The Right-Woman Demythified: The Emergence Of Kali, Stree and Asmita

Abstract: The paper follows the women’s empowerment trajectory from being the oppressed to taking control into their own hands. Standing on their moral grounds as to what has to be done to uproot themselves from discrimination, they take the road of visibility through asserting their space in society through writing, women’s studies and resorting to independent publishing programmes as an outlet to the outside world.

Keywords: women, Kali, protection women, status of women, understanding women, gender studies, upper caste, creative writing, independent publishers, publishing programme, Indian languages, Kali women, women’s struggles, understanding women

A popular story about the birth of Goddess Kali seems an apt analogy to begin this discussion on the earliest women publishing houses India, simultaneously engaged with the country’s grassroots women’s activism and its academic preoccupations concerning marginality in general and gender in particular. Goddess Kali is said to have come the world during a war between the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons), triggered by two asuras, Shimbu and Nishimbhu who captured the Indra Loka (the abode of the devas). The demons were winning until the devas appealed to Shiva the Destroyer, who in turn sent Goddess Durga to save the devas. In the battlefield, Mata Durga called on her most potent aspect, Kali, who leapt out from the former’s brow and charged onto the killing ground, destroying the asura army.

But, that is not the end of the story. Even after winning the battle, much to the puzzlement of the devas, Kali continued her dance of destruction. She had been so immersed in her ‘act’ that she did not notice that the job for which she was commissioned was long done. The devas now feared that if she continued dancing, she would destroy all the worlds. Here again, Shiva, her consort, had a solution. Taking the form of an infant, he lay down on the battlefield. Seeing the recumbent body of the infant, Kali stopped, and cradling him to her breast, began to nurse him.

And now, we have this spectacular image of the fierce goddess, surrounded by ten thousand demon corpses, quietly suckling a baby. How better can one explain the concept of change than through this figure of Kali, the meaning of whose name could be ‘the controller of time’? And, look at her, who is Shiva’s offspring, consort and mother, all at once. Appreciably, a prayer to this transformational/ transformative Shakti invokes her multiple aspects:

Salutations to you in the form of Consciousness

Salutations to you in the form of Intelligence

Salutations to you in the form of Power

Salutations to you in the form of Forgiveness

Salutations to you in the form of Beauty

Salutations to you in the form of Fortune

Salutations to you in the form of Contentment

Salutations to you in the form of the Mother

A demythified understanding of the above transformative shakti principle underlying the figure of ‘woman’ would do well in recovering the circumstances that led to the launch of Kali for Women, Asia’s first full-fledged feminist press, in 1984; Stree, that gave India a successful model of entrepreneurial partnership in bi-lingual publishing in1990; and Asmita, a multi-pronged activist-publisher operating from a pluri­lingual site, in 1991. This empowerment of women through the act of publishing should be seen against the background of the 60s and 70s, which formed a churning period in the history of modern India. With the grave problems of urban unemployment and food shortage looming large, doubts about the Nehruvian planned development were in the air, which in fact gave rise to a new political sensibility that manifested itself in agitations of students and housewives against rising prices, corruption etc., budding Trade Union activism and militant leftwing peasant organisations. Women’s participation in these struggles indeed gave an impetus to the setting up of many women’s movements, which soon began to demand protection of women’s rights in various areas.

As a result of the persistent demand for the protection of women’s rights, in 1971, the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) was appointed. The CSWI was asked to review the rights and status of women with special focus on education and employment against the provisions available. When Towards Equality, the CSWI report to the UN, was published, it contained findings about the declining sex ratio, women’s exclusion from the process of modernisation, the status of legislative reforms among communities, the small number of women contestants in elections etc. Meanwhile women’s movements began remedial activism to counter these ills. For instance, Gandhian activism led to the birth of the first organisation of women workers The Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad in 1974.

The Indian academic world, too, was witnessing changes. A research unit of Women’s Studies began at SNDT University in 1974. The ICSSR began a sponsored programme on Women’s Studies in 1975, making a claim on the Social Sciences. A new generation of women social scientists, aware of its position within higher education, had begun to work towards forming a critical perspective informing all disciplines, to facilitate greater understanding of women’s positions in various fields. It was when womanpower was thus slowly making its presence felt, that the National Emergency brought everything to a head.

As discussed earlier, because of a political misreading, Emergency did not very much affect the efforts of the women scholars and activists. So, by the time the Emergency was lifted, a great paradigm shift was effected: from women as subjects to be educated to women as subjects to be studied. That was the moment of women’s publishing in India.

It might be pertinent here to mention that in the areas of art and literature, the modernist movement that came late to the Indian states, with its emphasis on grand narratives, was facing a certain decadence in the late 70s. It indeed was an age of transition for the woman-word in India, too. An in-between hour that was leaving the past behind and stepping into the future. The great moment of the dhvaniac Indian feminist expression – anguished yet daring, angry yet understanding, value-based yet modern; believing in grand narratives, yet ready to celebrate every fragment of success.

This paradoxical word, first declared by the CSW1 report, and then by Manushi, spread on to envelope organisations, coalitions, individuals supporting the cause of women, all of which came together for the first national women’s conference in Bombay in 1980, spearheaded by the Forum against Rape. Significantly, the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) was established in the same year. 1981 saw the first National Conference on Women’s Studies in Bombay with 400 delegates from all over the country hosted by the SNDT University. This was followed by the formation of Indian Association of Women’s Studies in 1982.

On the battlefield of life in India, womanpower was making such great victories, when the goddess of time took the form of a guardian. The rights activist now transformed herself into a nurturing agency. She was now the aspect of womanhood that would nurse the future. That was the task the women publishers who came to the scene in the 80’s and early nineties took upon themselves – to safe-guard, to nurture, to celebrate women’s lives and works, at once.

Kali for Women

Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali for Women, was in the founding collective of Manushi, and was actively involved in women’s movements in India, but also had worked with OUP in Delhi and Zed in London. Ritu Menon, her partner came with the experiences of working with Doubleday in New York, and Orient Longman and Vikas in Delhi. When they chose to publish with a commitment to women’s causes, as Menon says, “overheads and salaries were low, investment in infrastructure, marginal.” They believed they could afford to experiment because they were operating from the margins. They had the examples of the Feminist Press in the US, and Manushi in India: hundreds of women who were part of the movement donated small amounts of money to those publishers, and were their most loyal support group, their constituency.

It was in such an environment and political climate, and with similar concerns, that Kali for Women began its work in 1984. Butalia and Menon saw themselves “as located somewhere between the women’s movement and women’s studies”; Kali being very much a creation of both. Kali’s objective was to “provide a platform for women writers, uncover their histories and reflect the totality of their experience.” They wanted to “provide a progressive gender perspective on all issues, and enable women’s voices to be heard, as far and as wide” as they could manage. In the broader context, they wished to “produce an alternative knowledge, from an alternative position; to create an impact and make a difference, both within the movement and on the mainstream…to reverse the flow of information, this time direct it from South to North, East to West, to present an experience as lived and understood in … reality, and to theorise on the basis of that understanding and analysis…. to participate in the creation of the message, and to control the medium through which it would be communicated and disseminated.” Thus, in Ritu Menon’s words, Kali for Women was “the most fortuitous coming together of personal, professional and political commitment” (Menon).

As they began publishing, they realised how difficult it was to draw a line between their publishing activity and their involvement in the women’s movement. Time and again, deadlines passed and schedules went off beam because both the authors and the publishers were drawn into some campaign or demonstration, or were engaged in drafting a new legislation. Their skills in drafting, editing, proofreading were used in the production of leaflets, diaries, posters, campaign material, booklets and fact-sheets. Evidently, Kali was not a conventional publisher. In fact, their intense engagement led them to various subjects that later became books, and to people who became their readers, writers, activist-researchers.

Kali’s earliest publications reflected the involvement of its founders in various activist and academic causes related to women: Women & Media: Analysis, Action, Alternatives, the first analysis of women’s representation in mainstream media in South Asia; Speaking of Faith, a cross-cultural consideration of women, religion and social change; Staying Alive, a pioneering study of women, development and the environment in India; “We Were Making History”, the first-ever oral historical account of women in armed struggle; The History of Doing an illustrated history of the women’s movement in India; Truth Tales, an anthology of short stories by women translated from seven Indian languages; Recasting Women, a seminal collection of essays on women and colonialism; an atlas of women, that maps their status by state and district. These publications indeed altered India’s understanding of women’s lives and demanded a feminist analysis of gender relations in Indian society that were to effect changes in the academy as well as in the corridors of power and policy-making.

In retrospect, one sees that much of Kali’s work also anticipated Ritu Menon’s and Urvashi Butalia’s independent ventures today -Women Unlimited and Zubaan, the individual stories of which are told later in this book – that fight in Menon’s words, “the resurgence of patriarchal attitudes; the return of the thought police and the moral majority; the collapse of the notion of welfarism and the corresponding reassertion of right-wing politics and economics; the impact of financial Crises worldwide on women and other disadvantaged people; and, the communal and… military,”


The continuity of experience and adaptability that make Butalia’s Zubaan and Menon’s Women Unlimited still draw from the original vision of Kali for Women, seem the most significant features of women publishing in the country. These qualities are manifest in the two decades of publishing at Stree, too. In 1986, Mandira Sen, the founder-director of Stree, met Ramdas Bhatkal, the head of Popular Prakashan of Mumbai, who shared her view that social sciences have to be reviewed in the present times. They both believed that India could produce ground­breaking original writing rather than allowing the western thought systems to dominate over our academy. Mandira began as Popular Prakashan’s distributor in the eastern region, but later entered into a partnership with them. Bhatkal and Sen began publishing gender studies under the imprint Stree in 1990.

Like Butalia and Menon, Mandira Sen also had experience abroad. During her time in the US, she had come into contact with many activists of the women’s movement, and she wished to use this experience to highlight the work that was being done (and had been done in the past) on women’s issues in India, and to help educate people about the women’s movement and its contributions to civil society. Stree’s early titles included scholarly translations of important texts in Indian languages by or about women, works of scholarship in the social sciences with an Indian context or sources, or by Indian scholars, with special reference to women; and popular works dealing with concepts and ideas of the women’s movement with the objective of introducing them to Indian audiences. Characteristically, Stree’s first title was a translation of a Gujarati novel by S. J. Joshi, Anandi Copal, a fictional retelling of the life of the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor.

It is also important that Stree was launched in the year of the Mandal Commission Report, which was to create great ripples in the Indian socio-political scene. Sen’s foresight into the changing nature of society, culture and politics was proved right with the developments that the following years saw. The year 1991 saw the New Economic Policy and liberalisation, which indeed had a lasting impact on Women’s Studies. With the Babri-Masjid event in 1992 and Mumbai riots and the demonstration of political extremism in 1993, India became a suitable space for the development of Women’s Studies as a critical perspective of the society as well as the academy. The University Grants Commission too began to support Centres for Women’s Studies established in various universities to research, teach, and reach out. This was the provocative ground on which Stree was brought up.

The Right-woman Demythified: The Emergence of Kali, Stree and Asmita 43

Sen chose the name ‘Stree’ for her venture because it means ‘woman’ in many Indian languages, and pertinently the house focused on gender studies in English and in Bangla, by women and men in India or abroad. From its inception, Stree has concentrated on the status of women in India, class relations and political subjection, marriage and the family, and the impact of religion, culture and ideology. It also translates women’s contributions to literature and scholarship in the Indian languages into English and is particularly interested in women’s memoirs. Its social science list addressing caste is note-worthy as the house understands caste as a central agency that determines the position of women in the society.

In 1996, the singer-songwriter Moushumi Bhowmik joined Stree as an editor. She began and developed Stree’s Bengali lists, which included path-breaking works such as Sambuddha Chakrabarti’s Andare Antare (Inside, Within), on the lives of Bengali bhadralok women in the nineteenth century; Pin fore Bothiya (Inside the Cage), a collection of essays by Kalyani Dutta, edited by the School of Women’s Studies at jadavpur University; and a translation of Kamla Bhasin’s What is Patriarchy? into Bengali. Now, translation is a major area of focus at Stree, as it helps connect the country through ideas, resistance, aspiration and progression.

It is Stree’s ideal of freedom and its understanding of caste as instrumental in women’s subjection in India that led to the inauguration of its second imprint, Samya, which means ‘equality’, in 1996. Samya took off with Kancha Ilaiah’s work Why I Art Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Political Economy and Culture, which became a political manifesto to the dalits and other backward castes in India. The book, which was earlier rejected by many mainstream publishers, put Ilaiah on the literary map of the country, and has been translated into many languages. Since the publication of Why I Am Not a Hindu, Illiah has written several books, including fiction.

Among Samya’s titles that recover voices of resistance from across India are Tirumaalvalavan’s Talisman: Extreme Emotions of Dalit Awakening, translated by Meena Kandasamy, Lalithambika Antherjanam’s Cast Me Out If You Will which documents the oppression of women in the Namboodiri-dominated nineteenth century Kerala, Manikuntala Sen’s In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey, a translation of her Shediner Kotha which traces the early years of the Communist movement in India.

An important autobiography published by Samya, Joothan: A Dalit’s Life by Omprakash Valmiki, translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee, reveals a dalit’s struggles to get an education and a profession. Samya’s fiction titles such as Illiah’s Pariah and Sharankumar Limbale’s Hindu also add new dimensions to its publication policy. The house also brings out academic books in anthropology, history, and so on. Fiction in translation include translations of Marathi works like Kamal Desai’s Dark Sun and The Woman Who Wore a Hat, Saroj Pathak’s Whom Can I Tell? How Can I Explain? and Vibhavari Shirurkar’s Kharemaster.

While the readers are made aware of the complexities of caste, socio-political and gender oppression through Samya publications, it is interesting to study how Stree-Samya has achieved a thematic continuum in various areas of its publishing. With the same insightful eye with which she saw the connection between women’s issues and the labyrinth of caste system in India, Mandira Sen has seen how most available histories have not been able to get away from their authors’ location as upper caste subjects or foreigners. Today, Samya’s critique of the explicit and implicit ways in which caste plays out in this country, has also led to the development of new and alternative historiographical models. Achuthan. M. K. Kandyil’s Writing Indian History: A View from Below (2009) is a case in point.

Stree-Samya has also tried to view the Partition in eastern India in all its complexities in the face of the popular imagination that has only acknowledged the Partition of the Punjab as ‘the partition experience’. The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India, vols 1 and 2, through literature, interviews, surveys and documents that lift the ‘veil of silence’ on the partition in eastern India.

Most of Stree-Samya’s women’s studies’ titles are women’s writings in both English and Bangla. These range from Sambuddha Chakrabarti’s Andare Antare: Unish Shatake Bangali Bhadramahila (The Bengali Bhadramahila in the Nineteenth Century), which discusses the emergence of the elite women from the Brahmo and upper caste Hindu backgrounds, to Pinjare Bashiya (Inside the Cage) by KalyaniDutta about the bleak world of the widows. At the age of 95, Nihar Barua was commissioned to collect the folksongs and folklore of the region of Goalpara, Assam, under the title, Prantabashir Jhuli: Goalparar Lokjeebon o Gan (Songs from the Margins), which is a pioneering study of folk and oral culture.

Despite all these spectacular achievements in publishing, the house has found financial sustainability a tough hill to climb, especially with regards to publishing in. Bangla. In the local trade market that pitches itself around cheaply produced books, with not much concern about editorial or production quality, Streets insistence on quality proves to be too costly. It also affects the house that the market is primarily suited for textbooks and creative writing, which forces Stree to settle for modest print runs, and relatively higher prices, all of which in turn make distribution of its books a difficult task.

It is alarming that all the women publishers whom we discuss here face the problem of financial sustainability in some way or the other, even as there is a general consensus about the quality and relevance of their books and other activities. Mandira Sen identifies the old-fashioned distribution system in India as the plague of Indian publishing industry. While editorial work, production, and printing have all been modernised in India, distribution remains where it was decades back. Distributors take the books on a huge discount, but while a book is out with a distributor, the publisher does not really know what the sales are till the 6 months’ contract period is over. So, all this time, one has to find other means to pay bills, royalties etc. So, for a small publisher it becomes hard to find any space in a bookshop. Under such circumstances, Stree-Samya depends on institutions and individuals for support.

As the problem of distribution was a common issue with all small-time independent publishers, eight of them – Leftword, Navayana, Samksriti, Stree-Samya, Three Essays, Tulika Books, Tulika Publishers, Women Unlimited – came together to found the Independent Publishers Distribution Alternatives (IPDA), with its office in Delhi, and with personnel who look after all-India distribution of their books.


With Volga as the Executive Chairperson and Vasanth Kannabiran as the Chairperson – Culture, Asmita’s work in publishing and activism is founded on the belief that Rights education is the only means to achieve equal citizenship. At this historical juncture where questions of diversity, difference, and the multiple sites of pedagogic praxis have merged with the earlier concerns on women’s rights and citizenship, Asmita’s publication and outreach programmes see the uses of rights education as located outside the sphere of formal education, within spaces where equal citizenship is practically denied. This makes Asmita constantly update/re-shape its own theoretical understanding of law through its publications so that its ideological position is never isolated from the practical interpretation and enactment of law in the country.

Asmita’s activism stems from the understanding that gender structures the entire field of rights in very fundamental ways. Gender discrimination critically affects women’s access to education, skills and resources in most sections of the society. Lacking in education and technical skills due to the domestic responsibilities imposed on girl children, the reproductive labour of women, and other priorities within the household, women are automatically segregated into low paid jobs which are ‘unskilled’ and unorganised. A significant implication of the gender division of labour is the methodical crippling of women’s capacities.

It is pertinent here that one cannot address the question of women’s rights from the perspective of lack of opportunities alone. The rights discourse manifests itself in myriad ways as the category of gender is often found overlapping with other measures of diversity – caste, community, ability, class, sexual orientation, political persuasion etc. Hence, intersecting fields of violence and discrimination. (against dalit women, women of the working classes, lesbian women, women in outlawed political struggles, etc) have been Asmita’s special concern. Since these women do not stand apart from their social location, Asmita’s publications in English, Telugu and Urdu, and research programmes examine the specific ways in which the country’s legal system addresses or dodges the violation or derogation of rights within the above constituencies. In this effort, Asmita has unravelled the curious ways in which derogation is gendered. For instance, rape of women is not just one of the crimes referred to in the Indian Penal Code, but it is also a caste atrocity, a mode of state violence, or a part of ethnic cleansing or some other crime against humanity. This understanding of the complexity involved in the question of women’s rights in India has led Asmita to design its diverse activities in such a way that all its engagements – in arts, culture and publishing; education and literacy; other focussed initiatives; counselling and legal services; campaigns and networking; petitioning and advocacy; and interdisciplinary research -work towards bridging the gap between intellectual articulations of the civil society and the grassroots activists who grapple with the rapidly changing values and reality of life.

Asmita’s contribution towards contextualising women’s studies In India has been noteworthy. With the success of its publications, Neeli Meghalu [Blue Skies – an anthology of femin-ist poetry in Telugu] and Saramsam [a report on the women’s anti liquor struggle], Asmita began to feel the need to build a significant body of feminist writing in Telugu to match the very visible and vocal presence of feminists in the region. In 1995, Asmita published Sarihaddulu Leni Sandhyalu, a feminist theory collection in Telugu, a pioneering attempt to create a theoretical space that accommodates the specificities of experience concerning the movement in Andhra Pradesh. It incorporates an examination of the twenty years’ of Asmita’s journey that at once recovers the assumptions, contradictions and achievements involved in the women’s movement. Sarihaddulu Leni Sandhyalu reviews the women’s movement in relation to the history of other political movements/ struggles in the region since this history has shaped the ideological complexities of the movement in Andhra, and presents options for future direction and activism of the movement. As most critical questions concerning feminism in India concern equal citizenship, the need to obliterate the distinction between the private and public and to make the family the subject of political discourse, Sarihadulu Leni Sandhyalu included articles examining caste, religion, gender, and the intersections of these identities.

The two decades prior to the publication of Neeli Meghalu saw the politicisation and polarisation of religious and caste identities in the State, which in turn led to visible patriarchal practices within societies and cultures. Marginalisation of women in various walks of life was an automatic outcome of this. But as every action potentially awaits an equal and opposite reaction, during the same time, the autonomous women’s movement began to launch campaigns against custodial rape, dowry, communalism, structural adjustment, population policy, sati, minority rights and specific local issues.

Apart from its theoretical publications in Telugu, English and Urdu, Asmita has also published and/or supported publication of more than 50 books over the past 20 years in Telugu and Urdu by women, dalit and minority writers in the ‘creative writing’ category.

During 1999 to 2001 Asmita worked with Women’s WORLD (Women’s World Organisation for Rights, Literature and Development), an international free speech network that seeks to catalyse global feminist work on the right to free expression, in the ‘Women and Censorship Project’ involving ten language-specific workshops across the country. This project, which published six books, was taken up in the background of a number of writers being exiled, imprisoned and banned during critical moments in history because of the threat they present to established regimes and social order.

The struggle against censorship became important to Asmita in the context of a quarter century of its witnessing how bold women’s poetry was subject to bitter attack from the press in Andhra Pradesh. Asmita’s publishing programme itself had stemmed from the key role it played in mobilizing women writers to respond collectively to the above attacks, by organising meetings and readings from contemporary women’s writing in Telugu. As a result, in October 1993, the feminist poetry anthology Neeli Meghalu was released in various places. The book has since received much critical acclaim and been hailed as one of the two most significant volumes of the century. A workshop that followed in 1992, brought together women who had, until that point, been on their own or part of writers’ networks that were predominantly male. These efforts served to assert the ‘legitimacy’ of women’s experiences, the centrality of women’s position in the socio-political order of our times, and the importance of subjectivity in understanding women’s experience. Neeli Meghalu created a genre, which through its occurrence and strength exposed all attempts to censor and silence women’s voices and concerns in the name of literary tradition and literary criticism. It also became clear that to understand and appreciate this poetry, one needed a changed framework and a new perspective. Since the poetry was powerful and appealing, there was a demand for more theoretical writing that would open up new frontiers of understanding.

Asmita’s involvement with Women’s World was in fact an extension of the activities it had already initiated. Asmita, in its struggles against censorship of women’s writings, has come across instances of manuscripts being hidden, forgotten, and destroyed. Delving deep into the reasons that make the society view a woman’s freedom to express the experiences of her intimate relationship as a threat, it has found that when women write to survive or escape the claustrophobic lives forced upon them, when they write to break their long-accepted silences, they write in anger, which has the potential to shatter the society’s establishments. But, Asmita has realised that more than society’s censorship, it is women’s own conditioning that must be fought. During its close interaction with women, Asmita has realised that “there is a disconnect between what women say and what they write; between their spoken words and their silences; between women as the subject-matter of writing, and women as subjects and writers; between language, literature, performing arts and social movements, and the emergence of women’s voices. The contours of gender-based censorship are far more pervasive and far more difficult to define than official suppression. And speech that dwells on the tyranny of the household, marriage, family and motherhood is too subversive to be tolerated.” ( last accessed on 14.07.11)

For the same reason, Asmita’s publishing programme cannot be seen separately from its activism that involves women and men from diverse constituencies – creative writers, research scholars, college students, semi-urban/rural youth, activists, elected women representatives, and women from marginalised communities. The insights Asmita has gained from its capacity-building interventions – the educational outreach methods to communicate the feminist perspective to all sections of the society, the Summer School initiative that focuses on creating a multidisciplinary perspective, Gender Justice Mentoring Programme for Women Advocates focusing on rights and issues of discrimination, health literacy training, adult learning programme and legal literacy training – have gone into its publications.

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