Mahasweta Devi: A model in which activism and writing can reflect upon each other

Mahasweta Devi was born in 1926 in the city of Dacca in East Bengal (modern day Bangladesh). As an adolescent, she and her family moved to West Bengal in India. Born into a literary family, Mahasweta Devi was also influenced by her early association with Gananatya, a group who attempted to bring social and political theater to rural villages in Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s. After finishing a master’s degree in English literature from Calcutta University, Devi began working as a teacher and journalist. Her first book, Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), was published in 1956. This work also marked the beginning of a prolific literary career. In the last half century, Devi has published twenty collections of short stories and close to a hundred novels, primarily in her native language of Bengali. She has also been a regular contributor to several literary magazines such as Bortika, a journal dedicated to the cause of oppressed communities within India. In 1984, she retired from her job as an English lecturer at a Calcutta university to concentrate on her writing. Devi has been the recipient of several literary prizes. She was awarded the Jnanpath, India’s highest literary award in 1995. In the following year, she was one of the recipients of the Magsaysay award, considered to be the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. She currently resides and works in Calcutta, India. […]

Another important theme in the works of Mahasweta Devi involves the position of tribal communities within India. She is a long-time champion for the political, social and economic advancement of these communities, whom she characterizes as “suffering spectators of the India that is traveling towards the twenty first century” (Imaginary Maps, xi). These concerns can be seen in works such as Aranyer Adhikar (Rights of the Forest) and anthologies such as her 1979 Nairhite Megh (Clouds in the Southwestern Sky). Aranyer Adhikar, which was published in 1977, is based on the life of Birsa Munda, a tribal freedom fighter. She has also donated the prize money from both the Jnanpath and Magsaysay awards to tribal communities and continues to use her work to further the position of these groups in India.

This activism is central to Devi’s understanding of the role of a writer in society: “I think a creative writer should have a social conscience. I have a duty towards society. Yet I don’t really know why I do these things. The sense of duty is an obsession. I must remain accountable to myself.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has  translated two collections of Devi’s stories including those in Imaginary Maps into English, suggests that this interplay of activism and literary writing in Devi’s fiction can be of substantial interest to current academic discourse and practices. Spivak insists that Devi’s work suggests a model in which activism and writing can reflect upon each other, providing a necessary vision of inter-nationality, and the possibility of constructing a new kind of responsibility for the cultural worker (Imaginary Maps, xxvi). […]

Source: » Devi, Mahsweta Postcolonial Studies @ Emory
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