restricted access Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present (review)
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Reviewed by
Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, eds. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Volume I. New York: Feminist P, 1991. 537 pp. $29.95.

Susie Tharu and K. Lalita's ambitiously-conceived project of compiling women's writing in India spanning twenty-six centuries has resulted in the path-breaking two-volume publication entitled Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Volume I of the series (600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century), is an astonishing collection of 140 selections of poetry and prose by sixty-eight individual authors, as well as folk songs (whose authorship is unattributable to one individual because of the nature of the genre) and two anonymous prose pieces: an 1881 speech reprinted in a newspaper, and an 1889 newspaper article. Even a complete awareness of the immensity of the scope of this anthology, which is perhaps the first-ever attempt to record in two volumes a body of writing spanning twenty-six hundred years, and which sometimes retrieves an oral subaltern (female) tradition, probably cannot communicate the ardousness of the archival work involved. And as Tharu and Lalita suggest in their preface to Volume I, careful, painstaking archival searches for women's writing had to be supplemented considerably by reports or claims of extant works which were anecdotal at best. Private collections—ranging from private libraries maintaining an interest in women's writing, to hand-written copies of poems found in prayer rooms—seem to have been a significant source. Tharu and Lalita report how the absence of formal documentation or criticism limited biographical resources to letters, memoirs, and sometimes, interviews with the women's families—and so Tharu and Lalita's meticulous biographical headnotes preceding each entry in this volume represent nothing short of miracles in original research. Apart from the range of the work published, or the biographical information provided which inscribes a female literary tradition in India, Volume I is invaluable for the quantity of first-time translations. Over half of the entries in this volume are original translations.

Thirteen languages are represented in Volume I, eleven of which (Bengali, Gujarati, English, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, [End Page 211] Telegu and Urdu) are among the official Indian languages. The other two languages represented are Pali (no longer surviving) and Persian, which was the language of the aristocracy in the Mughal courts in medieval India. Tharu and Lalita briefly problematize the politics of translating various regional languages into English and the assumptions about audience that precede this choice before elaborating on the difficulties of translation and the need to preserve the "regional grain of the work" (xxii). In the general introduction to Volume I, Tharu and Lalita address why gender is valorized as difference in the construction of their anthology by presenting the allegory of Bangalore Nagaratnamma's work as feminist critic and historian, and her attempt to revive the eighteenth-century classic Radhika Santwanarn (Appeasing Radhika) by the Telegu poet Muddupalani. Part 2 of the general introduction, its most problematic section, provides a summary of the American feminist project of the recovery of women's voices in literature, but since a significant section of Tharu and Lalita's audience is otherwise clearly Western (sometimes specifically American), it is disconcerting to find them gesturing toward the Indian classroom here, while summarizing Kate Millet, Elaine Showalter or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. In part 3 of the introduction Tharu and Lalita locate the particularity of their agenda with respect to American feminist criticism, and while speaking to issues of the global alliance politics of feminism, emphasize the need to examine the application of western feminist theory to women's writing in India—although they do not call for an "indigenous" feminist theory. After providing a disclaimer in part 4 of the introduction (that Women Writing in India is not an attempt at canon-revision), Tharu and Lalita claim that the anthology is an attempt to develop an aesthetic and create a context wherein women's writing can be read "not as new monuments to existing institutions and cultures . . . but as documents" that display the politics of (female) Self-formation "at the...


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