Gender bias plagues history

Over A Cuppa

Devika Rangachari, a Delhi University PhD in Indian history, is known more in her avatar as an accomplished author of children’s literature.

Rangachari, who conducts creative writing workshops for children, recently participated in the International Children’s Book Week organised by the International Library at Stockholm, Sweden, as a guest author. Rangachari talks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari about her latest book, “Harsha Vardhana” (Scholastic), and also how women have never got their due in history books:

You have brought out the character of Harsha Vardhana in fiction format for young readers. What made you take it up?
What you read in text books is basically the date of his accession, the years he ruled and maybe the battles he fought…the very dry details. I wanted to bring out the person behind the king, and what I tried to focus on is the fact that he got the throne of Kannauj through his younger sister Rajyasri, something which history text books will never tell you because there is a gender bias and women are never shown in their real light.

How did you unearth this nugget  about Harsha Vardhana’s sister’s role in his  accession to the throne of Kannauj?
Harsha and Kannauj formed part of my research, which was on “Invisible Women, Visible History – Gender, Society and Politics in Medieval North India”. I had all the facts from Banabhatta’s ‘Harsha Charita’, various inscriptions and also the accounts of Chinese travelers like Huen Tsang. The material was all there, the only thing I had to do was to tweak it a bit.

How was the experience of writing fiction out of history?
I have been writing for children for a long time, but never written historical fiction.
I was a little nervous because  historical facts have to be there but not in a boring textbook format. The challenge was how to strike a balance between the two. I think I also complicated matters for myself by choosing to tell the story not from his viewpoint but from that of his sister Rajyasri and companion Madhava.

It must have also been a challenge to make it interesting for young readers.
There are some dark details about his history, such as he might have murdered someone else to get to the throne. He was quite ambitious. The problem is when you are writing for children you cannot be too gory in your details. You have to show that yes he was a great king but that not all about him is all white, that there are some shades of gray too.

As a student of history, does it bother you that history books often tend to portray rulers as all white?
The whole problem with history is it depends on who is writing it. Certain persons will always be painted white and inconvenient sources who tell you another point of view  are brushed aside. Another problem is the gender bias. They will never give credit to the role that women played. For example, I don’t recall reading anywhere the role played by the sister who helped Harsha Vardhana to get to the throne of Kannauj. But the fact is that when you check all the sources and facts, you find that he might not have got the throne of Kannauj if she had not played her part. Also his mother played a strong role in shaping his personality, but no history book talks about it. Writing history is always very problematic. You will never find a completely objective historian. It depends who got the history written and which school of thought the writer belongs to.

Your research also focuses on the gender bias in history. What were the reasons behind choosing this theme ?
For my M Phil, I had chosen Rajtarangini, the 12th century history of Kashmir written by Kalhan. We always hear about the kings of Kashmir, but when I read that book, I found that it was the women who were actually ruling Kashmir -- either they were on the throne or behind the throne. People who quote Rajtarangini will not talk about this aspect, they will quickly shove aside the women.
I then thought why not extend this to other North Indian kingdoms from the 7th to the 12th century to see if is this a problem of writing history. I found that there is an alarming bias, women are made invisible. The facts are there, but historians are uncomfortable with that evidence.

Do you plan to take it forward and explore this aspect further in your writing?
Oh yes. There was this woman ruler called Didda in Kashmir in the 10th century, who was a wonderful ruler. She was a cripple who had to be carried around. Of course, she was ruthless, from the point of view that she killed a lot of people to get to the throne, but you won’t get to know about her unless you read the Rajtarangini. My idea is to bring out women who played important roles in the kingdoms of those times.

Why did you decide to focus only on north India, and not the whole of India?
The fact is that I am a south Indian, though born and brought up in Delhi. The problem is the history of south India has never been dealt with in text books in as interesting a manner as that of the north. So, most people tend to develop more interest about north Indian history. You never really get to hear about the history of the south, the east or the west. It is very cursory, just added as a peripheral thing, very incidental, ‘by the way’ kind.

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