Mahasweta Devi: Writer who Defied Injustice

A prolific writer whose popular works include Hajar Churashir Ma, Rudali and Aranyer Adhikar, she was also a committed activist who took up and fought for several causes dear to her heart and advocated rights for many marginalised groups.
Mahasweta Devi was affectionately called the Mother of the Sabars as she had worked for the rights of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal.(Illustration: Unnikrishnan)
Mahasweta Devi was affectionately called the Mother of the Sabars as she had worked for the rights of the Sabar tribe in West Bengal.(Illustration: Unnikrishnan)
Updated on Aug 19, 2019 12:43 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By HT Correspondent

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1926, she belonged to a family of intellectuals and social workers. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet and novelist and her mother was a social worker and writer.

Mahasweta was first enrolled in a school in Dhaka, but following the partition, moved to West Bengal. She graduated in English from the Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan and then did an MA in English literature from Calcutta University. Published in 1956, her first novel, Jhansir Rani, was based on a biography of the Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. The large body of Mahasweta’s work was penned in Bengali, most of which was translated to other languages.

Empathetic Writer

During the mid 1960s, she taught in a college affiliated to the University of Calcutta, and also worked as a journalist and creative writer.

She studied the realities facing several marginalised groups like the tribal communities of West Bengal, and other underprivileged groups. Mahasweta’s enduring quest for oral history and folklore took her to remote places.

Her first taste of human suffering dated back to the 1940s Bengal Famine.Working as a volunteer, she distributed food, tended to many who were among the worst affected and helped take them to relief centres. These experiences gave her deep insights into the realities of the times , apart from serving as well-springs of creativity.

No wonder then that Mahasweta’s works highlighted and expressed the concerns of people living at the bottom of the social pyramid — including tribes like the Santhals, Lodhas, Sabars and Mundas — who are at the mercy of the influential sections of society. She was affectionately called the Mother of the Sabars as she had worked for the rights of the Sabar tribe. She edited the quarterly Bortika, a publication that advocated the cause of marginalised people like the landless labourers in eastern India.

Mahasweta’s 1977 novel Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest) is based on the life of the tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero Birsa Munda. She led the movement against the industrial policy of the Communist government in West Bengal and criticised the acquisition of fertile agricultural land by the government.

Inspiration

Mahasweta is quoted as having described her source of inspiration as follows: “I have always believed that real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere?”

Personal Life

She married Bijon Bhattacharya, playwright and one of the founders of the Indian People’s Theatre Association movement. Her son Nabarun Bhattacharya is also a novelist. Her works are internationally recognised and many films such as Rudaali and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa. are based on her works. She died in Kolkata on July 28, 2016, at the age of 90.

Interesting Facts:

1.In more than 100 novels and short stories, Mahasweta Devi wrote abou tribal communities, Maoist rebels, nomads, beggars as well as labourers. The author, who mainly wrote in Bengali , often included tribal dialects in her works, which have been translated into many Indian languages and English, Japanese, Italian, French. Scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translated her short stories to English.

2.Mahasweta set up a social organisation that reported atrocities against tribes to the National Human Rights Commission, and fought against govt. acquisition of tribal land.

3.She belonged to a family of distinguished people including filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, sculptor Sankha Chaudhury and founder-editor of Economic and Political Weekly Sachin Chaudhury.

4.She won a large number of awards such as the Jnanpith Award, in 1996; Magsaysay Award in 1997; Padma Vibhushan in 2006; Padma Shri in 1986 and Sahitya Akademi award in 1979.

Sources parabaas.com, Wikipedia, nytimes.com

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Monday, October 18, 2021