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The Rakshasi in the Bengali Rupkatha Tradition of the Late Nineteenth and the Early Twentieth Century


The rakshasi is a supernatural figure that is mythic, folkloric as well as literary in South Asian culture. Evil, monstrous, with a terrifying visage but capable of transforming her appearance at will, she has been defined by these characteristics. This paper will concentrate on the figure of the rakshasi as she appears in the Bengali rupkatha tradition, particularly in the works of Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar and Reverend Lal Behari Day. This literary tradition grew out of an oral storytelling tradition that had existed in the region for centuries and developed at the intersectional moment of Bengal’s colonial encounter and the rise of a nascent nationalist consciousness during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Mitra Majumdar’s work can be located within the project of the swadeshi cultural revival that was integral to the political resistance to the colonial state after the first partition of Bengal in 1905. This socio-political-cultural context of the development of the literary tradition had profound impact on the texts themselves, as the ideological situation of the authors informed both the writing of the texts as well as the process of selection of the stories in their volumes. The figure of the rakshasi that appeared in these texts was an amalgamation of folkloric beliefs along with the contemporary hegemonic conceptions of womanhood that was an important part of the nationalist consciousness. Bengal had inherited a rich tradition of supernatural lore as part of its folklore which was a living breathing tradition at the time. Thus the interaction of folk beliefs along with Bhadrolok conceptions of undesirable womanhood makes for a fascinating study. This paper will attempt such an enquiry.

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