Stories of mythological women can often be interpreted in ways which enable women to draw inspiration and feel empowered. Lately, many millennial women have been acknowledging goddesses as icons of feminism, and have been creating interesting and contemporary pieces of art based on Indian mythology.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Author Arshia Sattar argues that though stories of women in mythology have been re-interpreted for centuries, the problem is that the work has just not become mainstream.
“Women have always read the Ramayana, for example, differently — there are hundreds of folk songs and stories in many Indian languages that attest to this. It’s just that these have not been canonised in the way that male readings have and so we have to reinvent the wheel every decade or so,” she tells SheThePeople.TV.
Take a look at these series of graphics that Penguin India recently released. More of these kinds of graphics and stories could help bring the forgotten voices of women’s empowerment to the forefront.
Priyanka Paul, a 17-year-old artist, also released a set of drawings on re-imagined goddesses. Here is a striking image of Kali from her Instagram account. She says that she was inspired to make these drawings because of a poem that her batchmate, Harnidh Kaur, wrote.
“The pedestals [goddesses] are held on are actually cages, and they need to be systematically broken down” Kaur told Huffington Post.
Indeed, instead of looking at Indian goddesses within a traditional framework, it can be useful to celebrate and reinterpret our Indian history by attaining useful leadership lessons from women’s stories. One of the most interesting stories about Durga is how Mahishasura mocked her even after she received almighty powers and declared battle against him. In the story, he wonders how a woman can kill him, since he says women are weak. However, Durga’s self-conviction enables her to strike him down effortlessly in battle, and to break the limitations gender stereotypes impose on her.
BOOKS, FILMS, RE-TELLING THE STORIES
Kavita Kane, who is currently working on a book about Sita, and who has authored ‘Sita’s Sister’ and ‘Karna’s Wife’, tells SheThePeople.TV that Hindu goddesses have always been feminist icons.
“We often limit feminism to its Western definition of feminist rebellion. A mild-mannered Lakshmi or the quick-witted, quick-tongued Saraswati or the bloodthirsty Kali are but recognition of the various roop (images) of a woman. The goddesses are not just a symbolic resource, their range in diversity in representation reveals the potential of every woman. Durga is aggressive, striding on the lion of misogyny, male ego and patriarchy, defiant and invincible. Each representative role is the mood, the emotion, the character and courage prevalent in every woman. Power in all its hues is acknowledged, recognised and respected. It’s a different issue altogether how our society has not been able to assimilate this feminist celebration as it should have.”
We often limit feminism to its Western definition of feminist rebellion.
Author Kiran Manral tells SheThePeople.TV that the trend of modernising goddesses should extend to deities other than Kali and Durga.
“I feel there has been a lot of positive representation of Durga and Kali (from the Hindu pantheon of divinity) and contemporarising them so that the current generation of women identifies with them. I would be delighted to see more re-interpretation of Saraswati, given education of the girl child is really the fulcrum on which we can leverage the sensitisation of future generations on issues relevant to women,” she says.
Perhaps the most perplexing mythological woman is Mahabharata’s Draupadi, the woman with five husbands.
Harper Collins India just released a book titled ‘Ms Draupadi Kuru’ by Trisha Das. The book is about how a bored Draupadi comes down to Earth from heaven to enjoy herself with her girlfriends. Das recasts Draupadi as a woman with agency and opinions, instead of someone who is often portrayed as quietly bowing down to her fate.
In the book Das writes, “She had spent virtually her whole life juggling the five of them so that none felt less of a husband to her than the others. ….Ever the tireless one, ever the pillar for all and sundry to lean on, the self-sacrificing little wife who always considered the good of society and her family above her own needs. ‘Bah!'”
Akshat Verma’s short satirical film, ‘Mama’s Boys’ starring Aditi Rao Hydari exposes the sometimes absurd nature of the Indian myths we so readily accept. In the film, Hydari plays a salacious and irreverent Draupadi, who is excited to share her husbands.
Another book, ‘The Liberation of Sita‘ by Tamil writer Volga tells the story of the Ramayana from the perspective of its minor female characters. As Sita searches for closure and self-realisation, she meets other women who have also been wronged. Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya who steer Sita towards an unexpected resolution.
As more stories which subvert traditional female archetypes become popular and hit a chord with mainstream audiences, society might come to celebrate Indian mythological women’s strength and leadership, and not their submissiveness. And often enough, the original stories lead the way.
“All great stories are multi-valent and so yes, for every patriarch that is thrilled with the idea of a submissive Sita who follows Rama to the forest, a woman can find inspiration and empowerment in the fact that she leaves Rama at the end of the story. There’s no recasting involved here, it’s exactly the same story. It just depends which end of it you look at,” Arshia Sattar tells SheThePeople.TV.