Ira Mukhoty’s session on ‘The Sanitization of Women in Indian History’ was an eye-opener. In the duration of about half an hour, all the one-dimensional narratives surrounding a few historical and mythological women came tumbling down. The complexities of these women’s characters emerged, instead.
Ira Mukhoty held forth on historical and mythological women from her latest book, “Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History.” These Indian women were Sita, Draupadi, Rani Laxmibai, Mirabai, Jahanara-e-Begum, and the Dancing Harappan Girl.
Ira Mukhoty started the session by reminding us that Indian history is complex and chaotic, and our myths reflect the chaos and complexity as well. There are always two or more narratives surrounding a historical figure or an event. Unfortunately, people choose to accept only those narratives that vindicate their picture of the world.
The 1857 mutiny is a prime example of the selective reading of history. On the one hand, English women were raped and murdered at the hands of ‘barbarous’ Indians. On the other hand, Indians were often executed without trial for the slightest of wrongs, whether proved or unproven.
The same principle of reading history selectively extends to mythology as well. Every Ramleela in Delhi ends with Rama assuming his rightful place as the ruler of Ayodhya, with Laxman and Sita on either side of him, and with Hanuman reverently crouched at his feet. But no Ramleela ever ends with Sita being abandoned by her husband and being forced to bring up her children in the forest. Every picture of Sita shows her as a fair, beautiful, bejewelled, demure and loyal wife. No picture shows the anguish on her face upon being abandoned by her husband.
Like Sita, Draupadi is also misrepresented in popular culture. Draupadi is shown to be the ideal woman: fair, beautiful, demure, and bejewelled. In no picture is Draupadi shown the way she actually is: dark. Nowhere is it said that Draupadi was considered beautiful precisely because of her dusky complexion. No picture of Draupadi shows her true appearance during those long years of exile in the forest: in those days, Draupadi was clad in a simple white sari, had open hair, and didn’t wear any jewellery. The popular conception of Draupadi also ignores some of the more humane aspects of character: It ignores her anger at being assaulted by Kichaka, and her sense of vindication after Kichaka is killed by her brother. In the popular conception of Draupadi, there is no place for her anger or vengefulness because women are repositories of virtue, and anger is not one of them.
In the latter half of the session, the focus shifted from mythological women to historical women. As schoolchildren, one has always been told than Rani Lakshmibai died in battle. Yet nobody speaks of Rani Laxmibai as a competent ruler who parlayed with the British Raj.
Similarly, Mirabai is known only for her devotion to Lord Krishna. Nobody knows that she chose to pray to the goddess patronized by her household rather than her husband’s household. She also subverted the social norms for widows in her times.
Jahanara-e-Begum, one of Shahjahan’s daughters, does not have the ghost of a mention in history textbooks. She was one of the first women to be made ‘keeper of the imperial seal’, which was a coveted position of power in those times.
During the question-and-answer session, Ira Mukhoty was asked why she wrote only about queens and other prominent women. To that, she confessed quite frankly that she had limited information about the common women of those times.
The session ended on an optimistic note. Maybe, many more holistic and nuanced histories of women will emerge because the flames of interest have already fanned far and wide.