Raahi Adhya

The outline of my doctoral research and its guiding questions:

Through my doctoral research, I explore a Bengali literary genre called the roopkotha, which has commonly been seen as a counterpart to the English ‘fairytales’. I trace its crystallisation as both anti-colonial or Swadeshi literature as well as children’s literature over the turn of the 20th century. Being a genre that crystallised in colonial Bengal at a time when nationalist sentiments were gaining ground and the future of the Indian nation was a matter of concern, both the aforementioned associations are ones that came to be linked with the roopkotha almost inextricably. Moreover, the roopkotha, through the vehement associations drawn to grandmothers and mothers as tellers or providers of tales, is also one that was packaged in essentially gendered terms. Yet, telescoping back to when this literary genre was gradually taking shape and placing it within the constellation of social, political, economic and cultural processes that informed it, reveals the exact mechanisms through which these associations were, sometimes with great difficulty, put in place. Through my research, therefore, I question mainly these three assumptions about the genre— that it was ‘naturally’ a children’s genre, that it fit organically within the Swadeshi or cultural-nationalist cause and that it is an essentially ‘feminine’ genre. In teasing out this process I not only broaden the formal terms on which the genre itself has been understood, but also discuss all the implications that this process has for how categories like childhood, family, gender and sexuality were taking shape within and beyond the logic of Swadeshi at this time.

How I have gathered and used the sources for my research:

For addressing these questions, I have used a wide range of archival materials from a number of libraries and archives which include the British Library and SOAS library and archives in London, The National Library, The archives of The Asiatic Society, The Little Magazine Library, The West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata, Uttarpara Jaikrishna Public Library in Uttarpara, Dhaka University Central Library and the Bengal Academy library and Folklore Archives in Dhaka. I have taken a multitextual and interdisciplinary approach in locating the tales collected and anthologised as roopkotha. I have compared similar tales and plots emerging in different literary forms and collections in order to understand what sets the roopkotha apart. I have intensively looked at paratexts like prefaces, author’s notes, advertisements, and epitexts like critical reviews, interviews and letters related to these anthologies to understand the discursive aids that shaped how the roopkotha was received over the turn of the 20th century and continues to be understood today. Moreover, I have set the anthologies of roopkotha against other sources like child-rearing manuals, memoirs, journals in order to visualise the life of the roopkotha beyond just its definitions.

Some specific as well as wider scholarly interventions that I make through my research:

In keeping with its position within the turn of the 20th century cultural-nationalism in Bengal, the roopkotha was defined in terms of its apparently inherent and essential relationship to Bengali culture, to tradition and, in a related sense, to femininity and childhood. Even though these associations speak to the socio-political urgencies of the time, my conclusion is that behind these apparent links, the genre was from its inception straddling much more complex dialectics around the local and the global, the traditional and the modern and masculinity and femininity. Existing scholarship on Bengali children’s literature has often commented on the roopkotha in particular or Bengali fantasy narratives in general only briefly, deeming it too ‘complex’ or ‘unexpectedly subversive’. Through my doctoral work, I find that it is indeed a methodology of reading the roopkotha through its complexity and unexpectedness that we can fully understand its links to not only histories of colonialism, nationalism but also to literary developments, ideas of childhood, changes in legal parlance, domestic changes and related re-orderings of emotions during the time.

I particularly focus on how looking at the roopkotha’s multifarious influences affects how we read gender both in the way the genre was packaged, as well as in the tales themselves, and herein lies my wider contribution to existing scholarship on Bengali children’s literature in particular as well as the larger areas of Literary Studies, Genre Studies and Cultural Studies. For a genre that has been so centrally packaged in gendered terms, I see it as a gap that gender has not been critically used as the primary analytical category for the literary criticism of the roopkotha. In the rare case that gendered characters have been academically explored, they have been understood in extremely restrictive and stereotypical ways— for example, the male characters have been seen as the central and active agents and female characters as necessarily bound by the rules of a patriarchal world. Departing from this understanding, I engage closely with the varied forms, magical tropes and fragmented structure of this highly imaginative genre as well as its paratextual and epitextual elements in order to bring out a much more prismatic understanding of gender within the roopkotha as well as in the way that the genre was packaged.

The roopkotha encompasses a body of tales that have been spun and re-spun through the last century right to the present day and through different media—literature, radio, television and film. Given its continued popularity within the Bengali cultural sphere the roopkotha builds a case for understanding colonial and postcolonial literary traditions and how they speak to the global circulations of texts, genres and concepts. Teasing out its possibilities therefore contributes to South Asian histories of childhood, identity, gender and genre.

I am very keen to collaborate with scholars working in the areas of children’s literature, literature and gender, folktale, fairytale and fantasy studies and intellectual histories of childhood and gender. I will be happy to communicate via email or Twitter (IDs at the end of the page), should anyone be interested to work on conferences, workshops or publications together!

Articles written:

‘The Politics of Swadeshi and the ‘Inner World’ of the Roopkotha’ in The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective Blog. 2 July 2021.

‘Archiving Elusive Pasts: Reflections on My Visits to Bangla Academy, Dhaka’ in Anthropology Journal, Dhaka. 20 September 2020.

Selected conference presentations:

‘“What Are These Teaching the Children!”— Exploring the Roopkotha’s Place Within a ‘New’ Bengali Childhood’, Colloquium on the Intellectual Lives of Children, Centre for the History of Childhood, University of Oxford. 5 July 2021

‘The Gendered Journey of the Roopkotha’, The British Library South Asia Seminar Series, 28 June 2021

‘The Roopkotha, the Child and the Gendered Discourse of Swadeshi’, Webinar on ‘Writing and Framing Children’s and Young Adult Literature in South Asia and Beyond’. The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC) Webinar. 23 June 2021.

‘Finding the Storytelling Old Woman in 19th Century Bengal’, USTC 2021: Gender and the Book Trades, University of St. Andrews. 16 June 2021.

‘Gendering the Roopkotha—The Old Woman and the Tale in 20th Century Swadeshi Bengal’, BASAS 2021, University of Edinburgh. 23 April 2021.

‘The Roopkotha and the Bengali Middle-Class Child— Exploring the Creation of a Popular Children’s Genre over the Turn of the 20th Century in Bengal’, for the Transnational and Global History Seminar, University of Oxford. 16 Feb 2021.

Invited session taken on the topic of ‘Decolonizing Literary Studies’ for the Research Training Seminar for PhD 1st year students of School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics and East Asian Languages and Cultures, SOAS. 1st December, 2020

Professional Affiliations:

International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL)
British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS)
The Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC)
British Comparative Literature Association (BCLA)

Contact details:

Email: raahi_adhya@soas.ac.uk
Twitter: @RaahiAdhya