Vijaya Dabbe, the pioneering Kannada feminist thinker, writer, and organiser

On the occasion of Vijaya Dabbe’s birth anniversary, Dr. Hemalatha tells us about the life and work of the woman who pioneered feminism and feminist thought in Kannada and Karnataka.

ByHemalatha H M

Published Jun 01, 2023 | 12:46 PMUpdatedJun 01, 2023 | 12:47 PM

Vijaya Dabbe in her younger days

In Karnataka, the name that figures most prominently in the context of the feminist movement, its thought, and its writing is Vijaya Dabbe. ‘Vijaya madam’ to all of us.

A pioneer of feminist thought in Karnataka

Vijaya Dabbe in her middle age

Vijaya Dabbe in her middle age (Supplied)

In the 1970s decade, when feminist thought and the feminist movement were spreading nationally and internationally, Vijaya madam, then in Mysuru, brought up women’s issues within a small group of people.

She proceeded to involve herself in the ideas and struggles of the feminist movement and, by doing so, inspired a number of people around her to do likewise.

The first generation of women to receive an education in post-Independent India made their mark in a number of fields. Karnataka women were no exception.

From small town girl to academic heavyweight

Hundreds of women born in villages or small towns or into lower-middle class families received an education and, entering the fields of medicine, engineering, banking, telephone services (and other such service sectors), built both personal and professional lives for themselves. Vijaya Dabbe, who was one of these women, succeeded in academia.

Vijaya madam was born in 1951 the small village of Dabbe, located in the Belur Taluk of Karnataka’s Hassan district. Growing up in a large family that comprised ten children, she finished her college in Hassan and then moved to Mysore, where she received her MA and PhD in Kannada from Mysore University. 

Excelling in male-dominated academia

Despite being fully involved with teaching, she took an active part in several social-progressive movements; her special contribution was helping birth the feminist movement in Karnataka. 

In the Kannada context, Vijaya madam can be said to have sowed the seed of feminism. As an excellent teacher, researcher, writer, and speaker, she shone like a star in academia, a field dominated by men.

By taking on the responsibility of building a family, she also took what was then a revolutionary step in her personal life.

An accident that changed the course of Karnataka’s feminist movement

Balancing her family duties, her job, and her social activities with utmost liveliness, Vijaya madam was set to rise even higher when an untoward accident not only left her debilitated but also had a grievous impact on Karnataka, Kannada literature, and the Kannada woman’s world. 

Had she not been involved in an accident or even if she’d managed to recover her memory, there is absolutely no doubt that the entire character of women’s studies, feminist thought, and the women’s movement in Karnataka would have been different and more wide-reaching.

Vijaya madam, who was keenly interested in both writing and teaching, published 12 books and over 60 essays and writings. They included a poetry collection, a collection of deeply intellectual writings, criticism, a work of feminist criticism, an edited work, and some works of translation. Her writings also received several awards.

My introduction to Vijaya madam

Vijaya Dabbe in Ooty with her group

Vijaya Dabbe (second from right in the first row) with the author ((second from right in the last row) and others in Ooty (Hemalatha HM)

Though Vijaya Dabbe was not my direct teacher, I got to know her as ‘madam’ and it was she who was responsible for my entry into writing. 

When I started working at the Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Mysore, Vijaya madam used to attend the various seminars, conferences, and workshops as the resource person. It was then that we became acquainted. Women’s Studies was a new field to me then. 

At the time when I started to learn what it was about, Vijaya madam’s talks, her presentation of various topics, her perspective on matters related to women, her genuine concern, and her capability all attracted me. 

A wonderful sense of composure and a knack for engaging in difficult discussions

When the question of women’s issues arises, arguing, displeasure, intolerance, flared tempers, and snide remarks are not uncommon. Vijaya madam used to take on all these issues with the utmost patience and composure and, alerting the audience to its nuances, engage in a discussion about it. 

It was on account of her ability to organise a genuine debate, her knowledge of the matter, her perspective on the issues at hand, and her considered approach that Vijaya madam was able to create a space for feminist thought and start and develop the feminist movement in Karnataka.

I got to work under Vijaya madam’s guidance when I translated a long foreword of an English book into Kannada. (This was a book by Madhu Kishwar, the editor of ‘Manushi’.) 

A singular woman who championed the growth of those around her

Having translated it, I was wondering who I should show it to and what I could do with it. It was with some trepidation that I approached Vijaya madam. Having glanced over it quickly, she said immediately that it should be published by the ‘Samata Adhyayana Kendra’ (~Centre for Equality Studies). I was astonished that such a renowned thinker and fighter should have so quickly given a newcomer like me such an opportunity. 

She introduced me to the people at the printing press, taught me what it meant to proofread, and helped get the book published in just a few months – thus making a writer of me. Vijaya madam’s keenness to help her colleagues, young people, and newcomers grow was singular.

I remembered watching how Vijaya madam began the ‘Samata Vedike’ (~Platform for Equality) in Mysuru and how she actively participated in its activities. 

Later, for various reasons, she left the organisation and, with a number of like-minded people, began the ‘Samata Adhyayana Kendra’, where she continued to write, publish, and be involved in the struggle.

Bridging generations in the pursuit of equality

Vijaya Dabbe with the senior writer HV Savitramma

Vijaya Dabbe (seated first from left) with HV Savithramma (seated third from left) and others at the ‘Samata Adhyayana Kendra’ (Hemalatha HM)

The most important events that ‘Samata Adhyayana Kendra’ organised under Vijaya madam’s leadership were those where senior women literary figures and educators, like HV Savitramma, MK Indira, Dr Sudha Rao, and Dr Ratna Nayak, were invited and introduced to the younger generation via a discussion. 

Had Vijaya madam’s memory returned (after the accident), she would certainly have raised the profile of ‘Samata Adhyayana Kendra’ statewide and made it a force for social justice.

Obstacles, roadblocks, and even humiliation are no strangers to people involved with societal and social justice works.

Marching for Vijaya madam’s sake

During Vijaya madam’s time, when the academic space decided to target her in unsavoury ways, a whole host of people participated in a march to demonstrate support for her.

The reason I remember this is because that was the first time I ever participated in a public demonstration! The demonstration was successful when the charges against madam were shown to be false.

A family (re)connection

Madam became even closer to me through my older sister, Dr Ratna Nayak, who is a professor of Physics in America.

My sister and Vijaya madam, who were in the same year in their college, had got to know each other when they were living in the hostel. After I became acquainted with madam and she learnt about this connection, madam made sure to meet my sister every time she came down from America.

When they met, they would reminisce about their youthful days. These meetings brought them even closer.

A role model who was relentlessly active

An example of madam’s leadership quality: she once gathered about 15 of us and, taking us to Ooty, encouraged us to conduct research on the indigenous Toda people and Kota people of the region. 

Vijaya madam, who was constantly reading, writing, thinking, discussing, conducting research, participating in struggles, organising, lecturing, and travel was a role model for all of us.

A brave woman of unshakeable principles

In matters of truth, justice, honesty, equality, independence, and especially in matters regarding women, madam was never willing to compromise. 

Perhaps that was the reason she was never appointed to a high post in the university or in the government. Today, ‘Shaktidhama’ stands as a testament to madam’s organisational abilities. ‘Shaktidhama’ was an institution madam founded to rehabilitate women who had formerly been prostitutes. 

She managed to successfully build and  run this organisation with the help of the Karnataka government, some well-known people (including Dr Rajkumar’s family) and a group of progressives.

A genuine and farsighted feminist

Vijaya Dabbe in her later days, after the accident

Vijaya Dabbe in her later days, after the accident (Supplied)

As someone with a deep concern about women’s futures, madam became actively involved in the matter. 

The education of girls, the welfare of orphaned girls, support for women without secure means, women who’d experienced abuse, women searching for jobs so as build a life for themselves – Vijaya madam’s farsightedness prompted her to create a place of shelter and a guiding light for helpless women of every sort.

Unfortunately, the accident rendered her unable to continue her work. Battling with poor health and memory loss, she kept death at bay for another 18 years, before finally succumbing on 23 February 2018.

Celebrating Vijaya madam’s legacy

When she lived, Vijaya madam did not just think, lecture, and write about feminism. Rather, she lived feminism. All those who identify as feminists in Karnataka today have been influenced by Vijaya madam in one way or another. 

On the day of her birth, 1 June, let us all remember her contribution and commemorate her by manifesting a Vijaya Dabbe within us and becoming real feminists.

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of a Kannada essay by Dr Hemalatha.

Dr. Hemalatha is a professor in the department of Women’s Studies at Karnataka State Akkamahadevi Women’s University. She has a BA and MA in Economics from the University of Mysore and a PhD in Women’s Empowerment from the same university. The author of 28 books on Women’s Studies, she has presented papers in national and international seminars and participated in  several workshops on Women’s Studies abroad. She was awarded a UGC scholarship to visit Hungary in 2009.)