The Emergence of the Woman: A Reading of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura

I wrote this article on Raja Rao’s Kanthapura as part of a paper presentation in course of my post-colonial studies in Jadavpur University less than a year back. Please read the book if you haven’t [even if you don’t gel with this pro-feminist stuff],it’s fascinating reading with an unmatched style. Personally I think, in many ways the Gandhian movement was only a rudimentary beginnning for the true liberation of women. And we are still a long way off. Do you really feel that even the urban women are truly free today even if she’s wearing minis or going out to work? I don’t think so. I see educated, even financially independent women  treated not much apart from a piece of enjoyable and ofcourse, useful  property. Girls are still pushed into a school teaching job so that thet can devote enough time and labour to their prospective families, a wife cannot visit her parents’ home without her dear hubby’s permission, women exploited sexually at the workplace—we have so many unheard of Gudiyas, who are driven around like cattle and in the end die, forgotten. I’m trying to speak out here because as a woman, I’m facing the same danger and I don’t want to die like that. It’s not about clothes or a few useless modes of freedom, permitted graciously—it’s about respect. And scaringly enough, I find most people staring at me incomprehensively when they hear this…

The woman has always been the unacknowledged and indiscernible core of the Indian society, without which its patriarchy would fall apart. Never allowed a voice in the seminal aspects of life, the woman yet defines its traditional and cultural boundaries. Here, a community is referred to as modern when its woman wears jeans or goes out to work.  But she has not the independence to control or make the decisions of her own life. She is defined through her male guardian’s identity— as somebody’s daughter, sister or wife.

 Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) is a subtle study of the immense change that the Gandhian movement of the thirties brought into the life of the Indian woman and yet didn’t let her cross the conventional, the so-called feminine boundaries. The novel traces the material and psychological revolution that accompanied the emergence of the woman from within the twin incarnations of the devi and the dasi that has reigned the imagination of the patriarchy since ages. From the polar images of the all-pervading and all-powerful goddess Kenchamma and the Pariah Rachanna’s wife who would spin only if her husband tells her to, emerge the new women who defy conventions and lead the war of independence — Rangamma and Ratna.
Political mass movements in any country, as Ania Loomba suggests, have varying attitudes to the question of female agency and women’s rights. Throughout Latin America, machismo posed a real problem for the women in political struggle. Some critics suggest that Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement was feminist in nature —it mobilized an unprecedented number of women and also, it adopted attributes such as passivity, and activities such as spinning, traditionally considered to be feminine in nature.
This is correct only to an extent. It is true that the Gandhian movement had a considerable role to play in bringing the woman out of purdah. Women made up a significant part of the satyagrahis and many assumed the role of leaders in the movement. Thus we find the Gandhi of Kanthapura, Moorthy, selecting Rangamma as one of the members of the Congress Panchayat Committee, saying “We need a woman for the Committee for the Congress is for the weak and the lowly”.
But Gandhi’s movement was essentially against women’s militancy and their public roles were entirely an extension of their domestic selves in concurrence with the patriarchal conceptions of the family and society. Despite the references to Rani Laxmibai in Kanthapura, the ideal woman is projected in the figure of the ever-obedient and eternally suffering Sita. It was simply a transition “from a traditional child bride into the nationalist ideal of the wife as help-mate and companion” [Loomba]. We get a glimpse of this painful evolution in the autobiography of Ramabai Ranade, who was married at the age of eleven to the well-known scholar and jurist Mahadev Govind Ranade. Torn between her husband’s persistence for her to be educated and the taunts of her mother-in-law and other female relatives, she decides on one occasion to be absent from a function at the temple where she had to choose between sitting with orthodox or reformist women. Her husband punished her by refusing to speak to her even when she performed the traditional rubbing of his feet with ghee, without even telling her what her fault was. The matter was only resolved when she went up to him and apologized. His response was:

“Who would like it if his own one didn’t behave according to his will? Once you know the direction of my thoughts, you should always try to follow the same path so that neither of us suffers. Don’t ever do such things again.”

We meet with similar resistance to the Sevika Sangha from the men in Kanthapura.

“And when our men heard of this, they said: was there nothing left for our women but to vagabond about like soldiers? And every time the milk curdled or a dhoti was not dry, they would say, ‘And this is all because of this Sevi business’.”

A woman is beaten as a consequence of being a part of this Sangha although she is seven months pregnant. Post office Satamma’s husband forbids her to go to Rangamma’s house and when accosted by the latter says, ‘I am a Gandhi’s man, aunt. But if I cannot have my meals as before, I am not a man to starve’. Rangamma in accordance to the Gandhian ideals tells Satamma not to fail in her timely services to her husband or home.
One of the most interesting factors that played a role in this sea-change in the lives of the women is the letter or the alphabet in the form of newspapers. Shahid Amin in his essay Gandhi as Mahatma (1988) discusses how Hindi journalism played an immensely significant role in the upheaval of the nationalist sentiment in Gorakpur post 1919.

 “In April of that year two important papers— the weekly Swadesh and the monthly Kavi — made their appearance. These, especially Dasrath Dwivedi’s Swadesh, were to exercise an important influence in spreading the message of Gandhi over the region.”

Amin goes on to discuss how this influence in the district led to the idea of Gandhi to be appropriated by the peasants to validate their own means of addressing local problems, very much as depicted in Kanthapura.
Women’s education has always been a sore point with the Indian patriarchy. Arguments for women’s education in metropolitan as well as colonial contexts, according to Loomba, rely on the logic that educated women would make better wives and mothers. At the same time, they have to be taught to remain in their places. This idea is as current now as it was eighty years back.Tagore tentatively explores the so-called “dangers” that education poses for the woman in Nashtaneer (1901), better known by its film version, Charulata, and Ghore Baire (1916). The widening up of one’s world as a result of education fails to keep the woman shackled within the four walls of her home and it is precisely this spectre of the truly independent woman that haunts the patriarchy.
The women leaders in Kanthapura are both educated widows, Rangamma and Ratna. Rangamma acts as a source of information, knowledge and inspiration to the village women. Apart from telling them about other galaxies on the one hand and the equal rights that women share with the men in a far-away country on the other, Rangamma is a regular subscriber to newspapers from the city— the Tai-nadu, Vishwakarnataka, Deshabanddhu, and Jayabharatha. These papers supply the villagers with the latest developments in the revolutionary struggle in the other parts of the country and later as to the trial and judgment of Moorthy and his fellow satyagrahis. Rangamma is the one who tells the women about Laxmibai and trains them to resist the lathi blows of the police passively. She modulates the deep core religious zeal in the women and adds a nationalist dimension to it, ‘…we shall fight the police for Kenchamma’s sake, and if the rapture of devotion is in you, the lathi will grow as soft as butter and as supple as a silken thread, and you will hymn out the name of the Mahatma.’
On the other end there is Ratna. Initially, she is detested by the village women along with the evil Bhatta, for walking about the streets like a boy, wearing her hair to the left “like a concubine”, and wearing her jewellery —and all this being a widow. Ratna’s retort when accosted for this is remarkable,

“…when she was asked why she behaved as though she hadn’t lost her husband, she said that that was nobody’s business, and that if these sniffing old country hens thought that seeing a man for a day, and this when one is ten years of age, could be called a marriage, they had better eat mud and drown themselves in the river.”

We find innumerable examples of similarly suffering women in Bengali literature as well, but none perhaps daring to voice so vehement a protest. Her mother reacts to her attitude in the conventional fashion, calling her a wicked tongued creature and significantly, that she ought never to have been sent to school. Later, in the absence of Moorthy and Rangamma, it is Ratna who leads the women against the police as the latter launch a violent assault against the village.
Another great leap towards liberation is achieved by the women in the novel by their deciding to read and comment on the vedantic texts when Ramakrishnayya dies. The women choose Ratna to read the texts and Rangamma to comment on them, a remarkable decision when one considers the contemporary furore over whether a woman at all has the right to read the Vedas or not!  
Rao’s selection of an old grandmother as the narrator in Kanthapura is one of the finest stylistic devices of the novel. We witness the immense change that is gradually brought about in the psyche of the narrow-minded, prejudiced and uneducated widow as she mingles facts with fantasy to describe how the world changed for her and her companions under the influence of Moorthy’s preaching and Rangamma’s Sevika Sangha. This is one of the rare instances where history is looked at from a woman’s point of view as opposed to its analytical, power-structured male version that inevitably leaves the women folk out.
It is because of the Gandhian movement that we witness a considerable change in the portrayal of women in fiction that focus on the India of the 1940s. In Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters (1998), we find emancipated, politicized women choosing to break the bounds of conventional patriarchy by living an active life beyond their husbands and homes. Some like Swarnalata and Shakuntala, attending seminars and giving lectures, succeed in achieving independence. Others like the protagonist Virmati fail in the attempt. It is easy to devalue the efforts of these difficult daughters but necessary not to do so. It is the very effort during that time that needs to be applauded. Dora Sales Salvador, in her note to her Spanish translation of the novel, appositely stresses:

 “Kapur emphasizes the efforts made at that time by numerous women who, while demanding equal opportunities, equal access to education and life-opportunities going beyond convention, were a visible force in the non-violent resistance to the British”.

Kamala Markandaya’s Some Inner Fury (1956) focuses on the conflict in a city (evidently Madras) between a repressive Government and the nationalists, both violent and non-violent, a conflict culminating in a trial during the 1942 Quit India movement. One of the principle nationalist figures of the novel is the woman journalist Roshan Merchant. Perhaps inspired by the likes of Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Nehru, Roshan is probably one of the first fictional professional Indian women. She mingles easily in European circles where she has British friends and at the same time contributes a regular column to a magazine she owns which is audaciously critical of the Government. Later in the course of the novel she gets more intimately involved in the nationalist struggle.
History as well as fiction largely ignores the subaltern woman as opposed to her upper or middle class sisters. As Spivak puts it, labouring under a double colonization, she is too deep in the shadow to be generally remembered. Kanthapura records the sexual oppression of the female workers of the Skeffington estate who are subject to the whims and desires of the Sahib.

“He is not a bad man, the new Sahib. He does not beat like his old uncle, nor does he refuse to advance money; but he will have this woman and that woman, this daughter and that wife, and everyday a new one and never the same two within a week.”

If the chosen woman’s male guardian refuses to send her, his salary is cut and he gets a whipping. The Sahib is only timid when it comes to a Brahmin girl. He had shot to death a Brahmin clerk in his employ who had dared to defy his sexual demand for the latter’s daughter. Although Skeffington had subsequently offered to pay for the  damages to the murdered man’s wife and children, he’d eventually paid nothing, for, as Achakka puts it, “the Red-man’s court forgave him.” Despite its obvious unjust outcome, the trial had a sequel that might sardonically, in its historical setting, be called happy. Skeffington never again touched a Brahmin girl, and even when a Pariah said no to him, the sahib “hardly ever,” in Achakka’s words, had the girl dragged to him at night.

Such instances abound histories of other colonized countries as well. A visitor to Trinidad noted the case of a European estate manager who had seven Indian women, “being with child, all by him.” The royal commission of 1871 in Guiana, whose members were sympathetic to planters, stated: “It is not uncommon for overseers, and even managers, to form temporary connections with Coolie women, and in every case with the worst possible consequences to the good order and harmony of the estate.” It is meaningful to notice here that the exploitation of Indian women is viewed mainly in terms of its effects upon production, and not really on the women or families involved.

This gross violation was also given a boost by the many representations of the female native figure in Western Literature and Art which perpetuated the myth of the erotically charged female. The primitive exoticism and siren- like attraction of Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s prejudice-strewn 1887 novel She is noteworthy. Another remarkable instance is found in Anne McClintock’s book Imperial Leather (1995), where she studies the links between colonialism, domestic arrangements and sexual labour in South Africa and elsewhere in the nineteenth century. She opens with an astounding reading of the map in Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885). McClintock argues that if the map is inverted, it looks like the form of a woman’s body, the coveted mines to which the journeying men are heading being suddenly to be located in the pubic area of this topological map-woman. She goes on to make the surprising assertion that “Haggard’s map thereby hints at a hidden order underlying industrial modernity: the conquest of the sexual and labour power of colonized women.” It is perhaps only with the ultimate independence in 1947 that the Skeffington estate women workers were released from their oppression, only to be caught in a wider web spun by their own countrymen.

Kanthapura is a path breaking work in many ways, as its critics widely agree. But to me, it is Raja Rao’s sensitive and realistic portrayal of the emergence of the modern Indian woman, a part of whom we carry within ourselves even today, which has made the novel worth remembering.


3 Responses to The Emergence of the Woman: A Reading of Raja Rao’s Kanthapura

  1. Dear Tara,

    I found your piece on Raja Rao’s KANTHAPURA very interesting and stimulating. Indeed I would gladly engage in further dialogue with you by email. In your section on Manju Kapur’s DIFFICULT DAUGHTERS, I do specially thank you for favourably quoting Manju’s Spanish translator, my valued colleague Dora Sales Salvador. I do point out that the context from which you quoted Dora Sales on Manju was clearly that of my own article: ‘Women on the Margins: Reflections on Manju Kapur’s “Difficult Daughters”‘, The Atlantic Literary Review (New Delhi), Vol. 5, No. 1-2, January-March and April-June 2004, pp. 177-184;
    This said, I ascribe to the Indian principle that knowledge exists to be shared, and I am happy that my ciitation of Dora Sales has been reproduced within your own excellent study. I have also enjoyed several of your other blog pieces. All in all, I do hope we can talk some more!

    All best –
    Dr Christopher Rollason, Metz, France
    Language Editor: The Atlantic Literary Review, Delhi
    NB: My bibliography and that of Dora Sales (both evolving) can be found at:

  2. Helpful info. Fortunate me I found your website by chance, and I am shocked
    why this twist of fate didn’t happened in advance! I bookmarked it.

  3. bibhulina mishra says:

    helpful presentation and thanks a lot…

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