Under the crimson canopy of The Red Couch began a discourse on Oria and Bengali women’s foray into the primarily patriarchal arena of Indian literature. The panellists, Dr Sanjukta Dasgupta and Paramita Satpathy, who are both immensely accomplished in the fields of literature, the previous being a Professor of English at Calcutta University with countless published works, and the latter, a Sahitya Academi award winner, embarked upon the enormous political, social, and academic ramifications of the radical entry of women into the literary scene way back at the dawn of the 19th century.
Comparing the condition of women to that of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, Dr Dasgupta described the gradual transition of women from a normative identity of sexual utility to that of literary liberation. In a society which instilled in its women, authorship anxiety that derived from a fear of neglecting the household and family, the opportunity to write was turned into an urban right. The emergence of the first few women writers in the early 19th century was facilitated by their elite familial backgrounds, who considered their writing more of an indulgence than passion, as observed in Rabindranath Tagore’s impression of his prolific and proficient sister Swarnakumari Devi as having “more enthusiasm than talent”. Dr Dasgupta thus concluded by comparing women writers to warriors, and rightly so.
Paramita Satpathy began modestly by labelling herself a mere “laywoman”, on account of not being as scholarly inclined as Dr Dasgupta. She emphasised that although the emergence of women writers in Orissa and West Bengal was first codified in the 19th century, there were also such writers during the 16th century Riti and Bhakti Yugas, who, owing to their social circumstances, went sadly uncodified.
Ms Satpathy brought to light the Bhakti Yug poet Madhavi Dasi, who is considered by many to be the first woman poet in Oriya language, and drew parallels with the relatively contemporary 19th-century women writers, such as Binodini Devi, who had the advantage of publication and English-medium education. She spoke of two revolutionary Oriya women: Sarala Devi and Kuntala Kumari Sabat, one an activist, feminist, politician, and writer, and the other a doctor. Sarala Devi’s 1930 work (translated) “The Body of a Woman is Hers” made ripples in the then misogynistic society which believed in totalitarian ownership of women. Similarly, Kuntala Kumari Sabat’s novel “Kali Bahu” which literally translates into “The Dark-Skinned Daughter-in-law” was refractory to the normative standards of beauty and obsession with fair-skin. With the culmination of the freedom struggle, many women plunged into writing patriotic and nation-themed works.
The post-independence era saw an upsurge in the number of women writers and poets in both Orissa and West Bengal, such as Pratibha Ray and Paramita Satpathy’s mother Pratibha Satpathy. This, in the words of Ms Satpathy, led to waves of literary movements and changes in the nation. In addition, she read out one of her poems, “Saree” which describes the struggles of a young woman with social norms and standards under the beautiful metaphor of the Saree.
Dr Dasgupta then took over and re-introduced Paramita Satpathy as a talented writer and career woman, as opposed to a laywoman. She asked her how she combined her creative writing and her work as an Income Tax Commissioner, to which Ms Satpathy said, “We always say taxman, we never say taxwoman, so I have accepted that I am a taxman, but you know had I been a man, this question wouldn’t have been asked to me, because you know, we have in the country, men who have important jobs, in the IAS, IPS, or in the Army and others, and have been proved to be very good writers”. She said she sometimes finds it difficult to make time for her writing and being a writer of a regional language, she finds it difficult to sustain herself with only her writing. She believes that one draws from whatever situation is one in, and occasionally draws “ingredients” from her career for her writing.
After a brief discussion and reading of her Sahitya Academi award-winning book Prapti, also known as A Boundless Moment, which is a collection of short stories all relating to women from different strata of society, Dr Dasgupta read out her poem “Pillion Rider”, which told a story of identity and ownership from a woman’s perspective, and her woe at always being a pillion rider, never the driver herself.
Towards the end, Dr Dasgupta shared how she believed that women are active agents of social change, a change that takes them from ill-being to wellbeing. From a time when women’s literary identities revolved around tropes of weeping and lamentation, they have moved towards creating their own identities. It is now a time when women need to step up and be more confident. It is a time when women need to claim their own narratives.
About the Author: Asmi Roy is a lover of all things written and readable and works as a freelancer. She currently writes for TheSeer.