Frontlist | The path she traced: Nabaneeta Dev Sen Memorial Lecture

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Time has not the power to extinguish me./ Don’t think for a moment that I wait upon time./ Let time keep on playing his absurd battle game,/ Every time he strips me, / I rise clothed, without shame./ With the force of prayer, of spells magic and divine,/ All that was untimely will turn auspicious, sublime./ In a just war, the rebel stands forever unafraid,/ For her ally is eternity,/ Who, divinely arrayed/ guides her chariot, destroying the enemy line./Thus, a divisive age will be defeated and spurned,/Though it brings on great wars,/ it will lose every time. /From our epics, this is the truth I have learned…”

Reading out her translation of her mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poem, Eikal Chirokal (Right Now, Forever) — a poem “about and for every woman and also a poem about our mother’s indomitable spirit”, actor and writer Nandana Sen spoke of the inspiration that the eminent writer, academic poet and feminist thinker drew from women’s retellings of Ramayana across the subcontinent and how that inspiration reflected in her literary work.

Sen was speaking at the second Nabaneeta Dev Sen Memorial Lecture, co-hosted by her mother’s long-time publisher in Bengali — Dey’s Publishing — and her family on Saturday evening. Held online, the event came a few days after what would have been the writer’s 83rd birthday. Chaired by Kolkata-based theatre, film and art critic Samik Bandyopadhyay and with a keynote address by British Indologist Richard Gombrich, the event was a tribute to Dev Sen’s multifaceted genius, and especially to her unique feminism that sought to establish a continuum in women’s experiences across generations. Dev Sen passed away in November 2019 at the age of 81.

Gombrich spoke of the importance of Dev Sen’s dynamic approach to the epics during the course of his lecture. “Dev Sen was one of the pioneers in unearthing, acknowledging and popularising the plurality of the Ramayana tradition in India. There are few who have worked so ceaselessly to highlight that Ramayana is not a fixed body but a living text, which exists in so many different incarnations, which could be made to yield so many different afterlives. Dev Sen went back again and again to the possibilities recondite within the narrative of the Ramayana and posited it as a repository for undertaking positive social change,” he said.

The event was attended, virtually, by the writer’s friends and acquaintances, including economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whom she was married to between 1959 and 1976, academic Gayatri Spivak, sociologist Ashis Nandy, activist Irom Sharmila, writer and editor Anjum Katyal, writers Volga, Arshia Sattar and Sampurna Chattarji, among others. The evening also saw a performance by singer, songwriter and archivist Moushumi Bhowmik of Sita’s panchali, that she came across in Kishoreganj in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh. Dev Sen had extensively worked on the Ramayana, particularly on the Chandrabati Ramayana, a retelling by a 16th-century poet from Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh).

Samhita Arni, author of The Missing Queen (2013), Sita’s Ramayana (2011) and The Mahabharata: A Child’s View (1996), spoke of her brief acquaintance with the author and “how human and accessible she was”. “I grew up in a generation where when we talked about the Ramayana we only talked about the mainstream Ramayana. The Ramayana that I knew growing up was the one that we watched on television — the Valmiki and the Tulsidas Ramayana. When I read her work, it just sort of opened up so much for me — the idea that women themselves were storytellers, the idea that women could, in fact, subvert the narratives through song, through criticism, through so many different ways that we could actually take control of narratives that had been created by men or created by patriarchy and in doing so subvert them and challenge them,” she said.

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