Remembering Female Literary Figures of Yore

JU News Desk
Published: May 2019

India has been celebrated world-wide for its ancient culture and prolific literature. In what can only be coming from an empowered lot, Indian women literary figures have been using their powerful voices towards feminism, activism, nationalism and several more societal issues over the last hundred years.

Right from the time of Mira Bai – the celebrated poetess most remembered for the Bhakti movement – women’s writing in India has endured. Here we revisit a few of our women authors, who were way ahead of their times. They used words to bring about change, well before feminism and empowerment became fashionable terms, and their works should be on the reading list of every avid reader.

Ismat Chughtai

“She sat quietly in one corner of the sofa, the end of her sari drawn modestly over her hair. Like the motionless illusion of a madly spinning top, she was staring vacantly into space.”
– From The Quilt.

Ismat Chughtai is one of the first women to have written in Urdu. A powerful voice in Urdu literature, her writing spanned short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage and radio plays. An icon of women’s empowerment, her writing reflected the complexities of a woman’s mind and spoke of rebellious themes such as feminine sexuality. Notable among her work is Lihaaf [the quilt], which raised a hue and was eventually summoned to court. Her other famous works include My Friend, My Enemy; A Life in Words; Lifting the Veil; and The Crooked Line.

Sarojini Naidu

“Sweet is the shade of the coconut glade, and the scent of the mango grove, And sweet are the sands at the full o’ the moon with the sound of the voices we love; But sweeter, O brothers, the kiss of the spray and the dance of the wild foam’s glee; Row, brothers, row to the edge of the verge, where the low sky mates with the sea.”
– From the poem Coromandel Fishers

Called “The Nightingale of India”, Sarojini Naidu was a political activist, feminist, poet, and the first Indian woman to be the President of the Indian National Congress, as well as an Indian state Governor. Her active literary life led to a volume of poetry, The Golden Threshold, which was followed by The Bird of Time. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1914. Her collected poems were published under the titles The Sceptred Flute (1928) and The Feather of the Dawn (1961).

Mahadevi Varma

Recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship for her poetry, Mahadevi Varma was an educationist, freedom fighter and women’s activist. One of the four major poets of the Chhayavaad, an era of romanticism in Hindi literature, she was also conferred the Padma Vibhushan. Some of her famous works are Madhur Madhur Mere Deepak Jal and Adhikar.

“What arrests us in Mahadevi’s work is the striking originality of the voice and the technical ingenuity which enabled her to create in her series of mostly quite short lyrics throughout her five volumes a consistently evolving representation of total subjectivity measured against the vastness of cosmic nature with nothing, as it were, intervening—no human social relationships, no human activities beyond those totally metaphorical ones involving weeping, walking the road, playing the vina, etc.”— David Rubin, The Return of Sarasvati: Four Hindi Poets.

Nalapat Balamani Amma

“I still follow my uncle’s two advices strictly. One: The reader may not understand what the poet aimed at. But the poet himself should not be unable to explain it. …. Two: Melancholy, in poetry, should be accepted only as a stepping stone.” – Balamani Amma.

A prolific writer, renowned for her writing in Malayalam, Nalapat Balamani Amma is popularly called “The poetess of motherhood.” With no formal education, she published her first poem “Kooppukai” in 1930. She received numerous awards such as the Padma Bhushan and Sahitya Akademi Fellowship. Her work spans over twenty anthologies of poems, translations, and prose. Amma, Muthassi and Mazhuvinte Katha are among her well-known work. Her collection of poetry titled Nivedyam is an anthology of 162 poems, spanning three areas – the role of a woman, societal conditions and the power of the human spirit.

Amrita Pritam

“The night is dozing…from a human being’s chest, someone is trying to steal Scarier than any theft, is the theft of dreams.”

Amrita Pritam penned 28 novels, 18 anthologies of prose, 5 short stories and 16 prose volumes over six decades, in Hindi and Punjabi. The first renowned female Punjabi writer, many of her works have been translated into English, French, Danish, Japanese, Mandarin and other languages. Among her many laurels were the Sahitya Akademi Award for Sunehadey, the Bhartiya Jnanpith Award for Kagaj te Canvas, as well as the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan.

She began her literary journey as a romantic poet, but moved on to become a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement with works such as Lok Peed (People’s Anguish), which censured the war-torn economy, after the Bengal famine of 1943. What immortalises her however, is the poem, “Ajj akhaan Waris Shah nu” (I ask Waris Shah Today), an elegy and a poignant reminder of the horrors of Partition.

Kamini Roy

“The male desire to rule is the primary, if not the only, stumbling block to women’s enlightenment… They are extremely suspicious of women’s emancipation. Why? The same old fear – ‘Lest they become like us’.” – From the essay The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Coming from an elite Bengali family, Kamini Roy was the first Indian woman to receive an honours graduation in British India.

A poet and a feminist, her well-known works include Mahasweta, Pundorik, Dwip O Dhup, and several poems such as Smritichihno, She Ki, Sukh and Era Jodi Jane. She was one of the leaders who fought for women’s suffrage, resulting in limited suffrage being granted to women in 1925.

Kamala Surayya

“All round me are words, and words and words, they grow on me like leaves, they never seem to stop their slow growing from within… But I tell my self, words are a nuisance, beware of them, they can be so many things, a chasm where running feet must pause, to look, a sea with paralyzing waves, a blast of burning air or, a knife most willing to cut your best Friend’s throat… Words are a nuisance, but. They grow on me like leaves on a tree, they never seem to stop their coming, from a silence, somewhere deep within…” – From Summer in Calcutta

Kamala Surayya’s poems have often been considered at par with those of Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. Also known by her pen names Madhavi Kutty and Kamala Das, she was an English poetess and Malayalam author. One of the most formative influences on Indian English poetry, The Times called her “The mother of modern English Indian poetry”. Her poems predominantly talked of love, its betrayal and anguish. Her first book of poetry, Summer in Calcutta came as a refreshing change in Indian English poetry, which was still reigned by 19th century romanticised love.

She served as the Vice chairperson of Kerala Sahitya Akademi, President of Kerala Children’s Film Society, Editor of Poet magazine and Poetry editor of Illustrated Weekly of India. Her syndicated columns which were very popular at the time, spoke on diverse topics such as women’s issues and child care to politics.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan

“The people of India will remember this debt of yours (O! Rani Laxmaibai), may you be blessed, dear Rani, Your this life sacrifice will awake an indestructible soul of freedom in the people,History may be made silent or if truth is hanged or killed, or if the drinkers become victorious or if they destroy Jhansi with cannonballs,

You, by yourself be the memorial of Rani (queen of Jhansi) because you had been an eternal token of courage. From the mouths of the Bandelas and the Harbolas (Religious singers of Bandelkhand), we heard the tale of the courage of the Queen of Jhansi relating how gallantly she fought like a man against the British intruders: such was the Queen of Jhansi.”
– The closing stanza of Jhansi ki Rani

Every Indian student would know the poem Jhansi Ki Rani, an emotionally charged composition describing the valour of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Among the most famous proponents of the veer-ras, one of the nav-ras of Hindi poetry, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan authored several popular works such as Veeron Ka Kaisa Ho Basant, Rakhi Ki Chunauti and Vida, most of which revolve around patriotism and nationalism. Her works are known to have inspired a large number of youth to join the freedom movement.