Who Could Know the Wiles of Women? The Texts and Contexts of triya charitra in South Asia

Pawan Rehill
Religious Studies
UC Santa Barbara

Pawan Rehill’s dissertation uses a genealogical approach to examine the diverse appeal, meaning and effects of ‘feminine wiles’ representations (trīya charitra) in South Asian literary and visual sources from the late seventeenth century.  Focusing on three moments in Sikh history in which triya charitra narratives were produced, Rehill argues that triya charitra has served as a resource, explanation and argument for Sikh thinkers interrogating questions of self and other, the nature of embodiment and sexual desire, the meaning of the past, and aspirations towards the good life, during times of immense historical change.  She examines the emergence of trīya charitra discourse in the literary workshop patronized by in the court of Guru Gobind Singh, which led to the creation of the largest anthology of triya charitra narratives, the Charitropakhyan Granth (1696 CE; CPG).  A close reading of this text suggests that the narratives are inextricably bound to the moral and ethical problems keenly felt during times of war, and that it creates a new aesthetic of feminine bravado and conquest that organizes affect and conveys worldly knowledge. In the mid-19th century, Punjabi poets invoked trīya charitra in their articulation of memory, linking the fall of the Sikh kingdom in Lahore and the emergence of colonial rule (1849 CE) with the fallen queen Jind Kaur’s trīya charitra. In the postcolonial period, Rehill examines how transformations in the reception and reproduction of the CPG, as encoded in online debates over the (im)morality and authenticity of this text, animate affective registers of belonging that induce new roots for political affect and solidarity.  She also argues that the heroic warrior woman, originating in the CPG, discursively constructs gender specific subject positions for modern Sikh women in diasporic communities.  The project therefore posits that triya charitra serves as representation, performance discourse and is therefore productive site for understanding cultural and social transformation.