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Neera Desai (1925-2009): Pioneer of Women's Studies in India

The front runner of Women's Studies in India and the creator of a model women's studies centre that combined the ethos of women's studies and women's movement at the SNDT University, Mumbai, Neera Desai passed away on 25 June.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 2811Vibhuti Patel (vibhuti.np@gmail.com) has been a women’s rights activist for over three decades and is with the SNDT University, Mumbai.Neera Desai (1925-2009): Pioneer of Women’s Studies in IndiaVibhuti PatelThe front runner of Women’s Studies in India and the creator of a model women’s studies centre that combined the ethos of women’s studies and women’s movement at the SNDT University, Mumbai, Neera Desai passed away on 25 June.Neera Desai was born in 1925 to a middle class Gujarati family that ardently supported the freedom movement. As a schoolgirl, along with Mandakini (later on Kunnikal Narayan) and Usha Mehta (who started an under-ground radio for the freedom movement called, “Vioce of India”) she actively worked for the Monkey Brigade formed by Mahatma Gandhi. Later on, as a college student at the time of the Quit India movement in 1942, Neeraben, as she cameto be known, was arrested several times. She completed her postgraduation studies immediately after India gained independence (she had turned to Socialist ideas by then) and her doctoral thesis in Sociology touched economic, anthro-pological and historical dimensions of women’s role in India. This inter-disciplinary work was published in a book calledWoman in Modern Indiain 1952. It was welcomed by critics as a seminal con-tribution that provided historical under-standing on the status of Indian women from the Vedic period to the early years of independent India. Kamaladevi Chatto-padhaya in the foreword to this book, labelled her analysis as “feminist”. What she observed in the early 1950s was vali-dated by the women’s rights movement in the 1970s onwards. She was much ahead of her time. Desai joined theSNDT Women’s Univer-sity in the late 1950s and served on sever-al decision-making bodies as professor and head of the postgraduate department of sociology, as founder director of the Post Graduate Studies and Research Centre for Women’s Studies and the Centre for Rural Development till she retired in 1984. She also offered her valuable services several times as officiating vice chancellor during 1970-84. AtSNDT, she will always be remembered as a very warm, kind and empathetic individual, who was humble even when she was at the peak of her career. Her research on the Bhakti movement of the 12th century and the social reform movement of the 19th century inspired many young scholars to examine the lib-erative aspects of their writings, debates, poetry, symbolisms and varied art forms. Desai played a crucial role in the Towards Equality Reportof 1974; the Shram Shakti Report of 1988 and the National Per-spective Plan for Women, 1988-2000. She co-authored a book,Women and Society in India (1988) with Maithreyi Krishnaraj that helped institutionalise women’s studies in academia by providing a bench-mark for curriculum development and textbook writing for teaching women’s studies courses in sociology, economics, political science, languages and founda-tion course. She collaborated with Usha Thakkar to bring out another popular bookWomen in Indian Society published by the National Book Trust, India, New Delhi on the occasion of Women’s Empowerment Year, 2001. During the 1990s, she took up the task of preparing the profiles of 100 feminists from western India by using the qualita-tive method of research. It took her 17 years to complete this stupendous work and as a result, a solid volume emerged in the form ofFeminism as Experience: Thoughts and Narratives which was pub-lished by Soundand Picture Archives for Research On Women (SPARROW) in2007. Her research and writings in English and Gujarati reflect a deep concern for issues related to gender and power, and an ef-fort to understand the social construc-tions of feminist ideology. She collabo-rated with young scholars to produce training manuals for poor rural women and women’s studies series in Gujarati. She was a friend, philosopher and guide for Veena Poonacha (director, Research Centre for Women’s Studies) and Divya Pande of SPARROW who are currently making important contributions to women’s studies. Neeraben always admired the commitment of C S Lakshmi (director, SPARROW) to feminism and her writings in Tamil.Solidarity with Social Movements Neera Desai always looked upon herself as a fellow traveller of all progres- sive, secular, democratic and people’s
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COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 2813summer vacations and was introduced to his wife, Neera in 1972. We invited her to our students’ organisation Study and Struggle Alliance. She spoke to us about the Committee on the Status of Women in India of which she was one of the mem-bers. WhenTowards Equality Report came out in 1974, she conducted the study cir-cle on the findings of the report. Till then the younger generation of women’s activ-ists had read the writings of only western feminists such as Eveleen Reed, Mary Alice Waters, Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and Simon de’ Bouvoir. She was happy that I had translated several essays of Reed’s bookProblems of Women’s Libera-tion into Gujarati.When life became difficult for me in Vadodara due to my marriage with my comrade who happened to be a Muslim R Desai suggested that I should move to Mumbai. I boarded the train to Mumbai with him and came to his house. Both Neeraben and their son Mihir welcomed me, introduced me to Mumbai, guided me, drewmaps to negotiate the different suburbs of Mumbai and explained the intricacies of the suburban railway system. I stayed with them for a week and emerged as a well-informed Mumbaikar. Neeraben’s house was my second home in times of ill-health, ups and downs in life and for emotional support. The intel-lectually and politically charged environ-ment, the family’s interest in music, art, poetry, songs, vegetarian cuisine, and tolerance towards ideological differences served as a tonic for a young political activist like me. It was in 1979, when I went to see her with Madhu Kishwar, armed with the first issue of Manushi, she confronted us sharply. In the reading list published therein, we had mentioned Altekar, M N Srinivas and all those who had published books on women but her book Women in Modern India was not mentioned due to our igno-rance about it. We had an animated debate on “Women’s Question” and “Trends in Feminism”. She gave us a copy of her book. After reading it, my relationship with her took an 180 degree turn. From a sympa-thiser of the left movement, she became a fellow feminist. Our most productive years were during the 1980s. We worked together for an alternate country report: Response from Women’s Movement for the End of the Decade Conference in Nairobi, 1985, the Indian Women: Change and Challenge, status report for the Indian Council of Social Science Research,Critical Evalua-tion of Women’s Studies Researches in the Post Independence Period (1988), the Gujarati version of the Shramshakti Re-port (1989) the publication of the feminist quarterly in Gujarati (1988-2002) and case studies for Feminism in Western India sponsored by theCWDS (Delhi). Neeraben as MentorShe taught the younger generation of In-dian feminists to get out of abstractions and generalisations and to examine our own reality and evolve the intellectual tools rooted in our society. She also con-vinced many women activists like Anu-radha Shanbag, Flavia, Lata P M, Kalpana Kannabiran, Sonal Shukla, Trupti Shah, Shiraz Balsara and me that for an effec-tive women’s movement, we needed strong analytical skills and must orient our energies towards women’s studies. To construct knowledge on women with women’s sensitivities, sensibilities and women’s prism, we needed five arms – panch mahabhootas– teaching, training, documentation, research and action. Young women activists and researchers named her the “mother of women’s stud-ies” as she was always available to four generations of women with her wisdom, intellect, information, advice and vast ex-perience. What we liked was the relation-ship of mutual respect; she never preached. With her there was a rapport based on equality.The bonding with her enjoyed by the younger generation of feminists is ex-pressed aptly by Kalpana Kannabiran, In Neeraben’s passing away we in the wom-en’s movement and in women’s studies have lost a mentor, a generous and caring teacher and a friend and confidante who shared her time and ideas willingly, and offered un-stinting support – personal, professional and political to entire generations of activist-scholars. Several of us, especially those of us who began our journey in women’s studies in India in the very early 1980s benefited enormously from her presence, her gener-osity and her guidance over two decades. At a time when women’s studies was strug-gling for recognition, she gently prodded young scholars along, teaching them and helping them build the courage and resolve to commit themselves to this field – and she succeeded through the art of persua-sion which was her greatest strength. But of course she had already long long before walked that path, virtually alone, convinced that women’s studies had a political role to fulfil in the post-independence academic scene in India. The two of them – Prof A R and Neeraben were together and indivi-dually visionaries of women’s liberation in independent India.Last DaysOn 3 April 2008, Neeraben along with five outstanding women who have con-tributed immensely to Women’s Studies in India was felicitated by the Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The centre had also prepared panels on each of them, capturing rare pictures profiling the women’s contr-ibution and milestones in their lives. She had health problems and looked pale but,as always, she spoke with stoic con-viction on theoretical issues, research methodologies and epistemological chal-lenges faced by women’s studies in the 21st century.The last six months were painful for her due to the cancer spreading all over her body. But whenever we visited her she never discussed her discomfort, showing us instead her translations of feminist writings from different parts of India into Gujarati, discussing novels-films-poems- and music. She would converse on a wide- range of issues from identity politics to the filmParzania made by her nephew, Rahul Dholakia. She shared a beautiful intel-lectual and emotional relationship with her son, Mihir Desai, a human rights activist lawyer and his feminist compan-ion, Sandhya Gokhale. A fitting tribute to Neera Desai, who was among those nominated for the “1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize”, would be to take women’s studies to newer heights in terms of its epistemological growth and construction of a new body of knowledge for strengthening transforma-tory processes for better quality of life not only for women but for all humanity. She always said that the women’s liberation cannot come about without liberation of humankind and vice versa. Neeraben, we will always celebrate your spirit!

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