Breaking the Mould: Women’s Voices and Visions in Literature

-Padmavathi Neelamraju

“Age cannot wither

Nor custom stale her infinite variety.”  (Cleopatra)

          What Shakespeare said about Cleopatra was undoubtedly true of the image of woman; she was the pinnacle source for literature and also creator of literature. It is the need of the hour to be aware of emerging new image of woman in our society. 

          Written from a male gaze, earlier literature works portrayed female characters to fit into the mould of either an angel or a devil. In other words, women could either be sacrificial, fragile and pure-hearted individuals or a devil threatening to break the very notions of a functioning society. Furthermore, women were expected to stay home and fulfil their duties as wives and mothers. Their education was restricted to take lessons in cooking, embroidery and other household duties. And women writers opposed this ideal of the Victorian in their works. Besides, Women writers brought an in-depth take on women’s psyche and struggle against patriarchy.

          In contemporary society and literature, women appear in three successive types of development: from the goddess, she becomes a mystery, secondly from the concrete to the abstract and becomes selfless, loving, and struggling. Thirdly, she appears liberated and equal. The more women become liberated, modern and equal, the more they become confined within the feminine gender. Toward the end of the century, nineteenth-century women writers expanded their subject matter, moving beyond highlighting the lives and hardships suffered by women being pushed to the corners of the kitchen. Instead, they increasingly expressed their individualism and demanded more equal partner-ships—in marriage, public life, law, and politics—with men.

          In India, since the beginning, women have had an interesting place in their family and society. She is worshipped as Devatha. Saints like Aurobindo praised her as an incarnation of cosmic energy. Such a stately woman has become a victim of the evils of society in due course. The social practices that have been prevailing for ages have been affecting the growth of women and overcoming them, making them the least important creatures in society.

          Literature, essentially a social and cultural seismograph, records the throbbing pulse of the time. Mostly, we come across the beautiful and colourful picture of women in fiction, not only in Western literature but also in the literature of Indian vernaculars. As a matter of fact, there is no dearth of idealized and glorified images of women in all literature even today. The ghostly reality also exists in all its crudeness and ghostliness. Right from the beginning, the writers in English have been responding with this sensitivity. If we observe the writings of women writers, we keenly note the transition in the perception of the image of women in their writings. My approach here is to highlight the perceptional portrayal of women in feminist literature, especially women writers.

          I would like to begin the portrayal of women in literature with Toru Dutt (1861-1941) the first woman poet who stood at the crossroads of East & West. She created an archetype of womanhood in the English language and reinforced the conventional method in a patriotic manner. She dealt with mythical personalities like Sita and Savitri. In poems like Sita, Dutt explored the shared experiences of women throughout time in linking herself to both her mother and Sita, who are also set up as parallels. She was not only a key figure of Indian and global Romanticism but also an important female writer of Colonial India. She positioned herself uniquely in literary and conventional history and was significantly glorified by her posthumous popularity among Indian and global readers.

          Later women writers like   Krupa Sattianandan (1862-1894), Rokeya Shekhawat Hossain (1880-1932) and Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922) went against archetype portrayal of women in their writings, besides caustic about prevailing conditions. Along with Toru Dutt, Krupa Sattianandan was recog-nised as a pioneer woman author of Indian writing in English. Saguna (the first autobiographical novel by a female author in Indian writing in English) & Kamala were celebrated for her style as well as the content of her novels which reflected the world of women’s struggles and inner lives in nineteenth-century India.  In the wake of feminism Krupabai’s words and thoughts were remembered to understand the contradictions and complexity that had been witnessed by  our foremothers.

          Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, a very strong personality and writer, was described as the greatest woman produced by modern India. In her book The High Caste Hindu Woman she prodded the happy housewife who had nothing to complain about and was content to remain in bondage since she didn’t have an idea of freedom of thought and action.

          Rokeya Shekhawat, commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was a prominent Bengali feminist thinker, writer, educator and political activist from British India. She is widely regarded as a pioneer of women’s liberation in India and Bangladesh.  She attacked the purdah system, which she firmly believed was the creation of a misogynist society. Acerbically, she laughed at men by creating a topsy-turvy world of fantasy where men were kept behind the purdah. Rokeya held education to be the central precondition of women’s liberation, establishing the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls in Kolkata. She initiated the parents going from house to house persuading them to send their girls to her school in Nisha. Until her death, she ran the school despite facing hostile criticism and social obstacles.

          Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a single woman, went abroad for higher studies, obtained a Law degree and became India’s first female barrister, recorded her trials and tribulations in her book “India Calling”, and actively fought for the freedom of widows behind purdah.

          As I list these attempts at giving a realistic and dissenting picture of women in contemporary society, it may reveal that the lives and writings of many more women authors have not been passed on to us.

(Next, to be continued with some more contemporary women writers of the East & West. See you again!)


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