XQs XII — A Conversation with Harleen Singh

Posted by patwari on February 28, 2018 · 21 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Swarnim Khare for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI.]

Harleen Singh is Associate Professor of South Asian Literature and Women's Studies at Brandeis University. She served as Chair of the South Asian Studies Program from 2007-2016. Her book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India (Cambridge University Press, 2014) has been reviewed in The Telegraph, Economic and Political Weekly, The Book Review, BIBLIO, and South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Her work includes texts in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. She works on questions concerning history, politics, and identity in literature and film. Her current book projects include a critical translation of Amrita Pritam's seminal partition novel Pinjar and a monograph titled Half an Independence: Women, Violence, and Modern Lives in India. Her work has been recognized and supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, and the Mellon Foundation.


One could begin by saying that your work sits at the intersection of literature and history, but making this disciplinary distinction is futile as you prove in your book. In your analysis of the imperial literary culture and more specifically popular fiction, you have shown that in the production of 'mutiny novels' in Britain in the aftermath of 1857, the literary functioned as a reconfiguration of the historical when it came to representing the Rani of Jhansi. Can you elaborate on this?

We may speak in terms of larger categories (literature, history, disciplinary distinctions, etc.), however, I tried to do something rather simple—to make sense of how we remember. As a scholar, I learned to think through the many ways in which literature is contingent upon history and how the literary bleeds into the historical, but I also remain deeply invested in thinking about memory—the personal and the national. As I mention in the book, I was reprimanded for getting into a fight with some boys in school and my teacher scolded me “Who do you think you are? The Rani of Jhansi?” Perhaps that was the impetus to make sense of how the larger history of women became a collective landscape for women's lives in India. I was struck by how everyone seemed to know about the Rani, and many people had written her biography, and yet no one had attempted to think through her various literary representations or tried, to put it simply, to make sense of the many stories of this singular queen.

What is the main argument you make in your book?

As any student of South Asian history will tell you, history is never a simple, linear story. It is reimagined constantly and is therefore never static, never dead. Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, was a singular person, but she has really become a constellation of stories, histories, imaginaries, and rationale through colonial and postcolonial literature. My book is a feminist reading of colonial rebellion and postcolonial nationalism. Even a celebrated persona like the Rani defies the neat categorizations of femininity, the nation, rebellion, religiosity, and history. It has come to matter little who the Rani was or what she did—how she is represented and what she symbolizes are the overarching concerns of most public discourse (perhaps more trenchant now than ever in the wake of the Padmavati controversy and before a new film on the Rani is released in April, 2018). And so I set out not to recover a lost voice, or reveal an occluded history, but rather to make sense of the noise—the large repository of historical and literary representations—that surround such an extraordinary figure.

You write in your introduction that the impossibility of a singular historical narrative about the Rani has resulted in her becoming a collective subject leading to the generation of a commonwealth public sphere - where the discursive figure of the Rani is a shared one enabling the negotiation of nation, sovereignty and race. Please tell us more about this shared process.

It is necessary to point out that a “shared process,” carries with it a baggage of volition, almost as if all parties in the process had an equal measure in this “commonwealth public sphere.” I have tried to enunciate, as best as I can, that while both British and Indian writers and poets wrote prolifically about her, and thus the Rani transforms from a person into a narrative, the undergirding of these texts was not the same and their circulation within England and India was a varied process. Nevertheless, because of this “noise,” the fascination with this rebel figure has cut across historical eras, national boundaries, and also literary development. What remains the same, however, is the deep-rooted belief that the Rani was exceptional as a woman—and that is what I would like to disprove. The Rani was exceptional as an Indian, as a subject of empire, and as a ruler. That she was a woman in the nineteenth century only adds to her allure, it is not the sole reason for it.

In the third chapter in your book, titled 'India's Aryan Queen: Colonial Ambivalence and Race in the Mutiny', you conclude that the Rani is fashioned in the novels discussed therein to produce a narrative that enables the imperial masculine self to once again adapt to a new setting. What I find most intriguing about this argument is that apart from utilizing strategic notions of similarities to liken her to a European martyr saint, the Rani's embodiment of rebellious individualism is celebrated to resolve the tensions between several masculinities operating within the post-mutiny landscape. Could you elaborate on the racially and religiously mediated masculinities written into these texts?

Nineteenth-century British colonialism operated on a multifaceted register—a benevolent drive to change the alleged social evils of India existed alongside a demonization of various cultural and religious practices, and while Indians were often crafted as childlike, ignorant, and ready for colonial rule, some singular people, often royalty, were marked out in eroticized and exotic narratives as worthy counterparts of the British. This was the case for Rani Lakshmi Bai. While many Victorian novels focused on her as a bloodthirsty rebel responsible for massacres and havoc, others saw in her a valorous “Aryan” queen, destined to rule and thus destined to defend her kingdom. Of course, as a nineteenth-century writer, how do you then place this latter incarnation alongside Indian masculinity? Again, like many other things, Indian masculinity itself was charted on a grid of varying stereotypes and cultural underpinnings: while the Afghan or Punjabi, and other North Western Frontier groups, represented to the colonial eye an unbridled masculinity, a macho strength given however to a morally inferior sexual and ethical compass, the Bengali male was described primarily as an effeminate, easy to subdue, entity. The historian Mrinalini Sinha and others have written about this in greater detail than I have. My chapter points primarily towards the symbiotic nature of these colonial masculine stereotypes that render the Indian male, whether macho or effeminate, simply unsuitable for rule and allows the Rani, in her visage as an Aryan queen, to emerge as the only victor. And by subduing her, essentially, British masculinity emerges victorious over all possible Indian identities. This argument places the Rani at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality to demonstrate the parallels between the mutable qualities of a historical icon alongside cultural categories.

The three creative texts representing the rani that you have looked at, Chauhan's poem, Varma's novel and Modi's film, when read together produce historical pasts that work to engender the new nation, anticipate the strength of its construct and attempt to rehabilitate minority identities in specific ways. Could you elaborate upon the continuities of signification, if any, that can be seen in the Rani's narrative in these texts and the Victorian texts you read in the first part of your book?

The “continuities of signification” in the Hindi texts as well as the Victorian novels converge on representing the Rani as symbolic of the entire nation. Whereas Victorian texts used her story, whether through the lens of race or sexuality, to narrate different versions of the “Mutiny” as mob-driven massacres by chaotic, opportunistic royals and anarchist rebels, Indian poems, novels, and films in Hindi tend to overcorrect to read Rani Lakshmi Bai as a seamless continuance of anti-colonial sentiment. These significations are even more important than ever in contemporary India as the furor over Padmavati has indicated. A new film on Rani Lakshmi Bai's life is slated for release in April 2018—I wonder how that will go. Perhaps it may make a difference to let people know now that she was a Brahmin and not a Rajput, or perhaps not. As my work hopefully shows, it tends to matter little how history actually stands up in the case of such figures—it is a disappointing sign, of course, that someone so extraordinary remains most important in the ways in which she lends herself to the flavor of the times.

The proliferating representations of the Rani and the endless mutability that is afforded to her, point towards an assertion that you make in our conclusion - that the body of the public woman is capable of wielding immense power, even as she remains excluded from the public sphere as political claimant. Can you elaborate on this peripherality?

Being excluded from representation in the public sphere is not the same as being absent from the public sphere—that is the point I tried to make in the book. As feminist scholarship has shown, even as laws and legislation are enacted to protect and nurture the lives of women, these paradigms end up creating an “ideal” version of how women should be. Thus, the very notion of how women occupy the public space continues to be a fraught question in India today. Women's presence as equal participants in India's politics, economy, culture, and society, has vastly increased since liberalization in 1991. But we have also witnessed an aggrandized policing of women's choices. Even victims of horrific rapes and murders are not spared the disapproving cluck of India's patriarchy: Why was she there? What was she wearing? How many men had she slept with?

Almost always an emblem of the collective, women are rarely accorded the luxury of individual representation. Historically speaking, how India is imagined is at the core of how modernity is defined and desired in India. Like the steady foot in Donne's poem, women continue to be a marker of the core of Indian culture and tradition that allows the country to carve up a distinctive modernity. And so, yes, women, the Rani, continue to be peripheral but how they are defined as such is central to nationhood and nation-making in India.

The transitional archive of literary allusion, myth, oral tradition and conjecture that is deployed by Dalit scholars to flesh out the figure of Jhalkari Bai is indeed similar to Mahashweta Devi's use of this archive. Can you tell us more about what the use of this particular kind of archive means for Dalit historical scholarship?

Firstly, it is important to point out that the use of this kind of “allusion, myth, and oral tradition and conjecture” employed by Dalit scholarship is not simply an innovative measure that comes out of choice. It is a necessity. Bereft of the history-making that has so privileged upper caste and upper class narratives in India, Dalit scholars and writers have had to forge a new kind of archive because, historically speaking, they have been denied access and representation in the canonical archives. When the very texts that purport to represent factual history or the truth, for lack of a better phrase, are the texts that continue to elide Dalit voices, those who would be so disappeared must reach for a different set of paradigms in order to represent themselves. And, of course, as Dalit scholarship has amply shown, it is not as if history itself is empty of myth or conjecture. The figure of Rani Lakshmi Bai is a case in point—her existence and participation in 1857 is historical fact but the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai is a product of literature, folk narrative, poetry, film, and popular culture.

The continuous critical recasting of the Rani in various literary and historical configurations signals towards an expansiveness, which perhaps is the only essentializing feature of the Rani. Meaning making is an exercise that is historically contingent in her case. How might this feature of fluid configurations of the Rani further our engagement as readers of women's resistance movements in other contexts, for example the PinjraTod movement at the University of Delhi?

The Rani's legendary status has everything to do with imaginary depiction. Her literary and cinematic representation is inextricably bound to historical memory, if not historical fact. We all know Subhadri Kumari Chauhan's “Khoob Lari Mardaani…” but how many of us really know the details of the Rani's life? Rani Lakshmi Bai is a historical figure but she is famous precisely because her story continues to be told in many ways and at different times. We reimagine and reorient our past according to the dictates of the present. It is a mistake to believe that the narratives of history, the stories we know and love, will somehow remain static, unchanged as the world changes rapidly around us. The Rani's participation in 1857 is historical fact. But stories of her childhood, her jumping off the ramparts of Jhansi fort while astride her horse, her military training and her platonic friendship with Nana Saheb are at best conjectures built upon literature and folk traditions. Memorialization through repetition keeps a legend alive. The recent controversy in India about Padmavati and Manikarnika (a film based on Rani Lakshmi Bai's life) are two examples of this continued expansiveness in representation and conflict. In both cases, this impulse to wrest control of women in popular culture has risen in opposition to women's effort to defy mythological and religious mores. The attacks on Padmavati and Manikarnika resonate with the added scrutiny and disciplining of the female body in the public sphere. The Karni Sena bristled because Padmini was allegedly shown in a romantic sequence with Alauddin Khilji; the Brahmin Mahasabha is insulted because the film is supposedly based on a banned book that depicts the Rani in a romantic relationship with a white man. The filmmakers denied the charge vociferously, but the mere hint of fictional depiction in which women have somehow stepped out of bounds, out of maryada, is enough to convulse parts of the country into mob violence. History has nothing to with this fracas. It's men's purported ownership of women's bodies. Jaishree Mishra states she wrote her novel, Rani, “to find the woman behind the warrior” who was “strangely, a bit like every woman I knew.” I disagree with this assertion. Why make the Rani ordinary when she is clearly extraordinary? And why are woman and warrior mutually exclusive categories? The Rani is not like any other woman, but her representations in India's past and its present are deeply connected to the life of every Indian woman.

Can you suggest five other books which should be read in conversation with yours?

The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen by Ramya Sreenivasan

The Postcolonial Careers of Shanta Rama Rau by Antoinette Burton

Pandita Ramabai through her own words (Edited by Meera Kosambi)

The 1857 Rebellion (Edited by Biswamoy Pati)

The Rani of Jhansi (Amar Chitra Katha Comic)

Can you tell us about the process of moving from the dissertation stage to publishing the book?

In my case, it was a longer process than I would have liked it to be. However, I do think that mistaking the dissertation for a manuscript results in a lesser book. Even though most graduate training requires us to think of the dissertation as the end result of a long process of research and writing, the dissertation is still a beginning in some ways. It is the first draft of a manuscript and it requires time to think through some of the initial questions that are articulated in the dissertation. Also, the book has to cast a wider net of reference—one that will allow for consumption, circulation, and comprehension by the reading public. Granted that most of our academic books are written for other academics, but university presses are increasingly looking for books that will have a wide audience. For instance, my book on the Rani is certainly in the realm of academic writing, but the Rani is a very popular figure in Indian history and British colonial history and there remains a large public interest in her representation, and that allowed for a second and third reprint of the book. Lastly, every academic writer has seen their share of rejections and I don't know of anyone who didn't have their book rejected by at least one or more presses. Persevere.


Swarnim Khare is a doctoral student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan. She is interested in nonfiction narratives of imprisonment in India.