[New York Times] Uttar Pradesh Festival Honors Unsung Feminists from Region’s Past

Sanatkada's annual weaves and crafts festival being held at the Baradari complex in in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb. 6.
Sanatkada’s annual weaves and crafts festival being held at the Baradari complex in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on Feb. 6. Credit: Sonia Paul

LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, was buzzing with activity in recent days as Sanatkada, a well-known nonprofit in the city for women has been hosting its annual handicrafts festival, where vendors from across India come to sell their goods.

Aside from shopping, the festival, which began in 2010, offers musical and theater performances, panel discussions on literature and music, carnival rides for children and food from some of Lucknow’s most popular eateries. This year, however, the festival organizers decided to use this popular event to talk about one of the biggest topics in India today — feminism.

For the festival’s theme, “Feminists of Awadh Par Salaam,” the organizers reviewed the achievements of iconic women of Awadh, the historical region in the center of modern-day Uttar Pradesh. They chose 37 women from the region’s past to commemorate during the five-day festival, which ended Monday.

Madhavi Kuckreja, the C.E.O. and founder of Sanatkada, said part of the motivation to have a female-focused festival was the fact that women are rarely mentioned in local history.

“You certainly won’t have a chapter in a textbook about them,” she said. “Their birthdays, their death days — nothing is marked. There’s not even a road named after them. So how does a new generation of people in the mainstream know about them? Otherwise they just get forgotten.”

The women’s movement in India has attracted global attention since the December 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi and subsequent protests concerning violence against women. But violence against women is distinct from the understanding of feminism itself, said Ms. Kuckreja.

Such violence is a general human rights violation, she said. “But what about just leading a life differently? That’s something that also has to be recognized as an issue for women,” she said. “It’s not only one fight. It’s a fight about general mobility.”

This fight for mobility and freedom — whether it was from within a professional or personal sphere — is how the women honored at the festival earned their title as feminist. All of the “Feminists of Awadh” did something differently that made them stand out for their time.

Begum Akhtar, one of the more well-known women on the list, was a famous singer when she passed away in 1974. Yet she was defiant in her musical style, said Saleem Kidwai, a scholar in Lucknow who has been doing research on Begum Akhtar.

“What she would do is take a ghazal [poem] and put it together with a raag [melody],” said Mr. Kidwai. “Her contemporaries sort of looked down on her because she sang lyrics instead of pure raags, in which there were no words. But she actually did the most difficult thing, to put the two together.”

Other women featured at the festival included Bano, a domestic worker honored because she had the courage to leave her conservative father and alcoholic husband and apply for a divorce herself; Attia Hosain, a writer who was one of the first Indian women to attend La Martiniere Girls’ College, an esteemed institute in Lucknow that was originally created for the British; and Kaushalya Devi, the mother of Ramdas Sonkar, the first Dalit permitted to the Indian National Services in Uttar Pradesh in 1957. Ms. Devi was credited because Mr. Sonkar always held up his mother’s encouragement and passion as the driving force behind his success.

“If you place these women in the milieu to which they belonged, just not wearing a burqa and stepping out of your house, and then bringing your daughter to school — that was considered a very big achievement,” said Nimra Rizvi, 23, a master’s degree student in medieval Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who returned to her hometown to volunteer for the festival.

Yet conversations throughout the festival revealed that some of the struggles the feminists of Awadh faced — for example, leaving the home — are also modern-day frustrations experienced by women in India.

Outside of cities and especially in lower socioeconomic areas, introducing the concept of even physical mobility for women is still an upward struggle, said James Potter, 27, an American public health worker who has been conducting interviews within women’s self-help groups throughout Uttar Pradesh.

He cited one instance at a village in Hardoi district, a few hours by car northwest of Lucknow, in which villagers shut down a self-help group because rumors started that a woman was using these meetings as an excuse to go out and do something else.

“Our program is just one example of a lot of these programs that try to introduce these concepts gradually — like that women can just leave the house to do something other than farming,” said Mr. Potter.

However, he said, “it’s not like the women can self-enforce their freedom.”

Even in Lucknow, where the conversation around feminism is apparent given the attention the Sanatkada festival receives, it’s difficult to tell how much the concept truly penetrates the greater society. Festival volunteers said the attendance numbers for this year’s festival weren’t radically different from attendance in previous years. This year’s panel discussions on women in literature and women in music had positive turnouts, but it’s also a self-selecting group that comes to these events.

Madhavi Kuckreja, left, C.E.O. and founder of Sanatkada, and Noor Khan, center, an English professor at a women’s college in Lucknow, discussing the process of selecting the feminists of Awadh at Sanatkada's headquarters in Lucknow, on Feb. 4.
Madhavi Kuckreja, left, C.E.O. and founder of Sanatkada, and Noor Khan, center, an English professor at a women’s college in Lucknow, discussing the process of selecting the feminists of Awadh at Sanatkada’s headquarters in Lucknow, on Feb. 4. Credit: Sonia Paul

Noor Khan, an English professor at a women’s college in the city who helped organize the event, said she didn’t actively promote the festival to her students because she knew they wouldn’t be able to attend. The majority of her students are from a lower socioeconomic stratum, and many of them are first-generation learners who miss school routinely because they work to support their families. She has invited them to other events in the past, and they’ve never been able to attend.

“The flat answer is that ‘our parents wouldn’t allow us,’ ” said Ms. Khan. “That kind of independence is still not there.”

Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Follow her on Twitter @sonipaul.

This piece was originally published on February 11, 2014, on the New York Times.

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