AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 609

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Session 609: Women Writing Women: authors and actors in mid-20th century South Asian Urdu culture

Organizer: Afroz Taj, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

Chair: Tahira Naqvi, New York University, USA

Discussant: Tahira Naqvi, New York University, USA

This panel will examine the way in which women authors (Ismat Chughtai, Wajida Tabassum) and actors (Noor Jahan, Nargis) “wrote” about women in pre- and post-Partition South Asia with a special emphasis on Urdu popular culture. We will allow ample time to discuss the following questions: How were women and their concerns portrayed by women in the literature and film of the mid-20th century? How much freedom did women have to create their own discourses and present them in the intellectual marketplace? In this era certain stories/film roles were singled out for censure for “vulgarity”; was this because they were created by women, or because they were tackling controversial issues of gender and sexuality? In this period the Urdu language was in transition: pre-Partition it was the literary lingua franca of the intellectual elite throughout south asia; post-Partition it was increasingly identified with Muslim communities, while still holding pride of place in the film industry. Did Urdu’s growing association with Islam lead to a bowdlerization of its literatures? Did publishers and film-makers move toward more normative portrayals of women? How did women’s representations of women change after Partition? What were the mechanisms by which women (authors and actors) attempted to resist reactionary censure of their work and concerns? To what extent did other contemporary movements – nation building, religious revivalism -- clash with women’s progressive writing? How did the film and magazine industries support or inhibit women writing women?

“Tainted Literature: women’s writing in mid-20th century Urdu magazines”
Afroz Taj, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

The 20th century saw the rise and fall of a family of Urdu magazines published in Delhi featuring articles on popular film culture and short stories and poetry by emerging authors. Led by the flagship magazine “Shama,” the family also included a literary magazine “Bīsvīn Sadī,” a women’s magazine “Bano,” and others. In their heyday (the 1950’s and 1960’s) these magazines circulated throughout most of South Asia, and were particularly targeted toward the Urdu-speaking communities of India and Pakistan. Although the stories and poems published in these magazines were often considered “tainted” by the popular culture milieu, many aspiring young writers, including many women, launched their careers through these magazines. In higher literary circles the works published in “Shama” were generally looked down upon, and even, for example in the case of Wajida Tabassum, criticized for “vulgarity.” Young women were often discouraged from reading risqué “Shama” in favor of the more chaste “Bano.” But I argue that the editors of “Shama” allowed – if not encouraged – challenges to normative morality in the name of popular literature. And many of these challenges came from the women writers who, in the tradition of Ismat Chughtai and others, were interested in raising issues of gender and sexuality where male authors were not. In this paper I seek to problematize the role of “Shama” et al. in promoting writing by women, particularly as an act of ongoing resistance to normative writing for women found in other Urdu texts.

“Lifting the Quilt: Ismat Chughtai through the lens of contemporary feminism”
Larysa Mykyta, North Carolina State University, USA

Ismat Chughtai’s representation of the position of women in Indian society has been extensively discussed. What interests me, however, from the perspective of world literature, is the juxtaposition of two aspects of her short stories -- the specificities of cultural and social life in India at the time of writing and the particular issues concerning women that she portrays -- in order to suggest that her perspective on women’s lives is almost as radical today as it was in her time, since it raises questions that only relatively recently became visible in feminism. In Chughtai’s stories the problems women protagonists face are grounded in culturally and historically specific normative prescriptions: the restrictions on women’s freedom of movement outside the home, the power structure in the extended family, courting rituals, and the position of servants, particularly women, in wealthy households. But in stories like “The Quilt” Chughtai implicitly addresses issues that until relatively recently have not been dealt with in feminist analyses – for example, the sexual abuse of children by females and nymphomania. I do not mean to suggest that Chughtai represents the positions and interests of late 20th century and early 21st century feminist inquiry. Rather I propose to undertake a reading of her short stories through the prism of contemporary feminist concerns in order to demonstrate the embryonic presence of such concerns at a time when there were no conceptual frameworks that could make sense of them.

“The Triumph of Tradition: the decline and fall of the modern woman in South Asian Cinema”
John Caldwell, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA

Two of the greatest actors of the Indian Cinema, Noor Jahan and Nargis, each portrayed a wide range of female characters throughout their careers. Noor Jahan (1926-2000) dominated pre-Partition films with a series of gutsy roles in which she played thoroughly modern women, educated, aggressive, and independent. With Noor Jahan’s migration to Pakistan after 1947 a new heroine emerged, epitomized by Nargis (1929-1981) and seen again and again in the films of Raj Kapoor. Although Nargis picked up where Noor Jahan left off, she quickly evolved into the traditional village belle/Mother India archetype. Since both actresses were from show-business families, and both were incidentally Muslim, how and why did their repertory of roles differ? What changed, specifically with respect to women’s roles, after Partition? The filmic vision of Raj Kapoor and his explicit construction of Nargis’s “muse” persona was certainly a factor, but the young Indian Republic’s project of national identity building and cultural integration also played a large role. Did religious identity also play a role? Why did Noor Jahan leave for Pakistan; why did Nargis, who stayed, become “de-Muslim-ized?” How did Noor Jahan’s persona(s) evolve in fledgling Pakistan? How did each actress become type-cast; and did post-Partition roles represent a regression in terms of portraying empowered women?