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Gender and Indian Literary Awards

What Do the Numbers Say?

Suraj Jacob ( works at Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur. Vanamala Viswanatha ( teaches English and is a translator of Kannada and English. Both are visiting faculty at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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.

The authors wish to thank Jyothsna Belliappa, Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, Pratibha Nandakumar, and K S Madhusudan for comments on an early draft as also Bhagya at the Karnataka Sahithya Academy for providing data on state awards for literature.

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.

We also briefly explore how literary awards work at the state level. Can we expect a replay of the patterns and trends of the national Akademi awards therein? While the Sahitya Akademi’s motto is to nurture “Indian literature” as a whole, how do awards play out in specific Indian literatures, such as Odiya, Kannada, and Dogri, with their particular social, historical, and political configurations as well as unique literary establishments? For example, does caste play a more important role in conferring literary distinction in a state driven by the compulsions of caste politics than it might at the national level? Given our familiarity with the “ground” realities of Kannada literary culture, we decided to focus on awards of the Karnataka Sahithya Academy. We expect this comparison to illuminate the emerging picture in interesting ways, enabling us to comment on the similarities and differences between the awards at the national and state levels.

What Does the Data Say?

In the 22 languages we consider,1 there have been 1,129 national Sahitya Akademi awards to date (1955–2016). Of these, a mere 8.1% have gone to women. We note here that this low figure is consistent with those of other awards. The figure for the Jnanpith Award, for instance, is not much better (13%). Similarly, only 12% of Nobel laureates in literature have been women, and in the case of France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt award, there have been only 11 female awardees as opposed to 102 male awardees (Horn 2015).

As we explored the data, we realised that we could not treat gender as an autonomous category of analysis, inflected as it is by several other identities such as caste, region and language.2 Hence, our gender analysis is nested within an intersectional frame. The following is a synoptic presentation of key descriptive findings:

(i) Although the overall figure for women awardees is very low (8%), it is heartening that the same has gone up in recent years, with the upward trend beginning in the 1990s.

(ii) There have been far more female awardees in some languages (for instance, English [25%]) than others (such as Sanskrit [nil]).

(iii) Most languages have regional bases (barring some like English and Sanskrit), and it turns out that the languages spoken predominantly in India’s northern and western regions have fewer women awardees than languages spoken in India’s southern and particularly eastern regions. (iv) Changes in the proportion of awards being given to women are connected to caste/group dynamics in complex ways: for instance, in the specific case of Karnataka, the overall increase in female awardees from the 1990s is driven largely by women from the Dalit, Other Backward Classes, and Brahmin communities rather than women from other populous social groups.

We now proceed to unpack the low overall figure (of 8%) along the dimensions of time, language, region and social group, thereby providing some nuance. These descriptive findings call for a deeper study in order to construct valid explanations, and future work can hopefully build more systematically on our exploratory presentation below.

Slow Upswing from Early 1990s

Between 1955 and 2016—that is, for 62 years of annual awards in upwards of 15 languages—there were no awards given to women in 18 years (that is, almost a third of the time period). However, there has been an encouraging change over time, with 1990 as an approximate break point: while women received 6.2% of the awards prior to 1990, they got 10% of the awards after 1990—an increase by almost two-thirds. Before 1990, each step forward in women’s representation in the awards was accompanied by half a step backwards soon thereafter (so that the overall gains tended to be limited). But, from the 1990s onwards, there were fewer backward steps, producing a relatively steady increase overall (Figure 1).

The natural break in the pattern of awards around 1990 possibly reflects a growing sense of identity and awareness of rights on the part of previously marginalised communities who found a stronger voice in the post-Emergency period. For instance, the Dalit and social protest movements in Karnataka enabled several first-generation writers to give expression to their life experiences for the first time in literature, possibly spurring a greater social awareness about gender parity. The post-1990 period is also one when global capital flows were heightened in India, strengthening the English-educated, professional classes who were already exposed to Western liberal ideology.

Interestingly, the 10% figure for women awardees in the post-1990 period is very similar to other prestigious Indian literary awards. Post-1990, women’s representation was 10% in Sahitya Akademi fellowships, 10% in Jnanpith awardees, and 11.5% in Saraswati Samman awardees (Figure 2b). That these figures continue to be low in absolute terms is underlined by the fact that the Akademi website does not even bother to be politically correct with the pronouns it uses: “the highest honour conferred by the Akademi on a writer is by electing him as its fellow” (Sahitya Akademi 2018).

Large Variations in Languages

There is a considerable variation in the number of women awardees across languages. Figure 2a shows the 16 languages in which awards were instituted by 1960 and Figure 2b shows the 22 languages for which awards have been active since the 1990s. The variation is bookended by English (25% women awardees since 1960) and Sanskrit (zero), with Urdu being close to Sanskrit as its only woman awardee was the exceptional Qurratulain Hyder (1967). In Figure 2a, besides English, only three other languages attain even 10% representation: Assamese, Sindhi and Malayalam.


How do we understand the relatively large figure (25%) in the English category? While other Indian languages are limited to one state (such as Malayalam in Kerala) or a few states (such as in the case of Hindi), English is distributed across several metropolitan and other spaces throughout the country. Also, while most upper-caste men tended to go in for careers in science and engineering, upper-caste women took up the study of social sciences and humanities, especially English literary studies. English education, in general, provided a more liberated space for women, along with the advantages that come with the class it represents, inculcating the courage, confidence, and exposure which enabled the possibility of writing. English also became the window to other imaginaries for women’s lives making them aware of other modes of living and writing, genres, ideas and opportunities, not to speak of the social churning in women’s lives in the post-independence nation.

That Sanskrit has yet to have a woman awardee—in 62 years—is perhaps no surprise, considering how knowledge and scholarship of Sanskrit has traditionally been confined to the male sphere. What about Urdu, which also has a very low score? The language is associated with—although by no means confined to—parts of the Muslim population. As there is a strong correlation between class privilege and access to education, literary writing has bypassed large sections of Urdu speakers.3 The hold of madrasa education4 may also have kept Urdu speakers tethered to the older order which was less supportive of women. Note, however, that large populations of Indian Muslims function in languages other than Urdu. Muslims in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Bengal speak Malayalam, Tamil and Bangla respectively—and use these languages to write as well. While a majority of Muslims in Karnataka speak Urdu as their mother tongue (Abbi et al 2004),5 many of Karnataka’s Muslim writers have chosen Kannada as a medium of literary expression.6 Thus, the quantum of output by women writing in Urdu is quite limited.

Having established that there is an overall increase in the percentage of women awardees from the 1990s (Figure 1) and that languages vary in the percentage of female awardees (Figure 2), we now ask whether there is variation across languages in the pre/post-1990s trend. That is, how do specific languages differ from the overall national trend (of increase in women awardees from the 1990s)? Keeping aside Sanskrit and Urdu where there is little women’s representation throughout, of the remaining 14 languages which had awards from 1960, five languages with proud literary traditions—Marathi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali—saw a decline in women’s representation in the post-1990 period. Is it possible that women writers in these languages, who had to largely contend with only upper-caste/middle-class male writers in the earlier decades, had to share recognition in the later decades with large sections of first-generation male writers from other castes and classes who felt empowered to write because of access to education and a more conducive cultural politics that nourished their writing? If so, then what explains the case of languages such as Odiya, where the percentage of women awardees increased from 0% before 1990 to almost 20% post-1990?

Regional Variations

Are there differences in the number of women awardees among specific regions/zones?7 To explore this, we focus on the post-1990 period (Figure 2b) and use four broad Indian regions: north, west, south and east. In the five northern languages (Punjabi, Rajasthani, Dogri, Kashmiri and Hindi) on an average women constituted only 5.4% of the awardees. The two western languages (Marathi and Gujarati) do marginally better with 7.4% women. The five southern languages (Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Konkani) do a little better, averaging 9.6%. The six eastern languages (Assamese, Odiya, Maithili, Nepali, Manipuri and Bengali) together do the best, averaging 14.3%. What explains this variation across broad regions? Can ideas of spatial difference in women’s autonomy—some have argued that women’s autonomy is more, and gender inequality generally less in the east and south compared to the west and north (for instance, Dyson and Moore 1983)—explain these findings?

Social Group Dimensions

Since social groups have region-specific dynamics that cannot be generalised across space, we focus on Karnataka, a state that we are more familiar with. Out of 62 national Sahitya Akademi awards for Kannada, only two have gone to women, of whom one was Dalit and the other Brahmin. To explore the intersectionality of gender with other social markers, we turn to the state awards (Karnataka Sahithya Academy awards). When comparing the national and state literary awards for Kannada from the 1970s onwards, we find that while there have only been two national awards for women (equivalent to about 4%), about 15% of state awards have gone to women.8

Why have women done better at the state-level than at the national-level awards?9 A careful answer to this question will have to call upon several factors. Karnataka was an early adopter of affirmative action policies that arguably created a greater awareness around issues of social justice in the public sphere. This was further bolstered by the Bandaya Chaluvali (protest movement) in the 1970s which brought together different marginalised groups, creating a major upheaval in the literary world.10 Consequently, an implicit quota system evolved to address these pressures in the distribution of awards. For instance, it is an unspoken rule that awards should be given to cover important categories such as women, Dalits, and Muslims. Further, there is the issue of regional representation—awards to be given to  geographical/cultural regions within the state (north Karnataka, south Canara, Mysuru–Bengaluru belt, etc).11 Thus, the Karnataka Sahithya Academy seems to work in a sociopolitical space which has had to accommodate the competing claims of different social groups, vastly different from the situation of the central Akademi. What is also noteworthy is that while women are given a quota where there are multiple awards (genre-wise categories as in the Karnataka awards), they lose out when there is only one award for literature, as is the case with the central Akademi.

We note here an interesting asymmetry between progress made by two large historically marginalised groups, lower castes and women. In the case of the Kannada national award, Brahmin and upper-caste domination was breached quite early on (even though very few writers from lower-caste groups were writing at the time), and certainly since the 1990s; however, male domination was not breached for almost 50 years (counting from 1955 onwards, the first woman awardee came along only in 2004) even when there was a sizeable number of women such as Veena Shanteshwar, M K Indira, and Anupama Niranjana writing at the time. This points to a fundamental asymmetry in which two large traditionally marginalised populations—lower castes and women—have been able to break the hegemony of the upper castes and men, respectively, suggesting that caste politics has possibly overshadowed gender politics in the context of Kannada.


The distribution of literary awards shows the fairly predictable pattern of gender gaps, with no women writers getting awards in Sanskrit to a maximum of 25% of awards in English going to women writers. While this is a dismal picture, an overall increase in women writers getting awards in the post-1990 phase provides hope. While our focus was to study the extent of the gender gap, we realised that we could not read the data well enough if other aspects of society and culture within which gender is located were not taken into account. Our analysis was affirmed when we adopted a lens of intersectionality to do gender analysis.

We have presented descriptive findings showing that only about 8% of all Sahitya Akademi awards have gone to women, and that this large overall gender gap varies with time, language, region, and caste/group. While our research is insufficient to construct systematic explanations, we believe that attending to variations of the gender gap (over time, language, region, group, etc) can provide a way forward for future work.

Any attempt at explanation would have to confront the issue of discrimination. It is possible—and we believe, likely, albeit on a speculative note—that the gender gap at least partly reflects the silent gender bias among award selection panels (populated largely by men), and that such possible gender bias itself reflects structural forms of discrimination through patriarchal processes. It is also possible that the gender gap is partly explained by the “pipeline theory” that there are fewer “meritorious” works by women than men. But, then, the notion of “merit” may itself be constructed in gendered ways, and the “pipeline” may itself reflect patriarchal structures (which trivialised women’s writing as mere “kitchen literature”). All of this points back to discrimination, but at a deeper, structural level. In a 2006 analysis of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Sharon Norris (2006: 139) concludes that the prize is “both a site of social reproduction and one where symbolic violence prevails.” We hope future work will explore, and possibly parse out, various explanations of the observed gender gap that we report here.


1 These are 22 languages for which awards were instituted by 1977: Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Odiya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu (1955); Kashmiri and Sanskrit (1956); Sindhi (1959); English (1960); Maithili (1966); Dogri (1970); Manipuri (1973); Rajasthani (1974); and Konkani and Nepali (1977). Note that we exclude Bodo and Santhali because their awards were instituted much later (2005).

2 Ideally, we would also have liked to explore the class dimension, but we do not have class data.

3 For instance, according to the National Family Health Survey 3 (2005–06), of the 4,625 women in the age group 21–49 surveyed in Karnataka, only 2.9% of Urdu-speaking women had gone in for higher education compared to 8.6% of Kannada speakers, 7.9% of Telugu speakers, and 13.2% of speakers of other languages.

4 Although there are no clear estimates of the madrasa student population, the Government of Karnataka (2017) estimates that there are over 960 madrasas. For a discussion on the impact of madrasa education, see Jamia Millia Islamia (2013).

5 A R Fatihi (2002) notes that 58% of Urdu speakers in Karnataka are bilingual (and by far the language most spoken along with Urdu is Kannada).

6 A few important Muslim writers in Kannada include Akbar Ali, K S Nissar Ahmed, Fakir Muhammad Katpadi, Sara Aboobacker, Banu Mushtaq, Bolwar Muhamad Kunhi, D B Razia, Abdul Rashid, M Abdul Rehman Pasha and Rahamat Tarikere, among others.

7 Note that here we ignore four languages—English, Sindhi, Urdu and Sanskrit—that do not have clear spatial locations in India. These span the spectrum of having the most number of awardees (English) and the least (Sanskrit).

8 We average figures across eight literary categories: novel, short story, poetry, play, travelogue, biography, essay/humour and criticism.

9 Note, however, that in both awards, women have done far better in the more recent period than in the earlier period (that is, post-1990 compared to pre-1990). For national awards, the percentage of women awardees went up from 0% to about 7% between the earlier and later periods, and for state awards the percentage went up from about 8% to 20%.

10 This was a progressive [rebel] literary movement in Kannada started by D R Nagaraj and Shudra Srinivas in 1974. It promoted socially committed literature and sought to make poetry a weapon against social and economic injustice. “Khadgavaagali kavya! Janara novige midiva pranamitra!” (Let poetry be a sword! The dear friend who responds to the pain of people!) was the slogan for the movement coined by Nagaraj.

11 The seniority or age of the writer is yet another unspoken convention which often weighs in favour of older writers.


Abbi, Anvita, Imtiaz Hasnain and Ayesha Kidwai (2004): “Whose Language is Urdu?” Working Paper No 24, Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics, South Asia Institute, Department of Political Science, University of Heidelberg,

A R Fatihi (2002): “Urdu in Karnataka,” Language in India, Vol 2,

Dyson, T and M Moore (1983): “On Kinship Structure, Female Autonomy, and Demographic Behavior in India,” Population and Development Review, Vol 9, No 1, pp 35–60.

Government of Karnataka (2017): “Proceedings of Government of Karnataka,”

Horn, H (2015): “France: Where Men Have a Monopoly on Good Writing,” Atlantic, 4 November,

Jamia Millia Islamia (2013): “Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrasas (SPQEM): An Evaluation Study Report,” Dr K R Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi,

Norris, S (2006): “The Booker Prize: A Bourdieusian Perspective,” Journal for Cultural Research,
Vol 10, No 2, pp 139–58.

Sahitya Akademi (2018): “Sahitya Akademi Fellowship,” 15 June,

Updated On : 25th Jun, 2018


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