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Feminist retellings of Hindu myth: Return of the Devi

While many feminist versions of mythological figures are compelling, their actual impact as catalysts of change remain doubtful

books Updated: Sep 22, 2017 18:27 IST
Vrinda Nabar
Inspirational women: Mallika Sarabhai toured with Sita’s Daughters for 12 years and performed more that 650 shows.
Inspirational women: Mallika Sarabhai toured with Sita’s Daughters for 12 years and performed more that 650 shows.(HT PHOTO)

Two recent publications* have added to the ongoing myth-centric creativity in our literatures. The first of these, a translation from Telugu, is a collection of narratives about Sita’s second exile and her encounters with women like Shurpanakha, Ahalya, and her younger sister Urmila (married to Lakshman who left her to serve Ram and Sita during their first exile). All these women are familiar to those acquainted with Hindu mythology. Volga’s book changes the more familiar versions to give them a voice and presence they have been conventionally denied. The second book is a mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha (annoyingly termed “Fish Smell Girl”) and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan. It is weakened by the author’s confusing narrative device of “Then” and “Now”, which calls for considerable leaping between past and present. At the same time, the upfront confessions of the young girl-woman give us a tale in which a father’s ambition for his daughter sets her on her journey to the royal court. Like many of the feminist renderings of myths, the women in both the books are clearly products of a male-ordered destiny. While Volga shows them trying to transcend that destiny with some success Reddy Madhavan is more circumspect. Satyavati’s triumph remains ambiguous, as perhaps it was.

Stories of human struggle against Fate and Destiny have existed since the earliest times. The unceasing geographical movement of people across continents carried such accounts to other regions where they took on newer, local aspects. The Supernatural, wars against men and gods, heroism, these and many more elements enhanced the basic story. Tales turned into legends and in time myths were born. These myths remained confined within their territorial boundaries, occasionally transforming as contexts changed, but despite obvious parallels their common structures stayed undiscovered and unexplored across cultures till fairly recently.

It was Lévi-Strauss who said that myths operated in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact, and who demonstrated their universal commonality through his study of the structures of myths. With the growing belief in a more egalitarian world order, many myths were re-read and recast so as to highlight inherent feudal ideologies, while the emergence of feminist studies subverted traditional interpretations of myths in an overwhelmingly male world order. While the Western worldview had long seen postlapsarian Woman as fundamentally flawed, a view grounded in the story of Adam and Eve, Simone de Beauvoir pointed out that such a worldview was not isolated, and that Woman was globally and historically “doomed to immorality” across cultures: to be otherwise she must “incarnate a being of superhuman qualities: the ‘virtuous woman’ of Proverbs, the ‘perfect mother’, the ‘honest woman’ and so on.”

As patriarchal systems consolidated themselves, female sexuality was increasingly seen as dangerous and socially disruptive. Women had to be constrained to preserve social and community harmony. Feminist scholars have observed that even the period of the Enlightenment or the new rationalism in the West did not alter this view: though the traditional perception of women as inherently sinful gradually changed during this time it paradoxically ennobled the role of motherhood (asexual) rather than wifehood (sexual).

Women did revolt against the prescribed social order long before the feminist movement of the twentieth century. The bhakti movement had its share of women rebels who openly berated the injustices of the system but these were individual, sporadic gestures of defiance rather than a sustained effort at overthrowing a patently unjust patriarchy. They did little to penetrate the inviolable fortresses within which women-specific myths were (and still are) preserved across cultures. Such myths may have very little to do with the mythological prototype and everything to do with a preconceived, static conviction of what it ought to represent. The hold of this ought-ness is more powerful in societies which retain patriarchal ways of seeing and are more susceptible to forms of postcolonial nativism that distort “tradition”, frequently in misogynistic ways: as Wendy Doniger has convincingly shown in her compilation of Hindu myths, our Devis were far from demure and asexual. They exhibited an earthiness almost akin to machismo and were, many of them, embodiments of contemporary feminism’s basic principles. Little wonder then that feminists resurrected these Devis and highlighted attributes long glossed over.

The original feminist: Mallika Sarabhai as Draupadi in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1989) (Alamy Stock Photo)

The spurt in what are broadly considered “feminist” and gendered versions of mythological figures is more ubiquitous these days but it is hardly a current trend. For a long time now, women have used ways and means to write their lives, frequently subverting conventional narratives and myths. The twentieth century itself has many examples too numerous to be listed here. In the early twentieth century the 18th century royal courtesan Muddupalani’s “Radhika Santwanam” (“Appeasing Radhika”) had created a storm when Bangalore Nagaratnamma, also a courtesan, protested against its censored versions and decided to translate and publish it in full. Muddupalani had used her sexual experience to write of seduction, imaginatively using both male and female personae, the former being Lord Krishna himself. More recently (in the 1980s) Shanoli Mitra’s dramatic one-woman rendering of Draupadi gave us the kind of heroine anthropologists like Irawati Karve and Sharad Patil had theorized about, while Mahasweta Devi’s short story used the Naxal movement and state politics to create a “Dopdi” (a tribal variant of the name) who is raped, brutalized and mutilated but refuses to cover herself because “there isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed.” Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Man Who was a Woman, used gender and sexuality to recreate a Sikhandini very unlike the one in the epic.

Read more: Challenging norms through dance

Other recent versions of varying quality and credibility include Kavita Kané’s Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen; her Sita’s Sister; Amish Tripathi’s Sita: Warrior of Mithila; Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni: The Story of Draupadi. For over 15 years, the Asmita Resource Centre for Women, Hyderabad (with which the writer Volga is associated) has helmed several imaginative modes of recasting traditional myths and narratives about women, subverting virtually every conventional interpretation and reinventing forms such as Kuchipudi to jolt middle class audiences. Referencing a letter of apology from the women of Pakistan to their counterparts in Bangladesh after the brutalities in 1971 for example, Asmita rescripted a conversation between Sita and Shurpanakha, both seen as victims of male hunger for warfare and glory. While many of these reinterpretations are persuasive and compelling their actual impact as catalysts of change remains doubtful in an age where social media has continued to edge out an already tenuous reading habit. The long journey following the brutal gang rape and killing of a young woman in December 2012 has shown that social attitudes have sadly remained unchanged.

Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.