Featured image above: “Arjuna shooting at the eye of a fish to obtain Draupadi in marriage” source: Wikimedia Commons
Every year I teach a course in Oral Epic traditions in India, aiming to explore the processes through which identities shape up in the performance of traditions among different communities. In the course of teaching, we usually conclude that oral epics provide space to identities which are elided over in the written sources controlled by the dominant groups. However, what we come to see is that hierarchy and dominance remain embedded even in the most marginalized of traditions.
Women’s lives are often rendered meaningful through their devotion towards men in their families like that of Sadu Mata in the Devnarayan epic, the mother in the Anananmar epic or Damayanti in the Dhola epic. When denied motherhood or marital spaces, or located outside of familial spaces, women unleash their wrath upon the world and destroy it, like Kannagi from Cilappatikaram, Jaimati from Devnarayan epic, Deval from Pabuji epic, Tankal from Annanmar or Bela from Alha. Then there is the ‘free’ woman, invariably tribal, lower caste or working-class, who is often depicted as ‘loose’, lascivious and sexually available. In the epic traditions all these women are at the receiving end of cycles of gendered and sexual violence irrespective of their social locations.
Among the multitudes of narratives drawing upon the Hindu epic literatures we often find references to women like Menaka, Rambha, Shakuntala, Ahilya, Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, among many others subjected to lustful gaze of men, violated and then subjected to a life of guilt and suffering for abandoning children born out of violence. Sometimes, they are erased out of narratives like in the oral epic of Pabuji, where his mother is depicted as a heavenly nymph who vanished when a promise was broken. Alternate readings of the epic suggest the possibility of the mother having been a tribal woman whose identity was erased to create an upper caste identity for the Rajput deity Pabuji.
In several oral narratives we find similar references to forced marriages to tribal or lower caste women, as part of protection treaties. Daughters and sisters were often used as collateral in political treaties. In narratives from Rajputana, women are portrayed as willing participants in the ritual suicides by fire.
Though we do get some references to women refusing to follow men to death, the fear of sexual violence as well as a life of hardship and neglect in absence of any rights outside of marriage, could well have motivated women to seek death over life.
In some narratives where marginalized groups seek revenge it is through inflicting sexual violence upon women, and yet in other narratives it is the danger of sexual violence towards women that is used to justify suppression of lower caste communities.
While the Mahabharata contains numerous references to sexual conquests of the Pandavas, in the Bhili Bharat, an epic of the Dungri Bhils of Gujarat, an episode depicts the rape of Draupadi by the Naga king of the netherworld to spite her husband Arjuna after tying him up. Only in some rare narratives, often referring to goddess traditions, do women faced with sexual violence retaliate, like the Charani goddess Avad of western India who, angered by a king’s insistent marriage proposal, shifted the course of a river rendering his kingdom a desert. In rare instances like in the Bhili Bharat, they emerge as possessors of wisdom and knowledge, as gurus, witches and goddesses, who navigate the events in the face of collective lack of wisdom among the men.
Thus, while we expect oral traditions, which provide voice to marginal communities and groups, to create space for women’s voices, even in these traditions women’s locations remain marginal and mostly with respect to the male figures.
Women’s marginality is ‘invisibilised’ even in the narratives of marginality. The only manner in which they become visible is as ‘bodies’ whose violation or preservation provides cause and context to the actions of men.
Women characters do not escape the cycles of gendered sexual violence. Dominance as well as retaliation to it takes the form of sexual violence upon women’s bodies, imagery of whose brutalization further perpetuates cycles of violence. Women exercise no control over these cycles of violence, irrespective of the side they are located on, as violence is unleashed upon other women to protect their bodies. Women’s bodies are placed at the centre of narratives and yet remain marginal.
Tanuja Kothiyal is Professor of History in the School of Liberal Studies, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi. She is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A history of mobility and identity in the Great Indian Desert (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and co-edited a book ‘South Asian Borderlands: Mobility, History, Affect, CUP 2021) Her recent research project https://www.saltindiahistory.com/people will be published in 2022.