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Manola K. Gayatri

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© Manola K. Gayatri 2009



I remember as a school girl cycling for music class one evening when I came across the figure of a tall woman, stark naked, hair wild and matted, eyes in an expressionless hardness, walking in the middle of the road where the traffic parted like the Red Sea as she stalked furiously on towards some unknown destination. I never found out where she came from or where she went, but I do remember the complete silence and shock that greeted the vision of her, which slowly began to give way to murmurs of  ‘hucchi’ (‘mad woman’ in Kannada) later. Rephrasing the Avon bard I’d like to say that the lines between the saint, the poet and lover/ raped woman are thin ones that sometimes disappear altogether making them all conflate into one mad figure.

 I do not know what this woman’s story was yet as I write this essay, she comes to my mind as the figure that has become for me a personal signifier of the excesses of the sexed subaltern and one that has continued to be both moving and tragic and fuelled with a violent erotic energy that strangely have tones of liberation and empowerment coded within it. Uncomfortable as I am with the ‘romanticising’ of this figure, I cannot but speak of the powerful impression it has left on me, and the many ways it becomes possible to read this one instance in her life.

In attempting to explore the idea of nudity as excess, and of nudity as a language of resistance, I read two incidents and examine the narratives of two literary figures: the Chandragutti nude procession in 1986 and the Manipur nude protest in 2004, the thirteenth century Bhakti poet and saint Akkamahadevi and Mahasweta Devi’s fictional character Dopdi.  I am interested in the performative quality of the actions in each of these instances. If it was Judith Butler who forcefully drew the eyes of Western theory to the idea of performativity re-inscribing meaning, it was Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak who drew attention to the particular difficulty of articulation that the sexed subaltern faced. In the four instances that I bring together in this essay, I look at how the women in these incidents use their bodies in a performance of nudity in particular ritualized and performative ways to express a location and a position that does not seem comprehensible or communicable. Though I do not explore it in detail, I also hint at the possible connections between the excess of nudity and the excess of madness that is displayed by various female characters on stage.


Spivak and Butler: deconstructing performativity and accessing meaning

Where I was brought up- when I first read Derrida I didn’t know who he was, I was very interested to see that he was actually dismantling the philosophical tradition from inside rather than outside, because of course we were brought up in an education system in India where the name of the hero of that philosophical system was the universal human being, and we were taught that if we could begin to approach an internalization of that human being, then we would be human. When I saw in France someone was actually trying to dismantle the tradition, which had told us what would make us human, that seemed interesting too.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

In the first section of Can the Subaltern Speak, through examining a dialogue between Foucault and Deleuze, Gayatri Spivak launches her attack on postmodern thought. Her point of contention is that the subject under the guise of being dismantled is in fact reinforced in the work of these two thinkers. She argues that the ‘subject-effects’ is nothing besides a holding on to the notion of the subject.  It is this critique that is important in her trying to locate the position of the subaltern and the voice of the subaltern, or lack of it in discourse.  She also tries to show how that in attempting to valorize the concrete experience of the oppressed, theorists often reinforce their own subject position. It is not a transparent position. Thus an important engagement she makes is with the issue of presentation/ representation for a theorist.

She considers the work of the Subaltern Studies group and problematises the issue of representing the subalterns. Her key criticism is that in trying to voice the subaltern, there is always the risk of reducing and essentialising the subaltern subject. She is not however advocating a complete withdrawal from the task of representation, as she says, it exists and the task must be taken up.  In final section of the essay ‘Can the Subaltern speak’, Gayatri Spivak takes up the issue of the representation of the sexed subaltern figure and argues that the subaltern woman is denied access to mimetic and political representation, and in some measure elucidates a clearing of space to allow the voice of the subaltern to be heard.

The denial of access to mimetic and political representation particularly for the sexed subaltern happens not simply because the subaltern woman’s situation is not one that contemporary discourse has the space to accommodate; therefore the articulation of the subaltern woman’s situation is impossible because neither is there a language of communication nor a means of reception for it. She uses the example of widow burning where between the arguments of the British men who wanted to save the woman and the Indian men who said the women wanted to die the voice of the woman was silenced. This does not of course mean that women did not cry out or say anything, but that the voice of the woman at the dialogic level was not accessible, and this was because there was no space for it. The work of the intellectual therefore is not to speak on behalf of the subaltern but clear out the space for the subaltern to be able to be heard.

Using the example of Bhuvanesvari Bhaduri, whose suicide was incomprehensible, she demonstrates how one might be able to create the space to allow for one to read or hear the voice of the subaltern. Thus Spivak in this example is not speaking on behalf of Bhuvanesvari Bhaduri, nor is she dismissing the task of accessing Bhuvanesvari’s voice by claiming that not being subaltern she cannot undertake it, but she in fact creates the space for Bhuvanesvari’s voice to be heard, her action to be understood or read through her analysis of the event. And through this she also demonstrates how in all the accounts of Bhuvanesvari’s suicide, she as the sexed subaltern could not speak.

In reading the suicide as a text and attempting to find the meaning inscribed in the action, Spivak  deconstructs the performativity of the suicide. The deconstructive meaning of the performative is what Butler explores in her theory of performativity. Though Butler originally looks at performativity in the context of gender identity being re-inscribed by certain repetitive acts in Gender Trouble, the idea of performativity has come to be widely circulated with different layers of meaning and contexts within which it is understood. Interestingly the idea of the performative has also come back into Theatre studies where in the stage ‘it is theatrically manifested as opposed to the deconstructive sense of it where the performative indicates an internal absorption’. The idea of the performative is used here in the context of a certain dramatic communication through the body that each ‘performance’ of nudity enables in the incidents referred to in this essay. It also hints at certain cultural mores and codes within which these acts are read and inscribed with meaning and how in some cases they do, in fact, destabilize these codes.


Nudity as excess: Chandragutti Nude Procession and the Manipur Protests

Chandragutti, 1986

In 1986, the little village of Chandragutti created a huge stir in the media, when ‘nude worshippers’, who were being forced by the police to stay clothed, stripped both police and journalists and in an ironical twist made them parade nude. Since then, this annual religious/cultural procession has become an event in both discourse and activism for different political blocs in Karnataka. The government, using both the law (by legally banning nudity in the procession) and the police (who patrol the area at every festival trying to make sure the worshipper remain clothed) attempt to control this event, women’s groups take up this ‘cause’ as another hideous manifestation of the objectification of women’s bodies by patriarchal society, dalit groups claim this is yet another instance of the dalit woman being stripped of her dignity and made to parade naked before the eyes of upper caste men. On a British naturist/nudist site the incident appears as part of their chronicling of news on nudists over the world. One fan site of a basketball club has a random thread mentioning this incident and invoked the comment from another user of the site who said it sounded like yet another case of ‘chicks gone wild’.

In different ‘representations’ on the conditions of exploitation and indecency of this procession, the voice of those in the procession is not to be found. Their reaction to this discourse have been to a) lash back at their ‘saviors’ and strip them and b) to avoid confrontation (as they did one year by simply taking another route). In the imagination of this discourse, the worshippers were nude women; yet, this procession had both male and female nude worshippers as presented in the personal account of a photojournalist who later wrote about the incident in a section where he was called on to write about his ‘most memorable experiences’ as a photographer. What is it about the alleged ‘protectors’ of these women that makes them unable to take into account the deep desire of the worshippers to continue their worship in the way the wish to, and as in this case, in the nude?

For the women’s groups, it is an indication of women so completely submerged in patriarchy that they have no sense of their ‘real’ selves and the dignity that must come with such a realization. The argument of the law is similar, these subjects are not aware of the dignity due to their selves due to superstition and ‘outdated’ practices. Yet it was in the 1970s when Protima Bedi streaked nude on Juhu Beach for the cover of Cine Blitz, that this was projected as an act of liberation. Dalit groups attribute this to the strong and deep hold of casteism in the area. The reaction of the dalit group is slightly more nuanced in this regard. And in this context, can the voice of the ‘dalit woman’ be accessed, when the dalit movement is interested in using this instance to attack casteism? What is the meaning of this subject location in the context of this incident anyway, when this category is being mobilized within the larger discourse of dalit exploitation and liberation? Must the dalit woman must be liberated from the control of the upper caste men and into the hands of the dalit men or her ‘true’ self.

These arguments are all predicated on the notion of a real and true self that each of these movements seeks to access and liberate. There is a notion of universal subject- woman/ human that is the real subject and real self that dominates the passion and rhetoric of these arguments. And since this discourse is centered round a singular subject who has certain attitudes and values, it has no space to accommodate the agency of the women and other worshippers nor their desire to worship in this particular way. Thus this incident and this desire acts as an excess of a system that cannot accommodate it within its framework and in being such an excess destabilizes the system. All the forces available within the system are thus mobilized to control and reign in this excess: legislation, police force, ideology and social pressure.

It is also interesting to note how such an incident circulates and gets inscribed with meaning in different locations from being featured in solidarity in a British nudist club and used as a titillation of sorts by fan club of a basket ball team where the post giving information about the Chandragutti incident was happily tagged, ‘Chicks Gone Wild’.  Yet this rather  ‘straight’ forward post also opens up an important unexplored dimension of this and other incidents around the nudity, which is the underlying titillating and erotic energy that these controversies seem to generate in all of the contradictory discourses that surround it. Even the moral fervor and activist angst that rises against what is sometimes meaninglessly called ‘sexual exploitation’ has within it a certain pleasure in its response to something that it erotic and also plays on the boundaries of the scandalous and the tabooed. And it is worth considering if perhaps given the pornographic flavours the ‘scandal’ takes up in the press, if it is not in fact the various other lobby groups that are actually sexually exploiting an old ritual and its current day practitioners in the guise of ‘saving’ them.


Manipur, 2004

Our nude protest was the last resort to make the government to understand how we feel about the AFSPA. We put our personal prestige at stake (by going nude to protest). Now it all seems futile
N. Sarojini Leimia

On July 11th 2004 Thangjam Manorama was picked up from her residence, accused of being a militant and allegedly raped, before being shot to death by the 17th Battalion of the Assam Rifles. This outrageous incident sparked off protests, but what finally got the nation’s attention was the protest of 12 elderly women in the nude in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters, shouting and holding banners that read, “Indian Army, come and rape us all.”  The nudity was understood to be a reaction of protest against the rapes in Manipur and the enforcement of the Armed Forces Special Act of 1958, and was accepted as political protest. It was shocking and gathered a lot of media attention, but the act was understood. In this sense the voice of these women protestors was understood, even if subsequently their demands have not been met.

The women themselves were well aware of the significance of their act. They themselves saw it as ‘the last resort’ of having done it after nothing else had worked. Yet it was this political consciousness and their sophisticated understanding and subversion of social codes governing dress and modesty that finally made their protest a shocking incident but one that was eventually held by the very frame it sought to destabilize. The women came from a location of oppression but in their awareness and consciousness as political subjects, they were able to dialogue with the hegemonic structure. There is a clear consciousness of their position of oppression and an ability to articulate this. These women speak within the discourse of the hegemonic system and their speech is indeed within a dialogic transaction.

Their nudity is a performative reinstatement of their protest. They challenge the hegemonic structure in an open, nude encounter where they seemingly ‘invite’ the Indian Army to come and rape them’. Their protest chooses as its site of performance, the gates of the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. They are on the ‘other side’ of this structure, which also re-inscribes their dialogic position with this hegemonic structure. May we then read this nudity as excess? For the women and for the media and the government at that time it seemed like an excess and indeed it was. It was a reaction to the excess of violence in the area, a failure of the government and wrote itself as an excess in the media. But the consciousness and awareness that went hand in hand with it, finally made it articulate and accessible. It was recognized as excessive action, the last resort and paradoxically through this was contained within the system. If it appeared as an excess, it was a comprehensible excess.

Unlike the Chandragutti worshippers, who the system is baffled by completely and can only resort to means to try and contain this excess, the performance of nudity in the Manipur women’s protest is fully comprehensible to the system that they are protesting against.


The performance of nudity as defiance in two cultural texts: Akkamahadevi and Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi

In this section I look at two literary figures one a ‘real’ historical figure- the 12th Century Kannada Bhakti poet Akkamahadevi, and the other a ‘fictional’ character- Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi. In the case of Akkamahadevi, I am not interested as much in the historical factuality of her life, for how much of this can one reliably access anyway, but more in the way legends of her life have survived in the cultural imagination of a people. Thus when talking about her legend, I do so without claiming these to be historical facts or disputing them, but simply bring them up in an effort to consider what a people are preserving in cultural memory, what people are allowing and giving space for in their cultural memory and imagination.

Akkamahadevi according to popular legend, which finds representation in contemporary dance-dramas, plays and films, speaks of the time when Akkamahadevi having married the king on the condition that he does not ‘impose’ himself on her or interfere with her devotion to Siva, is assaulted when she is in prayer by her husband, and reacts by stripping herself bare in anger and walking out of the palace. Thus she wanders naked until she reaches Anubhava Mantapa where after winning a rhetorical battle with Allama Mahaprabhu, she earns a place in that place. In many dramatic representations of her life, she is often showed as passionate and powerful.

Her radical act of stripping herself, walking out of her husband’s house and wandering naked is accepted as an unusual performance of her deep devotion to Siva. In the rhetorical battle where Alamma asks her why she is wandering around naked, she is believed to have replied that to a devotee, so immersed in god, what use is clothing. She is bare before her god as an expression of her complete denial of her social ties. On then being questioned as to why she allows her hair to cover her, she replies that she does this to out of consideration for those still unable to transcend their mortal desires. She has survived in popular imagination of an icon radical freedom and self-expression. She is the darling of the women’s movement in Karnataka, who often use her example to show the unusual freedom and bravery that women had. It is indeed strange that on one hand such a figure is evoked to be celebrated, while on the other nude worshippers are banned.   

Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi/ Dopdi translated by Gayatri Spivak, is interesting for the irony of the story is predicated on Dopdi’s name, which is a tribal ‘corruption’ of the name of the mythical, Draupadi, wife of the five Panchava brothers in the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi who’s gambled off in a game of dice, is brought into the hall and when an attempt is made to strip her off her sari, Krishna’s divine intervention makes the piece of cloth unending. Thus Draupadi stays clothed before lecherous men. In Dopdi, the tribal woman, is stripped of her tiny cloth that is not really a sari, and raped and assaulted by the officials sent to catch her. In the final scene, the morning after the rape and assault, when called before the official, Senanayak or (Burra Sahib) she refuses to clothe herself and stands before him with her naked and wounded body, laughs, urinates and spits blood in his white shirt.

In the instance of Akka, in the act of stripping her clothes as she is about to be molested, Akka pre-empts the molestation and is disdainful of it. Her nudity is revealed in contempt and that nudity becomes the signature of her body in her own life and though time and legend. Dopdi’s clothing on the other hand was already essentialist. After her rape and torture, her complete nudity becomes a signifier of her own loss. In the last section, she is entirely referred to as Draupadi not as Dopdi, in her rape she becomes comprehensible to the system, yet in her reaction to the rape she once again eludes meaning. The men cry that ‘she has gone mad’ as she refuses to wear clothes.  Draupadi laughs. Being stripped, raped and tortured, where her clothes served as no protection, she refuses to don them.

After the rape, she spits, urinates, laughs, she pushes the Burra Sahib with her mangled, nipple torn breasts. Her moment of defiance, of refusal to assume modesty in dress, speech or act (nude, mocking laughter, urinating/ spitting/ pushing a man with her bare breasts), is the expression of her freedom. In these acts she subverts the social code, as it has been subverted in the men’s treatment of her. Her reaction to being abused is not to become a victim, but to become free. Having lost all ‘propriety’ of being a woman in her own society and the Burra Sahib’s society, which began with the loss of her lover/ husband, her capture and rape, she furthers her stripping of propriety, until the Senanayak is completely confounded by her. And if there is a laughter, there is also the terrifying freedom of death that she invites.  She defies, invites him to ‘counter’ her. ‘Counter’ is understood to mean killed in an encounter, a euphemism for killed in torture; and yet it may also be read as her challenge for him to counter her presence now.

In Akka’s case devotion takes on a radical performativity where her body becomes the site of the performance of radical symbols and expressions of independence and defiance on one hand and  paradoxically of complete surrender to her God on the other. Social customs such as the wearing of clothes was discarded and nudity embraced as a defiant act against all claims of society on her body or her life. How does one read this act of Akka’s that has for centuries captured the imagination of people? She refused mere mortal men’s advances and when her husband tried to molest her she strips her clothes to show here disdain for the sensual, like Dopdi who confronts her rapists with her nudity as a final act of independence from a location that forces a woman to hide her body and clothe her nudity with ‘modesty.

This rejection of an outer covering for ‘modesty’ is enacted and in fact performed as a rejection of the hypocrisy of social mores. In Akka’s case this is done on the strength of her inner faith and devotion to Siva and a refusal to allow any mere mortal touch her body, and on the confidence of there being an inner truth and reality that is greater than the false trapping of social mores and codes. In Dopdi’s case after her brutal rape she refuses to ‘play’ the role: her body was stripped of her clothes and of what use is modesty for a woman really, except as a protection against rape and molestation, which Dopdi had violently undergone anyway after the slaying of her partner. Those clothes offered no protection for her in the face of rape and the next day, she refuses to enact the pretence of being clothed. Her nudity then is her weapon and one that leaves her in a strangely liberated state. How different is Dopdi’s liberation really then from Akka’s? Both finally find their freedom after a violent defilement of the body that then becomes a vehicle of transcendence.

Must we at some level recoil from such a transcendence? It is a transcendence in both these cases of not just the body but significantly perhaps of life itself. Akka after the incident at Anubhava Mantapa, where having proved herself ‘beyond’ the world and its illusions and temptations, disappears and dies young attaining what was believed to be a final liberated spiritual state. Though Mahashweta Devi’s narrative does not indicate what finally happens to Dopdi, in terms of whether she is killed or not, we are left with her terrifying invite to be ‘countered’, her willingness to face death in her liberated state. Both the Bhakti poet - saint, wife of a king and the hunted down illiterate, tribal woman undergo extreme experiences and their sense of liberation is one that finally seems to liberate them from life itself. I remain unsure if the destruction of the instincts of self-preservation and life is one that can or should be celebrated. Yet there continues to be a fascination for the martyr, the saint, the rebel, the ‘freedom’ fighter: the ones that bravely faced death.


An excursion into insanity

If madness is that which is not comprehensible within a given code, then how far can one read these acts as insane ones? And after all perhaps many like the Burra Sahib’s men cry out when they see these women that they have gone mad. It is worth some consideration at this point to explore the connections between madness and nudity, especially in reading them as excess. It is interesting that melodrama both in film and in plays, is often predicated on the hysterics of a female character. Hamlet broods and may have been diagnosed as depressive in the twentieth century but it is Ophelia who is the ‘insane’ figure in the text. Similarly while Macbeth shows early signs of lily-livered emotional weakness, it is Lady Macbeth who is shown to have a complete mental breakdown. In a paper presentation titled ‘Madness Staged: Representation of Women on Stage in Colonial India (late 19th century-early 20th century)’, Sharmistha Saha briefly mentions two characters in two Colonial Bengal plays who serve as a sort of set-character type of the mad woman or ‘Pagli’ in the plays of that time. She speaks of how one of the characters, Jobi in Girsh Ghosa’s Balidan, comes on stage every now and again to express her mind ‘freely’ and highlight certain moral themes in the plays with satirical songs. Music, madness and free-speech make the character, who does not in any other way intervene in the development of the plot. While Saha reads this as her ‘extra- rationality’, I am interested in the excesses that mark her particular location. Even as the extra-rationality is in some way the excess of the plot, so is her own madness a sane response to the rather excessive violence that she faces as with: an abusive alcoholic husband and a cruel mother in law.

The other character appearing in a Bilawamangal Thakur play and is succinctly called ‘pagli’ (mad woman in Hindi) serves as sort of hysterical interlude and do not seemingly intervene meaningfully in the plot or seem to have any character sketch besides that of a certain self-explanatory position, which is that of the ‘mad woman’. While the paper focuses on madness as a significator of 'othering', I am interested in how the madness of the sexed subject may be read as a performative excess, such as that of Dopdi’s nudity and wild behaviour that the Burra Sahib’s men call madness. Madness and nudity are thus excesses of the female subject. Dopdi’s inarticulation and unintelleglibity, which is not her lack bur our inability to access her experience, finally exceeds into a performative articulation through nudity and what is seen as madness.



I have to admit also that the underlying erotic pleasure and tensions of the nude female in any given context has not been explored in enough detail here.  In the above exploration I demonstrate the strange intelligibility of at least three of the acts. In three of the instances examined, nudity is performed as defiant act. The Manipur women, Akkamahadevi and Dopdi, all embrace nudity when a boundary, after which there seems no return, has been crossed. The excesses of the transgressions on them, seems to demand nudity as a response.   They subvert social codes with their bodies, they write with their bodies their protest. While Akkamahadevi was capable of a dialogic relationship in the discourse she was part of to articulate the meaning of her action, and the Manipur women in the definitive use of protest language, symbols and sites had no trouble at all in having the performance of their nudity understood as they wished it to be understood.  Dopdi’s act remains incomprehensible to her captors. Yet within the narration it is held in logical tension: the extreme performance of her nudity and transgressive social actions is balanced against the horror of her terrible torture and rape.

In the case of the Chandragutti worshippers however their nudity is not comprehensible, within any available discourse. The voices of these worshippers remain inaccessible. Yet it has been the task of this exercise to question the representation of the Chandragutti worshippers in the contemporary discourses, to prove how the voice of the Chandragutti worshippers remains inaccessible. It is hoped that through such a critical examination, space may be cleared to hear the voice of the Chandragutti worshippers or the ‘wild chicks’. Perhaps their ritual nude walk is all they have to say and perhaps we have yet to see where our own frames will allow us space to accept this statement.

I often speculate about what might have been the fate of that wild woman I saw as a child. Perhaps the police got her and sent her to one of those bleak public rehabilitation centres for the mentally ill where she was initially bathed, clothed, fed, and chained to a bed where she would urinate, defecate, eat and lie for days in what would become her own mess. But perhaps not. Perhaps she healed from whatever violence made her take that nude walk into insanity that summer evening and found work and a place that her body, mind and spirit could call home. This is my hope and it is a hope I hold for all lovers, saints and poets- all those victims of violence (be it against the body, mind or soul) that we often call mad women.



Devi, Mahasweta. ‘Draupadi’ with translation and foreword by Spivak,  Gayatri Chakravorty, in In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Routledge, New York, 1988, 179-196.
Spivak, Gayatri. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, Rpt in Williams, Patrick and Chrisman, Laura Eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Colombia University Press, New York, 1994, 66-111.
Tharu, Susie and Lalita, K. Eds. Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present Volume 1, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1991, 70-81.
Derrida, Jacques. ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,’ in Writing and Difference, translation, intro and additional notes by Bass, Alan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, 278-293.
Frontline Volume 21 –Issue 05 February 28- March 12, 2004



Manola K. Gayatri – currently at Jawaharlal Nehru University undertaking her Ph.D. She specializes in gender, women, theatre and performance studies.



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