Mahadevi Varma: The poet who broke free, and inspired others

Years before Frenchwoman Simone de Beauvoir released her influential book, The Second Sex (1949), one of India’s early feminists, Hindi poet Mahadevi Varma, wrote a series of powerful essays on the oppression of women, for the journal Chand. This was between 1931 and 1934. Subsequently, the essays were collected in a volume called Shrinkhala ki Kadiyan (Links in the Chain), published in 1942.

As we progress into Women’s History Month, it’s a good time to remember the erudite and fearless Mahadevi, a rather stern-looking woman usually clad in plain white khadi saris with coloured borders (stern is how she looks in photographs, but she was apparently well-known for her full-throated laugh).

Even a bare-bones look at her life reveals Mahadevi’s astonishing independence and determination. Born in 1907 (though some scholars put her birth year at 1902) in Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP), her father, a professor of English, was keen on his daughter getting an education, so Mahadevi studied at Crosthwaite Girls College in Allahabad, graduating in English, Hindi and philosophy. Later she got a postgraduate degree in Sanskrit.

As was the norm at the time, she was married early, at age nine, to a doctor, Swarup Narain Varma, and should have shifted to her husband’s home upon reaching puberty. But Mahadevi refused to set up house with him. The courage this called for at the time is hard to appreciate today; it is also remarkable that her parents didn’t force her hand.

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