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Engendered Poetry

Sukrita Paul Kumar

By Ruth Vanita
Orient Blackswan, Delhi, 2012, pp. 322, price not stated.


This book draws one into the world of rekhti (Urdu) poetry in the late 18th and 19th centuries and brings to attention the ground issues of gender and sexuality in those times. The colonial dismissal of diverse sexuality present in the societyhad led to the creation of a homogenized ‘mainstream’ that pushed many other realities into the margins. Delving into rekhti poetry brings out what is missing in Urdu poetry written and fashioned to the tune of the ‘high poetics’ of Persian of the times, both in form and content.   In Gender, Sex and the City, Ruth Vanita has painstakingly put together a not-very-visible-reality by focusing on an otherwise vibrant language used effectively in the voice of women; poetry in this voice did not necessarily have to remain within the domain of mystic and romantic love. While they did of course fall in love, they used a down-to-earth city language to articulate ordinary experiences related to work; they went to the bazaar, dressed, ate and engaged in the mundane ways of the world, even in poetry. The focus was on women’s lives and the speech was primarily urban reflecting the culture of the city of Lucknow. In ‘Women in the City: Fashioning the Self’, in the section that maps ‘feminine geography of the rooftop’, Vanita quotes from Nisbat: Come dear, let’s go on the first floor to entertain ourselves We’ll open the window and view the Meena Bazaar.   All the verses have been translated by Ruth Vanita herself. Interestingly, she notes how rekhti inverts the stereotype of men as watchers of women through a depiction of rooftops as places for women to view men. Women’s concerns and their ordinary day-to-day life find their way into their poetry in rekhti. The festivals of Holi, Basant and some other festivities that women indulged in offered symbolic as well as practical modes of intermingling with people of both the sexes and since there was an existent long history of erotic symbols around these festivities, poetry in rekhti too acquired similar connotations.   At Holi she dressed up as a jogin and seeing her, The ‘free people’ (azad log) forgot their usual ways. -Says Insha   Vanita comments on how even the celibate Sufis got allured by the play-acting of these women! Ceremonies and descriptions of dresses and perfumes abound in this poetry, celebrating women’s inclinations. So much so, the decorative ...

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