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Why is a feminist gaze on Indian myths and legends important?

In her books, author Kavita Kane focuses on female characters from Indian myths and legends, such as Urmila, Uruvi, Tara and Surpanakha, who have become invisible over time

'The funeral of Bali attended by Tara, Sugriva and Angada'. Series title: Rama's Journey, suite name: 'Ramayana Creation', date: ca. 1695. From Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, The San Diego Museum of Art. Image: Wikimedia Commons
'The funeral of Bali attended by Tara, Sugriva and Angada'. Series title: Rama's Journey, suite name: 'Ramayana Creation', date: ca. 1695. From Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, The San Diego Museum of Art. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Female characters, who have always remained in the shadows—somewhat invisible in the broad tapestry of Indian myths and legends—find themselves taking centrestage in Kavita Kané’s books. In Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen, for instance, the Mumbai-based author unfurls the saga of Karna and Uruvi, with the violent struggle between the Pandavas and Kauravas as the backdrop. The book retells a popular story but from a woman’s perspective. In her latest book, Tara’s Truce, published by Rupa Publications, she recounts the story of Tara, Vali’s wife, who went on to marry his brother, Sugriv and became the queen of Kishkindha. Throughout the narrative, Tara questions the relevance of her own desires and dreams as she is reduced to a trophy in this battle of egos between the two brothers. In an interview with Lounge, Kané talks about this conscious choice of focusing on women characters in myths and legends. Edited excerpts:

Most narratives of mythology are centred around a male figure or are told from a male perspective. In your books, you have always offered a female gaze on these stories…

Considering the centrality of female characters to the story, there are multiple methods of revising our stories from the epics and ancient texts. This includes retelling them entirely from the point of view of a female character, and recreating the story in a way that attempts to break down the treatment of women as glorified, inactive objects. In doing so, there occurs a bold revisioning of age-old archetypes and brings to fore brave new heroines. The readers are persuaded to understand the unconventional portrayals. The woman, here, becomes the heroine of her own story. She demands attention and asks questions of which she wants answers. Be it Urmila or Uruvi, Satyavati or Saraswati, Surpanakha or Menaka, Ahalya or Tara, they all become the protagonist, chalking their own narrative which is otherwise buried under the heft of the original plot line. 

Also read: Book excerpt: The familiarity of dreams

Your books, be it Karna's Wife, Menaka's choice, or Sita’s Sister, have always focused on women, who have become invisible over time or fallen through the pages. What has led to those choices?

These female characters are less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind. They remain largely overlooked despite their familiarity, which was often cursory. These women lay hidden in the shadows, their presence unnoticed and voices unheard. But the moment the spotlight is on them, we see them and recognise their tales of trials and triumphs. Since the stories were told and written by men, the women, besides say Sita and Draupadi, are often marginalised, though each, however minor, has a huge pact on the narrative. They are there for a reason—which ironically seems to have got blurred down the ages. 

How does Tara's Truce take this forward?

We know of the famous Vanar brothers, Vali and Sugriv, and their infamous sibling rivalry. But rarely do we see the tremendous influence of Tara on both these men. She is one the Panch Kanyas, the five women revered as role models of womanhood—be it as a girl, daughter, maiden, mother or wife, who despite battling challenges, demonstrates unusual courage and moral strength. Tara represents this and more. She is Vali’s wife, Sugriv’s queen and the woman behind Rama’s curse. That shows her power and importance, and yet she remains more of a behind-the-scenes figure in the turbulent drama that unfolds at Kishkindha. 

As a woman, who accepts her husband’s enemy and brother as a spouse, she is both a pawn and a weapon caught in the crossfire of family war and politics. Yet she overcomes all—almost. Tara’s Truce deals with the peace she makes for her son, family and her land at the cost of her own peace of mind. 

Also read: Lounge Fiction Special: ‘Unni Nair and Sumathi’ by Manu Bhattathiri

What makes Tara's story so contemporary? 

It’s the struggle of every woman, be it at home or work—that she has to fight for her respect and rights while maintaining unity and goodwill. Despite battling the odds and strife, it is she who has to pay a heavy price. Tara’s story reflects the image of a woman preoccupied with her inner worlds and the storms within. It is essentially the predicament of most woman in a male dominated society. 

 

 

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