THERE IS A STORY about a Sufi saint who used to wander the city streets and people around him called him a madman. One day, he was wandering the streets near the palace on a donkey. He suddenly got off and walked up to a board in front of the palace. The board said: ‘This palace is built by the king’. The saint erased the word ‘king’ and replaced it with ‘donkeys’ so that it read ‘This palace was built by donkeys’. People were outraged and pounced on him but the saint was trying to make a simple point. The donkeys who had carried stones to build the palace had not been mentioned on the board.
This story has a special meaning to many of us because it resembles the history that we have read — and continue to read — in our classrooms. What would history look like from the donkeys’ point of view? My first encounter with women in history was in social studies class during early school days when I was introduced to the achievements of brave queens who fought ‘just like men’: Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai and Onake Obavva. These were accidental cases of women doing remarkable jobs. I soon discovered women either made special appearances in history books, or were not there at all! So I started wondering what happened to all the women who lived in those times? What happened to women who were not queens or did not go to the battlefields? What happened to all the women who worked their entire lives to keep empires going? Their absence implied that they had done nothing worth mentioning.
The fact is that women have also been actively involved in the making of history. But their contributions, wisdom and knowledge are largely unwritten. Women are never seen as active participants who influence — and are influenced — by the ethos of the times. Mainstream history has not only marginalised women’s lives, their interactions and contributions, but also mythologised them according to the agenda of the (usually male) historians. They are used to prop up a a male-centered view of women’s lives where women ‘contribute’ to the main agenda, which is defined by forces outside them.
There is a real need for women’s history, a history in their own voices and from their viewpoint. Feminists have talked about the significance of rewriting history from the woman’s point of view. Recording oral history is one of the ways to do this. What would women want to say about their own lives? How different would it be from what we have read in history books? Besides providing a rich social document, this would also be a way of subverting the distorted images of women perpetrated by a biased, patriarchal culture and articulate what has been silenced and unspoken.
Susie Tharu and K Lalitha in their remarkable book Women Writing in India talk about Bangalore’s Nagaratnamma who in 1910 reprinted Radhika Santwanam, a poetry collection of 18th century Telugu poet Muddupalani. The book was criticised by critics like Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who is known as the father of social reform in Andhra Pradesh. He felt that the book was distasteful as “it has crude description of sex”. He also said “Muddupalani is an adulteress, she was born into a community of prostitutes.”
Nagaratnamma retorted asking him how he could denounce a poet because she was a prostitute when several great men have written about sex more crudely and not been dismissed similarly. Then, the British were convinced that the book “would endanger the moral health of the society.” All copies of the book were seized and cases booked against Nagaratnamma for printing obscene material.
We seldom know of women like Muddupalani and Nagaratnamma as they are comfortably excluded when history is being written. I wonder how many others like Nagratnamma we would find if we started looking for them in earnest….