Feminist literature has always been full of controversy and declining importance. Yet works like Vibhavari Shirurkar Virlele Swapna (The Dream That Vanished) offer an invaluable, female-centered South Asian perspective to literature that has been largely monopolized by men.
Who was Vibhavari Shirurkar? It was the pseudonym of Malati Bedekar. Its female characters, with their multi-faceted personalities, complex emotions, and heartfelt desires, have puzzled male writers and critics. The very idea that a story could exist, where the female character was not merely submissive, exploded into the literary arena with both cheers and proclamations of sheer disdain.
Malati Bhedekar: The woman behind the pseudonym
Malatibai Bedekar was born to a progressive art teacher father, who strongly believed in the education of all his children; and a hard-working stay-at-home mother, who also simultaneously managed the family’s dairy farm. Bedekar’s maiden name was Balutai Khare and she grew up in a small rural area of Maharashtra.
Her enrollment in Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve Girls’ School and her subsequent graduation from the Bombay School SNDT University (India’s first women’s university, founded by women’s rights pioneer Karve himself) paved the way for the body of work she would create throughout her life.
These actively feminist influences seeded the first interest in feminist ideologies in young Balutai Khare, as she pursued studies in language and education. Apart from her literary career, Malati Bhedekar has also been involved in local and field voluntary services and socialist politics. She also worked as a teacher at SNDT Universityand as a government administrator of a “settlementfor some tribes identified as “criminaltribes by the British government ruling over India at that time.
Diving beyond literary conventions
Her upbringing in feminist spaces inspired Malati Bedekar to create works like Kalyanche Nishwas (1933), a collection of short stories centered solely on the lives of ordinary women. These stories formed a collection of experiences she had learned, studying among the widows at her school hostel. Her general writing delved into the female experience, highlighting the issues facing women, especially those constrained by marital rules.
Likewise, as superintendent of her school, Malati Bedekar discovered the lives of women from different backgrounds and socio-economic positions. She truly understood the role of intersectionality in society even before the term was coined.
This led her to also write hindolyavar (1934), which highlighted a middle-class woman’s desolation at being stuck in a marriage where divorce is not an option; and Virlele Swapna (1935), who discussed the generational influences of Marxist ideologies. Additionally, Malati Bedekar’s experience working with the colonial government prompted her to write balione of the earliest depictions of Dalit and tribal communities in Marathi literature, albeit that of an ally.
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Her books also examined the existence of educated women within the family, given her own social standing as the second person in her family to ever graduate. The desires and expectations of these women are imprinted in his stories in painful, realistic detail through his clear, unfettered prose in works like Chabri (1962) and Uma (1966).
Not one to restrict herself, Malati Bedekar has also dabbled in playwriting and translation (from English to Marathi). A prominent work of non-fiction by her (also, her last work) is a his father’s biography Kharemaster (1993), which offers both an interesting female perspective on paternal feminisms and a poignant portrait of the struggles and successes of progressive men of her time.
These shattered the literary glass ceiling of 20th century Marathi discourse which tended to focus more on the male human condition of the ruling caste, neglecting individuality within womanhood and the importance of social reform. intersectional.
After introducing conservative Marathi societies to the world through the female gaze, Malati Bedekar sought to include new depictions, with his work featuring Sapphic relationships, hetero-platonic relationships, as well as truly human perspectives from tribes that had been legally criminalized under the British Raj. Naturally, no socially critical writer can pass critical judgments on his society.
Historical anger and modern-day contempt
Ironically, Malati Bedekar’s work provoked harsh words not only from Orthodox and conservative circles, but also from liberal social reformers who lamented that his work failed to describe the “progressthey had done. While some were upset with the portrayal of women as a whole, others were upset that her books showed that women’s issues persisted. Apparently some men”allieshave, down through history, made a fuss when women don’t pay their backs.
Fortunately, Malati Bedekar’s pseudonym protected her from physical harm and insecurity, as her work quickly received death threats and abuse. Her persistence through sectarian ignorance to continue writing has offered us a treasure trove of feminist perspectives on the life of the Marathi woman of the 1900s. Yet it is hard not to notice that notoriety of her work has waned in the turn of the century.
Feminist literature originally written in vernacular languages is central to understanding the culturally deictic meaning of femininity in sociolinguistics. In order to move away from solely Eurocentric and/or English viewpoints, as literary critics, readers and media consumers, we must look to history and translated works to guide us through future feminist movements.
As a translator herself, Malati Bedkar has undoubtedly understood the importance of multilingual navigation in literature. Therefore, his legacy enables us to remember and conscientiously preserve our literary heritage and local histories.
So who was Vibhavari Shirurkar? She was Malati Bedekar, born Balutai Khare. She was a teacher, a PhD in Sanskrit, and a prolifically feminist Marathi writer who was unafraid to venture into politics and social work – at a time when bold intersectional feminist movements were gaining momentum.
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Shirurkar, Vibhavari and Vibhāvarī Śirūrakara. Kharemaster. Translated by Yashodhara Maitra, Bhatkal & Son, 1998.