Reclaiming women’s indigenous heritage


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WHEN we speak of indigenous or folk culture of women in South Asia, we are referring to the oldest historical layers of our civilization, which takes its departure from the earliest period of Indian history and survives alongside the mainstream culture of India. Folk culture thus forms the bedrock of Indic civilization.

India’s unique ecology has, to a large degree, shaped the evolution and development of folk culture. India is a vast subcontinent of strongly contrasting ecological features. The Himalayan mountain ranges stretch from the West to the East separating the southernmost tip of India intersected by the great rivers. The North derives its character from the Ganges’s rich alluvial soil and the extensive plains formed by the river. The South is divided by mountain ranges, flanked by coastal strips. The great land mass has distinctive regions and provinces, each with its respective folk traditions, languages, and cultural regions. Folk art, culture and lifestyle of the peasant village and tribal communities in India, bears a signature that is not only ancient and indigenous but also highly imaginative and creative. In this respect, it is comparable to the highest form of aesthetic expression anywhere in the world. The scale and horizons of folk culture in the subcontinent are also gigantic.

About 80 million people in India (roughly 8% of the population) belong to primal communities, variously designated as ‘tribes’, ‘scheduled tribes’ (anusuchit janjati), inhabitants of the forest (vanavasi), castes of the forest (vanyajati), hill dwellers (pahari), and aborigines. The most common and widely known term is adivasi, the first settlers or the primal communities that inhabit India. It is widely accepted that the tribal communities are the earliest known inhabitants of India and ‘the history of India is not complete without a thorough knowledge of the history of tribes.’ The great epics mention several non-Aryan tribes inhabiting the wildest forest regions.

The tribals do not form a homogeneous group. There are about 360 tribal groups which have been recognized by the Indian government and are distributed unevenly over different regions of the country, composed of different races and cultures. There is considerable biological, linguistic and cultural diversity among them. The tribes of peninsular India (Mundas, Santhals, Kols, Hos and Bondas) come from the proto-Australoid stock, while tribes of the North East (Nagas and Bodos) trace their origin from the Mongoloid stock. On the other hand, the Dravidians are represented by the Oraons, Gonds and Khonds. The tribal communities exist at two different levels. Historian D.D. Kosambi in the early 1950s drew our attention to the fragmentary ‘tribal’ survival in an urban non-tribal setting.


Over the centuries, almost all states of India have retained their importance as centres of folk culture with deep indigenous roots. Within a village there are distinctive groups of people, perhaps the largest consists of professional craftsmen whose skill is linked to a particular caste and is handed down from father to sons, who produce hand-crafted objects for local consumption. The next largest group consists of women, who are engaged in agricultural activity and may be described as non-professional natural artists.

What is significant here is that the artistic activity of women is inextricably bound to the home and family and around domestic concerns. Their creativity is seldom of a commercial nature, and more likely linked to their religion and piety. These women work with materials and techniques that are of local origin and adapted to modest/domestic requirements. They often work with perishable materials and what they produce has a limited life. The artistic productions of women relate largely to rituals performed during festive occasions, where women create artistic images, as well as perform rituals designed to obtaining blessings and well-being for the family from the gods they adore. We must remember that women are also the guardians of the community and the builders of our great heritage.


A woman’s relationship to civilization must be revisited in order to fully understand her contribution to our tradition. Women were the first food gatherers, the first farmers and the first meal-makers, the first conservers, the first healers, the first artisans (weavers, potters, painters), the first homemakers, the first singers and performers and the prime instrument in creating ‘culture’. They were the inventors of the most fundamental aspect of our life and culture.

Women are credited with the invention of the culinary arts, and recognized as the first inventors of all traditional knowledge systems of our culture, ranging from aesthetic systems of art and crafts; representations of collective memory, oral narratives, songs and legends; rituals and ceremonies in the domestic and public spheres; traditional environment management systems; traditional healing systems and preservers of food diversity and agrarian knowledge. It is a tragic fact that despite the great contribution made by women to sustain the planet they have been eclipsed and overshadowed. The knowledge accumulated over centuries has made them increasingly invisible. The overwhelmingly one-sided view of civilization as being a male preserve has undermined their sovereign position in all spheres of our culture.

A significant feature of agrarian cultures in India, whether in the forest-growing hill agriculture from Kashmir in the West to Arunachal Pradesh in the North East, or in the green belt of the Gangetic plain, is the distinctive role assumed by women who participate in a ‘basket’ of economic activities. These range from cultivation, cattle rearing, preservation of seeds, and trade and market activity of the produce, apart from the day-to-day activity of rearing the family.

As the sole custodians of traditional knowledge systems, they have acquired an uncanny intuitive sense about the protection of their immediate environment. Their awareness, by and large deeply rooted in faith and religious belief, is reflected in several forms of reverence to the Earth as Goddess. The experiential knowledge gained through centuries of accumulated collective wisdom is grounded in deep faith and inborn love for Mother Nature. The deep bond with the earth is reflected in women’s life in rural areas which cuts through caste and regional divides.

The inextricable bond that rural women share with nature has two profound implications. First, it almost spontaneously creates a moral vocabulary and a gynocentric ethos in favour of the Earth as Mother Goddess. Second, women effortlessly assume the responsibility of playing leadership roles at the grassroots level in saving the environment. The ethno-model of the earth as mother has been instrumental in mobilizing support in various contexts.


While reflecting upon the folk traditions of India it is necessary to understand the complex but inextricable relationship between the classical and the popular, and the written and the oral heritage as they form two faces of a culture and its multidimensional expressions. The domain of the written constitutes texts, scriptures, community documents of our heritage – visual, aural and performative, together with expressions of collective consciousness that preserve the legendary lore of a community. Several Hindu ideas from the Sanskritic traditions intersect or run parallel to the traditions of 250 primal/tribal communities and the folk traditions of the rural people who live in India’s 500,000 villages. It is in the obscure, under-researched parallel sub-stream of culture that one can discern a radical and liberating construction of gender. These traditions consciously or unconsciously have abandoned almost all orthodox concepts of caste, class and subordination of the female.

It has been pointed out by several scholars that normative mythical figures like Sita in the Ramayana, may undergo substantial reinventions in the oral folk traditions. Many formulations/characterizations from oral tradition,1 which circulate among the lower strata of society, are reappropriated by communities to reconstruct their identity. The process of reinvention involves selection of passages from the Ramayana which reflect their own situation as women who are easy victims of patriarchal values. In such situations, the women singers who chant are concerned with themselves; not with the epic out there, somewhere beyond themselves. The main singers are privileged to transform the context in accordance with their own ethos and value system. The discrepancies and inconsistencies between their Sita and Valmiki’s Ramayana only heightens their own sense of empowerment.


There is thus a great need to connect the vast resources on women’s indigenous culture with contemporary discourse in gender studies to protect and guard it from oversimplification and free it from the elitism of the establishment. In recent years, most explorations in the field of gender and culture in India have been viewed from a Marxist, Socialist, Liberal or Modern perspective in the context of the sociopolitical reality of our society. These approaches have consigned cultural resources, such as religious scriptures and texts, symbols, powerful feminine icons in oral and written tradition, myths, and legends, knowledge systems of primal communities and grassroots traditions to the dust heap of history. In most cases, the cultural researches have suffered from the onslaught of reductive theoretical positions that modernity adopts to view ancient cultures.


The Narivada-Gender Culture and Civilization network of IGNCA which I spearheaded for four years, seeks to evolve models of research on gender pertinent to the Indian ethos. Its main aims are: (i) To create a space for discourse on women’s culture that is either airbrushed from history, marginalized or distorted by the misperception of history; (ii) to revise and contextualize women’s cultural resources and knowledge systems as an integral element of gender studies; (iii) to shift the emphasis of gender research from reductionism to a more holistic frame; (iv) to emphasize and reassess the key role women have played in the creation, preservation and transmission of our cultural heritage; (v) to question the current epistemologies in gender studies in order to create space for a new hermeneutics based on the perennial values of Indian culture; (vi) to alter the frame to bring about a paradigm shift; (vii) to provide a new theoretical orientation for the study of gender and culture to redress the imbalance between modernity and tradition so that a dialogue on gender, culture and modernity is pursued on an equal footing; (viii) to initiate methodological reflections by introducing new ways of exploring women’s experience; (ix) to explore under-theorized areas of women’s oral heritage and to celebrate diversity of views; (x) to frame our discourse and activism in community solidarities and sister networks; (xi) to promote wide networks among women scholars, creative thinkers and activists throughout India and the world; and (xii) to promote collaborations with institutions and visibility for Narivada-oriented research.

Unfortunately, despite the progressive inclusion of research centres of Women’s Studies in Indian universities, a large corpus of women’s culture has remained outside the domain of scrutiny and analysis. The Narivada project was launched to fulfil this gap and aimed to give dignity to the women’s world and their innate creativity.


There are numerous domains in which women have maintained substantial degrees of autonomy, agency, and community, and from which men have been excluded, or to which they have had only limited (or recent) access. Most obviously this has long been true in areas of rituals and the arts, especially painting, song, and dance, but also in organizing, shaping, and controlling the social life of families and communities. Madhubani in Bihar, eastern India, has emerged as one of the foremost areas where rural women have been found to possess remarkable skills in painting and crafts that is passed down from generation to generation. Women in the villages have been painting the walls and floors of their homes for centuries, but gained prominence and recognition as artists only during the last thirty years.

The Mithila region, historically known as Videha or Tirabhukti, has been a great hub of Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain learning. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, the rulers of the Karnata and Oinawara dynasties introduced observances of religious ceremonies to all the upper caste communities. This and the relative isolation of the area may perhaps be a reason for the survival of the traditional form of women’s domestic art, painted on walls and floors of their mud huts. The discovery of Madhubani art is traced to W.B. Archer, a sub-divisional officer in Madhubani, who documented the artworks. Between 1966-67, the government initiated income generating opportunities for the rural poor by providing them with paper and art materials to reproduce the ritual art forms for sale.


The workshop ‘Kala aur Katha: Reconfiguring an Indigenous Paradigm of Empowerment in Women’s Art in Mithila’ was organized by IGNCA. The project brought together fifty women artists belonging to different social classes – Brahman, Kayastha, Dusadh and varying age-groups living in Delhi on the occasion of the Madhu-Shravani Parva (15 July-7 August 2006), a festival dedicated to snake deities during the monsoon season. An integrated documentation on the fifteen narratives, songs and rituals associated with the festival were recorded at the workshop.

An astounding aspect of this project was that all the women who participated were illiterate, non-professional and had no formal training in visual, aural or performative arts. They had been socialized and tutored by their grandmothers, mothers, older sisters, aunts or girl friends on some baseline skills of painting to adorn the walls and floors of their homes. The project, for me, became a site for recording women’s cultural memory where untutored women could spontaneously recollect, improvise and compose mythical and historical narratives with ease. These women were not only documenting their folk cultural history and sacred worldview; the project also created a site for their empowerment.


We carried out an integrated documentation on vratakathas, narratives, their corresponding paintings that mirrored each story, along with the songs, mantra-chants and rituals. We also recorded the responses of women. Traditional Hindu women observe vratas for suhag ‘lifelong continuity of auspicious married state’ and saubhagya, ‘good luck’. The vratas women perform are rites that serve to maintain their husband’s well-being, and is looked upon as an ‘extension of their pati vrata-hood’, a religious duty of a woman vowed to her husband, in service. The more vratas women perform, the more devoted she is seen by her family. It was mind-boggling for us to hear women from Mithila redefine and subvert the traditional meaning attributed to the concept of saubhagya. ‘Saubhagya,’ said Lakshmi, ‘did not pertain exclusively to husbands, it encompasses our wish list of a hundred forms of fortunes’ (Saubhagya ka matlab hai sau (=hundred) tarah ka bhagya, sirf pati ka bhagya nahi).

This type of statement not only subverts the conventional meaning of saubhagya, but reflects a posture of confidence in an intuitively recognized empowered state. The common understanding of the subordinate wife was set aside in favour of an empowered individual. They also depicted mythical and historical role models of women who they revere as exemplars. The most pertinent question that we need to raise and understand is: What is the source of this form of creativity? Where are these outstanding creations emerging from? I view it as a cultural document which arises from the vast collective consciousness of the genetic heritage of the women of Mithila which gets unselfconsciously scripted in their works.


Modern urban India today is swept away by the onslaught of negative globalization, so much so that the folk cultures of women are ceremoniously ‘hijacked’ by people other than those who are the natural heirs. Sociological studies have pointed out that people’s memories, rituals, artefacts are freely appropriated by many middlemen and intermediary institutions such as local collectives, cultural agencies, governmental institutions, museums, and fanatic nationalists of political parties, whose aims are diametrically opposite to those of the original creators. The latter expose cultural artefacts by women for presenting them as cultural commodities, as museum pieces, as emblems of social decorum, as remnants of primitive representations. The folk communities, on the other hand, hark back to their ancestral heritage for survival and to gain self-respect and dignity. The state tourist industries use their artefacts as marketable cultural goods for commercial exploitation. We are, today, confronted with epistemological challenges staged by different groups.

It appears that there is no recognition whatsoever on the positive role that indigenous culture can play in rebuilding a national profile for a culturally rooted paradigm on women’s empowerment. While in the past, most often unexamined, diluted, undigested androcentric presuppositions have been a stumbling block to paradigm building, today ‘women themselves are both the subject as well as agents of scholarly study and analysis.’ This creates a new space for indigenous cultural studies and the need to reconstitute their experiences in all areas.

By and large, the frame in which gender issues have been studied by the nation’s elite are wholly and solely committed to the terminologies and narrative representations that are set out by the agenda of modernity, which places our folk traditions and cultural heritage in a hierarchical relationship to the formulations and worldview of modernity. In the modern view, all that is modern is superior and therefore progressive. In contrast, all that is traditional is inferior and regressive. Hence, tradition must be replaced by modernity. The dichotomy hierarchizes and ranks the two, in that the modern worldview becomes the privileged (worldview); the other is the subversive, inferior and negative counterpart. Thus the primary concept of modernity defines itself by expelling and uprooting the traditional and the primal.


Our women’s culture has borne the brunt of this opposition for far too long. It is this opposition that has resulted in the marginalization of our rich cultural resources, such as in religious scriptures and texts, vital symbols, in our oral heritage, primal communities and grassroot traditions; the female-centred knowledge systems on traditional ecology, healing arts, women’s protection of food diversity, women’s representations of collective memory expressed in oral narratives, songs, dances, and aesthetic systems of creative arts of women. If there is to be an interaction and a dialogue between the processes of modernity and the domain of women’s culture, it should be pursued on an equal footing and not through the deeply flawed routes of reductionist discourse.

Another area of cognitive dissonance is the way social feminist theory informs women’s inherent capacities of knowledge-making and preserving traditional knowledge systems. Methodological reflections and creation of a new hermeneutics should also form an important part of our gender discourse. It has been argued by many sensitive feminist writers that epistemologies and theories of knowledge that dominate our discourse are based on distorted notions of objectivity. Women scholars2 have skilfully outlined the problems associated with quantitative theorizing based on the methods of natural science. They have emphasized the immediacy of women’s conscious experience. New feminist methods have emerged out of consciousness-raising sessions organized at the grassroots level. In these sessions, the oral histories of women define their own construction of gender. This kind of research emerges from human experience and lived realities of women rather than the value-laden abstractions of male bias.

In the past, women scholars have shown distrust in the ancient ethnographical sources. Our knowledge of women’s status in the past is solely based on the orthodox/Brahmanical scriptures. However, there has been an overemphasis of Brahmanical sources and underrepresentation of our oral heritage, rooted in regional cultures of India. A rural women’s cultural heritage on the whole is an undertheorized area of speculation. Although there are many programmes generated by NGOs, ethnic, regional and community-based groups, they lack an academic interdisciplinary base. They have contributed to descriptive studies and do not use terminologies and narrative representations that authenticate value categories developed by grassroot cultures and advocacy groups.


The difference between the modern West and the East is that our traditional social frames are rooted in a community-based solidarity. There is a way in which community solidarity continues to frame our social arrangements. Modern feminists by and large work within the existing social frames in urban, rural and primal communities in the tribal belt of India. This is based on the understanding that the social frameworks in the given Indian context (with the exception of isolated pockets in urban areas) are different from the modernist western notion of high ranking, self-centred and self-sufficient individualism. Our social frames are based on community participation, social privileges and responsibility centred social ethics. This basic frame is the foundation of community-centred sister networks in India, which need to be tapped for future research.


The conceptual thrust of Narivada comes closer to the philosophy of sexual difference put forward by the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray. She argues for the need for a culture of two subjects and rebuilds a conceptual framework for ‘a culture appropriate to feminine subjectivity.’ She contends that even when the western paradigm of human individuality claims to discover the other, this other remains the same. The far-reaching consequences of this approach are that while women may attain social and cultural status, they are engineered by ‘values that are not hers.’ The hard won social equality is at the cost of loss of their own values and femininity. These ideas take Irigaray to build a theory of ‘sexuate difference’ where she outlines aspects that are unique to feminine subjectivity. In other words, Irigaray celebrates the irreducibility of the feminine. The masculine and feminine belong to two irreducible worlds. It is in the sovereignty and autonomy of the feminine that the role of folk and indigenous cultures of women should be redefined.



1. Guy Poitevin and Hema Rairkar, Indian Peasant Women Speak Up. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1993, pp. 59-75.

2. Veena Poonacha, Writing Women’s Lives: Some Methodological Questions for Feminist Historiography. Narivada Series. Communication Consultants, IGNCA, Delhi, 2007, pp. 8-10.