Inaugurated on 12th March 1954 the Sahitya Akademi Awards are to date the most relevant awards to promote and honour regional and mainstream literature in India. Aiming to build a pool of literary voices from all parts of the country that belong to different sections of the Indian society, Sahitya Akademi, however, hasn’t recognised works of as many women authors as compared to men since its establishment.

An Economic and Political Weekly report states that in the 22 recognized Indian languages, there have been 1,129 awards between 1955-2016 and yet only 8.1% women have received the award. What’s interesting to note is that in the post-modern era after 1990s, the percentage of women awardees increased by 10% which earlier used to be 6.2% between 1955-1990.

Reasons behind this skewed representation:

  • Selection committee and Sahitya Akademi board has more male members
  • For long the literary awards highlighted only male contribution
  • Sahitya Akademi has bare minimum archives on Indian women writers
  • Only two out of 24 language representatives are women
  • Women writing in vernacular languages find it difficult to publish their work

Rise of the feminist movement in the 90s

This could be because of the feminist movement that paced up in the 1990s. Author and advocate of women’s rights, Manjima Bhattacharjya said, “It is so interesting how this period coincides with the rise of second-wave feminism and the women’s movement in India! Feminist publishing houses like ‘Kali for Women’ were set up in the mid-1980s, and so were a score of feminist “resource centres” and women’s studies centres in Universities across the country. They created the ground for writing by women, for women and about women.”

“The rising feminist politics of the time stressed that women’s own lives were worth writing about – it was not ‘mundane’ or lesser than politics or other themes considered more ‘serious’. It’s possible too that women became an important audience for writers and the Akademi too in this period, which may have had some influence,” Bhattacharjya added.

The report talks about how especially in the post-emergency era in the 1990s, women of Karnataka became more visible in the literary scene. “The overall increase in female awardees from the 1990s is driven largely by women from the Dalit, Other Backward Classes, and Brahmin communities rather than women from other populous social groups,” said the EPW report about Karnataka Sahitya Akademi Awards in particular.

Male bias in the selection committee

An active participant in the women’s movement and Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Anandhi Shanmugasundaram had some points to make about the functioning of Sahitya Akademi as an institution. She commented on the traditional and elitist approach of the committee instituted to highlight the male contribution in literature.

“I definitely agree that the norms and committee that works to select people could be extremely male-biased. For long the literary awards were instituted to highlight the male contribution and Sahitya Akademi is very traditional in that sense. What one needs to know also whether women have been there in the selection committee itself nominating novels and writing contribution. The gender sensitivity may not be there because the selection committee is also skewed towards having more male members.”

In the executive members of the Sahitya Akademi board, out of 24 language representatives, only two languages—English and Punjabi are represented by women—Professor Sanjukta Dasgupta and Dr Vanita respectively.

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Bare minimum work on early women writers

Editorial Advisory Board Member at ‘Journal of Peoples Studies’ and Dalit activist, Cynthia Stephen told SheThePeople.TV, “I had a research project in the back-burner for which I was researching on the first four well-known women novelists in India like Krupabai Satthianadhan, Cornelia Sorabji, Pandita Ramabai and Toru Dutt. To get background material, I found that there was one publication on the Satthianadhan family album which the Sahitya Akademi had reprinted and published two years ago. So, I went to the library to check it but I found that there was nothing much at all on celebrated women writers like Pandita Ramabai and Cornelia Sorabji, who is also the first female lawyer but also has written in English.”

Ramabai was one of the major thinkers and writers who wrote in English for Indian as well as the international audience in the late 18th and early 19th century.

“Sorabji and Ramabai are some of the big names of early Indian women writers in English language but their names aren’t there in the Sahitya Akademi’s History of Indian Literature. The only name of a woman in that book is Sarojini Naidu,” Stephen added. She also talked about the fact that Satthianadhan’s work is out of print now and believes that nothing stops Sahitya Akademi from republishing her work.

Sahitya Akademi does biographical work in many vernacular languages where it has recognized men’s contribution widely but hardly any women appear on the surface, reflected Stephen.

Difficulties women writers faced

Bhattacharjya also shed light on why historically women writers’ published work was a rarity. “There are fewer texts by women who are widely famous. I think this was for various reasons including that women did not have access to education and literacy – society inscribed women’s role to marry and bear children. Secondly, women therefore were more tied to oral traditions and songs than literature. Thirdly, there was a bias within publishing in general and few women writers published their work.”

“Besides the fact that lesser women writers published their work, there was a ‘gender blind-ness’ – a lack of attention to these texts, and bias against them because of gendered notions of what counts as ‘high art’ or ‘pure literature’. Historically, uptake of books written by women was also a challenge and received with prejudice – which is why you had women writers in the West writing under male pseudonyms. (Even JK Rowling apparently had to use her initials intentionally as her publishers felt young boys would not read Harry Potter if they knew a woman wrote it!),” she added.

Media’s role in recognizing writers

Within the regional sphere, gender also places a significant role in how a man’s work gets publicity in comparison to a woman’s work which in turn sways the opinion of the selection committee. Shanmugasundaram notes, “The kind of publicity a male writer gets within the regional public sphere also influences the selection committee. It is not squarely a selection committee problem. It is also the problem of how regional public sphere recognises women’s writings. There hasn’t been enough focus from the regional media on women writers. Cumulatively all this adds up to Sahitya Akademi nominations.”

“The other problem is translation of women’s work. The manner in which women’s writings have come out in English or made available in English which can reach the non-regional audience is equally important for women to increase visibility then one can say that Sahitya Akademi has discriminated despite its public visibility. But then again very few of women’s work translate/s in different languages,” she added.

Regional women writers

Talking about regional poetry in the North-East, Deepa Saraja Buncheng Rai, who reads vernacular poetry in Nepali language and belongs to Sikkim, said that there are many women writers who are also performing poetry but face a challenge in publishing their work. “There is a bare minimum of women Sahitya Akademi awardees up until now in this region but I feel that with the increase of interest in the younger generation, this might change in the coming years,” Rai said.

Rai recently read her poetry in the North- East and Northern Regional Writers’ Meet organised by Sahitya Akademi on 21 July. She said that Sahitya Akademi keeps a collection of our poetry but if they translate the poems in mainstream languages like English and Hindi then it will have a better reach. “This way more people will get to know of our culture,” she added.

Sahitya Akademi’s stand

We also spoke to the Secretary of Sahitya Akademi, Dr K. Sreenivasarao, to know how the institution views this gender disparity and what are the measures it has taken in the progressive feminist discourse. Talking about the selection process, he said that the awards are not on the basis of gender or caste but on the basis of literary excellence.

When asked about the lack of women representatives across committees, he mentioned how English in particular and the selection committee for Bal Sahitya Akademi Puruskar have more women in the selection process. However, he also agreed that in certain languages like Kashmiri there are very few women writers which makes it difficult in having more number of women representatives.

New initiatives

Sahitya Akademi has started a few initiatives exclusively for women writers like Nari Chetna program, Asmita and in March 2017, they started the North-East and Southern women writers program. “We have already had one in Bangalore and Tirupati and recently we did one in Delhi which was the North-East and Northern Regional women writer’s meet. These initiatives will make more women writers associate with the academy and simultaneously we can identify a new batch of women. So the change will come in due time,” said Sreenivasarao.

He also mentioned that the Akademi has approved another effort happening next year dedicated towards women’s writing and translation workshop targeting women writers writing in vernacular languages.

“For long the literary awards were instituted to highlight the male contribution and Sahitya Akademi is very traditional in that sense. What one needs to know also whether women have been there in the selection committee itself nominating novels and writing contribution. There may not be gender because the selection committee had more male members.”

Sreenivasarao contends that while North-Eastern literature is very rich and diverse with various languages like Manipuri, Bodo, Assamese, Bengali, etc. it hasn’t exposed itself much in the mainstream literature. “This literature has to get proper mainstream space in other parts of the country. People should know what people in that part of the country are writing and how difficult it is for women writers in the North-East to write as it is in other parts of the country as well.”

On asking when we will see more women awardees of Sahitya Akademi, Sreenivasarao says, “We have started a few things which I already told you about. We should have a dialogue between vernacular publishers and women writers because they find it difficult to publish their work. While Akademi cannot publish the work of all the people but at least we can provide a platform for clear dialogue.”

Sahitya Akademi has included women writers in all sorts of meets and events that it organizes across India leaving them majorly out of the Award shows. The exclusive women’s programs started by Sahitya Akademi have started only a few years ago which leaves out a long time when the Akademi failed to understand the gender bias ingrained in its history of awardees. How much do exclusive programs really help women writers in gaining a space in a gender-neutral public sphere?

Picture Credit: Thought Catalog, Unsplash

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