Journal of South Asia Women Studies

International Symposium - Understanding Indian Women: Love, History and Studies

October 18-19, at the Hotel Ariosto, Milan, Italy

The Asiatica Association, Journal of South Asia Indian Women under the auspicies of the DIPRI (Dipartment of Linguistics, Philological and Literary Research) of the University of Macerata, will host an international symposium on ancient and modern Indian Women as they are, and as they are represented in arts, history and literature. It is the first symposium of this kind in Italy.

The abstracts of the lectures (up to 20-25 minutes each, followed by a discussion of 5-10 minutes: 30 minutes tot) are published below.

Guest of Honor

Kapila Vatsyayan, President, India International Centre (Delhi, India)


  • Marilia Albanese , IsIAO & Civica Scuole di Lingue Orientali (Milan, Italy)
  • Fabrizia Baldissera, University of Florence (Italy)
  • Carlo della Casa, University of Milan (Italy)
  • Donatella Dolcini, University of Milan (Italy)
  • Enrico Fasana, University of Trieste (Italy)
  • Enrica Garzilli, University of Macerata (Italy)
  • Rani Jethmalani, Advocate, Supreme Court of India
  • Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, University of California at Berkeley (USA)
  • Cinzia Pieruccini, University of Milan (Italy)
  • Mario Prayer, University of Rome (Italy)
  • Daniela Rossella, University of Milan (Italy)
  • Kapila Vatsyayan, India International Centre (Delhi, India)
  • Michael Witzel, Harvard University (USA)


  • Fabrizia Baldissera, University of Florence (Italy)
  • Giuliano Boccali, University of Milan (Italy)
  • Enrica Garzilli, University of Macerata (Italy)
  • Diego Poli, University of Macerata (Italy)
  • Sujatha Singh, Consul General, Indian Consulate General, Milan


  • Clara Ferrante, University of Macerata (Italy)
  • Agata Sannino, University of Palermo (Italy)
  • Sujatha Singh, Consul General, Indian Consulate General, Milan


The Ladies of Kambujadesha: Indian tradition jewels in the Khmer land by Marilia Albanese

The Khmer empire, flourished between the 9th and the 13th century with its heart in Kambujadesha, now Cambodia, was deeply influenced by India, and its sovereigns highly embodied the cakravartin's ideal.

Their queens, princesses and women of noble birth were cultivated exponents of the Sanskrit culture and played a determining role in politics and arts. From Hyang Pavitra, spouse of Jayavarman II, first king of the unified Khmer reign, to the most known Jayarajadevi and Indradevi, wives of the last great emperor Jayavarman VII, the Ladies of Kambujadesha were "oceans of wisdom", as quoted by the inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions were even composed by the noble women theirselves.

Due to this precious epigraphic patrimony we learn the importance of the female component in the field of the royal sacredness: indeed it seems that the matrilineal descent was determining in the succession and nearly always an usurper used to legitimize his power through a marriage with the widow or the daughter of the preceding king. Furthermore a myth tells that the ancestors of the Khmer royal families were the Indian brahman Kaundinya and the Nagini Soma, daughter of Naga's king. The Nagini, the women of these mythical water creatures, partly cobra, were in India the ancestors of many royal lineages.

Heroines and Anti-Heroines: Resourceful Widows in Ancient Indian Literature by Fabrizia Baldissera

This study explores different figures of Indian widows found in eleventh century Sanskrit literature. The traditional image is that of the inauspicious and at best wanton widow, but some texts suggest that she can also be considered successful as such.

This inverted image will be contrasted with women of different social classes who even in widowhood manage successfully to both preserve their dignity and support their families.

La donna nella letteratura religiosa jainista, il difficile equilibrio fra restrizione e realt� monastica femminile e il dibattito sulla liberazione. (Women in Jaina Literature, the Difficult Equilibrium between Female Monastic Restriction and Reality, and the Debate on Liberation) by Carlo della Casa

Il giainismo condivide con la generalità della cultura indiana antica una non celata diffidenza verso la donna, considerata fonte di discordie, soggetto di tentazioni che allontanano dalla concentrazione e dalla castità, inevitabilmente connessa con il mendacio e l'inganno, come anche traspare dall'episodio di Melli, unico ThŸrthaÌkara di sesso femminile. Da questa diffusa sfiducia, la limitazione di alcuni diritti liturgici, le regole più strette, la preclusione alle cariche più alte, lo stesso dibattito secolare sulla possibilità di raggiungere la liberazione nella condizione femminile. Tuttavia, storicamente il numero delle monache è stato ed è superiore a quello degli uomini, la qualità morale delle monache non è mai stata in discussione (a differenza di quanto successe per altre comunità), è stato riconosciuto che è il karman a determinare il destino, né è mancata l'esaltazione della donna (Samadeva S¦ri). Sembra dunque che anche nel controverso rapporto uomo-donna il gainismo tenti un faticoso e difficile equilibrio tra esigenze diverse, che sembra essere la chiave di lettura più vera per quel movimento che non vuol essere soltanto espressione d'un ristretto gruppo di asceti, ma vuole proporsi come interpete universale e valido attraverso i secoli.

Glorification of Women's Heroism in Indian Patriotic Songs by Donatella Dolcini

In the long struggle for the indipendence of India women played a very important role since the beginning: the name and deeds of Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, who was one of the main leaders in the out-break of 1857-58, are famous all around the world. Then came Swarn Kumari, Sarla Devi, Sarojini Naidu, Kasturba Gandhi and others, each of them offering her own gift of heroism to Mother India. After them came more women, whose names remained unknown, but whose actions strongly contributed to make India free. In the large amount of patriotic songs, which people go on cherishing so far, these heroines are celebrated with great love and admiration. Verses and tunes are often very naive, nevertheless they help very well in keeping the memories of these brave women alive and stimulating till now.

Karnidevi the Shakti of the Charans by Enrico Fasana

Karniji is not only the Kuladevi of the Charans, but she has also become the Kuladevi of many Rajput clans. She represents as a whole the female power in Rajasthan. Due to her, all kingly authorities are legitimated. In fact, thanks also to many studies, including those of the noted Udinese linguist Luigi Pio Tessitori, we can see her fame spread by Charans, Bhats, Bhopas, Takhurs, and the Rajas.

Representing women: images in the arts of ancient India by Cinzia Pieruccini

In the visual arts of ancient India, from the first Buddhist works down to the temple sculptures of the Middle Ages, the female body (of goddesses, nymphs, human ladies...) is depicted according to a very constant ideal of beauty. This same ideal is reflected also by Epics and classical poetry, through metaphors and similes. The woman's body evokes sensuousness, fertility and auspiciousness; and it is often connected with vegetation and natural phenomena, as shown by literature, iconography and cult.

Shakti and womanhood in Tagore's criticism of nationalism by Mario Prayer

Rabindranath Tagore considered nationalism as contrary to India's cultural heritage in several respects. He was also a critic of modernism. Its mechanical operation and lifelessness, he thought, constrained the free expression of man's spirituality. He contrasted these imports from the West with the richness of Indian civilization, which he saw as simbolyzed by the shakti, the divine female energy giving life and sustaining the world. He criticized the nationalist interpretation of shakti and projected the predicament of Indian civilization through the unhappy story of some of his female characters. In the famous novel Ghare-baire, Bimala, wife of the noble landlord Nikhil, is attracted by the energetic nationalist leader Sandip, who sees her as an embodiment of Indian patriotism. As the object of a masculine theorization of power, Bimala is transfigured into an abstract entity. At first she feels exalted, but gradually grows disillusioned with Sandip's hollow, violent insincerity. In the end, Bimala realizes her mistake, and innerly rejects the nationalist shakti - only too late to avoid tragedy. Tagore's morale is that Indian identity and the richness of Indian civilization are bound to perish because of the amoral use of physical power as commanded by intellectual abstractions and the mindless exaltation of Mother India.

Women as a source of bliss and as an obstacle to renunciation by Daniela Rossella

As is well known, in the kaavya love is unhesitatingly defined as the most important of life's experiences (and as an essentially aesthetic one). Moreover, it is explicitly stated that this experience is best described and understood by means of typical female characters, or naayikaas. Thus woman, neglected and despised in almost every other area of the Indian literary tradition, in the kaavya becomes the object of the poet's worship and the pivot of his Weltanschauung, as he describes the charm, by turns delightful and disturbing, that she exerts on her lovers. But it also often happens that a poetical anthology is subdivided into monothematic sections: for instance, 'earthly wisdom', 'love', 'grief', 'spiritual peace', and so on. A strange fact about these anthologies is that these various themes are juxtaposed without being synthesised to reflect a consistent hierarchy of values. Therefore, after a section in which the love of women seems to be the unique source of bliss, we find another in which women are despised and condemned as an obstacle to renunciation. In these sections, exactly as in religious, ethical, and legal texts, woman is not herself, but the embodiment of the abstract idea of "womanliness", in which , not surprisingly, the stereotyped vices of ungovernable temper and lustfulness are predominant.

The 128 stanzas of the RasikaraNjana, which I now present in its first Italian translation (R. Schmidt's 1896 German translation is the only other into a European language), can be read as both a paean of love, and a glorification of renunciation. This text is thus a unique masterpiece, which leads the reader simultaneously along two paths: the way of bhukti and the way of mukti.

Love's Labors: Love and Narrative in the Plays of Bh�sa Sally J. Sutherland Goldman

The paper will examine how the early Sanskrit playwright known as Bhåsa constructs the narratives of his love stories in his plays with an eye towards understanding the attitude of this author/composer towards women and love. While the authorship and the date of these plays can be questioned, it seems very likely that they, or at least the large majority of them, were composed by the hand of one person. The collection of plays, known as the Båsanåìakacakram, or "Circle of Plays of Bhåsa," is unusual not only in quantity but in the handling of its subject matter and characters. There are thirteen plays, a relatively large corpus, of varying lengths; and the main focus of the vast majority of the stories is either martial valor or love. The latter, love, is the central motivating factor of longest, most developed, and most famous of the plays. Of particular interest in this cycle of plays is the prominent position that women play in a number of them, especially in those that focus on love.

The heroines of these plays, especially Vasantasenå, Våsavadattå, Karuígâ and Padmåvatâ are active and vibrant characters in their respective plays, while Sâtå, Kausalyå, Gåndharâ, and Hiîimbå, are perhaps less visible, but, nevertheless, play pivotal roles. The way in which Bhåsa gives voice to these women and how they are positioned within their narratives can provide us with insights into the manner in which Bhåsa and the traditional society he represents viewed women. In turn, we can use Bhåsa's treatment of women to further understand the playwright, his period, and his audience.

Female Form in Indian Sculpture [with slides] by Kapila Vatsyayan

The paper will deal with the attitude to the female body in Indian thought and art, and it will offer a comparison between Indian sculpture and Ancient Greek sculpture.

Female Rishis and Philosophers in the Veda? by Michael Witzel

It is a traditional but common misconception that a considerable number of Rgvedic hymns were composed by women. Though female authors and interlocutors are not entirely absent from the Vedas the role of 'literate' women in the Rgveda will have to be re-evaluated.  The traditional names given  for female Rgvedic authors  include those derived from the wordings of the hymns but also personified  Belief, Speech and a bitch.