Explained | How women emerged as writers in 19th century colonial India
It was February 23, 1821, when one of the greatest Romantic poets of English literature, John Keats, lying in a small room amid the mild winters of Rome, finally embraced death at the age of 25, ending his suffering from tuberculosis. After more than 50 years, the world lost another "Keats" to the same illness in a faraway land, but this time she was just a little more than 21 years old. Toru Dutt, who is often called the Keats of Indo-English literature, emerged as the first woman who broke through the fetters of colonial Indian society and became a poetess. This was the first attempt by a woman to pick up her pen and add to the flowing stream of literature.
A new habit: How did Indian women indulge in novels in the 19th century?
Formal education was a privilege denied to women of all castes in 19th century colonial India. Women belonging to upper castes enjoyed the liberty to study classical literature and religious texts. Generally though, women were trained in household chores like cooking, and sewing and were married by the time they reached the age of 12.
Stealing some time from the day to escape the monotony of domestic chores, the women in the eastern state of Bengal indulged themselves in popular performing arts like medieval poetry's oral recitations, theatrical performances and musicals while also participating in the collective reading sessions where they discussed religious text.
In the middle of the 19th century, the educated middle class along with the elite and ruling English class expressed their apprehensions over these popular performing arts badly impacting the morals and minds of women. The women were considered morally vulnerable, mentally weak and likely to fall into trap of corrupt influences as men took it as their duty to regulate and control the way they spend their leisure time.
Yet slowly, women moved away from participating in popular traditions and started indulging themselves in novels and finding their solace in reading a long fictional narrative. The novels, in all their forms, shot to enormous popularity in the Bengali milieu. Novels didn't remain restricted to literate women only, as they could be read out even to illiterate ladies seeking a break from their household chores.
How did women writers and poets emerge from households?
Most of the novels being read by women in the 19th century were declared taboo and the society's intelligentsia expressed its anxiety over the reading habits of women, accusing them of becoming averse to household chores, being indolent, sexually deviant, suicidal and morally corrupt.
The women were asked to stop misusing their education by reading novels and instead only devote time to reading religious books.
Writer Maroona Murmu, in an article titled ‘Kahake: Swarna Debi’s Literary Resistance?’ writes, “Complaints were raised about the novel’s tendency to corrupt the moral sensibilities of tender minds, causing mental stultification, making women neglectful of housework, defiant and shameless. It was alleged that the identification with and imitation of the central characters in novels encouraged immoral habits and transgressive desires. The fear of ‘novel-reading women’s sexuality’ led to greater surveillance over woman’s reading habits."
However, these diktats issued by the patriarchal society fell flat as women continued reading novels, and some of them went ahead and picked up their pens to narrate to the world the stories they have lived and longed for.
Ladies who made the 19th century the 'age of women'
Among the pioneers who broke the fetters of societal bindings and used their pens to challenge the patriarchal society and its conservative norms were Toru Dutt, Begum Rokeya Hossain, Swarnakumari Devi, Pandita Ramabai, Krupabai Satthianadhan and Rassundari Devi.
Toru Dutt, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1877 when she was just 21 after losing her siblings to the same disease, is considered the first Indian poetess who wrote in French and English. "A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields", which was published in 1876, is considered her best work.
Rassundari Devi's autobiography Amar Jiban, which was published in 1876, became the first autobiography ever written by an Indian woman. A mother of 12 children, Devi fulfilled her aspiration to become literate by teaching herself during her free time from daily chores.
Rabindranath Tagore's sister Swarnakumari Devi was among Bengal's first women writers to gain prominence. Her debut novel Deepnirban, which was published in 1876, ignited the national spirit among people.
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, who was born in a well-to-do family where she received encouragement to study English and Bengali, wrote stories which talked about the importance of educating women. Her novel “Sultana’s Dream” is still widely read and celebrated as the finest example of feminist science fiction which sketches a world for its readers where everything is run by women and men remain secluded.
These women not only challenged the stereotypes but inspired others to break their barriers and gain an education. These writers made the 19th century the 'age of women', unmasking their feelings, emotions, disappointments, longings, pleasures, priorities and literary tastes which remained veiled for a long time. In the 19th century's second half, more than 300 books were written by women authors in Bengal and were listed officially across different categories, with poetry emerging as the most favourite.