Tag Archive for Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing

Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing, by Dr. Nizara Hazarika

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Exploring the colonial period from a post colonial stance, to decode the various issues pertaining to women’s lives and how women started their literary articulations, Dr. Nizara Hazarika’s book Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing throws light on how women developed a sense of autonomy and agency which was reflected in their writing both non fictional as well as fictional. FeministsIndia presents a short write-up about the book and an extract.

Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing explores the colonial period from a post colonial stance to decode the various issues pertaining to women’s lives and how women started their literary articulations. It delineates at what point women started writing and how their writings can be read as an alternative history to trace the position of women in Assamese society. This book presents an in-depth study on colonial Assam and women’s literary engagement. It presents that with the advent of the colonialism, there emerged a gradual change in the socio-political sphere of Assam. With the Reformist movement and the Freedom Struggle a new understanding of gender relations and the status of women was created. It presaged a new era for women as they moved from the private sphere of home to the public sphere dominated by men. Women’s education played the most crucial role in making the women aware about their ontological as well as epistemological possibilities.

Women’s writing in Assam started in the last two decades of the Nineteenth century. Though it exhibited a secular trend, yet it conformed to the traditional values. Women did not have the full articulation of their subjectivity. They had to conform to the social and cultural values, religious ideals. However, some of the creative women writers of this period managed to go against these norms in their writings. The western education imbibed in them a feminist consciousness. A sensitive, alert and speaking subject was born. This was a historical moment in the history of women’s writing in Assam. Thus the colonial period heralded the beginning of modern creative writing in Assam. In the process both men and women contributed in various ways to the development of different literary genres. Women were initiated into the field of creative writing for the first time. The progressive impulses which developed in women because of their education prompted some of them into serious literary activity. They found the literary enterprise as a means of exploring their existential possibilities and articulating their ideas of life. They started writing about their lives and the condition of other women.

This book throws light how women developed a sense of autonomy and agency which was reflected in their writing both non fictional as well as fictional. This book presents that the Assamese women’s writing during the colonial period had created two distinct voices. One voice is the voice of a progressive subject, who talks about women’s awareness of their position and status in the society. This voice is heard in women’s writings in the journals and periodicals. The other voice is her private voice, which we hear when she takes to writing a novel where she presents the social reality. The women’s novels are written within the traditional rubric and tend toward conservatism and didacticism. Moreover, the novel being a new literary genre, there is a conflict between literary inheritance and ideology. However, women’s novels present an ambiguity too, where they present women’s awareness about their subjectivity and identity and this is evident in a subtle manner in the novels written by the Colonial Assamese women.

The book tries to trace how women developed their consciousness about themselves as individuals. It seeks to know how the speaking and acting subject emerged from its traditional roots and how this subject reached its selfhood. It focuses on the negations, contestations and mediations that the female subject moves through in order to attain her full selfhood. This study is highly relevant and necessary as it historicizes the subjectivity of women and explores the multiple aspects of women’s existence. The study is based primarily on the published works, both fictional as well as non-fictional, of the women writers of the colonial era. The book extends to include the social, political and cultural contexts in order to determine under what conditions women’s writing has emerged in colonial Assam.

The concept of space is very pertinent for the study of women’s literature as it reflects her world. The restricted “woman’s space” in family and society was firmly embedded in the psyche of the nineteenth century women. The society during nineteenth century witnessed two sets of men: one, the social reformer who fought for the cause of women and the other, the conservative who opposed both the reformer and the women’s cause. This book interrogates the recorded social history which posits strong male reformers and passive women recipients. This work also seeks to retrieve and to reassess women’s own pioneering contribution to their own cause. Further, it is highly important to reread women’s published works to retrieve their subjectivity and to discuss the question of representation. Reconstruction of a critical voice, the voice of a conscious subject is sought through this work.

The author has explored the journals to trace the public voice of the women of the colonial era. The women during the colonial era had a strong urge to improve their position in society. They were aware of their role and agency in improving their position as well as nation building. The women writers of the colonial period particularly address the changing subjectivity and self-reflexivity in their writing. Having taken into consideration the above aspects this book argues that the whereas in the non fictional writings women exhibited a progressive outlook, the fictional works of the women writers of the colonial period in Assam underline the beginning of women’s distinct identity and subjective consciousness and thereby paving the way for a robust tradition for post-colonial women writers in Assam.

Weaving together both fictional and non fictional writing of the women writers of the Colonial era, this book traces the growth of a feminist consciousness among the women. This work will be of interest to researchers of Literature, History, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Cultural Studies.

About the author
Dr. Nizara Hazarika is an Associate Professor of English at Sonapur College, Assam. She has a PhD in ‘Colonial Assam and Women Writing’. She is involved with Teachers Training for Higher Secondary Teachers of Assam and is a member of the Syllabus Expert Committee of Higher Secondary Courses in Assam. She has been teaching the undergraduate students for the past 20 years and is a PhD Supervisor of Assam Downtown University. She has edited two anthologies namely, Interpreting Heritage: A Discourse on Heritage at Risk and Contemporary Indian Women Novelists Writing in English: Critical Perspectives. She has presented her research papers both in India and Abroad. She has published widely in books and journals. Her paper “Decolonization of Knowledge and Emergence of the New Humanities” has been accepted by Routledge for its forthcoming anthology Transcending Disciplinary Decadence.

EXTRACT: Writing and Difference
Women’s attempt to adopt different voices in different genres of writing was something significantly different in terms of the male/female writing. Women deliberately adopted two distinct voices in their fictional and non-fictional writings. The journal and periodical writings of women bring out the voice of progressive subjects, who talk about women’s awareness about their position and status in the society. This is their public voice, where they address the public and cross the barriers of the traditionally ascribed private sphere. They become the representatives of social change and transformation in the society and their voice is comparatively radical and revolutionary. The other voice is their private voice, which is heard in the novels. In the novelistic discourse they portray the social reality. In novels they do not seem to be very comfortable with the idea of transcending their traditional status.

Scholarships on women’s magazines in the colonial era in the Pan Indian context speak volumes about the opportunities they created for women writers and even readers. Gail Minault in her study on early twentieth century Urdu women Magazines express that even though the women had limitations of access and ideology, the magazines “at least gave women a place where their voices could be heard”. (1988:9). This space that the magazines provided made women agents of social change. Himani Banerjee puts forward another angle to this debate by saying that magazines functioned as a “wide communicative space”, which filled the gap created by the waning Bengali culture of Andar Mahal. Banerjee postulates that a certain kind of women’s culture was lost in the transition to modernity, these women’s magazines created another “social, moral and cultural space for and by women”. In Assamese context too it can be said that the journals provided a space for women to express their creative endeavour, though in the initial stage, women were mostly conforming to the traditional value system of the society.

The big leap forward in this direction came with the publication of the women’s journal Ghar Jeuti in the year 1927. The journal was published from Sivsagar under the editorship of Kamalalaya Kakoti and Kanaklata Chaliha. The publication of this journal commemorated the celebration of Joymati Utsav, which exposed women to various organizational experiences. The editors paid serious attention to publish the various events that took place in the celebration and women’s participation in those events. Gradually, this journal became the mouth piece of the Assam Mahila Samiti. The journal also particularly endeavored to publish the details of the various socio-political activities organized by the Samiti members.

Throughout its publication history, the magazine maintained its distinctive identity as a women’s magazine for women by women and about women. This journal created a new social, cultural and political space for women. It created a large semantic space to discuss threadbare many issues exclusively related to women. Women from towns and villages alike took pen in their hands to prove their abilities in literary creation. It brought about an awakening among women to speak of their potential and autonomy in a powerful voice. Thus, an ambience for the articulation of women’s authentic experience and subjectivity developed in Assam.

The journal also provided space for all the writers irrespective of their background, class, caste or location. In this regard, Chandraprova Saikiani’s observation on the role of this journal is significant: “drawing on Ghar-Jeuti for sustenance, innumerable women from towns and villages took pen in hand to give evidence of women’s literary creativity” (Saikiani, 1961:54). Though both men and women had contributed to this journal, it was mandatory that the writings should in one way or the other reflect women’s issues like education, equality and women’s position in society. The editors maintained certain columns like “Samayik Jagat” (Contemporary World), through which they could inform the Assamese women about the contemporary events which happened and affected women around the world. Another important column presented the new endeavors regarding the progress of women’s status and the new ventures that took place for the development of women in the fields of education and social welfare. Thus women got an opportunity to know about their own condition and also about the activities which related to their upliftment.

Writers like Swarnalata Saikiani and Rajabala Das wrote extensively on women’s activities at the national and international level. Thus, this journal broadened the mental horizon of women. Like other journals, it published stories, poems and other write-ups also.

One remarkable aspect of the journal was that it published writings of women who belonged to different strata of the society having different world-views. Progressive as well as very conservative notions found their place in the pages of Ghar-Jeuti. Even subjects like education had been debated both from progressive and traditional perspectives. The journal always maintained a very liberal and cosmopolitan attitude towards all issues it discussed. In a remarkable way, it opened up avenues for the intellectual development of women during the colonial period. It also played a significant role in developing a sense of sisterhood among women making them conscious of the Nationalist cause. A feminist consciousness somehow lurked behind this activism and the journal endeavoured to raise the consciousness of women regarding their emancipation, progress, liberty, education and social status. In an article published in the second year, in the eleventh volume, Swarnalata Saikia observed:

We women have become so useless in the eyes of the world that there is no end to our suffering… We women are so lost in ourselves that rather showing any compassion for the cause of our own nation, we hate to take part in it. Now respected ladies, you think where we are situated. Don’t you think that we really need spiritual as well as physical reformation? If we need the reformation, who will bring it for us? Will it be the God or the society? I would say no one will do it for us. If we do not bring in the reformation of the women and their progress through the Mahila Samiti that is the symbol of women’s awakening and that we have derived as the blessing of the Almighty, no one else will do it for us; by ignoring the resistance silently that we face, now the time has come to think about ourselves and our country (My translation. Comp. & Ed. Aparna Mahanta.Ghar Jeuti, 2:11, [1929], 2008:553).

Women’s awareness of the outside world vis-à-vis their subordinate position in the society were highlighted through various articles in Ghar Jeuti. Kamalalaya Kakoti along with Kanaklata Chaliha had raised their voices against the injustice meted by the women during those days. Both of them wanted to improve the women’s position through women’s education and also by bringing justice and equality of sexes in the society. Kamalalaya Kakoti had presented her feminist awareness through her speeches. In her speech in Konwarpur Mahila Sabha which was later published in Ghar Jeuti, she said, “Today throughout the world there is a struggle for women’s emancipation. Women have been oppressed and suppressed since time immemorial but today she has understood her rights and justice. Today women are not content merely with weaving and cooking. Women have equal rights with men onissues pertaining to society, education and literature—and to prove this truth women have staged this war against the selfish society and the consequent ruthless suppression of women by men. This call for war has reached you and I am happy to see that you all have come out and have actively got engaged for the cause of women.” (My translation. Ghar Jeuti, Comp. & Ed. Aparna Mahanta. 2008:0.9).

Women received a new impetus after reading such write ups and there was a growing awareness in the women about their position in the society and also about their own agency in bringing about a change in the society.

Women started fighting to gain a space in the patriarchal society as they became conscious of the need of it. The concept of space is very pertinent for the study of women’s literature as it reflects her world. The restricted “woman’s space” in family and society was firmly embedded in the psyche of the nineteenth century women. Traditionally, women have always been entrusted with the hegemonically assigned domestic space. They are used to accept this confined space, according to patriarchal dicta, without questioning them. Colonial modernity and western education precipitated women’s realization of their own condition. With their entry into the public sphere, they are conscious of their oppression in various spheres of life. With the spread of western ideology and education and also through their exposure to the public sphere, women began to question the oppression. This resistance was reflected in their speeches and writings. In their writings what came out were the contours of social structure that women operated within, their limitation and support forces, and the male responses to their initiatives. As the male responses were not always encouraging, women started waging the war against male dominance and this was revealed in their writings. They not only challenged the male dominance but also vehemently challenged the complicity of the women in accepting her age old role of woman and advised the women to focus on improving their condition. Awareness about the power politics involved in the male/female relationship is visible in the writings of these women. Kamala Rabha who published the article “Naarir Obostha” (Condition of Women) in the journal Banhi, presents the status of women down the ages. She very strongly argued for women’s awareness about the need for an improvement in her intellectual as well as physical conditions of existence. She underlined the importance of natural justice that could treat women as human beings. In this context, she writes:

Even men know that without an improvement in the condition of women, no nation can prosper. Still irrespective of cities or villages, the fathers and brothers stand as obstacle in the spread of women’s education… women have never got the respect that they deserve; men have never given women a respectable place; women have always been endowed with shame, humiliation and torture as a reward of her service, her love, her motherhood and her divinity that she renders to her man… we are human too, and we too need our rights, our education, our ideology and all the arrangements to be called a human (1929,120-121).

These women writers interrogated the male domination, sometimes openly and most often very obliquely. Some of the articles which reveal this conscious and open effort to question the patriarchal authority are: “Nabajugat Naari Jagaran, (Women’s Awakening in a New Age) by Swarnalata Saikia, “Samaj Gathanat Naarir Daaitya” (Women’s Responsibility in the Formation of a Society) by Kanaklata Bhuyan and “Naarir Bartaman Kartabya” (The Present Duty of Women) by Annada Devi Borkotoky published in Banhi. There were innumerable articles of this type that were published in the journals during this period.

The Ghar Jeuti had survived for three and half years and provided the much needed platform to women to express their creative and critical thoughts. The Journal Awahon started its publication in the year 1929 and from the very beginning it published articles and stories written by women writers. The prominent contributors of Ghar Jeuti like Chandra prabha Saikiani, Swarnalata Saikiani, Punyaprabha Das, Aloka Patangia, Manorama Devi started contributing to Awahon as well and became a strong force behind this journal. Banhi, which had erstwhile provided no authentic space for women writers, opened its avenues for women writers and writing on women and their issues. Through these writings in the Journals, women got the much awaited space to express their subjectivity and agency.

Women’s novels of the colonial period are written within the rubric of male conservativism and didacticism. Moreover, novel being a new literary genre also had created a conflict between the traditional literary mode and the new mode of representation. Women did not know the scope and limit of their freedom which the new genre demanded. Individualism as a marked feature of the characters was not easy to render in the novels. Thus, in the novels we find the writers hesitant to raise the voice of a subject who is conscious of her own subjectivity. This is because they have to maintain the status quo of the society that did not provide any space for the free voice of the woman as a subject on her own terms. Writers like Chandraprova Saikiani, who fought “women’s cause” through activism and leadership, had to face this paradoxical situation. Her articles and speeches published in journals took women’s cause to the zenith. She was symbolic of the progressive impulse which could represent the ethos of new women in the era of colonial modernity. But in her novel, Pitri-Bhitha, she remains faithful to the traditional values and abandons her progressive outlook though at the beginning of the novel she voices her progressive outlook regarding women’s rights, responsibilities and education. She ends up creating a completely different space and produces an entirely different voice in the fiction.

The changes in perception and representation mark a conscientious move towards the attainment of subjectivity. One significant aspect in the development of women’s sense of selfhood is the social and political contribution of men. The social reformers as well as the political leaders, who took active part in the freedom struggle, initiated women to the public world. They opened up avenues for women to raise their consciousness about their own status. However, the male responses to women’s initiatives differed considerably. The reformers who wanted to bring about positive changes in the condition of women were not too keen in bringing in all forms of transformation enhancing the status of women. Men were both encouraging and resistant to women’s initiatives in the society. Even the liberal social reformers were skeptical about the true emancipation of women. Thus, they presented women characters as possessing some individualistic traits, but often ended up making them conformists. Thus, in the male writings, where women’s issues are taken up, a double standard was evident. They wanted women to be educated and free, but at the same time follow traditional values. The early novels written by women, though obliquely critique this patriarchal position, ultimately, conform to male views. However, a subtle voice of protest is evident in the women’s novelistic engagements.