What Do the Numbers Say?

Gender and Indian Literary Awards

The distribution of Sahitya Akademi awards shows the fairly predictable pattern of gender gaps. Starting from 1955, and across two dozen languages, less than one-tenth of all awards have gone to women. However, since the 1990s, there has been an overall increase in the awards given to women writers.

Literary “merit,” like merit in other cultural pursuits, is not only a matter of the intrinsic value of literary texts, but also a result of historical and sociological attribution of value conferred by structures of power. Patronage by the state has traditionally been important in the production and recognition of literary “classics.” The modern Indian state has been an important source of patronage for literary pursuits, in particular, through the setting up of the Sahitya Akademi in 1954 as the apex, national institution for preserving, producing and promoting Indian literatures. Since 1955, the Akademi has conferred annual awards on the “best” literary works in several languages across four regional zones (12 languages in 1955, 16 in 1960, 22 in 1977, and 24 from 2005 onwards). While there are several other awards and honours, such as the Saraswati Samman and the Crossword Book Award, for Indian writers floated by non-government groups, the Sahitya Akademi Award, is arguably the most important, given its longevity, wide reach, and social prestige.

Given the hold of patriarchal power structures, it is common knowledge that literary production by women has not received the recognition it deserves. We explore the distribution of the Sahitya Akademi awards across male and female writers. A key question is: Has the Akademi dealt with male and female writers with an even hand? This exploratory study maps and occasionally speculates on the pattern of distribution of Akademi awards using a descriptive statistical approach. While we are aware that there is no surprise value to our finding that there is, in fact, a huge overall gender gap, we find that the gender gap varies in interesting and non-obvious ways based on the specifics of context (time, language, region, and social group). We find that a careful juxtaposition of specific aspects of the gender gap produces several interesting empirical puzzles that can spur the construction of deeper explanations. Rather than developing such explanations, we limit ourselves to presenting some puzzles and offering a few tentative possibilities that we hope may be taken forward by others interested in issues of gender justice.

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Updated On : 25th Jun, 2018

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