“Language is a weapon, it’s not for shaving your armpits.”
Mahashweta Devi (born 1926) is one of India’s best-known writers and activists: each persona deeply informs the other. She was greatly influenced by the People’s Theater Movement of the 1940s. This blend of creativity and political activism influenced the course of Mahashweta’s life: her work with the rights and empowerment of tribal and marginal groups-their right to forest resources, cultural and environmental rights, and governance-is path-breaking. So is her documentation of their struggles in her critically acclaimed works of both fiction and nonfiction.
Mahashweta Devi was born in Dhaka in East Bengal (Bangladesh) into a family of poets, writers, and artists: her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet; his brother, Ritwik Ghatak, a legendary filmmaker; her mother, Dharitri Devi, a writer and activist. After her family moved to West Bengal, Mahashweta studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati University at Shantiniketan. Here, she came into contact with the People’s Theater Movement, which aspired to take sociopolitical theater to rural Bengal in the 1940s. This blend of political activism and creativity, combined with Mahashweta’s familial, ideological, and artistic leverage, give her the edge she is famous for. In 1965, Mahashweta visited Palamau, a remote, impoverished district in Bihar. She calls Palamau a “mirror of tribal India”. As she walked the terrain, she witnessed firsthand the impact of debt bondage and the embedded agricultural slavery system. Since the 1970s, she has interposed herself directly in helping the indigenous peoples lodge grievances, set aside rivalries, and move toward development. In 1979, she received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel “Aranyer Adhikar” (“The Right to the Forest”), based on the life of tribal revolutionary Birsa Munda. In 1995, she won the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, and the Ramon Magsasay Award in 1997. She donated the prize money to tribal communities. The profile of the Magsasay Award says, “Devi’s searing stories and novels not only give voice to India’s forgotten tribals but also stress the profound subordination of women in Indian society.” Mahashweta is editorial advisor for Budhan, a newsletter of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Action Group. She sums up in her simple, evocative, and compelling words: “Language is a weapon, it’s not for shaving your armpits.”
South Asia | India