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Adhya, Raahi (2023) The Fantastic World of the Bengali Roopkatha: Unpacking Gender, Generation and Genre. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This thesis explores a Bengali literary genre called the roopkatha, which has commonly been seen as a counterpart to English 'fairy tales' It traces its crystallisation from the oral tradition to becoming both anti-colonial, or 'Swadeshi', literature as well as children's literature over the turn of the 20th century. Folklorists and literary theorists from the turn of the 20th century, as well as later critical scholarship on the roopkatha, have argued that in keeping with the rise of cultural nationalism in Bengal at this time, the roopkatha was defined in terms of its apparently inherent and essential relationship to Bengali culture and tradition and, in a related sense, to a domesticated femininity and childhood. This thesis questions these three assumptions about the genre—that it fit organically within the Swadeshi or cultural-nationalist cause, that it is ‘naturally’ a children's genre, and that it is an essentially 'feminine' genre that purportedly also represents gender roles in a way that was institutionalised as 'conventional' in the context of 20th century Swadeshi Bengal. To do so, the thesis reads the tales anthologised as roopkatha together with the constellation of literary, social, political, economic, and cultural processes that informed the crystallisation of the genre. It thereby reveals the exact mechanisms through which the aforementioned associations were, sometimes with great difficulty, produced. The thesis specifically argues that this highly imaginative genre emerges as a site of narrative explorations of gendered roles and relations that, far from mirroring the 'real world' in which the genre was taking shape, are often at odds with the binary and hierarchical gender roles that were being imagined within Bengali cultural nationalist discourse at the time. In teasing out this process, this thesis not only broadens the formal terms in which the roopkatha has been understood but also lays out the premise that the literary genre was, from its inception, straddling complex dialectics around the 'local' and the 'global', the 'traditional' and the 'modern', 'childhood' and 'adulthood' and 'masculinity' and 'femininity'. It understands the roopkatha, therefore, through multiple literary and cultural levels which function, at the same time, both within and beyond the logic of Swadeshi. In developing new lenses through which to understand the roopkatha, this thesis makes interventions into postcolonial folklore and fairytale studies, gender studies, narrative theory, cultural studies and comparative literature. It builds a case for understanding colonial and postcolonial narrative traditions in South Asia and how they speak to the local and global circulation of texts, genres and concepts.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Samia Khatun and Eleanor Newbigin
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 03 Mar 2023 13:37

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