literature and myth

Indian mythology is a new medium of choice for feminist narratives (and it’s working)

Reimagining women from the myths as empowered figures with agency.

Neither feminism nor mythology is a modern construct. Strong, feminist characters have long been the hallmark of Indian mythology. In fact, a famous ancient verse brings together quite a fiery bunch. This verse about the Panchakanya or Panchasati exhorts the faithful to start their day by remembering the five famous “maidens” from the Indian epics:

Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha / Panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashaka

It can be roughly translated to mean that one who always remembers the five great women, ­ Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari – is saved from all manner of sin and failure. Indeed, this motley “saviour” crew is a good example of the strong woman, the rebel, although the coveted top spot of the ideal Indian woman always goes to Sita. Yes, a sweet, submissive Sita who accepts all patriarchal norms and whims is what all good Indian girls were expected to be for a long, long time.

An Ahalya, a Kunti or a Draupadi were at best served up as covert warnings. The stigma of bastard children, a public disrobing, or being turned into stone could be the consequences of blazing a trail of independence. Sure, there have been hundreds of retellings and reinterpretations through the centuries in which our female protagonists have been recast in new moulds. But these stories have remained confined to their niche, and their reach has been limited in terms of popularity as a frame of reference.

Traditionally, Indian mythology has tended to serve the purpose of patriarchy, keeping the woman where she belonged – at the bottom of the social ladder with the shudras. But the tables are finally turning. The subaltern is now wielding the very tools which were used to justify their oppression for ages, this time as a means of empowerment.

Many writers of modern mythological fiction are taking up feminist cudgels, often turning familiar tropes on their head. With easy choices in digital and self-publishing, there are more new voices than ever before.

While purists decry these “inventions”, literature is serving its purpose of making people think. Hearteningly, these alternate versions are available to a new generation of readers on the shelves of book stores and libraries, as well as on their mobile devices. Today, as parents, we can choose to tell our sons and daughters stories about a strong Shakuntala, a brave Satyabhama, a sensible Satyavati, or an independent Urmila.

At the vanguard were works like Pratibha Ray’s Yagnaseni: the Story of Draupadi, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (also about Draupadi). Between Ray’s Draupadi (1995) and Divakaruni’s (2008), we see a clear trajectory of emboldening feminist voices. Although both are retellings of the hyper-masculine epic from Draupadi’s point of view, there is a marked shift in the telling from the “other” to the self. Where Ray painted Draupadi as a woman who prided herself in being the perfectly devoted wife, Divakaruni let her heroine unabashedly crave for the love of two more extraordinary men – Karna and Krishna.

Devdutt Pattanaik, India’s most beloved mythology explicator at present, added to the genre with Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana (2013). Pattanaik did reverse the gaze by telling the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view, but his heroine did not make a lasting impression on me, at least. That’s probably because he remained within the framework of the original story of the Valmiki Ramayana. He did not, like most other writers, fictionalise. Pattanaik’s Sita is wise and exalted, but not very different from the Sita I have received from the collective consciousness.

When it comes to English books, it is authors like Kavita Kané, Utkarsh Patel, and, more recently, Saiswaroopa Iyer, who seem to have passionately taken up the cause of feminist revisionist mythology.

One writer with a consistently different story

Kané has written a string of books over the years that are determinedly feminist in nature. She picks the most unusual characters (sometimes even creates them!) to tell her readers what-may-have-been. Her first was titled Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen (2014), which told the story of Karna through his (fictional) wife, Uruvi.

It is interesting that Kané chose to introduce an entirely new character to tell Karna’s story in the space of mythological fiction. The Mahabharata speaks of no one called Uruvi. Karna is married to Vrushali, Duryodhana’s charioteer’s sister, and to another woman named Supriya. Both are blink-and-miss characters, with little to say or do in the epic. But in Kané’s re-imagined world, Karna’s second wife is Uruvi. She is a woman passionately in love with her husband and plays an active role in his unfolding narrative.

Here, we deal with not one but two subaltern voices – of the woman and of the low caste. Kane’s inspiration for this name seems to have come from some references in later Tamil literature, where Karna’s wife is named Ponnaruvi. However, it is conjectured that Ponnaruvi was an epithet for either Vrushali or Supriya or both.

Kané’s next was Sita’s Sister (2014), where she constructed the life and character of the little-known wife of Lakshmana, Urmila. The Ramayana takes scant notice of her, and when it does, consigns her to what is essentially a 14-year long coma. But Kané imagined her as a living, breathing heroine who holds the fort when everything is crumbling and everyone important has left.

Kané then wrote Menaka’s Choice (2015), a tale about the apsara who was famously sent by Indra to stop great sages like Vishwamitra from achieving their spiritual goals. But Kané’s take was unique in that she wrote about Menaka as a woman who chose to be a mother, depicting her anguish when she was required to leave her child behind and return to the celestial realm.

Her latest book is Lanka’s Princess, where Surpanakha is more than just a lustful demoness whose nose was cut off by Lakshman. It builds upon the academic narratives of feminism, whose followers have long championed Surpanakha’s cause. It reiterates the idea that women who are vocal about their desires and sexualities are not automatically evil.

The other ‘deviants’

The year 2016 also gave us a new feminist voice in Saiswaroopa Iyer. This IIT alumnus made her debut in this space with her novel Abhaya, based on the myth of Narakasura and Krishna. Iyer refashioned Satyabhama’s character as Abhaya – literally, the fearless one.

Abhaya is a princess and a formidable warrior who defeats the demonic Bhauma alongside Krishna. Iyer blended history and mythology beautifully to make a compelling first book. Her Satyabhama/Abhaya was not just one of Krishna’s lovers or wives, but also an independent character worth looking up to.

Utkarsh Patel’s debut novel Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged positioned its heroine as one who dared to loved, accepted the consequences, but kept her pride intact. She is not the wheedling little woman of Kalidasa’s play Abhijñānaśākuntalam who goes to Dushyant begging him to take her back. Patel’s Shakuntala, like Sita, demonstrates a strong act of defiance in rejecting her husband after ensuring a safe future of her son.

Patel is possibly a lone warrior here amidst female writers, and for that reason alone, he has my admiration. His latest and second book is Satyavati, based on the character who really is the pivot of The Mahabharata, although the epic does not give her her due. Or, at least, that’s what Patel believes. In this book, he fleshes out Satyavati’s character not just as Hastinapura’s regent queen or Vedavyasa’s mother, but also as a woman who makes some tough choices in life. A shadowy character with strange origins is transformed into a woman of flesh and blood, whose bold decisions dictate the course of the protagonists’ lives, and indeed, the entire epic!

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is an Indologist, writing and researching in the areas of history, culture and mythology. You can know more about her work at Culture Express.

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