"Truly, modern women are more alone": Mahadevi Varma and the 'Woman Question' in British India

Attached is a poster I presented at the 2021 Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium, reflecting on my research for the first summer of the Laidlaw Scholars Program.


In her 1938 editorial “Ādhunik nārī ki sthiti par ek dṛṣṭi” [A Look at the Status of the Modern Woman], the Indian poet, educator, and activist Mahadevi Varma concludes with a striking remark: “truly, modern women are more alone than old ones.” Mahadevi’s observations—and the very existence of her ādhunik nārī [modern woman]—complicate debates on the rights of women in British India. Mainstream narratives of nineteenth and twentieth century Indian women’s rights reform were dominated by Western reformers and male Indian nationalists, excluding the voices of Indian women themselves. Mrinalini’s research re-approaches these narratives through the lens of Mahadevi’s writings, asking what is lost when the perspectives of Mahadevi and other Indian women from this period are excluded from debates in which they had the most at stake.

To this end, this project traces a series of 1930s editorials Mahadevi published on women’s rights in Hindu marriages, one of the most pressing reform issues of her time, and places these writings in conversation with those of her Western feminist and male Indian nationalist interlocutors. Mahadevi’s editorials expose how both groups inadvertently reduced the woman in Hindu marriage to a symbol—either the pitiable child-bride or sublime goddess Bhārat Mātā [Mother India]—and offer a poignant argument for acknowledging her humanity instead. In turn, this reflects the depth of the ādhunik nārī’s isolation that Mahadevi described, the tragic consequence of erasing Indian women from debates about their own rights and trivializing the few such women whose ideas were preserved in writing. This project ultimately argues for the value of scholarship on historical outliers like Mahadevi to examine the intersections of gender and anticolonialism in British India and beyond.

Video Presentation: YouTube Link

Research Paper (Excerpt): PDF Link


Go to the profile of Eleanor Campbell
8 months ago

I love this beautifully designed poster and your lovely artwork!

Thank you so much, Eleanor! And congratulations on your wonderful poster and project! :)