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Celebrating the Work of Kumari Jayawardena


Kalpana Kannabiran

ERASURE OF THE EURO-ASIAN: RECOVERING EARLY RADICALISM AND FEMINISM IN SOUTH ASIA
By Kumari Jayawardena
2007, pp. 312, price not stated.

AT THE CUTTING EDGE: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF KUMARI JAYAWARDENA
Edited by Neloufer de Mel & Selvy Thiruchandran
Women Unlimited (an associate of Kali for Women), New Delhi, 2007, pp. 288, Rs. 450.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Kumari Jayawardena’s work has been critical in pointing to a method of understanding the undercurrents of feminism and democracy in contemporary South Asia. As someone who has been influenced by her work and cherishes the lessons it has taught on historiography and politics in the subcontinent, it is a privilege for me to write this review of her latest work and the festschrift edited by Selvy Thiruchandran and Neloufer de Mel. This is my tribute to Kumari.   In her pathbreaking work on Third World feminism and nationalism, Kumari Jayawardena mapped for the first time the trajectory of Third World feminisms tracing their emergence to contexts of struggles against colonization and imperialism, struggles that resulted in projects of nation building. Romila Thapar, through a look at interpretation of the Indian past, underscores the political significance of this attempt to trace the connections between the past and the present, arguing that historical analysis, rather than being driven by intellectual curiosity alone, must attempt to explain the past, as ‘[s]uch explanations can be crucial to the comprehension of the present,’ especially in the present context of struggles over national identities in the subcontinent (Romila Thapar, p. 232 & 246). Much of Jayawardena’s work has been animated by ‘a critical engagement with nationalism and its intimate linkages with gender, class and ethnicity…’ (De Mel, p. xvii) and has ‘uncovered many … interconnections which subverted the dominant values of the British Empire’ (Sheila Rowbotham, p. 229).   Mapping the border-crossings and rendering visible the bridges between South Asians and Europeans during colonialism with all its contradictions and resolutions has been an important part of this engagement. The common perception has been that ideas travelled eastwards from the heartlands of the Enlightenment. Rowbotham, speaking to Jayawardena’s work that traced a different path for feminism in the Third World, looks at the friendship between Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Edward Carpenter where it was the former that gifted to the latter the intellectual tools with which to critique colonization and imperialism (Sheila Rowbotham, pp. 220-229).   In contexts of mobilization around rights, feminists in South Asia have been acutely sensitive to and critical of processes of tradition making—the ‘invention’ of tradition being critical to the construction of the identity of women, the identity of the nation (Uma Chakravarti p. 3) and culture. Interrogating the tendency to read culture in essentialist ways, Jayasuriya stresses, through a cogent review of anthropological writing on culture, ...


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