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

A+| A| A-

English Literary Studies, Women's Studies and Feminism in India

English literature has been a unique site for politicisation by feminism. Drawing on the author's involvement as a teacher in Delhi University, the essay examines the trajectories of teaching literature in the classroom, the kinds of contestations and transgressions that the women's movement and women's studies initiated, and the influence of English studies across and beyond the disciplines.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly66English Literary Studies, Women’s Studiesand Feminism in IndiaRajeswari Sunder Rajan1The disciplinarisation of literary studies has followed varied trajectories in its different locations, metropolitan and (post)colonial. Its recent developments in India, or at any rate those that I have been most closely acquainted with as a lecturer in Delhi University colleges (intermittently from 1976 to 1994), will inform how I view its connections to the women’s movement and its inputs into “women’s studies” in what follows. However, though I shall be speaking mainly of the academic study of English literature at the tertiary level of university educa-tion in this paper, the more general sense of literature and its influence – to which I shall return in a bit – cannot be entirely kept out of our understanding of its disciplinary functioning.The fact that disciplinary literary studies in India has for the most part focused on canonical British literature has required attention to two different if related issues: on the one hand that of the specific language and nationality of the literature in question, and on the other the institutionalisation and protocols of literary studies as such. As to the first of these issues: the connections between the study of English literature and feminism in India are not far to seek, and they are not limited to the academy. Both in conflict and in conjunction with the anti-colonial nationalist movement, representations of women in western literature were responsible for creating the model of the liberated female subject for the bourgeois Indian woman. The paradigmatic fictional representation in Indian literature of such a female subject is to be found in Tagore’s Ghare Bhaire (1916) in the figure of the female protagonist, Bimala. Bimala’s access to sexually advanced and hence forbidden texts, such as the poems of Robert Browning and the psychology manuals of Havelock Ellis, is made possible because of the tutoring she receives in English; and it is this education that gives her a sense of maturity and daring (though these books, we must not forget either, are placed in her way by the men who seek to fashion her after their own desires and ideals). The connections between the educated bourgeois woman’s know-ledge of western literature and her emancipation cannot be offered in the spirit of simple celebration. The costs and limitations of the enter-prise are only too apparent: a “western” feminism that essentially promotes the individualism of the singular female subject, and access to which is mediated by an elitism of class and caste positions is clearly limited and problematic. But the fact remains that to a notable extent the rallying cries for the emergent new Indian woman were framed by the literary representations of an Antigone, a Nora Helmer, or a Jane Eyre.1 Given such a readymade connection between a bourgeois feminist consciousness and the texts of western literature in recent Indian history, what are the terms of the contemporary institutionalisation of English literature has been a unique site for politicisation by feminism. Drawing on the author’s involvement as a teacher in Delhi University, the essay examines the trajectories of teaching literature in the classroom, the kinds of contestations and transgressions that the women’s movement and women’s studies initiated, and the influence of English studies across and beyond the disciplines.Rajeswari Sunder Rajan ( is with the English department at New York University.
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200867English? This leads us into the second of the issues I identified above, the study of literature in the university. We are not surprised to find that a BA honours programme in English literature is a popular and privileged option in the university for women students, or that it is taught predominantly by women teachers within the walls of the women’s college.2 The reason for this of course is not its incipient feminist content, but rather the “softness” of the option it represents in terms of academic value and professional opportunities. Between the feminisation of the discipline and feminism there exists not only no natural identity but in fact an active opposition. The discipline’s female following implies a trivialisation of its content, whereas a feminist pedagogy would call for a radicalisation of its politics.3 Relevance of English StudiesThe anomalous centrality of the academic study of English literature in independent India has not gone unchallenged, though by no means has it led to the abolition of English departments. I will not get into that long history, or into the vexed politics of English in India. What relates to my own knowledge and experience of the challenge is a phenomenon that began in the 1980s as a flurry of conferences organ-ised by English departments and edited volumes arising from them, which began to articulate questions about the relevance of English studies, explore the histories of colonial education, recommend alter-native texts, syllabi and pedagogical methods, identify the institu-tional constraints to change, or simply gripe – a phenomenon that might in hindsight be called the “crisis in English studies in India”.4 This moment was closely linked to a burgeoning feminist conscious-ness and an active politics that were also becoming evident in some Delhi University colleges at the same time, that is, in the early 1980s. The ferment paralleled developments in other urban university contexts in India at the time, in Hyderabad, Calcutta, Bombay, among others. The Emergency (1975-77), the constitution of civil rights groups, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, as well as the prolonged strikes by Delhi University Teachers’ Association in 1983 and again in 1987, were among the events that catalysed thinking about the content of the humanities and social sciences in undergraduate colleges. The crisis in English studies was not explicitly identified or acknowledged as a feminist challenge at the time – and it is true that many male participants would have remained outside that picture – but in retro-spect the fact of the feminisation of the discipline was not without political consequences. The connection was much more visible in the opposite direction – that is, women teachers of English newly sensitive to the gendered aspects of literary production began to locate the literary texts in the syllabus within the immediate “local” context of classroom, institu-tion, and society. It helped that the English honours syllabus included a number of novels by 19th century women writers belonging to the canon – Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot are the well-known figures – who were eminently adaptable to the Indian context. They were also the figures that radical Anglo-American feminist criticism, then in its heyday, embraced most fervently, with books like Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, Elaine Showal-ter’s A Literature of their Own, or Ellen Moers’ Literary Women finding many interested readers among Indian women academics.5 And at a time when the issue most prominent on the agenda of the women’s movement was to make visible and lead protests against the violence everywhere experienced by women, on the streets, within the home and at the workplace, women teachers of English could not remain oblivious to the feminist uses of the texts they taught, even if the liter-ature belonged to a different place and time. As Rashmi Bhatnagar observed at the time, there were indeed “at many levels simulations of a gendered perspective”. Bhatnagar went on to reflect: “How does all this translate into pedagogic practice? What kind of dialogue do we set up between the teaching of English and the women’s movement here, so that reality is not outside the classroom?”6 Text and ContextA small collection of essays by English lecturers in Miranda House and from some other Delhi University colleges, reflected these and similar concerns in a volume titled Woman, Image, Text.7 Although the majority of the essays were written under the influence of Anglo-American feminist criticism, they were consciously offered as immedi-ate pedagogic interventions. The volume itself, as a product of a collective endeavour, was fairly homogeneous in its outlook. All the texts discussed in it were curricular texts, and the essays asked what it meant to teach them as women lecturers to (predominantly but not entirely) female students in the contemporary Indian classroom. Rashmi Bhatnagar’s comment in a footnote to her essay on Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock is the most explicit and poignant of the remind-ers of the disjuncture between text and context, and the consequent production of meaning against the grain. Bhatnagar spoke of the “new and painful associations” that the narrative crisis of the poem came to have, in 1984, for the students at the Sikh private college at which she taught, following the massacre of male Sikhs in Delhi during the riots. The heroine Belinda’s loss of a lock of hair, cut off clandestinely by her lover, reminded them of “how rioters had desecrated the sacred symbols of the Sikhs by forcibly cutting off their hair in public”. The poem thus became not only aboutthe desecration of women but obliterated the “sexual differential” as Gayatri Spivak puts it, and became a poem about the desecration that can be visited even upon oppressed men...this is the hidden and imperfect core of my paper, against which my deconstructive readings appear expressly like a false reveals what is anterior to my textuality – in short what this note is about.8 Similar inquiries were instituted in many subsequent essays that began to ask how we might teach literature in India, and in particular British literature, across a cultural divide, with atten-tion to the specificities of gender, class, religious community and caste that the teaching context demanded. The demand of students and teachers of English literature that the content of their subject be made more relevant to their situa-tion predictably met with apathy from the university system. But a space appears to be finally opening up, if reluctantly and by degrees, to the study of literatures outside the Anglo-American canon (though here too the undergraduate syllabus is the last to be affected, this despite the fact that undergraduates represent the largest segment of the university population). And the Delhi University BA English honours course now offers an optional paper on “women’s writing”. It may be objected that I assume too easily that the only signifi-cant “literary studies” to be found in India is the conventional study of canonical British literature in departments of English. I should
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly68clarify that my reference is only to the academic discipline of liter-ary studies. Undeniably there exists a large body of writings in every one of the Indian languages, both women-centred writings by male authors and literature produced by women. And increas-ingly also these are addressed in feminist critical terms (if for the most part outside the academy). I am not sure how far an independ-ent set of critical protocols or literary theoretical pedagogy exists in departments of modern Indian languages in our universities, or how far their curricula or the conditions of such pedagogy have influenced feminist creative or critical writing in these languages, though I stand ready to be informed in this matter. Two piquant facts – call them contradictions – that follow from this model of literary studies in India are the following (please note that these are offered as very broad generalisations, to which definite exceptions exist): one, that few of us who have been trained in English literature and continue in the profession of academics in India have actually published critical or scholarly work on British literature (unless it be from a specific “postcolonial” perspective). We have chosen instead to work in other areas. This is the kind of boundary crossing that anyone can make of course, thanks to the fluid, inher-ently interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies as a field – but which, all the same, is more commonly found among feminists in English departments than any others. And two, university teachers of English often find themselves working in other Indian languages, helped in this by being bilingual as most educated Indians are. Many of the English-language translations from the other Indian languages, and most of the critical and scholarly comparative work on ‘bhasha’ literatures have been produced (invariably in English) by those who teach in English literature departments. (Comparable scholarship abroad is the work of area studies scholars, Indologists, Sanskritists, etc.) I offer these as empirical observations for now, but will return to explore their implications a little further on. 2Despite the obvious importance of literature in both reflecting and actively shaping social values, of which not the least important are gender norms, it is noticeably the case that feminist literary criticism in India has not had the kind of major, pioneering impact on the women’s movement that it had in the west (and particularly on second wave feminism in the US). There non-specialist large- circulation books like Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1968) led the way. By exposing the misogyny that was perceived as informing the central male-authored texts that constitute the western literary tradition, Millett’s book made the case for the reign of a universal patriarchal dominance. Explaining why literature served as such a primary refer-ence point for feminism in the Anglo-American context, Jacqueline Rose points to feminists’ conviction that “one of the key instances of women’s oppression” was to be found in the literary representation of women, “something that could be called the sexual imaginary that the literary establishment chose to produce of itself”. Rose goes on to explain that “[feminism’s] political argument and the accusation against literature went together. Indeed feminism has always seen how the first is implicated in the second: the problem of what needs to be, and can be, done for women being inseparable from what hasbeen allowed as the dominant representation of what is being, or is in need of being, said”. From the critique of these dominant representations of women, feminist criticism then logically moved into a recovery of women’s writings as a “counter-history”.9 It is not that this kind of feminist contestation of the hegemonic valourised images of women in the culture has been entirely absent in India. Since the most influential models of good femininity are to be found predominantly in Hindu religious myth and legend, and since these, further, are reproduced and circulated in contemporary times via popular cinema and other media, it is these sites of ideological value that seemed to demand greater attention than, say, recent liter-ary texts. There have indeed been significant feminist interventions that challenge, for instance, the ideology of good wifehood by highlighting subversive versions of the Sita figure in narratives drawn from the “little tradition”. Attempts have been made also to seize different, more empowering images of militant goddesses and rebel women for feminism.10 All the same there is a noticeable reluctance even among secular progressives in India, including feminists and perhaps especially them, to be confrontationist where religion is concerned; and as for re-deploying religious imagery, there is always a certain uneasiness that attends its politics.11 For these reasons, among others, the centrality of western feminism’s critique of “images of women” was not exactly reproduced in the Indian context. RepresentationThe question of representation remains nevertheless a crucial one for feminism and for women’s studies in particular, and it has been addressed in related if not identical ways in feminist schol-arship in India. Representation is not of course a question specific toliterary studies alone, nor is it limited to the literary text. But feminist literary criticism has historically served as a point of departure for its analysis, especially in its most direct version when it is a matter of identifying and responding to positive or negative images of women in the culture’s repertoire, though this, as I clarify later, is not a sufficient description of feminist criticism’s endeavours. Reading itself is so widespread and common an activity that litera-ture, it may be argued, can hardly be said to be a specialist field. Anyone who is literate and is so inclined may engage in it for pleasure or profit, or both.12 Therefore literary studies as such tends to be a less rigorously academic subject and one more open to general contesta-tion than other fields of knowledge constituting the humanities and social sciences. The impact of literature tends to be diffusive, register-ing as a pervasive cultural influence and even, we might say, as ideology. While this is obvious and generally correct – and explains the widespread social influence of the literary as such – those trained in literary studies bring to their task the particular skills of “close reading” that are developed through attention to genre, prosody, figures of speech, poetics and the production of meaning through these rhetorical means. The pedagogy of any literary discipline requires imparting the skills and respecting the protocols of reading. Though reading in this sense is not an activity limited to the literary text, it is developed as a particular mode of expertise through the study of literary texts. Hence it gives to those trained in it a methodo-logical tool of great usefulness and effectiveness in cultural studies, critical legal studies and historical studies in the archive – in this way both contributing to and drawing upon the contemporary trend of textualisation in many fields of knowledge.13
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200869However, the insufficiency of such a project for feminists engaged in English studies in India became obvious soon enough. Some part of the reason for our abandoning our “own” disciplinary terri-tory had to do, as it always does, with practical considerations (poor library resources for original research in English literature, the difficulty of making a mark in the field given these constraints, and the irrelevance of scholarship in an alien literature, among others). But for many, moving out of English has been a politically motivated decision. It is in the multiple other sites of culture, indigenous, popular and contemporary that intervention was called for urgently and where scholarship could hope to make a difference to the discipline itself. Furthermore “representation” called for conceptual understanding in ways that its practices could not hope to self-evidently address. Hence our disciplinary wandering from “English” and the “literary” into spaces that are neither English nor always literary. I do not wish to suggest that these disciplinary transgressions have happened entirely as a matter of feminist initiative. A certain amount of freedom has been allowed to those wishing to venture outside the enclave of English by the changes that have occurred in the discipline in the metropolitan university itself, as part of a still ongoing process of its expansion and its hospitality to a number of enterprises that have, strictly speaking, very little to do with “English” understood as the national literature of Britain. Since it informally began to serve as the primary disciplinary home of two related formations, loosely called “cultural studies” and “theory”, potentially every knowledge-object is grist to the mill of academic English today. As Arjun Appadurai observes about recent developments in the humanities: In this postblur blur, it is crucial to note that the high ground has been seized by English literature (as a discipline) in particular and liter-ary studies in general. This is the nexus in which the word theory, a rather prosaic term in many fields for many centuries, suddenly took on the sexy ring of a trend...Social scientists look on with bewilder-ment astheir colleagues in English and comparative literature talk (and fight) about matters that until as recently as 15 years ago, would haveseemedabout as relevant to English departments as, say, quantum mechanics.14 The proximate fields identified as cultural studies, compara-tive literature, and “theory”, have therefore provided room for manoeuvre for women’s studies in English in India. 3Let me elaborate on the shaping of these related endeavours in the Indian context. I have suggested that a certain pathway led feminist scholars in India from English in particular to cultural studies, as if outside a cul-de-sac into the freedom of a larger field of operation. Though this is not to suggest by any means that English was the sole disciplinary origin of cultural studies, it does trace a certain trajectory and perhaps even argue for a certain influence in the Indian context. The shift to cultural studies emerges from an acknowledgement of the significance of the terrain of culture as a field for the study of gender. Few would question the position that “culture” – the complex of language, religion, customs, morals, manners, art, aesthetics, and everyday practices – crucially defines the position of women, the relation of the sexes, sexual practices, kinship structures, marriage, and patriarchy in every society, or suggest that it is not grounded in the material aspects of social life. And feminist scholarship in India has engaged “representation” very broadly, well beyond the investigation of “images of women”. Representation is instead the dynamic process whereby the forces of reform, regulation, and ideological self-fashioning “recast” women through a variety of textually encoded forms such as law, religious texts, myth and legend, conduct books, manuals, theatre and oral performances, devotional songs, sermons, popular litera-ture.15 Any and all of these cultural texts therefore invite critical reading, interpretation and recuperation.Tejaswini Niranjana’s perceptive observations about the shaping of cultural studies in India are helpful in understanding the specific ways in which it connects to women’s studies.16 Cultural studies has had a different genealogy in Asian countries in general from its counterparts in England or the US, she observes, because feminism has been “foundational” to the formation of the field – rather than being a late (and disruptive) arrival on it (as it so pronouncedly was for British cultural studies for example). The reason for this is the countries’ shared history of colonialism, which among other things led to close linkages being formed between culture, nationalism and women (or the “women question”, as it came to be called). Women became identified, and indeed continue to be identified, with the nation and “its” culture, the “embodiment”, as Niranjana puts it, of its difference from the west. Feminism then became the politics or practice that divorced women from “our” culture, the potent sign of western modernity. One of the consequences of this historical connection has been that women’s studies “became the earliest site within the univer-sity for the elaboration of cultural studies concerns”.17Contemporary Popular CultureFilm studies in India has been an offshoot of cultural studies seen in this broad framework, rather than the autonomous and specia-list field it developed into elsewhere. It has drawn much of its stimulus and direction from the feminist investment in cinema’s representation of gender issues. (We might speculate that the influence of literary practices and practitioners is to some extent at least responsible for a noticeable tendency in film criticism in India, especially in its earlier phase, to pay scant attention to cinematic technology and form, instead “reading” films for content as if they were literary texts). Mainstream cinema both draws from and significantly shapes larger social realities (as well as fanta-sies). This is particularly true in a country like India which has the second largest film industry in the world, and where viewership cuts across class, age, region and language. The field has therefore been exceptionally open to feminist intervention. Films were regularly reviewed in the pioneering Manushi in the 1980s, the journal clearly seeing itself as performing a watchdog role over the way gender relations were represented inthem. Feminists may not speak in one voice about the issues that repre-sentation brings to the fore, but the very fact of debate and discussion has meant that popular culture and media – newspapers, advertise-ments, and television, in addition to cinema – have received signifi-cant serious intellectual attention in India. Film and media, as the most prominent forms of contemporary popular culture, have staged highly visible battles over representation. The campaign against
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoCTOBER 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly70obscenity, a major area of contestation in the early phase of the women’s movement in the 1980s, took an unexpected turn when the government passed the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibi-tion) Bill in 1986, ostensibly to “protect” women from such represen-tation. At this point many in the women’s movement grew concerned instead about the dangers of state censorship that the law empow-ered. Representation clearly was not a matter limited to the text’s content or interpretation alone, but involved power, regulation and the policing of discursive boundaries. A piquant example of contested textual interpretations in the legal arena is the case of the Hindi film Pati Parameshwar that came up before the Bombay High Court in 1988. (That the court should be the location where such contests are decided has to do with the logic of censorship and its inevitable clash with constitutional freedom of expression.) This film, whose central female character was shown (supposedly in accordance with the dictates of Hindu dharma) as an abject worshipper of an unworthy husband who abused her, had been refused certification by the Censor Board under a guideline which states that “visuals or words depicting women in ignoble servility to man or glorifying such servility as a praiseworthy quality in women” may be censored. The director of the film challenged the Censor Board’s decision in court on the grounds that the guideline was in violation of Article 19 (1) (a) (freedom of speech and expression). Subsequently, four judges of the Bombay High Court offered four divergent interpretations of the film’s representation of the good (Hindu) wife: “Rekha (the actress who plays the role) exemplifies the inner strength and character of Indian womanhood” (Pratap, J); that guideline 2 (iv-a) was unconstitutional, but even if it was not, the depiction of Rekha was not violative of it (Agarwal, J); that the guide-line was constitutional, and that Rekha was depicted as servile “to the point of repugnancy” (Lentin, J); and finally that the guideline was constitutional, but because the film was seen by a “primarily Hindu audience”, there was nothing wrong with Rekha’s “ignoble servility” (Shah, J). Justice Shah ordered that the film be certified.18 While the grounds of censorship were no doubt motivated by a laudable desire for reform, the rule depends for its efficacy on interpretation: and in this instance the final judgment leaned on a view of cultural norma-tivity (the perspective of a “Hindu audience”) that trumped the feminist hoped-for intervention.Literature in Indian LanguagesThe second of the proximate areas to which English has served as a stepping stone is the study of literatures in the other languages, an implicitly comparative literary project. It increasingly came to make sense for feminist academics to look at literatures in the many Indian languages rather than exclusively at English or Anglophone writings when studying gender, culture and politics. The scholarly work under-taken by feminists in English departments moving into literary studies in other Indian languages has been pathbreaking. It has involved the significant recovery, historical placing, critical understanding and revaluation of women’s writing in India. An inaugural moment was the special issue on women Bhakti poets published by Manushi to mark its 10th anniversary in 1989; and this was followed in a few years by the landmark two-volume Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha.19 The early novel in India has been a particularly significant area of study given its interest in constructing the female subject of reform in the contexts of nationalism and of modernity. But rather than provide a bibliography, let me try here to explain why I think literary studies has not been entirely marginal for women’s studies even in our circumscribed situation. English, as I have indicated, became newly energised as the site of “theory” – short hand for post-structuralist theory but extendable to its critiques as well. Feminism and “theory” have drawn upon each other in symbiotic ways. The questions theory poses – of representa-tion, subjectivity, language, power, sexuality, identity, knowledge, history – have been central to feminist enquiry as well. Joan Scott has identified the “uses” of theory for feminism in the latter’s endeavour to “find a new way of analysing constructions of meaning and relationships of power that called unitary, universal categories into question and historicised concepts otherwise treated as natural (such as man/woman) or absolute (such as equality or justice)”.20Women Writing in India is theoretical in this sense. The editors resolutely refuse to offer the anthology as simply the collection/selection of the – implicitly – “best” texts. Instead they are energetically anti-founda-tional, going against the logic of an enterprise calling for the construc-tion of a structure of centuries of literary production. Despite what we might consider the fulsome evidence that women existed, that they wrote, and did so from within the geopolitical space they inhabited, Tharu and Lalitha ceaselessly problematise each of these terms: women, writing, India, and their interrelationships, women’s writing, a national literature, gender and nation. In effect they deconstruct the opposition between theory and the empirical. Similarly, in my study of culture and gender in Real and Imagined Women – whose title is intended to reflect the problematic of representation – I sought to refuse a polarisation of the imagined and the real, culture and society, language and the world, discourse and materiality by treating repre-sentation as a bridge or mediator between the two: “neither founda-tionalist (privileging ‘reality’) nor superstructural (privileging ‘culture’), not denying the category of the real, or essentialising it as some pre-given metaphysical ground for representation”.21 Represen-tation is treated in the book as “a domain with its own substantial political reality and effects”.22 4The influence of English studies may therefore be responsible to some extent at least for the perception of a cultural turn taken by theory in general, and by feminism in particular, in recent times. If Niranjana’s analysis helps us understand why cultural studies in India has formed intimate ties with women’s studies, the reverse, women’s studies’ close connection to culture and its study also needs to be understood as feminism’s investment in questions of representation, in all the heterogeneous uses of the term. In general the interest in cultural history, discourse analysis and the textualisation of social reality evinced by feminist scholars across disciplines may be attributed to the theoretical and methodological influence of literary studies. Feminist historians of south Asia, in particular, have shown keen inter-est in cultural studies and women’s writings, and especially in women’s autobiographies. I am thinking of such examples as Lata Mani’s work on sati, Tanika Sarkar’s introduction to Rassundari Devi’s autobiography as well as her Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, and most recently Mrinalini Sinha’s Specters of Mother India.23In the opposite direction, the reading of history as culture, and the law as text, has
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW oCTOBER 25, 200871emboldened those trained in literary studies to cross into history, criti-cal legal studies or political theory. How far these are developments to be welcomed or resisted will depend on how we perceive the benefits or otherwise of interdisciplinary scholarship. Certainly there is much to be said on both sides. Syllabus OverhaulThen there is the impact of the highly visible crisis in English studies – which was not inconsiderable. The questioning of the relevance of the undergraduate syllabus, pedagogy, examination, research and the profession of English which was initiated in the 1980s, and con-tinues to resonate in the discipline, communicated itself to other de-partments. Major overhauls in the English syllabus of the “Pass” course (Delhi University’s general liberal arts degree programme), and in the MA and research degrees followed. History, political sci-ence, sociology and other programmes in the arts departments went through syllabus revisions. “Crises” do not easily, or only, result in happy outcomes such as these of course. One would have to be careful not to overestimate the influence of feminism on the disciplines. The institution, still markedly male-dominated and conservative at the higher levels of decision-making, closes ranks against such intrusions and resists to the last breath what it considers new-fangled reforms. In literary studies in the Indian university some room may have been made for women writers and feminist criticism, but for the most part it has been in the nature of a concession. Feminism in the academy remains the special interest of a constituency (“women”, “feminists”). It is partly the marginalisation of (and in some cases active discrimination against) feminist academics in the university system that led to their forming alliances with colleagues across disciplines and coming together in the formation of “women’s studies” as such. It is a beleaguered, not to say embattled, position but a productive one perhaps for that very reason.My final point will be in the nature of an observation and an expres-sion of hope. As is generally the case, the pioneering years – roughly 1985 to 1995 – have witnessed the greatest outpouring of publications in the field, the monumental Women Writing in India volumes consti-tuting their most significant landmark. Things have quietened down since then. A sense of having been co-opted or won over by a few concessions is bound to nag at us. We might conclude that feminist energies have been expended and exhausted, or judge that the times are not propitious for radically new work. But the interregnum is always a time of the consolidation of gains, of expansion, and the preparation of a new generation of scholars whose work is yet to come. The impact that the crisis in English studies left on the disci-pline was not trivial, and the turns it took as a consequence have contributed in significant ways to strengthening women’s studies in the academy. These beginnings are not necessarily determinative of the directions in which future scholarship will develop, but it is not too much to claim that they have performed a necessary ground clear-ing. Given this we would be justified in anticipating both develop-ments and new initiatives in feminist literary studies soon. Notes 1 See, for example, Kumari Jayawardene,Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, Zed Books, London and Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1986, for a reference to Nehru’s speech to a women’s gathering in 1928 exhorting women to follow in the footsteps of Ibsen’s Nora. 2The feminisation of English literary studies appears to be a feature of the discipline in the Anglo-American academy as well. 3 I have drawn on my article ‘English Studies via Women’s Studies’ inJEFL 7 and 8, 1991, for the material in this and the previous two paragraphs, subsequently reprinted in Susie Tharu (ed), Subject to Change: Teaching Literature in the Nineties,Orient Longman, Delhi, 1998.4 These volumes include Svati Joshi (ed), Rethinking English, Trianka, New Delhi, 1991; Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (ed), The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1992; Subject to Change, above; and several other collections, some based on conferences sponsored by the British Council. 5 Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar,Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press,New Haven and London, 1979; Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1977; Ellen Moers,Literary Women, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977. 6 Rashmi Bhatnagar, Lola Chatterjee and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (all college lecturers in English at the time) in an interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Book Review published in 1987: reprinted in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (ed) by Sarah Harasym, Routledge, London and New York, 1990. 7 Lola Chatterji (ed), Woman/Image/Text,Trianka, New Delhi, 1986. 8 Bhatnagar, ‘A Reading of Pope’sRape of the Lock’, inWoman/Image/Text, p 51.9 Jacqueline Rose, ‘The State of the Subject (II): The Institution of Feminism’,Critical Quarterly, 29.4,1987: 9-15, especially 10-11.10 Uma Chakravarthi, ‘The Development of the Sita Myth: A Case Study of Women in Myth and Litera-ture’, Samya Shakti, No 1 (1983): 68-75; Kathryn Hansen, ‘The Virangana in North Indian History, Myth and Popular Culture’, Economic & Political Weekly, April 30, 1988: WS-25-33. The name ‘Kali’ for one of India’s earliest feminist presses laid claim (not uncontroversially) to the goddess’s power or ‘shakti’. 11 For an elaboration of this argument, see my article, ‘Is the Hindu Goddess a Feminist?’, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XXXIII, No 44, October 31, 1998. 12 It is true of course that the literary text is studied in the classroom from elementary school to the university and is even made a compulsory subject throughout – but not necessarily “as literature”. For the most part it is treated instrumentally, as a means of teaching the language in which it is written. This is particularly true of English literary texts.13 At the same time literary studies in India has been held accountable for promoting a certain forma-lised mode of reading which Gauri Viswanathan believes has promoted “a restrictive meaning of literacy as the passive acquisition of the mecha-nics of language and structured ways of think-ing”. The model of linguistic and literary studies in India, she argues, has been debilitating for literacy since it relies on a merely “mechanical study of words”. See Gauri Viswanathan in Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (eds),The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India, Oxford Univer-sity Press, Delhi, 1992. 14 Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996, 51.15 Recasting Women is the title of the influential collection of ‘Essays in Colonial History’ edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1989.16 “Cultural studies” in India referred to studies of culture and cultural influences rather than a defined disciplinary field, at least in the early stages.17Tejaswini Niranjana, ‘Feminism and Cultural Studies in India’,Interventions: Journal of Interna-tional Postcolonial Studies Special Issue on Women and Feminism in Contemporary Asia, edited by Mary E John,9.2, 2007: 209-218; especially 211, 212, 214.18See Indra Jaisingh and Andrea Wolfe, ‘The “Ignoble Servility” ofPati Parameshwar: Towards Equality for Women’ inThe Lawyers, December 1988; reprinted in BrindaBose (ed),Gender and Censorship, Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2006, pp 127-37.19 Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (eds),Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present,Vols I and II, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991, 1993.20Joan W Scott, ‘Deconstructing Equality- Versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Post-structuralist Theory for Feminism’ in Marilyn Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (eds),Conflicts in Feminism, Routledge, New York and London, 1990. 21 Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Post-colonialism, Routledge, London and New York, 1993: 9.22 Rose, 12.23 Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998; Tanika Sarkar,Words to Win: A Modern Autobiography, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1999, and Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Religion, Community, Cultural Nationalism: Permanent Black, and Indiana University Press, New Delhi, 2000; Mrinalini Sinha,Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire, Duke Univer-sity Press, Durham, NC, 2006.

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top