Free Press Journal

Heroins: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History- Review


Heroins : Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History

By Ira Mukhoty.

Published:  2017

ISBN No: 978-93-84067-49-6

Pages: 211

Publisher: Aleph Book Company.

Price: Rs. 499/-

The book makes a case for revising notions of courage and heroism through the portraits of eight powerful women from mythology and history.With the purpose of keeping patriarchy intact; mythologies and histories are popularized and retold via state controlled media at the mass entertainment level and reflections of women characters are generally more negative than positive. Women of history and mythology aredepicted as weak, emotive, obedient, submissive while qualities like courage, endurance, wisdom and physical strength has been associated with masculinity. The book challenges these stereotypes and makes a case for women heroism through the narratives of Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Raziya Sultan, Meerabai, Jahanara, Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal.

It starts with the story of Draupadi, the heroic princess from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata as a women with firm, unbending will who constantly challenges notions of Kshatriya dharma in her journey to seek justice. Her presence in the mythology is to avenge ancient humiliation and she appears as an agent of destruction who exposes lack of moral resolve and determination among the male characters. Quiet unlike the Hindu model of an ideal Hindu wife who is bound by unconditional submission to her husband, Draupadi is unconditionally committed to justice, being virtuous and maintaining an wifely equanimity in face of endless trails. Resilient and determined in the face of abandonment and humiliation the book describes her as an inspiration for rising up against injustice. The book interestingly describes Radha as the illicit goddess, thus, it reiterates the notion that woman who are vocal about their desires and sexualities are not automatically evil. The enigmatic and elusive lover of Krishna is sometimes the soul of ancient poetic erotic genre of shringararasa (in works such as Gita Govinda and Natya Shastra); while sometimes she and Krishna are revered and become objects of veneration (in works like Sur Sagar).

The author explains that Radha’s enduring appeal is to do with the fact that her emotions are channelized at the heart of the human condition which is of anguished longing in the face of obstacles. Her heroism lies in the fact that she pursues forbidden love in the face of every obstacle. In an attempt to connect caste and gender, the book details the life of courtesan Ambapali, a women rebel who dared to confront her fate ridden with caste and gender discrimination. Before she meets Buddha and chooses the life of an ascetic, she challenges her fate of exploitation by winning respect and wealth through her sexuality. After her encounter with Buddha she is enlightened about the futility and fleeting nature of her youth and wealth, thus she renounces everything she fought so hard for and embraces the life of an ascetic; she was one of first Buddha’s followers as well as is revered as a ‘senior nun’. The book explains that inspite of her vulnerable and uncertain beginnings, her heroism lies in her act of reinventing herself twice in her life and challenging the patriarchal norms that offer sanctity of marriage as the solution for women to seek refuge.

The book vividly describes Razia Sultan, the famous lady who begun her life as a Turkish slave and ended as the Sultan of Delhi is a story of unparalleled valour as she challenged several stereotypes of female natures and etiquettes by her kingship of power and military strength. Donned in masculine attire she speaks of equality of men and women in matters of physical strength. Yet, the author states that she makes a far more radical statement of challenging men’s virility through her actions and attire; she challenges the traditional norms that permit men to put on feminine characteristics (for spiritual purposes) yet scowl at women who take the masculine roles in their fight for the rule of law.

Meerabai, like Razia Sultan, too steps out of the purdah and fought relentlessly for her right to spiritual aspirations. She is unfortunately assimilated and sanitized as ‘a model wife’ for her devotion towards Krishna and for winning over her family by the strengths of her acts. Her transgressions as a reluctant bride, disappointing daughter in law, her disrespect for caste and the symbols of matrimony have all been wiped off as she has been generally portrayed with semi human qualities. The book makes a case for her heroism in her courage to abandon all familial obligations, as she remains one of the most popular of the bhakti saints.

The author then describes Jahanara’s  almost forgotten story as the Mughal legacy is generally retold and repeated through the achievements of the kings. As a Mughal princess and a Sufi, her life is an inspiration as Jahanara Begum, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, followed her father’s footsteps by contributing several architectural gems to the cityscapes of India in quest for immortality. The book describes its unfortunate fate as much of it was destroyed and her reputation has been dishonored by Europeans who made aspersions about her love for her father.

Rani Laxmibai, fight against the British for the rights of her infant son is well known. Colonization that was the darkest period of Indian history and her struggle as a warrior women is much celebrated. The author moans her appropriation as a nationalist icon, her heroism lies in her breaking the patriarchal conventions that a widow of her times was suppose to obey. Her heroism lies not in her valour but also in her reluctance to participate in the acts of violence, the author thus describes her as a complicated and ardent woman who relentlessly pursued her beliefs even if it meant challenging the most powerful empire. The last narrative of Begum Hazrat Mahal is also an inspiring story of an invincible courtesan, begum and mother who challenged the Muslim patriarchy as well as the British. Yet, the book laments that she is a forgotten heroine and not a hailed as ‘national icon’ due to religious and caste biases.

The book is an inspiring read for anyone interested in women histories. It not only details the lives of the legendry women, but also describes its relevance in contemporary context through an analysis of its reception and circulation in cultural and political narratives today. Though it confines itself to North India and prominent women of mythologies and histories, the book engages with feminist concerns as it describes the distinctive contributions of these women by highlighting their specific experiences in institutions, in this case predominantly the institution of family. In also drawing attention to the significance of sexual divisions and discrimination in the society it thus explores the interconnections between public and private life, thus reconfiguring the way in which gender in the broadest sense in understood.