#INDIAKIDLIT – Strong, little known Indian women in history brought alive in contemporary literature

by Deepa Agarwal

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,           
  And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

– Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)

The poet’s words are telling—they can apply to many women achievers in Indian history whose outstanding deeds have remained buried in the sands of time. The fact is, where children’s books in India are concerned, the earlier trend was to focus on the lives of prominent male personalities along with a sparse selection of women who had become household names. The reasons are obvious. Book buyers—read parents here, tend to go for the familiar. Thus, for both authors and publishers, it has always been a safe bet to produce books about Rani Lakshmibai rather than her lieutenant Jhalkari Bai or Sarojini Naidu rather than Durga Bhabhi, the doughty revolutionary who was associated with Bhagat Singh, because famous names immediately spark interest.

The Begum: A Portrait of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Pioneering First Lady – by Deepa Agarwal & Tehmina Aziz Ayub (2019)

This tendency to prefer established legends was brought home to me sharply when a lady I encountered at a popular litfest where The Begum, my biography of Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan, the first First Lady of Pakistan, co authored with Tehmina Ayub Aziz, was being featured. ‘Why did you write this book?’ she demanded. ‘What is so special about this woman?’ I had to take a deep breath, then patiently explain why it was crucial to bring the narratives of little-known women who had broken stereotypes into the mainstream.

Fortunately, however, in recent years, authors, editors, and publishers have begun to understand the importance of venturing beyond the oft repeated sagas of known legends to throw light on equally deserving women from our past. And the good news is that readers have embraced these books with a sense of discovery and many girls shared that they gained fresh inspiration from these personalities.

Queen of Ice – by Devika Rangachari (2014)

Who are some of the women who have been rescued from oblivion? I’ll begin by discussing two books by award winning children’s author Devika Rangachari. The Queen of Ice, which won the Neev Book Award, is the compelling story of the little-known Rani Didda of Kashmir, who lived in the tenth century CE. As the book informs us, Didda is doubly challenged, first as a little regarded girl and second because she is lame. However, she is blessed with an enduring self-belief and a steely resolve which enable her to push the bounds of patriarchy as she manoeuvres her way through murky palace intrigues to outwit her enemies. Rangachari has captured Didda’s growth from a callow girl to a ruler accomplished in the game of politics effectively and thus introduced us to an extraordinary personality.

Queen of Earth – by Devika Rangachari (2020)

Queen of Earth is the second book in her “Queens” series and is the reimagined story of the ninth century monarch Prithvi-Mahadevi from the Bhaumikara dynasty of Odisha who like Rani Didda, ventured beyond her traditionally allotted niche to display astonishing qualities of leadership and political sagacity while retaining feminine qualities of warmth and tenderness.

These long-interred stories are often skeletal in nature and the writer’s creativity is essential to flesh them out. History must be fictionalized to some extent and narrative devices that appeal to kids employed—like diaries for example.

Thus, we have The Teenage Diary of Abbakka, the Warrior Queen of South India by well-known writer Kavitha Mandana. (This book is one in a series which features several queens from Indian history, my own Teenage Diary of Nur Jahan is among them.)

Abbakka from the Chowta dynasty of Dakshina Kannada is not well known in the north, though her exploits are celebrated in her native region, and are part of the repertory of the Yakshgana folk theatre of Karnataka. The incredible narrative of a queen who challenged the might of the Portuguese who were steadily making inroads into the coastal areas of south India, Abbakka’s diary begins in 1606. Her feisty personality shines through as we discover how training in archery, sword fighting and other arms was part of the education of the princesses of the small kingdom of Ullal in Tulunadu, which followed a matrilineal tradition. When she succeeds her mother, Abbakka is not deterred by the superiority of the Portuguese firepower and her clever strategy enables her to use her agnivanas or fire arrows effectively to destroy their ships. Interestingly, Abbakka’s fame had spread to Persia, where the Shah expressed great admiration for her feats, having been forced to bow down to the Portuguese juggernaut. The lively diary format brings us very close to the thought process of the young girl and much information about the lifestyle of the times is woven seamlessly into the narrative. Mandana has mentioned in her afterword that there were at least four Abbakkas in this dynasty and two were famous for their martial prowess. This diary details the life of Abbakka III.

Interestingly, the gutsy Abbakka II, grandmother to Abbakka III, has found place in another recent book, The Queen who Ruled the Waves and Other Amazing Tales from Indian History by veteran writer Indira Ananthakrishnan. The title story deals with Abbakka’s spirited resistance to Portuguese dominance which she carried to the extent of parting company with her husband who wanted her to submit to the foreign invaders. Abbakka is betrayed in the end and dies in captivity, but her legacy endures to inspire her successors. This book contains short pieces on several lesser-known monarchs, including some women rulers.

“The Tribal Queen” is the life of Rani Durgawati, the sixteenth century Rajput princess from Mahoba in central India, who insisted on marrying the Gond ruler Dalpat Shah against her father’s wishes. This alliance proves beneficial when the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, who had ousted the Mughal Humayun, attacks Mahoba. Durgawati and Dalpat provide valuable support to the Chandela king and Sher Shah is killed in battle. After her husband passes away, Durgawati rules and constantly defends the kingdom against invasion. However, she is unable to withstand the might of the Mughal emperor Akbar and dies in battle, heroic to the end. Rani Velu Nachinayar of Ramanathapuram and Shivagangai in Tamil Nadu, who formed an alliance with Hyder Ali of Mysore to resist the British, Rani Jindan, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab’s youngest wife, who struggled against the British behemoth too, to retain the throne for her son Dalip Singh, and the twelfth century Hoysala queen Shantala Devi, known as the “Dancing Queen” are other pioneering women children will discover in this book.

These are some fictionalised lives of brave Indian queens, but several non-fiction accounts are available too. Three very recent titles published by HarperCollins India focus on women achievers from modern times in different fields.

Cadet No. 1 and Other Amazing Women in the Armed Forces – by Maya Chandrasekaran & Meera Naidu (2021)

Cadet No. 1 and Other Amazing Women in the Armed Forces by Maya Chandrasekaran and Meera Naidu brings us the short biographies of three remarkable women who dared to challenge boundaries. They are Wing Commander Dr. V. Ramanan (VSM), the first woman to join the Indian Air Force, Major Priya Jhingan, who was in the initial batch of twenty-five women to join the Indian Army and Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi from the Indian Navy who commanded the INSV Tarini, leading an all women expedition to circumnavigate the globe. With vivid illustrations and interesting trivia, the book should do much to enthuse young readers.

Incredible Indians, 75 People Who Shaped Modern India by Ashwitha Jayakumar includes the accomplishments of women who made notable contributions in different fields. Thus, we have Health Minister Amrit Kaur, the only woman in the first cabinet of independent India, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, surgeon and activist, Ammu Swaminathan, a member of the Constituent Assembly who fought for women’s rights, as well as environmentalists like Gaura Devi, culture activists like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya (also a freedom fighter) and Kapila Vatsyanan, and champions of social justice like Ela Bhatt of SEWA (the Self-Employed Women’s Association).

The Gutsy Girls of Science – by Ilina Singh (2022)

In The Gutsy Girls of Science, Ilina Singh draws us into the world of eleven pioneering women scientists—from cytogeneticist Archana Sharma to physicist Bibha Chowdhuri and anthropologist Iravati Karve. This engaging book showcases their achievements using verses, anecdotes, illustrations, and fascinating titbits of information while including science activities to cement the information shared.

It is heartening indeed, to discover that so many unsung heroines are finding their rightful place in contemporary children’s books. Such works require greater commitment and labour from authors, as information about these neglected achievers is not easily accessible. When attempting to bring such little-known figures into the forefront, finding credible information about them often poses a challenge for the writer.

In several interviews, Devika Rangachari, who is a gender historian, has stated that while

“Textbooks continually underline the apparent irrelevance of women to the historical record….Original sources, such as texts, inscriptions and coins, reveal the palpable—and often powerful— presence that women had in all stages of history and it is very important to acknowledge this if we are to understand the past at all.”

Uncovering new facts can, of course, be an exhilarating experience. I recall my own excitement when many years ago, I was commissioned by the Children’s Book Trust to write a brief piece on freedom fighter Madam Bhikaiji Cama in their Remembering Our Leaders series. The story of her selfless struggle and the fact that she was the first person to unfurl the Indian flag in public touched a deep chord in me.

Remembering Bhikhaiji Cama – by Deepa Agarwal (1989)

While many such stories have been told, numerous other tales of courageous, trailblazing women remain in the shadows and need to be brought into the limelight. I am hopeful that now that this trend has been established, authors and publishers will continue to nurture this movement. 

Deepa Agarwal

Deepa Agarwal was born in Almora, Uttarakhand and educated in Nainital, Lucknow and Allahabad. She has been writing for 35 years with over 50 books published in several different genres. She loves to tell stories, promote reading, and research children’s literature, too.

Deepa received the N.C.E.R.T. National Award for Children’s Literature in 1993 for Ashok’s New Friends, while Caravan to Tibet was on the IBBY Honour List 2008. Recently, Journey to the Forbidden City was on the Parag Honour List 2020 and shortlisted for the Neev Book Award 2021.

Her work has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages. Kashmir! Kashmir! is her latest book. Deepa lives in Delhi with her husband and has three daughters and five grandchildren.

The Teenage Diary of Nur Jahan – by Deepa Agarwal (2019) / Ashok’s New Friends – by Deepa Agarwal (1990) /
Caravan to Tibet – by Deepa Agarwal (2007) / Journey to the Forbidden City – by Deepa Agarwal (2020) / Kashmir! Kashmir! – by Deepa Agarwal (2021)

September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult

2022 GLLI blog editors for #WorldKidLitMonth
  • Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.

  • Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School.  She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.

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