Sunday, November 10, 2013

Uma Chakravarti, a larger than life picture

Dr Uma Chakravarti at home
These days she sees the world through the lens of the camera, bringing to life, the larger picture behind a person. She evokes in the minds of the viewer, the memory of women, lost to history. 

When she was born, her grandfather, an astrologer by choice, had predicted that she would lecture a lot. 

“ this is interesting,” she laughs, ‘because all my life, I have done nothing but used words. I do a lot of lecturing, speaking when I have to at meetings and doing workshops.”

Professor Uma Chakravarti, is perhaps one of Delhi’s, indeed India and the world’s best known writer on feminists issues that cover a wide range of subjects. She has worked and written on issues of caste, labour and gender and is active in the democratic rights and women’s movements. 

Born, in Delhi, on August 20, 1941, Dr Uma Chakravarti, hails originally from Palghat, Kerala where her grandfather’s ancestors had been invited to come there by the maharaja of Kollengode. The maharaja had created many agraharams for Brahmins who had come from Tanjore district to Palghat district. They were given 108 villages in return for acknowledging his status as a maharaja, which the namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala had declined to do. 

“My grandfather was a reformist of sorts and wrote leaflets against the practice of kanyadaan (the giving away of daughters in marriage). He questioned the practice. He also questioned the virulence of the caste system not only in words but in action when he invited the entire village to his elder daughter’s wedding but fed the Dalits before he fed the Brahmins, causing the latter to walkout”. 

Uma Chakravarti’s father studied in Palghat and Madras and moved north in 1924, to join the bureaucracy at the bottom level but worked his way up, retiring as Under Secretary. During his years of Service, he was in Delhi and Shimla, the summer capital of the British. Professor Chakravarti, the third of seven children, studied in Delhi and Bangalore. Exposed from an early age to many people from different spheres of life, Uma Chakravarti’s mind grew into a liberal, secular one shaped by the tragedies of the partition and the assassination of Gandhiji by a Hindu fundamentalist, both of which she remembers fairly vividly. An early learning of sorts and observation helped Professor Chakravarti, shape her own way of life. 

Although her father was in the bureaucracy, theirs was hardly an elite upper class home, but could be identified as an upper caste, middle-middle class home with no money for the extras of life. “There was never any money”. Having seen his own mother and sister as widows and dependent on the family, her father was keen to give all his children a very good education and insisted that his daughters were not only well educated but had careers of their own. 

Both at school (Delhi Public School) and later in College (Mt Carmel College), Professor Chakravarti, was not particulary studious but worked hard when the exams came around when even her father would be pressed into service in making notes from the reference books! At home with many siblings, she learned to find her own space and to be independent and self-sufficient. The girls in the family went about freely, just like the boys on bicycles to school and later to college as well. Growing up in cosmopolitan schools, none of her siblings including herself ever saw themselves as marked by a strong regional identity.  Rather, they learned to live with a cross-section of people. Uma’s best friend at school was a Sikh girl Satinder Khurana who hailed from west Punjab at the time of partition. This early preparation, helped to understand, or reason out, some of Dr Uma Chakravarti’s work, in later life, especially her enormous contribution to the oral history of people who suffered the after math of the 1984 Sikh Riots, in Delhi. 

Professor Chakravarti, studied Law formally, but it is her love of history, which drove her to do two sets of exams simultaneously—she went to the College of Law in Bangalore as a regular student also enrolled as a private student in History at Banaras Hindu University for a Master’s degree. The exams were a nightmare shunted between two cities to appear for her exams one after another. 

Although Uma Chakravarti did not become a lawyer, she has engaged with law, reading judgments closely for her writings. It is history which she went on to teach throughout a long career at Miranda House, Delhi University. It was here that she ‘engaged’ with history, teaching it in class and along with a group of really creative teachers in other colleges in shaping the syllabi bringing a new kind of history with a focus on the margins. These were heady years in Delhi University which also was the place from where an engagement with feminist issues began as the women’s movement in the city had its reverberations in the university too. Students and teachers raised feminist slogans in the campus and began serious research in women’s studies inspired by issues that were thrown up from the ground. Uma Chakravarti herself began writing on gender when activists insisted in the early eighties that she use her understanding of history to examine the relationship of culture and tradition to women’s oppression. Her first piece from a feminist perspective was an essay on Sita in myth and literature. A second essay examined the place of women in Buddhism. This was followed by a sustained engagement with gender. The nineties were spent in researching on nineteenth century Maharashtra, especially on the life and times of Pandita Ramabai published as Rewriting History - The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai (1998). She co edited  From Myths to Markets: Essays on Gender (2000),which was  quickly followed by another co-edited volume Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood (2001). In 2004 Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens (2004), was published. All this was of course preceded by The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation (co-authored) and her own Ph.D thesis Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism (1987)

You would imagine that such an active scholar would in fact be rather somber by nature. The surprise is, she is just the opposite. What drives people to her is her vivacious nature, her laughing face and the pure energy she exudes which is that of a very positive person, very active, both mentally and physically. She mixes the sophisticated intellectuals of our times who values her roots, albeit she may not exhibit it blatantly. Her home is an example of the openness of her mind; indeed as you enter, you encounter treasures from the past, in the paintings and the handicraft that greet you, but you don’t see any door that shuts the visitor away from the rest of the house. One room looks into another and even opens up the kitchen, as if the outer and the inner are one, open.  

Dr Uma Chakravarti can truly be called ‘midnight’s children’, when as a child of only 6 years, she witnessed the partition of India and Pakistan and the aftermath thereof. She has seen the days when, this major happening changed their lives completely. From bread man, to dhobi, to house help, maids, gardeners who came to work in their homes, to neighbours, all became divided into whom you could trust and whom you were told not to. The normal roads that took her to her school, or people to their work destinations changed overnight, to traumatic places, forever guarded and hounded by the Police force, the army and suspecting neighbours. 

“Even as a child, it was impossible to keep away from the trauma of the times; it was in the very air around you.” What as a child, she was an onlooker to, as an adult she became part of the tragedy that finally culminated in her historic co-authored book, The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation. 

What attracted her to her husband Anand Chakravarti, who is a Sociologist? He was actually her brother’s friend, whose name too is Anand, and had been a visitor to their home in Bangalore.  Later Anand was in Benaras at the Gandhian Institute, at the time Uma went there for her exams so they took a boat ride down the Ganga which was a nice way of getting to know each other and their view of the world. 

“Probably it was the idealism. He was fixated on the idea that society needed to undergo change, structurally, economically, and politically; there was a lot that needed to be done. Although, he came from an affluent background, he was disturbed by poverty and deprivation, which you could see all around.” Straight after her marriage she joined him in Rajasthan where he was doing fieldwork for his Ph.D on social and political changes in the village. 

Anand and she spent one year in the village, studying political change on the ground. Very quickly though they became aware that there is no structural change that was happening at all; the state colluded with the dominant so there was little that changed for those who were at the bottom end of society. Both Uma and Anand have been part of many fact finding teams that have investigated communal riots, agrarian violence, and state repression. During one such investigation Uma describes what she saw:

“As we entered the village, we encountered the body of a young man, whom we assumed had been killed by the police force, but no! We were shocked to know, that he had died because, the family did not have the rupees two hundred that was required for the treatment of this man.”
The callousness of the state towards the poor has horrified them .

Together they have two children, a daughter, Upali who is a teacher and she along with her husband and son, live just above Uma’s own house. Siddhartha, Uma’s son, is older and lives in the US. 

Professor Uma Chakravarti’s contribution to feminist literature in India, is best found in her own works. Relentlessly, over the years she has been uprooting from the buried past the oppressive norms that work against the freedom of women. 

Where does Dr Uma Chakravarti find her relentless strength to write and put forth lives of women, who broke the cast? Perhaps the best summation of the above, is crystallized in her dedication, Rewriting History - The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai. 

“For my grandmothers Alamelu and Lakshmi, who experienced the routine humiliation of ‘adult’ widowhood, dependence, and a reluctant maintenance from their sons; my aunt Parvathi, who was married at twelve, mother at fifteen, deserted by her husband in her twenties, widowed at thirty-four, mortified eleven years later by the painful death from consumption by her eldest daughter, condemned to replace her as an unpaid domestic drudge for twenty-four remaining years of her life, my father, P.S Doraiswami, who even at the age of ninety, suffered the guilt that some sensitive men have felt at not being able to do enough to prevent the anguish caused to the widows in their families, my mother, Saraswathy, her sister Vijaylakshmi, and their father, P.V. Aghoram, who resisted and broke with the oppressive practices of Brahminical patriarchy so that I and my sisters and our daughters could have a better today…”

This dedication sums up the source of the fire in the belly, in a nutshell. That is also why, the unrest within to go out there, and listen, read, record, wherever, human torture and anguish is crying out loud.

“It was around 2.30 pm, when we heard on the BBC that Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated. The state was still waiting to make it public, as they waited for Rajiv Gandhi to return to India.” The rest is history, but what was not, till she along with her student from Miranda House, made it one, is the oral histories of Sikhs who underwent torture and killings in the hands of the state, in what finally came out as a 658 pages recorded transcription in the book, co-authored with Nandita Haskar, The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation. 

Excerpts from the book:

“In the night the Pandit came back. He opened the door and told us to run away. But where could we go? There was danger everywhere. I went to my house – everything was looted and burnt. Opposite my house there was a jhuggi with a charpai. I went and hid under the charpai and remained there. In the morning again the mobs came. They were searching for the last Sikh still alive….They dragged me out and were going to attack me…” – Phanda Singh, pg 77.
“I think that T.V had an indirect role to play in creating a particular atmosphere in every drawing room in the city because of the single monotonous focus on the mourners filing past Mrs Gandhi’s body…Do you remember the slogan, “khoon ka badla khoon se” was first heard on T.V? And although we could see efforts being made to quell the slogan-shouters, we were allowed to hear the slogan. I think that was provocative and deliberate you might call it the official signal to go ahead.” – Rashmi Bhatnagar, pg 656

Today, she has changed her language of expression to the visual arts and has already produced two films, one on the life of a child bride who went on to participating in the national movement even though her husband was a salt inspector for the colonial government as depicted in a book, titled “Fragments of a life” by Mythili Sivaraman and the second, a documentary on the life of the author of the book herself, who is slowly losing her memory and struggles to remember her own past. Titled Fragments of a Past, the film is both touching and revealing as it covers the period from 1960s to the 1990s when Mythily worked relentlessly for labouring men and women, documenting their oppressions through her writings most of which she does not remember now.  

Dr Uma Chakravarti’s work as a film-maker, is of utmost importance, as she captures on screen, scenes of lives and happenings that cannot be ever lost to time, or moth eaten, as might be in the case of books. Working with an all women team, representing a wide section of women from all walks of life including the visual arts, her films, will outlive the shorter life of creative material, and stand as testimony of truth. 

Dr Chakravarti lives in Delhi with her husband and is surrounded by friends and family who have been with her, throughout her years. 

Her grandfather may have predicted that she would have a lot to do with ‘vac’- word and speech, but he would have never imagined his granddaughter to have used so many different forms of communication, the blessed spoken word, the written word and now the visual art. 

What a larger than life picture Uma Chakravarti is! 

References and Bibliography:  www.womenswritings .org, The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation , Rewriting History - The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai. 

The author wishes to thank Dr Uma Chakravarti for giving her an opportunity to write about her and helping develop this article. Thanks is also due to Dr Kanchana Natarajan for lending books by Dr Chakravarti.

First published in Dignity Dialogue, November Issue, 2013

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