Meera's Medieval Lyric Poetry in Postcolonial India: The Rhetorics of Women's Writing in Dialect as a Secular Practice of Subaltern Coauthorship and Dissent

Meera's Medieval Lyric Poetry in Postcolonial India: The Rhetorics of Women's Writing in Dialect as a Secular Practice of Subaltern Coauthorship and Dissent
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  Meera’s Medieval Lyric Poetry in Postcolonial India:The Rhetorics of Women’s Writing in Dialect as aSecular Practice of Subaltern Coauthorship and Dissent Rashmi Bhatnagar, Renu Dube, and Reena Dube  The debate around secularism, and what constitutes secular prac-tice both intellectually and politically, is one of the most significant sites inpostcolonialtheory.Giventhecontemporarypoliticalclimateofpostcolonialsocieties,asreligiousfundamentalismbecomesmoreandmoreentrenchedand reinvents itself through alliances with the forces of globalism, on theone hand, and nationalism, on the other, it is crucial that an open andwide-ranging debate take place about the heterogeneous meanings thatare assigned to the term secularism  . In what follows, we explore the secu-lar practices and ideas that have historically accumulated and been formu-lated around the figure of Meera, the sixteenth-century Indian woman poet(1498–1546).Edward Said’s important contribution to the secular debate exploresthe notion and practice of what he calls secular criticism. His term secu-  Thisessaywasmeanttobeincludedin‘‘CriticalSecularism,’’aspecialissueof boundary2  (vol.31,no.2[Summer2004]),editedbyAamirR.Mufti,but,becauseofspacelimitations,publication was deferred until this time. Ed  .Unless otherwise noted, translations are the authors’. boundary 2  31:3, 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press.  2 boundary 2 / Fall 2004 lar interpretation  derives from his commitment to secularism, his locationas an oppositional metropolitan academic in the humanities, and his situ-atedness as an exiled Palestinian intellectual actively involved in the Pal-estinian struggle. In this essay, we honor his political commitment to secu-larism even as we scrutinize the binary of religious/secular in his definitionof the term: ‘‘secular interpretation . . . argues for historical discriminationand for a certain kind of deliberate scholarship. It implies a certain interpre-tivesophistication.Aboveall,itargues,andthisisthepoint,forthepotentialof a community that is political, cultural, intellectual, and is not geographi-cally and homogeneously defined. . . . The politics of secular interpretationproposes . . . a way of avoiding the pitfalls of nationalism I have just out-lined,bydiscriminatingbetweenthedifferent‘Easts’and‘Wests,’howdiffer-ently they were made, maintained, and so on.’’ 1 Said’s location allows himto correctly note and critique the inter-imbrication of religion with national-ism within the ‘‘larger Islamic context’’ of the place of Palestinians, Jews,Armenians, Kurds, Christians, and Egyptian Copts within the Middle East.According to Said, this geopolitical context produces a kind of ‘‘desperatereligioussentiment.’’ 2 OurownpointofincisioninSaid’sdefinitionofsecularinterpretation is the binary of secular/religious. This binary functions suchthat secular interpretation stands for all that is ‘‘deliberate,’’ ‘‘historical,’’ andhas ‘‘interpretive sophistication’’ in addressing the ‘‘political, cultural, andintellectual’’ aspects of the ‘‘dense fabric of secular life.’’ 3 Said’s implicationis that, generally speaking, religious interpretation is ahistorical; it recon-structs a simplistic and imaginary past that is impossible to prove and dis-rupts community rather than brings it together. Commitment to the politicsofresistanceandoppositiontotheglobalizingtendencyofcapitalinculturalwork seem to become, in this academic discourse, a natural commitment tothe politics of secularism.In marking the binary of religious/secular interpretation in Said’sthought, we oppose religious fundamentalism in historiography and culturalproduction of the Hindutva movement in postcolonial India: they are politi-cally exclusionary and cause historical amnesia. In effect, we do not bindourselvestoeithersideofSaid’sbinary.Thereisacertainrepressionimplicitin the notion that to be at odds with secular interpretation is automatically tobealignedwithreligiousfundamentalism.Metropolitanacademicdiscourse 1. Edward Said: A Critical Reader  , ed. Michael Sprinker (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell,1992), 232–33.2. Edward Said: A Critical Reader  , 232.3. Edward Said: A Critical Reader  , 233.  Bhatnagar, Dube, and Dube / Meera’s Medieval Lyric in Postcolonial India 3 and political commitment to the politics of secular interpretation render cer-tain modes and religio-folk idioms of subaltern resistance opaque. The reli-gious/secularbinarydoesnotmakeroomfortheoppositionalreligiousinter-pretation in the religio-folk idioms deployed by resistance movements andsubaltern communities.This is a problem that cannot be remedied by simply adding a quali-fication for oppositional religio-folk idioms. There is a need to theorize thedifferencesbetweencommunalandracialistreligiousinterpretations,ontheone hand, and oppositional religio-folk idioms, on the other. We need toreexamine our working definition of religious and secular interpretation inorder to judge how far it overemphasizes elite perspectives and remainslargelyignorantandunawareofhowsubalterncommunitiesdeployreligiousandsecularidioms.Anexampleofthisistheresistancetopatriarchaldomi-nation articulated from within a religio-folk idiom by women and the poor inthe name of Meera.A far more interesting and moving account of the Saidian theory ofsecular interpretation can be found in the essay ‘‘Gods That Always Fail.’’ 4 In this essay, Said elaborates his notion of the secular intellectual by a turnto the personal/political through an interrogation of the modes of dissent insecular-political life. The turn to the personal in Saidian criticism is a delib-erate one that both unfolds the meaning of the term secular  in his oeuvreand speaks the truth of history as it appears to him from his own experi-ence.Byconstructingtextsoutofthestoriesandpersonalanecdotesaboutthe conflicts and border crossings by indigenous and diaspora intelligentsiafromtheMiddleEast,thereligious/secularbinaryin‘‘GodsThatAlwaysFail’’fluctuates and becomes permeable. For instance, Said tracks with a cer-tain pathos and self-irony the failure of a secular god, the ‘‘pan-Arab nation-alism of the Nasser period which abated during the 1970s’’ (GAF, 114), aswell as the failure of a religious form of political dissent in the Iranian revo-lution, ‘‘which was made by an improbable alliance of clergy and commonpeople’’ (GAF, 107). Through these texts, Said complicates his notion ofsecular interpretation by engaging with the discourses of political dissentavailable to Third World intellectuals. As he puts it, ‘‘How far should an intel-lectual go in getting involved’’ (GAF, 105) while being ‘‘against conversionto and belief in a political god of any sort?’’ (GAF, 109). For Said, the inbuiltflaws and blindness in these discourses of dissent shape the political and 4. Edward W. Said, ‘‘Gods That Always Fail,’’ in Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures  (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994). Hereafter, this work is cited par-enthetically as GAF.  4 boundary 2 / Fall 2004 intellectual climate of a Third World movement such that there is bound tobe failure in terms of the secular imagination.It is noteworthy that, in naming the momentous political events thatshaped his generation, Said gestures toward the impulse for deificationin both secular and religious discourses. He names with acute insight thesecular modes of conversion, unquestioning belief, and counterconversion.In effect, he turns the lens on secular-political life. The strength of theSaidianterm criticalsecularism  liesinhistrenchantcritiqueofthedisplacedtheologicalsign-systems,narratives,andmodesofthoughtinpronationalistdissent movements. It is precisely in the Saidian observation of the trafficbetween the religious and the secular in the lived realities of political experi-ence that we rejoin him in the quest for a mode of dissent that does notfall prey to the theological narratives of conversion, institutionalization, anddogma. At the end of his essay, he calls for the intellectual’s commitmentto representations that are not ‘‘frozen into creeds, religious declarations,professional methods’’ (GAF, 113). It is in outlining what these representa-tions might be that Meera acquires significance for us, although our interestin the practitioners of the Meera tradition makes us turn from Third Worldintellectuals to the subaltern and poor classes.The Meera tradition signifies a noninstitutionalized form of dissent.Therearenosects,temples,monasticorders,restingplaces,oreducationalestablishments in her name. Unlike the traditional dissenting orders, Meeraand her followers did not receive state patronage, woo wealthy traders aspatrons, or receive land grants, tax-free subsidies, endowments, or reve-nue. The single device by which Meera generates a popular movement atdiverse sites is coauthorship and cocomposing by men and women of sub-altern classes. We name this act of resistance and writing/reciting as theMeera tradition because it has an unbroken and yet discontinuous history.Coauthorship in the Meera tradition involves the collective action of inter-pellating the local, historically specific community experience into a Meerasong.We have to rethink the critical assumption that secular politics isall that is outside of religion. It is only by accepting the radical premisethat a secular critique is possible from within the religious vocabulary andsensibility—especially when the religious practice in question is historicallyarticulated by women and consists of a coming together of Hindu and Mus-lim, Sufi, and Bhakti traditions—that we can understand the Meera tradi-tion. Meera composed songs that have been added to, interpellated, andkept vibrantly alive and popular for over four centuries by women, subaltern  Bhatnagar, Dube, and Dube / Meera’s Medieval Lyric in Postcolonial India 5 classes,andmaleaswellasfemalepoetsinIndiathroughpoetryrecitationsand individual or collective singing in bhajan mandalis  (informal gatheringsto sing devotional songs). In making the medieval poet Meera the test casefor prenationalist and nonnationalist subaltern writing, the theoretical issueatstakeforusaspostcolonialsecularcriticsishowtounderstandthereligio-folk idiom of subaltern cultural production.There is an elite bias in the canon formation of Indian women’s writ-ing, similar to the elite bias in British and nationalist historiography of Indiacritiqued by the subaltern historian Ranajit Guha. 5 This elite bias is evidentin nationalist-centered canons of Indian women’s writing, such as the worksof Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, which tend to subsume women’s writing inIndia as within, prior, or in opposition to nationalism. 6 Subaltern coauthor-ship and corecitation in the name of Meera is generally, though not invari-ably, prenationalist and is largely outside of nationalist cultural production.Thisprenationalistsubalternwomen’swritingintheMeeratraditionismadeillegible because Indian women’s writing/reciting outside the discourses ofnationalism tends to draw on a range of oppositional religio-folk idioms forits tropes, narrative structures, political utopias, and critique of patriarchalviolence and domination.The fact that postcolonial theory has to engage, at diverse sites,with the religio-folk idioms of protest movements and resistance literaturesis borne out by Guha’s critique of certain strands of the literary-politicalmovement in medieval India called the Bhakti movement. Guha is not alonein grappling with the hegemonic and counterhegemonic uses of religiousidioms; a considerable portion of the work by subaltern studies historiansstruggleswiththisproblematic.InquotingMarx,SumitSarkarsuggeststhatprotest against authority in a peasant society assumes a magico-religiouscharacter;therefore,thereligiousdimensioninpopularmovementssuchasSwadeshi have to be decoded. Sarkar offers that ‘‘‘the protest against realdistress’ consequently takes on the alienated form of religion.’’ 7 5. Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India  (Delhi:Oxford University Press, 1983).6. The first volume in the two-volume anthology Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present  (New York: Feminist Press, 1991), edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, devotesless than one-fourth of the volume to prenationalist women’s writing; three-fourths of thevolume is devoted to ‘‘Literature of the Reform and Nationalist Movements.’’ The criticalapproach typified by Tharu and Lalita puts elite nationalist movements at the center andreads Indian women’s literatures from this nucleus.7. Sumit Sarkar, ‘‘The Conditions and Nature of Subaltern Militancy: Bengal from Swa-
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