This post offers a few scattered thoughts on feminist poetry in Kannada focusing on a translation of a poem by Saraju Katkar. I hope to add more later.
Here is a poem translated from Kannada:
As stone you were a legend
A poem, a novel,
A living proof of male ego.
One thought you would raise
The flag of rebellion
Against male oppression.
Becoming a woman after becoming a stone
You became a slave
Entering his monastery
You were alive as stone,
Becoming woman again
This poem addresses the mythical character Ahalye, wife of Gautama, molested by Indra yet punished by Gautama (he curses her to become a stone until Ram visits the stone at a later age). Here is a common motif in Kannada (and I suspect in many Indian languages) feminist poetry (written by those from Hindu communities): invoking the mythical female characters. Two purposes are served in this attempt. One, the myth itself is questioned and undermined; the mythical women are reviewed from feminist point of view. Second, the very apparatus is debunked that had been used by the patriarchal discourse, that of myth that reinforces and propagates submission of women to men’s rule, that invites women to emulate the example of the mythical characters who had been submissive to men. Thus the feminist content of the strategy is not anachronistic. It aims at dismantling the patriarchal instrument of discursive enforcement of submissiveness. Hence, a poem such as this might appear to be pointless in talking about the past and addressing mythical beings. But, actually they are addressing the practice present till today of quoting the mythical characters to seek women’s submission to male ego. This poem is a good example of both this strategy and the ideological resistance it inscribes.
This is usually found in the poetry of those who write form within the upper caste Hindu communities. For the others, these characters are largely irrelevant. Yet, the strategy of debunking the myths may not be irrelevant because there are continuities between the deployment of myths to enforce patriarchy and the one to enforce brahminical hegemony. That is why in anti-caste literature also we come across the same strategy.
How different such engagement with the past is from the ones that seek to find in past a means of forming cultural continuity. That is why I am often uncomfortable when one talks of cultural amnesia, need for finding roots in one’s tradition.