Every year as the festival of Holi approaches, one cannot but think of Mahadevi Varma who was born on that festive day in 1907. One of the luminaries of Hindi literature, Varma lived for eight decades until September 11, 1987, using that time to steadily push her own frontiers and those of women around her into untrodden private and public spaces.
As the first-born in a comfortable middle class family, Varma's birth was welcomed both by her parents and relatives. She owed her eclectic intellect to her father, a professor of English, but equally to her mother, whose recitations of the religious compositions of Bhakti saints, especially Mira, left a lasting imprint on Varma's young mind.
Interestingly, she was destined to win recognition in the Hindi literary world as an 'adhunik' (modern) Mira. Observers have also tried to seek similarity in the personal lives of both women who renounced their spousal role in pursuit of their own identity.
Just nine years old when she was married, Varma was nevertheless permitted to pursue her studies first at home and later at school and college. A competent student, she went on to finish her Masters degree in 1932.
When she grew older, rather than making marriage her career, Varma decided to take up a profession. An early experience that was never addressed directly by her -- or satisfactorily explained by literary essayists -- left her disenchanted with marriage. That fact alone may have caused what can well be perceived as the leap from female to feminist. This fashioned not only the course of Varma's subsequent life, but also her creative talent as well as her intellectual and practical activism on behalf of women.
Like some other educated women of her time, Varma turned to writing, public service and teaching as a way to exercise her intellect and expressing herself. Her decision to write prose and poetry and attend 'Kavi Sammelans' (poetry festivals) was daring enough for those times. Luckily, she had a soul sister in the equally gifted Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Together, they became the leading edge of a small sorority of female poet-writers poised to enter the hall of literary fame in the Hindi language.
Although women writers were attaining recognition in other regional languages, Varma's uniqueness lay in her commanding parity with men and being widely recognized, along with Nirala, Pant and Prasad, as one of the four founder-leaders of a new romantic school of Hindi poetry termed
Her creative energy led Varma to author over five volumes of poetry and several volumes of memoirs, essays and literary criticism. Her poetry and prose quickly earned her recognition as one of India's most lyrical and intellectually prolific writers.
But her significance when tackling women's issues and as an activist helping women actually overcome their vulnerability rather than only theorizing about them is what really makes Varma different. Sensing the burden on Indian women serving as slaves to men enslaved by colonial power, she wrote incisive essays debating the role and situation of women. The best of these appeared in 'Chand', a women's magazine of that time and was compiled as a book in 1942 - 'Shrnkhla Ki Kadiyaan' (Chains of Subjugation).
To get women to smash the chains of subjugation, Varma harnessed both her intellect and talent to work for their emancipation. As Dean of a women's college in Allahabad, Varma spent nearly three decades at that institution, shaping it to best meet the ill-served needs and priorities of its female students.
While she catered to the strata of young middle class women through the institution she headed, she also began to use the might of her pen to bring to the surface the unsung heroism in the day-to-day life of socio-economically submerged women. These "women warriors" (to borrow a term from Maxine Kingston's celebrated novel) became permanently etched in some of her outstanding prose. The best known of this feminist prose was 'Ateet Ke Chalchitra', a collection of short stories centered around the experience mainly of women who touched Varma's life deeply.
While staying away from active politics, Varma had little difficulty in imbibing the asceticism and altruism of the Gandhian way of life. Her respect for life in any form also led her to spend a lot of her time in caring for injured birds, reptiles and animals. So much so, that her home became a menagerie. Later she brought to life "these primary companions" in her colorful book of recollections 'Mera Parivaar' (my family).
The compassion that linked Varma to animal and human life also connected her to nature in which she saw infinite mystery, expanse, depth, eternity and an indomitable spirit. She equated the perennial link between the human heart and nature to that between an object and its shadow.
Seeking a common denominator in human experience, Varma found it pre-eminently in sorrow, which she perceived as "poetry of life with the ability to bond the whole world in a single thread". The human being "wishes to enjoy pleasure in isolation but to share pain with everyone," she observed. "Only when people adopt compassion as their religion will life be joyous," she concluded. Sadly, Varma's compulsive attraction to sorrow is characterized by some as a product of a failed marriage or even of suppressed sexuality. This view is limited because it is male-centric and applies the measure of male presence to a female's fulfillment.
It is hard for a male-conditioned literary and social world to acknowledge that the excessive longing "for that unknown someone" expressed by Varma in her writings may be anything but carnal or male-generated.
The author is the translator of Mahadevi Varma's 'Ateet Ke Chalchitra' (1994) and 'Shrnkhla Ki Kadiyaan' (forthcoming).