The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Obitury: Sharmila Rege (1964-2013) – At the Intersection of Gender and Caste

By Sowmya Dechamma 

Sharmila Rege, teacher, scholar, and activist, who described herself as a Phule-Ambedkarite feminist, who taught, researched, and worked at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at Pune University, passed away on July 13, 2013. Her engagement of dialogues and debates amongst feminists and others, her meticulous scholarship, her reading of Ambedkar, and her methods of research provided newer insights into the discourse on gender and caste.  For people like me, who did not know her personally, but only through her work, Sharmila Rege was an inspiration. She was the benchmark which we aspired to reach. She spoke to us through her work and urged us to commit ourselves to academics and political activism suffused with hope for change and justice.

Whether I taught Indian Literatures, Literary Criticism, or Popular Culture, I had to engage with Rege. One simply could not overstep Sharmila Rege whether one taught social sciences or humanities. To say that she is central to feminist studies / dalit feminist theory is a gross understatement. To me, her work and thoughts are central to the turn that Indian academics has taken in recent years: a shift that marked the study of Indian society from positions of sanskritisation to dalit feminist standpoint, which critiques and takes forward women’s movement and dalit movement from masculinizing dalithood and savarnisation of womanhood.

I said I know her through her work. My first Rege was ‘Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of Difference and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position,’ an essay that critiques the notion of difference that is usually understood in celebratory, passive, and pluralistic ways. Rege asserts the need to shift the focus from difference – different voices to social relations that convert difference into oppression. In other words, she urges us to locate difference in the cultural, material, political interactions and interfaces of various hierarchies of class, gender, and caste. This is the essay where she puts forth her arguments for a dalit feminist standpoint that transforms and, in turn, is itself open to transformation, interrogations, and revisions, thereby making it emancipatory.

Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios is another of her seminal works that brought together first-person accounts of eight Dalit women from the 1920′s to the present, and encouraged us to read history and society through the ideology of Ambedkar and Phule.

Her most recent work, which I am yet to read, Against the Madness of Manu: Dr. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahminical Patriarchy rightfully places Ambedkar as the forerunner of Indian feminist movement. This non-recognition of Ambedkar within the feminist movement is a gap that has been made visible only through the lens of the dalit feminist.

In our own spheres, Rege’s work has made us revisit our own positions; re-envision them by both learning and unlearning. In her words, adopting an emanicipatory position like the dalit feminist standpoint is sometimes losing, sometimes re-envisioning the voice that we have gained. It’s not surprising that Rege was a teacher par excellence, inspiring students, enthusing them with a spirit that was infectious, with a commitment and integrity that was remarkable. As someone said she would like to be remembered for her remarkable commitment to students, her incredibly productive life, her great humility and warmth every time she was with friends and colleagues.

I end with a collage of a poem:

Today is that day
the day that carried
a desperate light that since has died.

If one was slain on a hillside,
Another arose elsewhere,
As if out of the earth –
The gaunt woman,
And above her body,
Like an iron limb,
Sprouted her mighty pen
pouring blood all blue.

Over the ravages of life and the world
Her works stood her tall
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin then, now afresh, afresh, afresh!*

*This is a poem that is collaged from various poems with modifications by Viju Kurian and Sowmya Dechamma.

[Sowmya Dechamma teaches at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India. Apart from teaching Comparative Indian Literature and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary India, her research interests include Minority Discourse and Kodava Language and Culture. Her non-academic interests include cycling, badminton and the joy of raising two children.]

Pic courtesy:

[Cafe Dissensus Blog is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]

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