This was to continue the discussion here, but became too long for a comment.
The dalit women heroes of the 1857 Rebellion have become symbols of dalit assertion and pride. They have become the icons of the castes to which they belong, and it is become a political compulsion of various political parties especially the BSP, to use their myths to politically mobilize the members of these castes. In Dalit political discourse, myths of different castes are also being used to consolidate all the dalit castes and create a homogenous metanarrative. One such legendary character who is claimed to have played a significant role in 1857 Rebellion alongside Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow and who has become the icon of the Pasi community, but whose aura encompasses all the Dalit castes, is Udadevi. She is one of the hero of the 1857 Dalit heroes who has been taken over by the BSP to develop the image of Mayavati, who is claimed to be her incarnation.
Richard Connerney recounts her story:
….. There British forces met desperate resistance of rebels who fortified the position. In the sanguineous battle that followed, over 2,000 rebels and many soldiers lost their lives in hand-to-hand combat.
After the British overran Sikandarbag, an officer noted that many of the British casualties had bullet wounds indicating steep, downward trajectory. Suspecting that a sniper remained hidden in the pipal tree, British officers fired at the tree and dislodged a rebel who fell to the ground with a thud, dead. Further investigation revealed that the rebel was, in fact, a low-caste woman named Udadevi Pasi, who had donned men’s clothing to participate in the uprising.
Back to issue at hand, that is, iconization of Mayavati, Badri Narayan tells it like this:
There were cut outs, posters and hoardings showing Udadevi standing beside Mayavati, at roadsides and important sites before the 2004 parliamentary elections. The story of her brave deeds and heroic achievements during the 1857 Rebellion were narrated by different BSP leaders at election rallies in various places around Lucknow where her myth was popular, to highlight the glorious history of dalits. While these stories were narrated mainly at rallies that were held in Pasi hamlets to arouse the caste identity of the Pasis, they were also narrated during rallies held collectively for all dalit castes in particular regions adjoining Lucknow. The telling and retelling of the Myth of Udadevi transforming into an icon for dalit assertion that is being used by the BSP for the political mobilization of the dalits.
The part that is fascinating and heart wrenching is the way the image of Udadevi was created.
It was created in 1953 as part of the NBRI’s initiative to build a museum based on the history of Lucknow, A painter was commissioned to paint her image based on the description of Udadevi in the narratives collected by the botanist N. N Kaul. Following this a cement statute was made based on the image in NBRI, this was not made well and soon started cracking. Unskilled laborers were called in to fill in the cracks but in the process the image got distorted. Later when BSP wanted to build her statues and print her portrait in posters they picked up this distorted image. That is why the statue at NBRI grossly differs from the roadside statues.
This is so poignant to me, along with a burden of forced amnesia, which completely eliminates the memory of the role the dalits played in the Independence struggles and continue playing in nation building activities, is the tucked in history we have contributed. When a chance presented itself for the resurrection of one such memory; poor choice, material and attitude bequeaths us a distorted image! These stories also reminds each one of us, of other heroes, known only to a small handful, often only in oral form. They forcibly make us conscious of all our current heroes who have kept the struggle going on with such meagre resources, but with unending determination. As, are we the internet accessing ‘other voices’ in every way are also ‘heroes’ with our own set of anxieties, confronting our own set of unique hostilities, we continue to extend upon the history of resistance. The additional responsibility we carry, comes with the knowledge that we are doing so on a full stomach, unlike many of our counterparts in Dalitwadas in villages and city slums. Stories in rural India of young people handwriting pamphlets, xeroxing copies and delivering them on foot and cycles, can be heard everywhere. Most often done after a long day at work, in dimly lit huts, shops and under streetlights, often in the face of hostility, quite often on hungry stomachs. We can never lose our hard won ability to question incessantly every notion that hinders the possibility of well being of all our people and we do that by questioning ourselves in the same light.
If I gain access to resources how am I going to use it? I have so many issues to address. Historical amnesia is one of them. How do I prioritize?
Statues are important. They are symbolic in a million ways, most especially in the stories that remain untold. To have all our stories come alive we need resources, however, access to resource remains elusive. The rare times when access is possible, balance and forethought is needed while attempting to utilize it. Fear that this access will disappear should never lead us into paths which lets us forget the spirit of our dead heroes, for they did what they did, for their progeny –us. Or overdosing on ideas that might let us negate the tireless efforts of our living heroes in dalitwadas, slums and offices. It would be the most painful hurt we would deliver to the memories of the past and efforts of the present, if we started to transform into them , in thought or action.
Image: from cover of booklet 1857 A.D Kee Amar Shaeed, Veerangana Udadevi (The Brave Udadevi, immortal martyr of 1857 A.D. )
Sources: 1) The Upside-down tree, Richard Connerney.
2) Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India, culture, identity and politics, Badri Narayan.