From The Shadows To Centre-Stage: Women In Indian History
History has been written by chroniclers afflicted by a gender bias. They have looked right through the women who have shaped the narrative of our past and reinforced the falsehood that the history of India is largely the making of men.
In her book Her Stories (2022), Deepti Priya Mehrotra digs deep into the historical record to tell the story of our “foremothers”, women whose life and work have contributed to the collective feminist consciousness. And there are so many. Cutting across the subcontinent, these movers and shapers are poets and litterateurs, thinkers and philosophers, queens and warriors, cultural ambassadors, builders and philanthropists.
Mehrotra's list is exhaustive. Starting with the 2nd millennium BCE, the protagonists go all the way down to the mid-19th century CE. Each story is pithy, powerful and poignant.
So, for instance, readers of Her Stories will encounter philosopher Sulabha, philanthropist Vishakha, fearless Uppalavanna, astronomer Khona, wandering bard Auvaiyar, mountain queen Didda, radical poet Akkamahadevi, pepper queen Abbakka, down to the intrepid Sultan Razia, dancer-diplomat Mahlaqa Bai Chanda and feminist writer Tarabai Shinde.
The stories of these women are especially inspirational as they had an additional burden to carry; they left a weighty legacy despite the suppression and violence that came with their gender, particularly in their time. Most importantly, Mehrotra presents them for who they are, as makers of history rather than as symbols of domesticity, countering the patronising lens through which their stories are usually told.
In this excerpt, read a fascinating account of Auvaiyar, one of the most prolific poets of the Sangam era (300 BCE to 300 CE).
Auvaiyar was a poet of the Sangama Era (approximately 300 BCE to 300 CE). Some 59 poems in the Sangama corpus are by Auvaiyar, making her the most prolific among the 28 women poets, and more prolific than most of the male poets as well. Her poems are in various Sangama literature anthologies—Puranuru, Kuruntokai, Narrinai Akananuru—and the poems are rich in imagery and drama:
The red blazing sun creeps in the sky,
Raging as a fire in the forest,
And the silk-cotton tree is leafless
Yet in flower without a bud,
Like a long array of red lamps
In the month of Kartikai
Lit happily by bustling women…
If only he’d spend the time with me,
It’d go fast
If only he’d walk swiftly with me
In the dunes
Overhung with flowering boughs,
Auvaiyar’s poetry dealt with a range of themes, from akam (inner, romantic), to puram (wars, politics). In the aesthetic scheme of the time, akam implied love poems; puram extolled brave warriors (…)
Auvaiyar sang her verses, among the ordinary people as well as in chieftains’ mansions and palaces. She shared gruel with poor farmers and composed songs for their enjoyment and edification. Kings and chieftains valued her sagacity and invited her to stay on in their courts, but she preferred to be always on the move. She spoke with royalty on equal terms, correcting them when they were wrong. According to her, there were two castes—generous people belonged to the high, while the miserly belonged to the low.
Auvaiyar wrote many poems in praise of Atiyaman Neduman Anji and his family. Anji was her chief patron: he trusted and respected Auvaiyar for her wisdom and judgment. Once, anxious about the aggressive attitude of a neigbouring chieftain, the Tondaiman of Kanchi, he appointed her ambassador to help avert war. Auvaiyar proved herself a shrewd diplomat. When the Tondaiman took her to his well-stocked armoury, she responded with a poem praising the shining weapons of war; but then remarked that her own king’s weapons were broken, having pierced their enemies, and now lay in blacksmiths’ sheds. She thus indicated that Anji’s weapons were frequently used, to annihilate enemies. Tondaiman was impressed by her words, and war and bloodshed were averted.
In several poems, Auvaiyar praised Anji’s generosity—his gifts of clothes, good food and toddy. The greatest gift he gave her was the rare nelli (gooseberry) fruit, plucked from a mountaintop, which conferred immortality. Rather than keep the fruit for himself, he gave it to Auvaiyar, valuing her life and art.
Anji set up alliances with Chola and Pandyan kings, but ultimately was defeated by the Chera king, Perunjera Irumporai, whose kingdom extended from the eastern to western oceans. Anji died fighting during an expedition in Pali, north Malabar. Anji’s death was a big blow for Auvaiyar. She wrote:
If he found a little liquor, He would give it to us.
If he had more, he would drink happily, while we sang.
Where is he now?
If he had even a little rice, He shared it, in many plates.
Where is he now?
… He gave us, of the flesh on the bones.
Where is he now?
Wherever spear and arrow flew, He was there.
Where is he now?
… The spear that pierced his chest, pierced at once
The eating bowls of great and famous minstrels…
It went right through the subtle tongues of poets…
No more, no singers any more, nor anyone to give anything to singers…
As in the cold waters, jalap flowers blossom, large, full of honey,
But die untouched, unworn,
There are many now living, and dying…
Auvaiyar lived a long and productive life, breathing her last in Muppandal, a village in Kanyakumari district. Occupying a special place in popular imagination, she has morphed into the archetypal wise elder-woman—(the literal meaning of ‘Auvaiyar’). Avvai Vizha festival is held every year in Thulasiyapattinam village, Nagapattinam, to celebrate her life and literature.
Excerpted with permission from Her Stories (2022) by Deepti Priya Mehrotra and published by Rupa Publications. You can buy your copy here