Women of letters

Women of letters

Women of letters

Swapna Dutta pays homage to women of the past who have made significant contribution to Indian literature, be it religious, biographical or fictional.

We live in a time when women writers have come into their own, gaining recognition by winning prestigious awards, thereby making a mark in global literature. Most of us don’t need to be reminded of Nayantara Sahgal, who won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature way back in 1987 for her Plans for Departure or Githa Hariharan’s The Thousand Faces of Night (1993), Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters (1999), Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop (2005), Arundhati Roy’s (the first Indian writer to win the 1997 Booker Prize) God of Small Things and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. But not many remember or know about the women who have contributed to the development of Indian literature as poets, novelists, biographers, historians and epic-writers. Perhaps it is time we looked back at the role they once played in this vast and ever-growing arena.

Religiously written

Vac was the first woman to have her writings incorporated in the Vedas and the Puranas nearly 3,000 years ago. One of her most remembered works is the Devi-Sukta hymn, which is sung while worshipping Goddess Devi. Her Hymn to Speech, dedicated to Goddess Saraswati, is considered one of the most beautiful compositions and is a part of the Rigveda. The goddess herself speaks in The Word, saying:I am the queen, the gatherer-up of treasures,
Most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship , verily, myself announce and utter the word that man and gods alike Shall welcome Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them –Each man who sees, breathes, hears the word outspoken ear, one and all, the Truth as I declare it…I hold together all existence.

Ten collections and eight long poems of the Sangam era comprise the oldest body of our secular poetry. About 154 among these carry women’s signatures. The important ones include Avvaiyar, Vellivitiyer, Kevar Pentu, Venmanipputi and Okkur Macattiyar among others. The Theri-Gatha songs composed by Bikhshunis or Buddhist nuns, comprising more than 500 verses, belong to the middle of the first millennium BC.

In the Bhakti period, we have Andal who lived in the 9th Century. She wrote many devotional songs addressed to Krishna, that are considered unique in Tamil literature. She is the only woman among the 12 Tamil saint-poets called Alwars. Sule Sankavva and Akka Mahadevi, considered one of Karnataka’s greatest poets, also belonged to the 12th Century. Janabai of Maharashtra composed bhajans and kirtans during the 14th Century. Mirabai (1504) of Rajasthan is another well-known poet of this period whose bhajans on Krishna are sung all over the country.

Epic tales

Coming to epics, there were two women who wrote their own versions of the
Ramayana. Chandrabati, a young girl from Bengal, lost her husband at a very young age. Her father asked her to write the Ramayana to get over her grief. Chandrabati’s Ramayana was composed in 1575 in ballad style, and tells the story from Sita’s point of view, in first person. It is she and not Rama who is the central character. This ballad was collected from traditional folk singers in 1901 and first published in 1920.

Molla’s Ramayana, also composed in the early 16th century, is yet another
unusual version of the epic. Atukuri Molla was the daughter of a potter. There are many versions as to how she came to compose the epic. According to one version, Tenali Rama, who belonged to the court of Krishnadevaraya, insulted a senior poet in Molla’s village and threw him a challenge. Molla accepted the challenge on his behalf and swore that she would compose the Ramayana in just five days. She sat inside the temple working
non-stop and managed to keep her word. Molla Ramayana comprises 138 slokas. She is the first Telugu woman writer whose writings have been preserved.

Historical accounts

Now, to take a look at factual prose writing. Gulbadan Begum, youngest daughter of Emperor Babar, wrote Humayun Nama in 1587, which is the first biography written by a woman. Written in Persian, she chronicled life during the reign of Humayun with graphic details. It is a remarkable work that focusses on the daily happenings of the 16th Century royal Mughal family, including the problems and pressures women had to face at the time. Bandaru Acchamba, our first feminine historian, wrote Abala Sacharitra Ratnamala in Telugu, which was
published in 1901. It is about the lives of great women in India. Rassundari Devi was the first Indian woman to write her autobiography, Amar Jiban, in 1876. An ordinary housewife who learnt the alphabet from her son and practiced writing with a piece of coal in a corner of the kitchen wall, Rassundari’s book gives a faithful picture of life in Bengal during the time.

Fictional stories

Coming to fiction, Swarnakumari Devi, the elder sister of Rabindranath Tagore, wrote her first novel, Deep Nirban, in 1874 and went on to write many more novels and short stories. She was our first woman novelist. Toru Dutt published A Sheaf Gleamed in French Fields, a collection of poems translated from French in 1905, and followed with her own poems in
English. Sarojini Naidu  published The Golden Threshold in 1905 and followed it up with many other collections of poems. Cornelia Sorabjee published two short story collections in English, including Love and Life behind Purdah (1901) and Sunbabies (1904). Women also tried their hand at writing fantasy. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream in 1905, which is both witty and humourous and describes a world where men are confined to the mardana while women rule the country. There are no crimes and no wars and everyone is disciplined — a fantasy indeed.

Coming to the 20th Century, we have Ashapurna Devi who was the first woman to receive the Jnanapith Award, the highest literary honour in our country, only to be followed by Amrita Pritam in 1981, Mahadevi Varma in 1982, Mahashweta Devi in 1996 and Indira Goswami in 2000. The illustrious journey continues and the women of letters of today are all set to
conquer new heights.

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