The First signs of Women’s identity by Kalpana Rentala.

History will not speak about women. It will make women speak of it” –that is the history we are unaware of. Is there a better definition for the history of women than this? From the earliest times, historical documents have been unjust in recording women’s history, owing to the domination of men. The feminist movement has caught on, and the injustice done to women has been recognized. Until then, there were only a few writings, by some “famous women in history”, but there was no committed effort to identify the actual writings by all women. There is evidence in the records to show that women have participated in people’s movements, struggles, and in the country’s reconstruction programs, but only nominally, in the mainstream history. The history continued to show women only as second line of defense even in the movements where the women were the center of focus. With the advent of feminism, rewriting women’s history has started around the world. This happened in Andhra Pradesh as well.

Normally, documentation of history follows the mainstream, with the middle-class and the high class as primary contributors. To question the traditional policies inherent in the history and social values, and accept the consciousness of the lowest classes, and rewrite an analogous history is a new experiment. One of the characteristics of this new venture is to throw light on the rebel forces that lay dormant, and making use of oral literature for the purpose. One of the accomplishments of the feminist movement in Andhra Pradesh is to bring to light the rebel movements that were ignored by the history up until now and rewrite it from the perspective of the oppressed classes.

The foundations of rewriting rival history

Although the feminist movement contributed to rewriting the rival history, the rival history has originated much earlier in the form of women’s writing in the 19th century. Even before women had learned to read and write, they had started handing down their perceptions on women’s issues by word of mouth, in oral tradition. After the women’s education was put in place, they recorded several topics related to women through letters and autobiographies.

Ever since modernization has caught up with Telugu culture, the world of women’s perceptions has been changing dramatically. Yet, when we read the mainstream history, it is obvious that it recorded only the men’s perceptions of women’s issues but not the women’s perceptions and the changes in their mode of thinking. Now, with the advances made by civilization, it has become necessary to accept women’s thoughts on numerous subjects, as revealed in their writings. Women’s writings on human relationships and contemporary society in the form of letters, autobiographies, travel, and essays published in magazines, have a permanent place in history as testimonials of women’s views on our society and culture. There is a dire need to rewrite our social and political history and movements, based on these accounts.

History as told in letters

Publication of letters recounting the stories of women’s conditions in our country, and the influence of foreign rulers on their mode of thinking started around the period, 1800-1900. They are not just letters. They tell us about several key issues that have contributed towards understanding women’s conditions in society during the said period. Among such letters, the most important one, an anthology, is, “Letters from Madras,” written by Julia Charlotte Maitland (London 1843), under a pseudonym, “A Lady”. Although it was written by an English woman, the book helps us to understand the social conditions of women from various classes, and their struggles to break into the newly emerging social environment under foreign rulers. The letters were written by the author to her family in England, during 1836-1839, while she was living with her husband in Madras presidency. The couple had lived in several towns in Andhra Pradesh. While they were in Rajahmundry, she described at length the rituals relating to pushkaraalu, spread of cholera, drought, caste system, the evil practice of sati, and the practice of thugs who committed murders hiding behind the absurd beliefs of local people.

The Maitland couple understood that the local people were barbaric and there was no escape from the rut unless they had received proper education. Their attempts to set up schools for girls failed due to the opposition from local traditionalists; but they had succeeded in starting a couple of schools for boys. Julia Maitland discussed about the importance of education for girls on numerous occasions. When one pundit commented that education for women would mean death for the entire family, Julia tried to change his convictions. She also mentioned in her letters about troubles she had been through to teach young girls to read and write at her home; the occasion was narrated to one of the followers of Raja Rammohan Roy, who was visiting her at the time. As far as the education of women was concerned, Ms. Maitland was able to succeed in Madras to some extent, if not in Rajahmundry. From these letters, we can understand how the  views about women’s education were taking roots in the society. The Maitlands also opened the first community library in Rajahmundry. She wrote in her letters, not just as wife of a magistrate but also as a woman, constantly comparing her situation to other women and reflecting on the prevalent social and family conditions.

From Maitland’s letters, two phases in the Telugu women’s conditions are noticeable; first, the prevalent conditions as they were at the time; and the second, a profile of the modern woman against the background of changes that were taking place. In one of her letters, she mentioned the purdah in high-class families. She wrote, “I tried my best to meet with the women at their house but could not. I peeked through partially opened doors; I could barely see their white clothes and dark eyes but not clearly.” Notably, she was reacting to the prevalent conditions mostly only as a white woman.

 The first signs of women’s history

After the magazines became popular in our country, women’s magazines came into existence abundantly. There was plenty of support for women’s columns and letters. Telugu women took advantage of the opportunity and wrote about several topics relating to women’s life and social conditions in their writings in ways that were familiar to them. The first signs of women’s writing history were visible even at the end of the 18th century.

That a Telugu woman was the first female historian in the entire country is a matter of pride for all of us. Bhandaru Acchamamba wrote abala saccaritra ratnamala [Biographies of women]. Although it was published in a book form in 1901, it was already serialized previously chintamani, a magazine run by Veeresalingam. This book recorded the biographies of women, who were famous in history. In fact, Acchamamba was planning on bringing out the entire history of women in three volumes: part 1, the histories of eminent women of India; part 2, the eminent women in Vedas and puranas, and, in part 3, notable women of other countries. Acchamamba worked hard for four years and put together the stories of women from Punjab, Kashmir, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh in volume 1. She finished only rough sketches of Sita and Draupadi from mythology, for volume 2 at the time of her death. She died at the age of 30 and left the work unfinished.

Feature columns as torch lights of women’s consciousness

The next memorable event is Sarada lekhalu of Kanuparti Varalakshmamma. The feature column was run by Varalakshmamma in a women’s magazine, Gruhalakshmi, from 1928-1934. Through this column, she voiced her protest against dogmatic beliefs, and presented several women’s issues from a woman’s perspective. Varalakshmamma was the first female columnist among Telugu women. In her Sarada lekhalu, she had discussed several social and political issues; and also topics such as male-female relationship, and the participation of women in the Satyagraha movement. We can also learn about the beginnings of women’s movement from her column.

Some women have attempted to record the social conditions and lifestyles through their travelogues. A young, brahmin widow named Adilakshmi of Eluru (?) wrote about her travel experiences from 1790-1802 – that is, for nearly 12 years—and described the life of Hindu widows (Meckanzie Collection, v. 15). Her life had taken several turns during that period. So also, the places she visited had undergone several political changes. She tried to record those changes, in addition to the male-female relationships at those places. This narrative of her pilgrimage depicts the enormous variations existed in the lifestyles of various social groups.

From autobiographies to history

Autobiography is one more tool in understanding history. Ever since women stepped outside and expanded their roles in society, their autobiographies became the foundation for women’s history. Women started writing autobiographies at the same time as the independence movement. From their autobiographies, we can recognize how the women’s perspectives and their participation had been changing along with their conditions. Significantly, we do not find any evidence of modern historians making note of these writings either before or after the independence movement.

Based on the available accounts to date, Edidam Satyavati, a young Brahmin widow, was the first woman in Telugu to write an autobiography. She has made defiant comments on society and religion in her book, Atma caritram [My autobiography] (Vijayawada, 1934). Yet, nobody else, not even authors of women’s history, has mentioned Satyavati’s Atma caritram. For the first time, Vakulabharanam Rajagopal referred to this book in his article in Indian Economic and Social History Review, December 2003. The book is important in that it would require lot of courage for women to express such opinions during that period.

A vast amount of information, unrecorded in the mainstream history, is available in several other autobiographies published in the next several years. Some of the important works are Appa Rao garu – nenu by Basavaraju Rajyalakshmamma (Vijayawada, 1965), Okka kshanam kalanni venakku tippi chuste by Adavikolanu Parvati (Kakinada, 1979), naa jailu jnapakaalu, anubhavaalu by Sangem Lakshmibai (Hyderabad, 1980), “Chintamani and I” by Durgabai Deshmukh (1980), In love with lif by Dr. Prema Naidu (1990), from pativratyam and to feminism by Malladi Subbamma (Hyderabad, 1991), “Gorato naa jivitam” by Saraswati Gora (Vijayawada, 1992), Nalo nenu by Bhanumati Ramakrishna (Madras, 1993), Sahiti rudrama, autobiography by Utukuri Lakshmikantamma (Bapatla, 1993), janani janmabhumischa by Gokaraju Sitadevi, a prominent freedom fighter(1998), among others. Significantly, while there are numerous historical accounts anchored around women’s issues, but not one of them has taken the women’s writings and their perceptions. The main reason for this is the fixed frame based on which the historical accounts are written.

The feminists questioned the propriety of this paradigm and set out to rewrite history anew. The feminist movement, which started in the eighties, developed a specific form for women’s history. They have smashed the preset format, supposedly ‘unambiguous’ and realistic, in which the history had been written, and began rewriting in an alternative method. This laid grounds to not only reclaim the past but also build new future. Women’s writing shattered the silence, went beyond the limits of oral accounts and moved forward.

This event in Telugu country happened in four stages. The first one was “The history we are not aware of” (Stri Sakti Sanghatana, 1886), which described the Telangana freedom movement from the perspective of the oppressed classes; it showed the way for rewriting women’s history. In the second stage, rewriting women’s history took its direction from literature itself. “Women Writing in India: from 600 B.C. to the present” by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha remains a most important work in this area. In the third stage, an attempt has been made to identify how women had participated in rebuilding the nation as makers of history and with social consciousness. During this period, the book, mahilaavaranam (Volga, Vasantha Kannabhiran and Kalpana Kannabhiran, 2001) was published. In the forth stage, an attempt was made to define the politics of women’s identity. In this period, one more book that was of historical significance was published. The book, nalla poddu by Gogu Syamala (2002) was focused on women’s self-awareness, and included the autobiographical accounts from the perspectives of oppressed classes. The nalla poddu is sure to remain an authoritative work of the 21st century in the history of Telugu literature. These three books, manaku teliyani mana caritra [The history we are unaware of], mahilaavaranam [Women’s courtyard] and nalla poddu [Dark Dawn] have presented new angles in the experimentation of anthologies in regard to the development of history.

History from the depths of life

The anthology, manaku teliyani mana caritra (Stri Sakti Sanghatana) initiated the work for rewriting women’s history in Telugu in a systematic manner. It was about the actual participation of women in the Telangana armed fight; covered the stories of sixteen women who were out there in person and participated in the armed fight. The publisher, Stri Sakti Sanghatana, tried to highlight the women’s experiences in this fight from several angles. The  experiences of these sixteen women contributed towards expanding the Telangana movement. For the first time, the stories gave us the knowledge that the women’s participation in the freedom struggles was went unnoticed; and that provided an additional dimension to the women’s movements. The Stri Sakti Sanghatana opened new doors; it said, “if we have to a have a comprehensive history, it is not enough to place “men’s history” and “women’s history” side by side. We also need to have a new kind of zeal and humility so we can develop new criteria and new methodologies that is demanded by our new, veritable history.”

Evidence of history in women’s literature

After that, a notable endeavor to assess women’s contribution in literature has been put in place. “The Women Writing In India” of Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha elucidated distinctly how women’s contributions in various Indian languages have defied the social norms, overcome hurdles and taboos, and proceeded forward. The two volumes discussed several important issues relating to gender-oriented censorship and numerous forms of censorship imposed on women in a society dominated by men.

Women’s stature as a collective force

The book, mahilaavaranam is a comprehensive, analytical study describing the Telugu women’s accomplishments as makers of history. The volume analyses in great detail the women’s social consciousness in various fields, both at personal and social levels.  The editors have portrayed, in English and Telugu, the stories of 118 women who had made history in the nineteenth century. The book highlights in bold relief the numerous accomplishments of women in this period, thus invalidating the popular notion that there was no women’s history but only oppression of women.

The parallel voice in the history of the feminism of the oppressed classes

The rewriting of women’s history started with the Telangana armed fight for freedom and advanced to the rewriting of the oppressed women’s history today. This is a notable event in the history female consciousness movement. In the history of centuries-old Telugu literature, the publication of the book nalla poddu [Dark Dawn], delineating the history of the oppressed class of women at this stage is significant. This history-making work caused the present feminist movement to take a harder look at their parameters, which were preset knowingly or unknowingly, and pushed them toward expanding the parameters. This book could serve as a caveat for those who, until now, had believed that they were keen on only eliminating the patriarchal domination. There is no doubt that this book will be a wakeup call for all those who had constricted their work to fighting only caste-oriented, male domination.

More importantly, there is an urgent need to define clearly the purpose of this alternative history. We need to rebuild history from literary sources, oral narratives, and other non-traditional sources. We have to tear down the existing history; and, equally important, to create a history from various written and oral sources produced by women. Only then, we can have an authentic analogous/alternative record that is useful for future generations.

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(The Telugu original, telugunaata stri caitanyaaniki toli aanavaallu, was published in bhumika, in 2003. © Kalpana Rentala. Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, October 2004.)