ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Indian Feminist Criticism

Right-wing orthodoxy and global consumer capitalism have fostered a populist feminism where politics and media play an important role. Considerable theoretical and critical investment is required in assessing the issues of gender, textual aesthetics and pleasure, and manners of reading resistance in texts by women.

If one goes back to the Indian women’s movement of the 70s, not as an act of regression or nostalgia, but as one of retrieval and recuperation, one gets a better perspective not only of the women’s movement in India, but of the path it has subsequently taken. The women’s movement of the 70s was possible because it had not segregated itself from other struggles. It was not a coincidence that trade unionism, working class struggles, teachers’ and students’ protests, organisations for the protection of democratic rights, as well as women’s activism gathered momentum during this period. Like its western counterpart, the women’s movement in India was an integral part and an inevitable product of a world and a time when, at various individual and organisational levels, the status quo was being challenged. It was the backlash to various repressions, notably the emergency, that led to political and cultural activism, and that made possible a spirit of collectivity wherein class struggle and gender issues could find common cause. It was mainly the affected yet affecting middle class that was seen to activate unions and organisations. But it was a radical middle class at a time when ‘radical’ was seen to have its literal connotation – ‘one of the people’. This milieu was conducive to the institutionalisation of women’s political, social and cultural activism. The setting up of various women’s research centres, the pioneering of feminist journals, the various forums against the oppression of women were tremendous gains to Indian feminism. Research on women’s histories and their writings in the form of diaries, letters and autobiographies was also undertaken resulting in a new critical engagement with the histories of the reform movement and the nationalist movement. Seminal works like Recasting Women, Women Writing in India and We Were Making History combined the experiential, the historical and the theoretical. C S Lakshmi’s story ‘Anil’ (included in Women Writing...) serves as an appropriate palimpsest for the interest, curiosity and involvement in women’s histories. Like the action of the narrator and of the squirrel, those narratives needed to be ferreted out of the musty pages of bygone times before they were consigned to oblivion.

However, it might seem that the gains made in feminist struggles over the last 25 years do not provide grounds for unqualified optimism. The combined hegemony of the right-wing orthodoxy and global consumer capitalism have edged out the radical element of feminism, creating instead a comfortable space for a more populist feminism in which politics and the media play a pivotal role. Side by side, the postmodernist condition of late capitalism has created an academic ‘first’ world enclosure which had de-centred the more vigorous and historical approaches to the literary text. In the intersecting paths of politics, the media and the academia can be perceived an elitism and withdrawal that have left the women’s movement floundering. In order to clarify the issues explored in this paper, it might seem appropriate to refer to the phenomenon of Mahasveta Devi. Her grass roots activism as well as her creative writing need to be read in the context of the agrarian and peasant movements of the late sixties. The finest of her writings explore with resonance the articulation of issues relating to gender, class and caste. Not surprisingly, however, with the right-wing shift in the politics of today, what has been focused upon is not so much the author’s sympathy with the Naxalite movement as upon her depiction of the anti-colonialist Munda rebellion of a century ago. Besides, the recent popularisation of this near-cult figure is, one suspects, more due to the film-renderings of Rudaali and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa than because of her revolutionary politics. At the other end of the spectrum are the highly intellectualised, deconstructive readings of her fiction, which Gayatri Spivak herself admits as being too elitist ‘to cope with revolutionary feminist material’ [Spivak 1987:181].

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