Book Review: ‘The Cult of the Androgyne: Reflections in Life and Literature, Art and Religion’, edited by Shruti Lahiri

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By Nishi Pulugurtha 

Androgyny has been the subject of literary, religious and philosophical texts. Owing its origins to the Greek words for male and female, the term ‘androgyne’ literally refers to the combining of the sexes, or the qualities of both the sexes in one entity. As an idea, it was a pure, unifying principle that was however, abhorred in reality as a monstrosity. It has been interpreted and re-interpreted, coloured, and modified by cultural and social signifiers and has carried a plethora of meanings and explanations. Plato, in Symposium, speaks of it as representative of the idea that human beings were one whole and that there is always that desire for the pursuit of the whole that is manifest in love and the desire for unity in love. Representations of androgyny are seen in temple architecture, in drawings and paintings as well. The Ardhanariswara is an important iconic representation of it.

Gender fluidity and the non-binary nature of human sexuality have informed modern discourses of gender studies, women’s studies and feminist studies. Androgyny has often been thought of as offering a means of going beyond the binary gender differences, of transcending them, and breaking down such differences inherent in culture. Theologians, biologist, psychologists, health practitioners have all deliberated on the idea of androgyny. In her Preface to The Cult of the Androgyne: Reflections in Life and Literature, Art and Religion, edited by Shruti Lahiri, Sanjukta Dasgupta notes: “In contemporary sexuality studies discourse a transsexual approach has been considered as a transformative way forward.” She goes on to say “… “sexual/textual politics and their representations in fictional and non-fictional narratives of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer writers, thinkers and artist define, deconstruct and redefine the experiential, textual and speculative domains of sexuality studies discourse.” The book under review is a volume of eighteen critical essays that examine the way androgyny has been represented in various literary and cultural texts and in religion, performance and biology as well. 

In the essay “Seeking Identity”, Siddhartha Paul speaks of identity and ways of defining the self: “How would I like to define my twenty-five-years old self? Am I a young man or a young woman? I feel more comfortable to define myself as human being who has taken sumptuous time searching my true identity.” This personal essay sets the tone of the volume. The volume brings together a variety of essays, ranging from personal accounts, to essays that speak of the etiology of female to male transsexualism that discusses issues of anthropometric measurements, the correlation in the body shape and structure of transsexuals and their sex hormone levels, to essays that bring in historical aspects of representations of androgyny to essays that deal with literary texts that feature androgyny. There are also essays that discuss androgyny in Hindu mythology and in performance. One of the essays in the volume examines androgyny in the animal world as well.

In an interesting essay on “Dancing the Divine: Androgyny, Performance and the Vaishnava Iconography in Orissa and Bengal”, Pritha Kundu examines a few “androgynic modes of performance” where Shiva and Parvati together create the Ardhanariswara, the “androgynous aesthetics” of the Vaishnava cult in the dance forms of Odissi and Gotipua which are traditionally performed by young boys dressed as women. In “Androgyny in the Spectrum of Sexuality and Gender: Critical and Literary Possibilities”, Arka Chattopadhyay examines the figure of the androgynous subject in the light of gender theory using the two literary figures of Parashuram and Samuel Beckett. As he notes, “In Parashuram, androgyny makes relationality possible while in Beckett the figure of the androgyne seems to create a radical non-relation from the model of sociality that privileges the compulsive heterosexuality of sexual rapport.” Anasuya Bhar in her essay explores the idea of the androgynous mind that, she notes, “participates in the appreciation of beauty and all objects aesthetic.”

The Bhakti movement that became an alternative space for men and women is examined in the essay by Sutapa Chaudhuri. Her essay, “In Search of an Androgymous Creativity: Gender Role Reversals and the Medieval Bhakti Saints” focuses on gender role reversals in Kabir, Narsi Mehta, Dasimayya, Janabai and Akkamahadevi:  “The pervasive feminisation of experience prevalent in the Bhakti tradition was a reaction against the patriarchal obsession with status, hierarchy and learning.” Two texts belonging to two different genres, a dance drama and a novella, two different languages and cultures, are the focus of an essay that discusses androgyny as a “response” and “challenge to normative existence”: “The way these two figures [of Chitrangada and Dorian Gray] are perceived present an interesting study of contemporary society and the design of the author who is negotiating with that society.”

The volume has two essays that examine the use of androgyny in Shakespeare’s plays – “The Concept of Cross-dressing and Androgyny in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night” and “The Androgynes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth” and two on Virginia Woolf – “Contesting Gendered Identity: Androgyny Virginia Writes the Androgyne” and “A Room and an Androgynous Consciousness.” In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf did write on the androgynous mind and creativity, something that has for years been contested and appreciated by critics. It is interesting to note that for Virginia Woolf, androgyny was something that would allow men and women the space to write without being overtly conscious of their sex, something that would result in unbridled creativity.

The introduction to this ambitious volume defines androgyny and lays out the way it has been figured and used in various disciplines, tracing the history of its usage and use in the animal world, in religion, in literature and in life thereby laying a groundwork for the essays that follow. Mounted in a hardback format and rather expensively priced for college libraries and individuals to buy it easily, the volume nevertheless would be of interest to scholars working in the area. One just wishes that the copy editing could have been done with more care, something that can be looked into when the volume goes into its second edition.

Bio:
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).

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