Prof Veena Sikri, Convenor of the Conference is the Coordinator for the South Asian Women’s Network on Arts and Literature.
Coordinator’s Report for the South Asian Women’s Network on Arts and Literature
The countries of South Asia share a unique geographical and cultural space. There are many religions, many languages, many ethnicities, but essentially one civilization and culture. The commonalities in the cultural identity of the people of South Asia bind them together. This includes shared traditions in the arts, including music, dance and theatre, in literature, in crafts and textiles, in environmental practices, in traditional medicine and much, much, more. The finest aspect of South Asia’s shared identity is the plurality, the syncretism that forms the core of this identity. The people of South Asia celebrate their diversity but rejoice in this, the essence of their unity
The South Asian Women’s Network on Arts and Literature determined that the strengthening of these common cultural bonds is of critical importance not only in preserving South Asia’s cultural traditions and passing them on to future generations, but equally in ensuring a stable, peaceful and prosperous South Asia. These cultural traditions taken together represent a set of values , a way of life, a system of morality.
Without these cultural roots, younger generations are losing their moorings, their value systems, their livelihood, and their unique South Asian identity. The onslaught of globalization is further destroying indigenous cultures and traditions. Modernisation and the benefits of science and technology can and should be brought in without weakening these deep roots of society in South Asia that have been nurtured through millennia.
The forces of extremism and fundamentalism are targeting these cultural and value systems in their efforts to make inroads into the societies of South Asia and destroy the internal and regional cohesion and inner strength of these societies. This is particularly evident in the rural areas, where over 65% of the women of South Asia live.
Women in South Asia have played a singularly important role as repositories and conveyors of the most important artistic and literary traditions of South Asia. Most artistic, literary and crafts traditions in South Asia are the gift of rural South Asia. They were created and perfected in rural South Asia. The women who nurtured these traditions may have been and still are illiterate and poor, yet they have, for millennia, kept families and societies moored together by sustaining and passing on to younger generations the oral traditions of rural South Asia. This has always been an important source of empowerment for the women of South Asia, even though they themselves may be unaware of this. The women embroiderers who sing folk songs as they work, reciting wondrous tales of courage, kingship and heroism are not necessarily conscious of the moral and social values their songs instill among listeners.
Plurality and pluralistic traditions lie at the core of these rural traditions. Indigenous performing arts, theatre, literature and crafts promote plurality and strengthen the syncretic culture that has been the hallmark of South Asia. Here, too, women have played a crucial role as evidenced by the traditions of Lal Ded, Meera Bai and many others.
The continued onslaught of poverty in rural South Asia, the resultant forced migration of millions from rural to urban slums, has severely imperiled the survival of many of the artistic, literary and crafts traditions of South Asia. When histories and traditions are not assimilated into contemporary life-styles, the very foundations of society become shaky. Instead of celebrating each others’ joys and festivals, sharing each other’s sorrows, groups within society become increasingly isolated. These are the spaces where fundamentalist ideologies can and do get lodged. These are the spaces where social violence, exploitation of women and children, and destructive exploitation of the environment set down firm roots.
To combat these ills, the countries of South Asia should reinvest to revive the rural traditions of the arts. Each tradition that is lost disempowers the women that formed the backbone for its survival. Reviving the traditional arts is, therefore, a critically important part of the process of empowering the women of South Asia. To be effective and self-sustaining, this process of revival and empowerment should be holistic, comprising cultural, social and economic empowerment.
The South Asian Women’s Network on Arts and Literature adopted the following programme and projects for their activities in the coming months. They agreed to conduct these activities under the rubric of ‘Bawan Buti’. Bawan Buti or ‘Fifty-two Motifs’ refers to the efforts currently underway to revive and recreate the lost tradition of weaving the khadi sari that was known as Bawan Buti. Women have traditionally played a significant role in creating this khadi sari, particularly in spinning khadi yarn. The Bawan Buti sari has fifty-two different motifs along its traditional length of six yards. In many ways this symbolizes the syncretic mosaic of South Asia, where all nations share the same geographical canvas and therefore must be at peace with one another. Each ‘buti’ or motif is unique yet remains an inherent part of the larger canvas.
The Bawan Buti Programmes and Projects are:
I. The South Asian Women’s Network on Arts and Literature has been established. Regular meetings should be held, on an average of once a year. In the interim this Network will function through exchanges over email. The Coordinator will explore the feasibility of using Solution Exchange or any similar facility to ensure the smooth functioning of the Network.
II. Women’s Voices in the Sufi, Bhakti and other Pluralistic Traditions of South Asia. This project will include :
(a)Seminar on this theme with South Asian and other international participants;
(b)Performances, poetry readings and workshops of theatre, music and dance reflecting the sufi, bhakti and other pluralistic traditions of South Asia. These are envisaged as traveling events that will visit universities and colleges, particularly in the non-metro areas of South Asia. Lal Ded, the play conceptualized and enacted by Meeta Vasisht(India), was agreed upon as one such performance.
(c)Leading artistic and creative theatre personalities of South Asia, particularly women, including directors, musicians, playwrights, actors and technical experts will come together to create an artistic production on this theme. This can be done through meetings of this group hosted in different South Asian counties over the next year to 18 months.
III. Women’s Testimonies in South Asia. This project will focus on compilation and translations of South Asian women’s writings/statements/poetry/plays. The translations will be into English and into the languages of each South Asian country. Three volumes are envisaged, covering the areas of :
(a)South Asian Women in History and Politics,
(b)South Asian Women in Literature,
(c)South Asian Women in Philosophy.
In addition, members are requested to encourage publication in their respective South Asian country of the literary works authored by women from other South Asian countries. This can be done through publication in academic journals, popular magazines and newspapers. This would greatly help in sharing the angst and highlighting the common concerns of women throughout South Asia.
Jamia Millia Islamia (India) has, through its journal Third Frame (published by the Academy of Third World Studies in collaboration with Cambridge University Press) offered a special focus on women’s literature of South Asia.
IV. Empowering Women Through Sustaining and Reviving Rural Traditions in Performing Arts, Recitation and Crafts. This project will involve several stages. First, identifying in each South Asian country the traditions that are most imperiled. Second, locating surviving practitioners who could then become teachers for the women and others from the area native to that particular tradition. Third, spreading this process of teaching beyond the native area. Residency programmes could be started in relevant institutions in each South Asian country to strengthen the process of revival and rehabilitation of these traditions. Members are requested to send in details about imperiled traditions in each South Asian country where women have traditionally played a major role.
V. Documentation Project linked to IV above. This is a technical and specialized task. Nonetheless it is an essential part of the process of sustaining, reviving and rehabilitating the artistic traditions of South Asia.
VI. The Arts for Rehabilitation of Marginalized Women. The poverty of rural areas and urban slums in South Asia breeds violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking of women and children. Many women and minor girls, victims of such crimes, if they are lucky enough to be rescued, eventually find themselves in remand homes and rehabilitation centres run either by the government or by NGOs. Far too often, these homes and centres become spaces for another kind of hopelessness and suppression. The challenge is to rehabilitate these women and minor girls by restoring their self-esteem and self-confidence, by empowering them holistically so that they can re-integrate into society. Some non-profit organisations have successfully created a programme called TAM (Theatre Arts Module) under which traditional performing arts, theatre and crafts traditions are taught at these homes and centres as a means of empowering these women and minor girls. In addition, there are programmes for imparting communication and social skills, including teaching of English. Both these projects (TAM and the Programme for Imparting Communication and Social Skills) can be popularized through Training the Trainers projects in each South Asian country, so as to facilitate the use of the arts for rehabilitation of marginalized women.