Women in Critical Editions and Out of them: Some Reflections
on Situating Tamil Women in Epics and Oral Traditions
This research seeks to fragment the monolithic imaging of women in traditional Tamil societies and in so doing, bring to the surface the tapestry of multiple voices and divergent representations of women, either by men or by women. In the process, the study critically explores a whole trope of representations of women in Tamil Mahabharata, ranging from chaste wives to deviant and/or cunning women. In studying the Alli or Pavazhakkodi myths, I have attempted to analyze the morphology of patriarchal taming, both of the myth and its female protagonist. In moving from oral recitations to chapbooks, also known as Gujili literature, the study also looks at the complexities of the slippages between orality and textuality as well as between the written text and its dramatized performances. The awareness of the continued existence of oral traditions of literary cultures, is axiomatic to our recovery of women’s presence in epics, in this case specifically the Mahabharata, and the alternative narratives present in the Tamil fragments of the great epic, as Tamil oral traditions.
This study will look at some of the broad paradigms within which women-oriented Tamil representations operate both in epics and Tamil oral traditions. Besides presenting contrasting images encountered in classical or so-called ‘high tradition’ texts, I shall specifically focus on the transformational qualities of folk legends as they move from oral recitations to chapbooks or Gujili literature. The Mahabharata epic, itself zigzags from the oral to the written to the oral and performative traditions. The study also looks at the complexities of the slippages between orality and textuality as well as between the written text and its dramatized performances, their texts and contexts. The oral/printed myths in the process of their transmissions and transmutations do not follow a linear course but tend to move between various representational modes.
I shall also endeavor to raise a number of questions relating to authorship and the authenticity of women’s voices in the alternative modes of narration which are beyond critical editions. I shall argue that many of the anonymous fragmented women-oriented narratives from the Tamil Mahabharata, available as ballads or stories, could well have been authored by women. The question as to whether these women put forth a counter-discourse or merely echoed the male patriarchal voices complicates these narrations further. These questions have no neat solutions.
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