Rosalyn D' Mello: Time to celebrate female greatness

Mar 09, 2018, 07:34 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

As a qualifier, greatness has always been the preserve of men. All the 'great' classical writers and composers are white men

When women who have had the privilege of being put on a collective pedestal fall from grace there is no mercy, rarely even the possibility of redemption. Representation pic
When women who have had the privilege of being put on a collective pedestal fall from grace there is no mercy, rarely even the possibility of redemption. Representation pic

Rosalyn D'Mello"Male Pedestalism." The word stood out quite boldly when my friend Akshay happened to use it in a sentence. "I think that could be a legitimate term," he said. I had to agree. We had been speaking about how communities within societies, be they literary, thespian, artistic, tended to elevate male practitioners and figures on a pedestal, according them the status of demi-gods.

It was always men who were canonised, celebrated, marvelled at in extreme, exaggerated ways, to the point where their reputations were perceived as untouchable. This very patriarchal tendency perhaps also explains why, in the current social and political scenario, so many men are being disgraced because of piling sexual allegations against them. On the one hand are all the cynics (mostly men), who genuinely believe that their freedom to be dicks is being threatened, and that today, women will trump allegations at them just to hog the limelight.

On the other hand are men who have been at the receiving end of said allegations, men like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari, whose fronts as male feminists are being exposed. The point is, we are in fact all complicit in building up so many of these men in the first place, because of our penchant for elevating any man who is capable of simply being good at anything, from changing a diaper to writing a book, making them out to be heroes, pinning all our hopes on them, until we, inevitably find ourselves disappointed to find out they are all too human and flawed. Even here there is a gender discrepancy. When women who have had the privilege of being put on a collective pedestal fall from grace there is almost no mercy, rarely even the possibility of redemption.

The truth is, greatness, as a qualifier, has always been the preserve of men. All the "great" classical composers are white men. So are all the "great" writers. Recently, I was privy to a conversation where a Brazilian man, clearly erudite, kept referring to James Joyce as great. When I pointed out to him that in a span of 10 minutes, he hadn't mentioned a single female writer, he quickly referred to Virginia Woolf as a correctional strategy. But, for her, he reserved the adjective, "good".

As a feminist, I had a profoundly disturbing experience at the Centre Pompidou last June, when I was surveying their excellent collection of Modernist art and was strangely surprised to find their entire cannon comprised of men. As a literature student, I was privileged to have three female professors, all feminist, who impressed upon my classmates and me the significant achievements of writers like Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, and was lucky enough to learn earlier on about the Indian saint poets like Mirabai and Aandal, and to have relatively easy access to Anne Carson's translations and analyses of the Lesbian Greek poet, Sappho. But, most students who seek a "bachelor's" or "master's" degree in literature don't have such luxuries and spend entire semesters or terms having to wade through the "greats": all European white men. I don't mean to be disparaging about their successes, but I think it's time we really wrestle with the biases we have been conditioned to perpetuate, the biases we continue to experience first-hand.

I know for a fact that the male writers I call my friends have never bothered to pick up my book, and if they have, they are quick to dismiss it as a "coming-of-age" story. The paperback edition of my book has just a single blurb by a male writer, G Sampath, who took the trouble to personally email me when he was done reading my treatise. Me, and my ilk — other Indian writers who are women — will perhaps never be considered as the "great" voices of our times. Our writing may make its way into institutional structures, perhaps as secondary reading, or will be confined to the boundaries of gender studies. While this should fill me with despair, I've realised it could also mean that we're doing something right. I am no longer even writing to men as a category of readers. As an audience, men have become incidental to my writing. I relish every word of appreciation that comes from the tongue of a male reader, but I don't go seeking their approval or validation. I am very contented by the great collective of women who are reading and following my practice.

I write with a clearer conscience, with a singular mission, to communicate to the world an experience that is unabashedly, unapologetically female, that digests everything it encounters with the quality of intuition that is, even in its ambiguity, distinctly feminine and feminist. I don't want to be great. I want to be marvellous.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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