Salaam, Sharmila Rege!
Sharmila (right) receiving the Malcolm Adiseshiah Award (2006) from Padmini Swaminathan, Director of Madras Institute of Development Studies (Source: The Hindu)
Sharmila Rege passed away yesterday, aged 48, a month after she was diagnosed with cancer. Sharmila described herself as a Phule-Ambedkarite feminist, and was a dear friend to many of us, a political activist of enormous integrity and the moving spirit behind Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at Pune University. Her scholarship was immense and inspiring, consistently traversing the minefields of caste and gender, constantly complicating one with the other. Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios brought together first-person accounts of eight Dalit women from the 1920’s to the present – the voices of Babytai Kamble, Shantabai Kamble, Muktabai Sarvagod, Shantabai Dani, Kumudtai Pawde, Urmila Pawar, Janabai Girhe and Vimaltai More, emerge powerfully and relentlessly in their matter-of-fact assault on caste society’s smugness and violence. Sharmila worked with these ‘testimonios’ (a term she drew from Latina feminism) in a series of’ ‘translations’ – translating from Marathi, translating time and place, translating herself, and encouraging readers to translate themselves too, in terms of Phule and Ambedkar’s scholarship and politics, to read themselves through the lens of the non-Brahmin and Dalit movements in Maharashtra.
Her last book, published in January this year, Against the Madness of Manu, brings together Ambedkar’s writings on Brahminical patriarchy, producing Ambedkar’s scholarship as an indispensable, invaluable resource for feminism. Sharmila’s work has opened up the faultlines between caste and gender in ways that are not amenable to easy resolution.
Amazing charismatic Sharmila. What a space she and her friends and colleagues built in Pune, what dedicated teachers, what a wide ranging, lively community they are part of – feminists, queer activists, Phule-Ambedkarites. Sharmila’s presence, we know, will continue to illuminate every class they take, every political campaign they organize, she will live in every student transformed by their practice. A friend, Seema Kulkarni who attended her funeral said that Sharmila was a much loved teacher, and large numbers of her students from different parts of the State studying at the university, were there to pay their last respects.
Colleague Chittibabu Padavala told The Hindu, “She was most tolerant towards students, scholars and research assistants who couldn’t conduct themselves to her extreme and exacting standards. She was as much concerned about the passing of knowledge to the next generations as improving it. In this sense, pedagogy for her was politics itself.”
In the poignant words of her friend and fellow traveller PM Lata , “Sharmila will be there always with us through her writings on caste, gender and feminism, and the compassion she has shown for activists and researchers – but deep in our heart, we know now she is no more…”