spiritual pursuits, which sacrifices life for the society and the second category denoting the domestic woman, the daughter, wife and mother who dedicates herself to the welfare of the family. The images of woman in society and in Indian literature in the past and present mostly belong to the second category). She belongs to a fresh category, more down to earth, more human.
In context with feminism in Indian literature, Bengali Literature
- consistently performing and dishing out legendary writers and penmanship for extensive period of time - has had its own substantial share of feminism. To Shri Ramakrishna, woman was the Universal Mother. To the great novelist, Tarashankar Bandyopadhay
the women's role is threefold - the daughter, the mother and the most seductive, the consort. But most often, these roles do overlap, because in Bengali literature, the woman exerts in the real dignity and a material empathy, which makes her the motivating force within the society or household. In Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novel, sometimes the woman is an activist who wields justice and power with self controlled detachment.
Mahasveta Devi's woman characters are activists though Mahasweta Devi
is not professedly a feminist. Men and women in her novels fight neck to neck against a common foe, the establishment. The women break through the tradition of home, hearth and veil to fight this establishment with whatever weapons they can wield - the sickle, the hatchet or with sulking detachment; they remain immaculate. In the novels of Ashapurna Devi
, women are all domestic characters who of course revolt against the dogma ridden society. Though their voice is echoed in the far horizon, the rebellion remains in side the four wall of the household.
Likewise, with every kind of Indian literature, there have existed such umpteen kinds of the evolution of womanhood, which have also at times taken the shape of feminism, mostly profound in Indian literature in various Indian as well as English languages. In such an article, it is however just not feasible with the least amount of space being defined beforehand. It can be stated with utmost sufficiency in the frame of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan that, Indian literature written in twenty two regional languages and numerous dialects not only reflect a common culture and a uniquely India version and way of life, but surprisingly the face of Indian woman in all Indian literatures has impressed upon a pan-Indian psyche with of course inevitable local touches and variations. Women have inspired literature and the feminine theme has been a pivotal importance too. She herself is also a creator of literature and is all pervading. This is true of Indian literature also. Indian literature spans a rich variety of themes - from the theme of a conventional woman to that of the new woman, reflecting in the process the changes that have been going on in the society. Post-Independence literature in Indian and feminism portrays all these trends and voices, the clamouring of women for a new and just way of life. Over years, the age old image of the woman seems to be slowly blurring and gradually shading off into a new image.
The not-unusual "heterogeneity of Indian experience" reveals that there exists multiple levelled patriarchies and so also there exists multiple level feminisms. Hence, feminism in Indian literature as well as the broader perspective of feminism in India, is not a singular theoretical point of reference; it has metamorphosed with time maintaining proportion with historical and cultural realities, levels of consciousness, perceptions and actions of individual women and women en masse
Feminist writers in India today proudly uphold their cause of 'womanhood', through their write-ups. The literary field is most bold to present feminism in Indian literature in the hands of writers like Amrita Pritam
(Punjabi), Kusum Ansal (Hindi) and Sarojini Sahoo (Oriya), who count amongst the most distinguished writers, making a link between sexuality and feminism and writing for the idea "a woman's body, a woman's right" in Indian languages. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, Leela Kasturi, Sharmila Rege and Vidyut Bhagat are some other group of essayists and critics, who write in passionate favour of feminism in Indian English literature. However, not only the contemporary times and British Indian times, feminist literature in India has existed in India from the Vedic Period, with the gradually changing face of women coming to light in every age, with its distinctiveness.