The portrayal of women and feminism in Indian literature

By Subrata Das & Priya Chetty on July 21, 2022

Indian women have been facing challenges in the form of inequalities, mental and physical violence acts and many more from different phases of time in India. The portrayal of feminism in Indian literature is considered to be one of the most debated topics. From the 19th century to the 21st century, Indian writers have expressed their concerns and views through their work. India is a land of multiple languages and different pieces of writing have been published in several languages. The aim of this article is to assess the representation of women and feminism in Indian literature.

Depiction of feminism in Indian literature in the pre-independence era

The portrayal of feminism in Indian literature goes back to ancient Indian history. ‘Ramayana’ is considered to be one of the greatest epics of Indian literature written by Valmiki in the 5th century BCE. In this epic, the characters women have depicted the real condition of Indian women in the ancient period. As stated by Gamberi, the character of Sita who is the wife of the protagonist has justified the power and strength of her husband Rama. She has also been portrayed as vulnerable without her husband.

Furthermore, Gamberi has stated that the epic has made Rama an exemplary protagonist at the cost of the rejection of his wife. According to Dwivedi, Toru Dutta, a nineteenth-century Indian poet, expressed her pain and grief through her poem ‘Sita’ and questioned the dominance of Indian patriarchal society.

On the other hand, another 19th-century Indian author, Pandita Ramabai depicted the helpless condition of Indian Hindu high caste women during the colonial period in her book ‘The High-Caste Hindu Women’ (Bhog and Bharadwaj).

Depiction of women in the post-independence literature

Post-independence Indian literature has portrayed the condition of Indian women in new dimensions. As stated by Sharnappa, the real suffering of a peasant woman in rural India can be witnessed in ‘Nectar in a Sieve’, a novel by Kamala Markandaya. This novel has a story of a woman and her husband in an Indian village who were exploited by moneylenders. The lead female character of the novel ‘Nectar in a Sieve’ is Rukmani who is the wife of a peasant husband apart from doing home chores she also helps her husband in farming. However, the land was sold and the couple had to suffer a financial burden. The village shopkeepers started refusing to sell rations on credit to Rukmani as she did not have money. This novel has depicted a picture of rural Indian women who did not receive education, financial security and societal support. 

On the other hand, the novel ‘Voices in the City’ by Anita Desai has stressed on freedom and facing realities in the lives of Indian women (Khan). The novel ‘Voices in the City’ has represented two lead women characters in different realities. Monisha, an important female character in the novel commits suicide due to her unhappy marriage life. Monisha discovered that her husband and his relatives have no respect for her and they wanted a child from her. Monisha was bound with old orthodox traditions like a bird in a cage.

On the hand, Amla the younger sister of Monisha came to Kolkata from Mumbai to live a new life. However, her enthusiasm disappeared when she came across an astonishing truth about one of her friends, Dharma. He had a daughter of her age and treated his daughter with no respect.

Depiction of women in the 21st-century

Indian society has been going through several changes in the establishing an identity for women. As stated by Sharma, The Binding Vine, a novel by Shashi Deshpande has highlighted marital rape. In this novel, the protagonist is a female character Urmi. She witnessed and felt the pain of her mother-in-law Mira. Urmi found a diary of Mira and discovers that Mira suffered marital rape and failed to raise her voice against it. Moreover, Urmi was also dealing with her grief and pain of losing her child to illness. The Binding Vine has portrayed the contemporary issue of marital rape which is considered to be taboo in many family discussions.

Another contemporary author, Shobha De has highlighted the emotional and sexual needs of an Indian middle-class woman through her story ‘Second Thoughts’. The story revolves around a young middle-class married woman who falls in love with a man other than her husband. However, Maya cherishes old traditions and cannot continue with the extramarital relationship for long.  In this story, the author has exhibited the importance of emotion and sexuality and their interdependence in maintaining healthy relationships.