Contemporary literature's feminist transformation: Women from history are finding better representation
Historical and mythological literature have swerved towards female protagonists, with authors giving them interesting twists and disrupting beliefs both traditional and religious, and sometimes, even historically documented facts
In the last decade, many women from our history and mythology have resurfaced and reared their heads like the proverbial Medusa in contemporary Indian fiction.
Until now, many of these women's names were lost in the sands of time despite their outstanding contributions, on the battle field and outside it.
The portrayal of female heroism is changing, as characters increasingly espouse bravery over 'quiet strength'.
“Why are there so many women on the throne?” wonders Riyaz Khan in The Queen’s Last Salute. As a matter of fact, there was nothing extraordinary about this. India has had several women wear the crown through the centuries leading up to the Revolt of 1857, among whom the queen of Jhansi, Maharani Lakshmibai, is perhaps the best known.
But, there were others, too, who were equally illustrious and who ruled with aplomb. Barring a few names such as Queen Didda of Kashmir, who ruled in the 10th century and has been talked about in Kalhana’s Rajtarangini, Razia Sultan, Rani Rudramma Devi, Chand Bibi, Ahilyabai Holkar and Begum Hazrat Mahal, not much has been documented about the other female rulers in literature, such as Rani Avantibai, Rani Veli Nachiyar, Uda Devi, Rani Durgavati, Keladi Chennamma or Kittur Chennamma; nor have they been represented in popular culture and in contemporary literature.
The Queen’s Last Salute is not just a story about Lakshmibai, the queen of Jhansi.
It is, in fact, the story of female heroism that stretches beyond the portrayal of a queen who was as much at ease being a mother, as being an astute diplomat and a warrior.
It is also the story of Chandraki, an ordinary woman, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, who was just as brave. Though she did not carry a royal title, she was in every way as heroic and brave as her beloved queen. Chandraki, like many women before her, emerged as an audacious, fearless fighter despite humble beginnings. Such women broke through the stereotypical roles of being supportive and nurturing. They chose instead to draw up the battle lines.
So, who is Chandraki? Did she really exist? Perhaps. Perhaps, not. She could be Jhalkari Bai, or Motibai, or Sundar, Mundar or even Kashibai — women who played significant roles in Lakshmibai’s life both as a companion and later, her comrades-in-arms. Chandraki could be anyone of them, or all of them combined, or none of them. But, to me, she is the archetype of the combative minority of women characters who exist in our history and may well have been epitomised in Indian literature. She could be Bankim Chandra’s Shanti or Devi Chaudhurani, or Amish Tripathi’s version of Sita. She could be Devi Yashodharan’s Aremis, or Chitrangada, the princess of Manipur and wife of Arjuna, who first appears in the Mahabharata and who is later, in a delightful turn, presented as a warrior princess in Rabindranath Tagore’s play Chitrangada.
Though over the centuries, women have been deified and glorified in myths, they were expected to always be willing to sacrifice and submit to the commands of the men in their lives. That’s how we knew them, that’s how they were portrayed, and that’s how they were preferred by most. And, even if there were women who played a significant role in changing the destiny of a nation and displayed great courage, their roles were mostly non-militarist in nature, and who were eulogised for their 'moral courage and quiet strength'.
In fact, Mahatma Gandhi, too, subscribed to a similar school of thought. Mahima S Acttuthan, in her article ‘Gandhi on the Role of Women in Freedom Struggle’, says that Gandhi chose to reject Rani Lakshmibai’s militaristic contributions as a symbol of female strength for women to emulate, and advocated instead an alternative non-violent representation. “Aggressiveness and forceful intervention, as represented by the Rani, was not seen as a viable tool for attaining Swaraj or political power in the movement. Women were to instead use their superior qualities of passivity, patience and self-sacrifice to attain their goals.” Representing Gandhi's perception of the ideal Indian woman, female followers were encouraged to embody the virtues of purity, firmness and self-control. “He urged women to be as ‘self-reliant’ as Draupadi and upholders of ‘superior moral courage’ as seen in the chaste Sita. The Mahatma used the aid of religious and traditional symbols of Indian womanhood to convey a complex socio-political message. In doing so, Gandhi also limited the definition of female strength by restricting it to the passive realm of moral and spiritual courage,” says Acttuthan.
Rani Lakshmibai, who came into prominence nearly half a century before Mahatma Gandhi, and who wielded the sword from an early age, did just the opposite. “The Rani embodied the sort of feminine strength that is usually associated with masculine bravery. Embarking on a new journey — her reign of martial prowess began, where she not just assumed the role of the military leader, but raised an equally capable force of female soldiers,” says Acttuthan. This later found resonance in the Rani Lakshmibai regiment in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Her example of feminine bravery thus lends a vastly different perspective to the traditional definition of female heroism as seen in Gandhian philosophy.
Feminine bravery, though, cannot be limited to the role of a warrior queen, but extends to that of her close aides as well, whom the queen herself in most cases, trained in warfare and espionage.
Besides the queens who took to the battlefield, there were others of more humble origin who did remarkable work for the cause of the nation in terms of both military combat and espionage. There were spies such as Saraswathi Rajamani, Noor Inayat Khan, Azizun Bai, and Sehmat Khan. With the exception of Sehmat Khan on whom the book Calling Sehmat was based, the others are hardly talked about. Then there are the likes of Jhalkari Bai, or Motibai from Lakshmibai’s own court. Like them, there may have been ordinary women in other kingdoms, too, who have not been documented. These women fought at the forefront of the battle lines and defied the conventional stereotype that women simply play the role of supporters and nurturers.
It is interesting to note that in the last decade, a whole lot of women from our history and mythology have resurfaced and reared their heads like the proverbial Medusa in contemporary Indian fiction, in avatars drastically different from those perceived or known until now. Both historical and mythological fiction have swerved towards female protagonists, with the authors giving them interesting twists and disrupting beliefs both traditional and religious, and sometimes, even historically documented facts. This is perhaps in keeping with the current milieu where women are emerging out of the closets and are increasingly seen to be fighting for their rights and for justice.
So, is Indian historical and mythological fiction becoming feminist? Perhaps. Just as well for our lion-hearted ladies, whose names until now were lost in the sands of time despite their outstanding contributions. They rightfully deserve their moment under the sun. It’s never too late to dust off the layers of obscurity under which they lie buried. There are so many women out there. Their stories need to be told. It’s great that so many writers are now making such women the protagonists of their novels. In that case, we are in for an exciting phase of Indian fiction writing.
Moupia Basu is the author of The Queen's Last Salute: The story of the Rani of Jhansee and the 1857 mutiny, published by Juggernaut in January 2019
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