In a power-packed session during the Women Writers’ Fest in Ahmedabad, Devdutt Pattanaik asked the audience why aren’t we telling stories of cool mythological female characters like Sati and Savitri more often? He elaborated, how the word ‘Sati Savitri’ conjures the image of a bechari mahila, but when you read their stories, they don’t come across as demure, domestic housewives. The popular mythologist then went on to narrate the tales of both Sati and Savitri and how they exercised their agency and married the men they wanted to. Moreover, Savitri outwitted Yama and took back her husband’s life from him.
- Are Sati and Savitri really the demure and distressed women that they are made to be?
- Why is the term ‘Sati Savitri’ synonymous with pious and domesticated women?
- In fact, these two women challenged the authority of their fathers (who were kings), and even the God of death.
- It is about time that we change this narrative and identify Sati Savitri as women of substance.
If you look from this standpoint then Sati and Savitri aren’t demure and distressed, they are indeed cool and bold. But then why is the term ‘Sati Savitri’ synonymous with pious and domesticated women? Pattanaik says, “Ask yourselves, why nobody tells you these stories? Why do storytellers only want to tell you about weeping Sita and angry Draupadi, and not about cool Sati Savitri?”
Let’s change the narrative
Indian mythology is replete with stories of women who were either in need of rescuing or dependent on men for the redemption of their honour.
The popular tales from mythology, however, tell us how great men always fight for women’s honour and dignity. They protect them from evil and the lustful gaze of other men, and follow a strict moral code, hence having more substance than their female partners. Not many stories or versions of them that we have been told since childhood talk about integrity and strong will of women. Women are only credited for being pious, honourable and devoted wives.
But in this day and age, it seems we need to revisit our interpretation of stories from our mythology and re-look at whatever we have omitted, when it comes to women. Was Sita just a woman in distress? Was there nothing more to Draupadi, than her thirst to avenge her disgrace? Moreover, are Sita and Draupadi the only women we should be hearing about? Although telling selective stories that we want to is just part of the problem. How we tell the stories of Sati and Savitri matters too. Here we have two women who challenged the authority of their fathers (who were kings), and even the God of death. They lived on their terms and showed wit, resilience and sense of spirit.
Our society wants to keep daughters from challenging patriarchs and choosing to marry hermits and woodcutters over your regular run of the mill doctors and engineers.
Heavens forbid if girls begin challenging male authority and do what they want to do! Which is why it conveniently omits portraying these women as cool, witty, bold and with a sense of agency. Sati Savitri is a word we have long been using to portray a woman as guileless, helpless, traditional and devoted. Just how many modern women do actually aim to be these things?
It is about time that we change this narrative and identify Sati Savitri as women of substance. Women who we can identify with and would want to be like, and not the women our society wants us to be. So let us commit ourselves to revisit these stories from our mythology. Of reading them with a renewed and empowered gaze and refusing to see capable women as helpless and tragic. Let us invest in telling the next generation about cool Sati Savitri and many others, which were deliberately lost in translation, and reclaim our space as women of substance in the narrative.
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Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.