Conversation with Mrudula Devi S – Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram
Mrudula Devi S is an activist from Kerala and an editorial board member of Pat̩habhedam magazine. She was a teacher by profession, but retired to focus on and engage with Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan issues. Here Mrudula talks about the invisibilisation, marginalisation, and exclusion of certain communities in India and talks about the relevance of projects like Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram, commissioned for Counterflows at Home 2021, and the importance of alternative readings of Indian epics for the emancipation of oppressed classes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you tell us about your work, your activism, and your current political position?
I realised that Dalit-Adivasi-Extremely Backward societies, and LGBTQIA communities are not adequately represented socially and politically in the Indian democratic system. I therefore do not associate myself with any political parties or organisations. Instead, I raise my voice independently, as a critical insider and a social critic, voicing my support where needed, and use independent platforms to organise discussions, writings, and debates as a part of my activism. I take the help of new media platforms and the Pat̩abhedam magazine to bring such issues to national and international prominence.
You are committed to bringing forth people who have been made invisible through exclusion and marginalisation. Could you tell us about the ways in which you achieve that?
There is a ‘chemistry’ at work within Indian politics to strategically invisibilise, exclude, and discard sections of the society by emphasising caste as the currency of Indian cultural capital. Identifying such spaces, I craft activities to resist them through writings, talks, and debates.
This is because, making a community invisible in most cases means making them digitally invisible. From a young age, I have had an inclination to enquire if there are certain names and ideas left unmentioned or not cited [in the dominant discourse], find out who these communities are, and why that is so. For instance, when Indian history fondly remembers the freedom fighter Rani Lakshmi Bai of 1857, the persons who led the Kallamāla agitation [for the right to use public roads, right to education, right to enter temples, and right to wear gold or metal ornaments] years later were recorded only as ‘the women who led the agitation’. Also, the people who led the Cānnār revolt [for the right to wear upper-body clothes to cover one’s breasts] for 37 years were known only as ‘the women who led the Cānnār protest’. Our history doesn’t record the names of these people. My work takes it as its mission to look for and record these names that have been left out of our history.
Recently, I came across an interview with the director of a film [Jeo Baby, The Great Indian Kitchen, 2021] for which I wrote a song, where an eminent woman reporter for an online newspaper asks: “Is there a song in your film in Pāl̩uva language [a script-less language spoken by Dalit Paraya caste]? Can you please tell us more about that song?” Even when mentioning the song and the Pāl̩uva language, the identity of the poet was concealed by the reporter precisely because I hail from a marginalised community. But the director mentions my name quite tactfully in his response.
Such attempts at invisibilising people and communities are rife in our society. As are attempts at resisting these acts. The purpose of my activism is to inspire the society to mount such acts of resistance, examine the privileges of being born in an upper-caste community through the lack of it for those who do not possess them, and to dismantle and uproot the thinking that being born upper-caste is a quality or a virtue in itself.
Can you talk about how communities of dark-skinned people in India have become associated with demons? Who are these communities, where are they, and how does this casteism and racism manifest itself?
When we examine books that qualify as Indian ‘classics’, we see them promoting casteist attitudes. Likewise, when we examine these ‘classics’ closely, we can see that those societies branded as savage, heinous, disgusting, black, and barbarians are the ones belonging to the native Dravidian communities. In these stories, we can comprehend a certain virtue being associated with being born into upper-caste.
[In these stories] there are various characters who have become victims of wars and power struggles in the survival and maintenance of dynasties. We can see Ghaṭotkaca, Karṇa, Śoorpan̩akha, Pūtanā, and many such characters. Even when Karṇa belonged to a Kshatriya tradition, he too met with disgrace for being a charioteer’s son. As a society we have accepted and normalised this.
In all these stories, we have to address the issues of caste inherent in them. And it is those communities that are considered to be lower in caste that are branded as heinous. When we closely examine these stories, we realise such modes of oppression is not just on the basis of ‘blackness’, but ‘blackness’ refracted through the lens of caste and ethnicity. And what do people who uncritically consume these stories [as tradition] do? They treat these characters portrayed as black and disgusting with hatred. If people belonging to these ethnicities, caste, and communities exist anywhere in India, they are understood as to be hated, to be raped, and to be ousted. And India has not succeeded in providing alternative domains of knowledge that challenge such beliefs.
How does this relate to Ramāyan̩a, and in particular to Śoorpan̩akha? How is her story relevant to today’s politics?
If we examine the political and social conditions of India today, similar to how our mythology portrayed certain characters as disgusting and deformed, how black and ethnic bodies were ousted, how violence was inflicted upon them, and how they were slaughtered, we can see such violences being committed even today.
It was just two years ago that Kevin, a Dalit youth, was murdered by his lover’s family only because he belonged to a lower caste, eliminating his love by murdering him. Likewise, a girl named Athira was murdered by her father because she fell in love with an army man of scheduled caste origin. Again in Thenkurussi, Aneesh, a youth, was slaughtered for falling in love with an upper-caste woman by her relatives.
Take the story of Śoorpan̩akha. The story is glorious only when read from the perspective of Rāma and Laks̩man̩a [the protagonists of Ramāyan̩a], from the perspective of the dominant upper-caste communities. It should rather be read from the perspective of Śoorpan̩akha’s genuine, womanly love. A person portrayed as ugly, whose beauty doesn’t conform to the standards laid down by the society, who belongs to a community that doesn’t have the right to be considered on par with that of the protagonists, is violently dismembered and her love is ruthlessly obliterated by chopping off her nose and breasts. But we as a society agree with these principles laid down by the story. And this is exactly what is happening in India today.
Indian democratic system adamantly believes in violently eliminating those bodies that dare to fall in love with those belonging to a ‘higher’ caste, race, or tribe to wipe out any possibilities of a new generation borne from their love, a possibility it believes is in itself disgusting. Therefore, it is important that there should be a feminist reading, a humane reading, a reading from the perspective of the marginalised, disenfranchised communities, of stories like Śoorpan̩akha’s. This will give rise to alternative streams of thought that challenge the normative thinking, and persuade the society to think differently.
Nakul and Nrithya are creating work that reimagines the story of Śoorpan̩akha. What is your reaction to their project? Do you have any advice or suggestions for them?
I view new projects based on the stories of the likes of Śoorpan̩akha with lots of hope and expectations. Because there should always exist a counter-reading of these stories. Certainly when such creative works take shape, we should examine when these stories were written, and what ‘classics’ they were a part of. When we do that, we realise that these stories were written in a manner to suit the period in which they were written.
For instance, if we take Mahābhārata [another Indian epic], how should we understand it? We should look at it as a story of power struggle between brothers from that period, a story which later gained its literary-historical value. Later, it gained spiritual currency and circulated across the country.
Each of these ‘classics’ tell a lot of stories and have sub-stories, and each of these sub-stories hold the potential to say a lot of things. But you often find that such conversations are not formed, and it often ends up being a unilateral reading of the stories.
But when we take a story like that of Śoorpan̩akha, we should understand how she is portrayed, how she is depicted in the story. In the story, she is viewed from the perspective of the relationship between brothers Rāma and Laks̩man̩a. It gives more prominence to the bond between brothers, to patriotism, and to love for one’s wife, how a husband should conduct himself in front of his wife. However, they start being seen as qualities of an upper-caste individual, and the rules he must abide by. We need a counter-reading, and that’s why I’m keen about projects that discuss alternative narratives.
We need a counter-reading. Who is Śoorpan̩akha? What does Śoorpan̩akha represent? How did the communities like the one Śoorpan̩akha belonged to end up being subjugated? What crimes were committed on them? Why can’t she fall in love? Why can’t she express her desires? Why is it that when people like her express their desires, their noses and breasts are chopped off? Why is no one raising their voice against such acts of cruelty?
India has rarely engaged with these questions. You hear such questions occasionally being asked from different spaces, but they have not become widespread enough to come together and exert a formidable force. This is what should be read. Only if such a reading is undertaken will the democracy in India be extended to those who are disenfranchised and their politics be heard, ‘completed’. Only if we investigate and understand how such communities have been constructed as lower and othered in our art and culture, and only if we undertake a feminist reading of such stories, will people read characters like Śoorpan̩akha in a different light. Only then will these communities be seen with love and affection. Only then will democracy be complete for the disenfranchised.
It is because of this that I wish to join hands with such projects and initiatives, and it is because of this that I’m taking part in this podcast. Thank you.
Translated from Malayalam by Shilpa B. and Nakul Krishnamurthy