Myths and History: The ‘Other’ Side of Dalit Feminist Activism
Ms Aishanee Mallik, Independent Researcher, West Bengal, India
This paper intends to present an alternative history of Dalit feminist narrative challenging upper-caste hegemony and patriarchal forces, by looking at primary sources from the everyday lived-in-experiences of Dalit women. These sources, to be gathered through an ethnographic research, are not available in the “authentic canonized historical” archives, to borrow historian Charu Gupta’s phrase. In the same breath, it seeks to understand how such sources like spontaneous folk songs sung in the fields while working, or dance forms, produced completely in a language of their own, can actually throw light in reconstructing history. In that connection, the study proposes to examine how oral narratives culled out from the everyday world of Dalit women actually go on to contradict and challenge the stereotypically accepted notion that ‘myth’ and ‘history’ are discrete identities, and that mythological stories and legends only create hindrances in the task of a historian during his/her quest for “objective” truth. In other words, the paper aims to rather walk on the road not generally taken, and to utilize ‘myths’ to understand how they not only do not mislead a historian, but how, if used properly, can actually constitute history. At another level, the study aims at presenting an alternative history of the Dalit women and their collective forms of resistance, entirely through their own agency. Most of the conventional historiographical narratives tend to follow two extreme viewpoints; either in depicting the Dalit woman as a, “passive”, oppressed individual, or paint her as the sexually promiscuous and “fallen, degenerate” woman, who dares to not follow the conventionally accepted pativrata and dharmaparayanata norms of the society. In other words, most of the writings ultimately delimit the individual agency of the Dalit women, by either projecting her as the “victim” and the “vulnerable” beings, passive agents of ageless endurance; or go on to harp on how she deviates from her “motherly” roles, so much so that she emerges as the devilish Surpanaka in stark contrast to the “ideal” Sita or Sabitri. This paper, simultaneously, aims to bring about a paradigmatic shift, by moving beyond these two extreme positions, in such a way, that Dalit feminist activism against sacrosanct, canonical law codes, can ultimately successfully challenge both the dominant patriarchal forces, as well as Brahminical hegemony. By collectively singing in the fields during hard physical toil, the words of her songs actually reveal both her oppression, as well as resistance. Similarly, when observed minutely, the Godna paintings from Bihar, provide an alternative picture, in stark contrast to the elitist Madhubani paintings. Likewise, the myth of Uda Devi, or Jhalkari Bai, can be observed as producing an alternative history not only of the Dalit community, but also speaks aloud of these “unsung” patriotic heroes, of the Revolt of 1857. Hence, we would look at how, after a certain point, the paths of history and myth merge and intersect. It is at that very juncture whereby history starts relying upon myths as source materials; in addition to other sources. In that world, the archive does not remain the one and only source; but would operate hand-in-hand with myths in reconstructing a new history of the Dalit women.
Keywords: myth, Dalit women, archive, objectivity, folk, Revolt of 1857.