Book Review: Review of Sarada Thallam’s Rajam Krishnan and Indian Feminist Hermeneutics

Dr. P. Shailaja

Volume 2, Number 1, 2017 I Full Text PDF

Article DOI:  10.21659/bp.v2n1.05

Mythical narratives and sacred texts have authorised certain gender based normative codes and practices which have defined and confined womanhood. An important way to understand these developments is by making a hermeneutical study of the available archetypes. Rajam Krishnan and Indian Feminist Hermeneutics, translated and edited by Dr Sarada Thallam is one such study. It offers an effective critique of the characters in puranic myths, epics and sacred texts. Rajam Krishnan examines the literary constructs from the pre-historic to the present times. Her essays reveal the gradual evolution of patriarchy and androcentric bias which led to the marginalisation of woman from the society, epistemic creation and episteme itself.

Dr. Thallam  translated and edited Rajam  Krishnan’s Tamil essays from the book titled Indiya Samudhaaya Varalatril Penmai (Womanhood in the Indian Social History). It consists of twelve essays of the writer. Rajam’s words also appear as a “Foreword.” Rajam questions the depiction of the very idea of creation as man’s forte. She puzzles over the claim that without the necessity of female ovary, life was created by a male god through division into male and female selves or that God of creation was generated from the navel of a male God. The basic note of feministic voice is struck here. Most of the essays are short around five to six pages. A reader/researcher could have benefitted more with a detailed treatment of the topic. However this lacuna is met by providing meticulous notes. The volume ends with a short bibliography and a useful index.

Dr C S Lakshmi’s (the acclaimed feminist writer and founder of SPARROW, Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women) foreword to the book speaks of the relentless pursuit of Rajam Krishnan in giving centre space to women and their voices. Rajam’s Uttara Kandam is appreciated for its clarity in depicting degraded human lives and forsaken Gandhian values. Sarada Thallam’s “Introduction” systematically argues for a nativistic women’s theoretical discourse and presents a brief survey of the hermeneutical tradition. She describes Rajam Krishnan as a novelist and feminist literary critic in a comprehensive and clear manner. The last section in the essay acts as a rough guide to Rajam Krishnan’s  essays.

Rajam Krishnan is a Tamil writer (1925-2014). She won the prestigious Kalaimagal Award in 1956 for her novel, Penn Kural (A Woman’s Voice). Her novels and essays adopt a feminist stance, and work for a reclamation of the women’s voice. They are products of a thorough field research and deep thought. One finds an evolution in her thought and style. From domestic fiction she moves on to well researched social fiction. The themes might be love, work or widowhood but what stands out is her pragmatism and striving for social change. Rajam Krishnan as a critic shows how matriarchy, matrilineal inheritance and matrifocal thought were superseded by patriarchy and androcentric bias. Her study of Indian hermeneutics reveals how patriarchal hegemony had slowly marginalised women. She believes that generations of women have been fed on biased epistemes. It is time to focus on these rampant biased epistemes in our culture and texts.

Woman’s status today makes Rajam ponder over the question as to how Indian womanhood is constructed and defined. The answer to this is not easily arrived at. She realises that the multitude of patriarchal structures, the living cultural beliefs and role models, the nationalist constructions of femininity, the Gandhian ideal all go into the making of woman. She notices that the degradation of women in India is not a “later phenomenon” but something that has been part of “mythology, heritage and culture.” The gender roles as normative behaviour are deeply instilled into woman’s psyche. A feministic hermeneutical reading makes her re-read the scriptures, moral codes and socio-cultural customs. In the process she redefines womanhood. The issues raised are not gender specific matters like woman’s anatomy and its associated acts, but it is about woman’s autonomy and devaluation of her personhood.

“Primordial Mother” the first chapter looks at two important figures Aditi and Satyavati. The evolutionary myths assign Aditi, the Vedic mother,  a prime position. The mother/child relationship acquired priority leading to matrilineal societies. But an awareness of men’s physical prowess and advent of agrarian civilization led to the evolution of patriarchal clans and prescription of gender roles. Mahabharata known as itihas, (as history) stands as a prototype for the emergence of Indian society. It presents everything within the realm of possibility. But patriarchal cultures have chosen those roles which suit their purpose or have interpreted them to their liking. Satyavati stands as a primodial mother; Gandhari became a sacrificial role model of pativrata; ganga and her rejection of passive roles is given least importance; Ambika, Ambalika are forced into conjugal relationships; Kunti’s maternal rights are emasculated and she becomes a survivor. All these reveal the rise of patriarchal civilization. Rajam examines myths and rituals to reveal how woman’s role became confined and she started losing her freedom.

The second chapter “The Cult of Hospitality” begins by examining the etymological growth of words like Pitru, Maatru, Duhita, Pratru, Pati and Patni in the Indian linguistic psyche. Patriarchy distributed work based on gender paving way to segregation. Man took on the external world like hunting, agriculture, war, whereas woman was confined to home. Women were gradually deprived of the freedom to venture out. She was also separated from her paternal home in the name of marriage with a prime motto to thrust their own tradition on her. Women’s body was offered as hospitality, to satisfy ascetics and for better progeny. Women became objects of ownership, like land. The daughters were given in marriage as “kanyadaan.” The socio-cultural perceptions on woman’s body and time-tested views on her maternal status are critiqued through the stories of Bogavati, Sirigari and sage Gautama.

The third chapter titled “The Decline of Motherhood” expresses the defeat of matrilineality in the hands of patrilineality. The killing of Dhanu by her son Vrittirasura, or Renuka being beheaded by Parashurama reflect the cult of vengeance. However, the temples constructed for Renuka, Ellamma, Matangi, Matamma etc show women’s refusal to be subdued by the patriarchal powers. In “Panchali,” the fourth chapter, Rajam Krishnan talks about the female deity of warfare, Kottravai, (mother of Murugan and consort of Lord Shiva) the Goddess of Success. It is surprising to note that the rituals connected with the female deities demonstrate violence, macabre dances, offerings of blood etc. The revolutionary behaviour of some women during the fall of matriarchy is portrayed as fiendish or of ghoulish nature. Women like the Yellammadasis who went against the patriarchal rule were abused, branded as harlots and marginalized. The devadasi system got its moorings from this very sect as civilizations became strongly patrilineal. Draupadi who bears the insult inflicted by the Kauravas when the Pandavas were defeated in the Game of Dice, becomes a crusader, fighting against the injustices meted out to her. One of the Panchakanyas, she is venerated by rustic people as the folk deity who fought the male dominance. Rajam’s discussion in these and later chapters interfuses the past with the present reform movements of Subramanya Bharati, Dr. Mutthulakshmi and others.

“Saga of Sita” critiques Sita’s struggle to prove her chastity as a futile act. Ahalya’s curse, Kaikeyi as a mean woman, are propagated even in contemporary renderings. Draupadi and Sita facilitated narratives which have become archetypal and matured into a socio-cultural pattern as sacrificial female role models. “The Commodification of Women” deals with how woman’s body lost its respect and was relegated to the lowest level of fulfilling the carnal thirst in men. Instances of these are found in the mythological lore of Mahabharata and Matsya Purana. In the contemporary world, this is reflected in the devadasi system. Women became the common property of the upper caste. Art form is the greatest means to appease God. But it is this art which lowered the status of women. A crusade against it was carried on by Dr. Mutthulakshmi, Subramanya Bharathi, Moovalur Amma. Widowhood is another major dishonour created by the society. One needs to interrogate Rigvedic sanctions and its nexus with the practice of sati. Buddhism too inferiorized women as seen in its Terikathas. Women poet’s renditions remained superficial and unimportant. The poetry rendered by Brahnmavadinis in the Cankam age are a case in point. It is this discrimination that persists even in the twentieth first century where knowledge, art and literature are often seen through the lens of gender.

“In Praise of the Lord” noted that the women devotees, who transgressed the conventional wifehood, often were deemed to possess some divine powers and were eulogized by the common men. The question is if a woman discards familial status, is it necessary to deify her and place her beyond human reach? Can’t these women be taken as those who were strong enough to live a life they liked? A woman having a mind of her own was an unacceptable idea.

Coming to the modern times, the chapter on “Reformatory Womanhood” begins with Swami Vivekananda’s belief that women’s education remains crucial for the development of the nation. But, contradicting this statement, he proposes women to follow Sita as their archetype and embrace the age-old cultural ethos and morality. Gandhi believed that the roles of men and women greatly differ. He felt that a woman should internalise feminine virtues, qualities and work for her children and family. Through his practices and beliefs, he treated women as a category in need of protection and guidance. He himself took charge of Kasturba’s decisions and was fairly authoritarian in family relationships. The patriarchal supremacy that he maintained over his wife, Kasturba explains his constricted ideology. Rajam feels Kasturba as one of the precursors of Indian Feminism.

Rajam Krishnan in the next chapter, “Revolutionary Indian Womanhood,” illustrates in a detailed manner the ascension of Indira Gandhi as the first woman prime minister of India. This was the time when women’s status was still at a critical stage. The determined mind of Indira Gandhi won over male domination and she ruled India for fourteen years. Rajam appears to have been attracted by the strength displayed by Indira Gandhi and treats her as an icon for modern women.  What stands out, in spite of the numerous drawbacks in the chapter, is Rajam’s admiration of Mrs. Gandhi’s show of strength and decisiveness to rule, and her determination to be victorious in all political endeavours.

In the concluding chapter, Rajam Krishnan talks about the visible contradictions in the progress made by the women: on one hand they occupy administrative positions at the district and regional levels, but on the other they have fight for their liberation and rights. It appears as if for every inch of progress made she falls back by a metre. Rajam Krishnan opines that as contemporary feminism states, women need to liberate themselves from the enslaving bonds of family, marriage, ovary and so on. Rajam Krishnan duly concludes by saying that gender equality and universal peace are a far cry as long as one gender dominates over the other. The dream to see a world of happiness and mutual respect become true only when there is progress in both the genders and they travel the difficult path of life hand in hand.

This book is an eye-opener for those who uncritically embrace the patriarchal thought. The book raises a number of questions. How do women of India think about freedom? Does it mean separation/subservience from/to families, kith and kin. Body being central, can she actively exercise choice? Does this revolutionary act provide real opportunities? How is reclamation possible: through consciousness raising or an inner change in value structures and ways of thinking? These and several other questions rise, the solutions for which seem to be with the women themselves.

It is an indisputable fact that certain important works produced in the regional languages subjected normative structures to close inquiry. Rajam Krishnan’s analysis of the Indian feminist hermeneutical tradition from the pre-historic to the present times is illuminating. The book takes us into the ebb and flow of women’s journey and the development of patriarchal bias in the Indian thought. Dr. Thallam’s translation definitely adds to the repository of knowledge available on the subject. This book is a must-read for the research scholars who are working in the field of Indian literature and Feminism.