Padmawati Devi Phukanani
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Padmawati Devi Phukanani


‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’, a work comprising forty two pages by Padmawati Devi Phukanani, can be acknowledged as the first novel written by an Assamese writer. The book was published by Victoria press of Calcutta and printed by Bhuban Mohan Das in the year 1884. This small book had been divided into six chapters and the price of it was only four annas. Prior to the publication of this book Hem Chandra Baruah published his satirical work ‘Bahire Rang Sang Bhitara Kowabhaturi’. But according to the critics ‘the basic characteristics of a novel, i.e. a well knit plot and perfect delineation of characters are absent in it’ (Asamiya Upanyasar Bhumika, Satyendra Nath Sarma.) Of course the Assamese translation of the Pilgrim’s Progress under the title ‘Jatrikar Jatra’ was published serially in the Arunodoi by anonymous writer in the year 1851. After this A.K. Garni and Mrs. Garni published ‘Kaminikanta’ (1847) ‘Phulmoni and Karuna’ respectively. Therefore the novel written by Padmawati Devi Phukanani was the first novel having all the characteristics of a complete novel. She was the worthy daughter of Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan. It is indeed a matter of great pride that a woman can be credited for being the first Assamese woman novelist in a period when woman education was a far cry. Moreover the system of child marriage among the elite Hindus of that time also prevented many talented women from reading and writing. Overcoming all these hazards Devi Phukanani emerged as the pioneering novelist only due to her perseverance and hard work. She was also a poetess and she wrote many articles. She wrote a book ‘Hitasadhika’ with a view to developing the moral life of the children.

Padmawati’s father Anandaram was a Government servant and was executing the post of Extra Assistant Commissioner. In spite of his busy activities of Government service, he contributed a lot of Assamese language and literature. He compiled ‘Asom Buranji’ in Bengali language. Apart from this ‘Asamiya Larar Mitra’ and ‘A few Remarks on Assamese Language’ are two valuable books attributed to him. In 1878 he published his ‘Englander Vivaran’ in Arunodoi. For his rational thinking and a deep love for his country, Colonel Hopkins compared him with Raja Rama Mohan Roy of Bengal. (Kampur Sahitya Sabha Edn, Bismoi, pp20.)

The mother of Padmawati was Mahindri Devi daughter of Pashupati Phukan of Jorhat. She was an educated woman though most of the women of that time were illiterate. Padmawati Phukanani was born in 9th January at Barpeta. Her name in her horoscope was Lakshmi. But the name Padmawati had been borrowed from the name of a character found in a fiction published in the ‘Masik Patrika’ from Calcutta. At that time there was no provision for woman education but Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, her father, who was a patron of learning, realized the importance of education and tried to educate his wife and daughters in his home. In fact Padmawati’s education was started while she was only five years old. In the loving association of her educated parents Padmawati had the opportunity to receive good education which helped her to develop a broad and liberal mentality. Under the component guidance of her parents, she, from her childhood, has shaped herself as an ideal woman.

Padmawati was married to Nandiswar, son of Sashadhar Baruah. After marriage Nandiswar too used the title Phukan in his name which was the title of his father-in-law. Nandiswar Phukan was also an educated man. ‘After marrying Padmawati, Nandiswar went to Calcutta. He came back to his own place in 1866 and in 1867 he took Padmawati to his workplace in Tezpur after her attainment of puberty. ‘(Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukanar Jiban Carit, pp 175). He was serving as revenue Cirastadar of Assam. He permanently settled in Nawgaon and at the age of fifty two he breathed his last. Padmawati was the mother of eighteen children and only three of them survived. After the death of her husband she stayed at her father’s place at Bharalumukh and spent there the remaining days of her life. She left for her heavenly abode in 1927 at the age of seventy four.

In an article, Chandradhar Baruah described that the personality of Padmawati Devi Phukanani was very soothing and refined. Her character, her way of talking, her behavior was as good as her physical beauty. From the very way of her talking one can presume at once that she was hailing from a very dignified family. She had the entire lady like qualities of that time. She knew cooking, weaving, the technique of running a family and above all she was very generous and hospitable to the guests. She was the combination of many virtues like belief in God, faith in religion, love and affection to others, curiosity to new things, refine taste, enthusiasm for enlistment, longing for reform and above all she possessed a charming personality.

She was the personified synthesis of that can be found in the women of both ancient and modern times. On the one hand, she had a deep faith in god, interest in religion, love and affection for everyone and on the other hand she had enthusiasm for reform, development, inquisition for learning new things, and taste according to the age of time. So she can be viewed as combination of the qualities of women both of old and new. (Chandradhar Barua Granthawali, p545)

Jitendra Nath Barua also wrote about Devi Phukanani in an article ‘Kamrup Ratnamala’ where he described her as a modest and loving woman. A variety of people used to visit to her house. She disliked criticizing others. A hospitable lady like her is hardly found in society. He also gave a description of her household. ‘There are 2/3 thatched houses. Near this there was a well, fruit garden, and a loom. The walls of the house were decorated with the pictures of god and goddesses. Books were put in rows in a rack. It was practically a hermitage’.

Raichahab Durgadhar Kataky wrote an article on Devi Phukanani in the fifth lesson of ‘Nith Path’ where he wrote that all the merits of an Assamese woman like weaving, cooking, and hospitability are accumulated in Devi Phukanani. Tarun Ram Phukan also made a remark on her: ‘She was an educated, a well informed and a managing lady of household duties’. (Kamrup Ratnamala)


Literary excellence of Padmawati Devi Phukanani:

Padmawati Devi Phukanani can be acclaimed as the first woman writer of Assamese literature. Without formal education she had contributed to Assamese literature. Without formal education she had contributed to Assamese literature by writing poems and essays having moral values. Dimbeswar Neog had acknowledged her ‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’ (1806) as first Assamese novel. After this she published her book ‘Hitsadhika’. Apart from this, she contributed a good number of poems and articles to the contemporary magazine. Bihagi kabi Raghu Nath Choudhury also acknowledged her as the first Assamese woman writer. She contributed her writings to ‘Jonaki’ and’ Bahi’. In ‘Parthana’, a poem published in ‘Bahi’, she knows an example of love to God. In the same periodical an article ‘Bidhaba’, on widowhood, was published and in this article the suffering and pain of a widow was described in a very pathetic manner. The writer suffered the pain of widowhood for long thirty two years, hence the pain described in the article was the pain suffered by her as a widow. She contributed article to the ‘Asom Sahitya Sabha Patrika’ also. The article ‘Padmawati’ published in ‘Chandradhar Barua Granthawali’ narrates that Padmawati wrote a meaningful article addressing her father to the literary conference and this was read by Surya Kumar Bhuyan. She also wrote an article ‘Samajat Tirotar Sthan’ which was published in the third issue of the Assam Sahitya Sabha Patrika’,1849-50. Chandradhar Barua was the editor of the magazine. In the article, she wrote about the ancient women characters like Sabitri, Drupadi, Gandhari etc, and she emphasized in the formation of women characters following their ideology. Women can have high position in society through learning Sanskrit and the imitation of the ideals of these women.

Padmawati Devi Phukanani published two books namely ‘Hitsadhika’ and ‘Sudhamar Upakhyan’ which were written after her marriage. Written mainly for the children, the book included the theme like wisdom, institution, learning resource, kindness, modesty, gratitude, respect for parents, good behavior towards one’s own countrymen etc. According to her to be a human being in the proper sense, one should follow truth and religion. In another article ‘Ahankar’ she wrote that vanity is the chief enemy of mankind. In another poem ‘Phulrani’ she imagined herself as queen of flower being decorated with flower.

‘Chowachon sakhi, mok kene dekhi, rupahi haichone mai?

Phulerei sajicho, ki rup dharicho, dekhile khabane bhai?’

(Look friend, how I look. Do I look beautiful? Will you be afraid of my new look being embellished by flower?)

The fancy of the romantic poets is reflected through this poem. She imagines being a new looking woman with various flowers as ornaments. She also wrote another poem on nature and it was published in ‘Bahi’ where the poet with the color of imagination shows a young girl’s interest on dress and ornament. Probably she wants to suggest that natural flower is more beautiful than that of gold ornament. The poem was written in simple diction with delicate rhyme. The figure of speech is absent in this poem. Another poem ‘Prakiti’ written by Devi Phukanani was published in first issue of sixth year of ‘Bahi’s. Here the poet narrates the beauty of nature in a very simple language and she thinks that behind all these beauty, there is the power of Almighty. In style and sentiment her poems may not be perfect, but these poems have great importance in the field of Assamese literature.

Fictional value of Sudharmar Upkhyan:

It has already been mentioned that ‘Sudhrmar Upakhyan’ was given recognition as first novel in Assamese literature by Dimbeswar Neog. Jitendra Nath Bujarbarua called it a moral story that shows the effect of good and evil. But scholars remark that it does not lack the elements of novel in its initial stage (Kamrup Ratnamala). Bezbarua also appreciated this work of Devi Phukanani saying that the diction is simple and delicate. But he did not use the term ‘novel’ for this composition.

In’ Sudharmar Upakhyan’, the writer used the technique of story-telling. The story of the novel centered round the trading venture of two friends Satyaban and Madhab who made their voyage across the Brahmaputra along with their wives Sudharma and Lilawati. They met a beggar woman and Sudharma recognized her to be the lawyer’s wife who has once very rich. Being unhappy with her husband, she eloped with another man. But he too finally deserted her and she was left in this miserable state. After a few days they were estranged from each other due to a strong tempest in the river. Satyaban could reach the bank by catching hold of a piece of wood; But Suharma and Lilawati were rescued by a boatman and given shelter in his own residence. But a rich man was attracted to them and when they heard this they fled to the forest. There too, they were about to be harassed by a hunter from whom they were rescued by a sage of Siva temple and put with a female ascetic. One day they went to river ghat and met one deserted Manorama who was taken to the hermitage by them. In the mean time Satyaban, while searching for Lilawati, met Manohar Barua. Listens the tune of the flute played by Satyaban, Sudharma identified him to be her husband. There was the reconcilitation between sudharma, Satyaban and Manohar, but no trace of Madhab Chandra was found. Another day Lilawati met Madhab Chandra when both of them went to river to have bath. After their reconciliation, all of them returned to their own place. Manohar started his business borrowing money from Satyaban and Madhab Chandra.

Although the plot does not retain any supernatural element still it acquires the qualities of an old narrative due to frequent reference of hunter, sage, hermitage etc. Besides, sudden union and unexpected incident takes the novel far away from realism. The analysis of character is also absent in the novel. Of course there is a philosophical outlook in ‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’. Through this the novelist shows that if somebody sticks to justice and righteousness the consequence is good. Dimbeswar Neog wrote ‘Padmawati Deviphukanani’s Sudharmar Upakhyan though was written in 1880, it was written like a folktale.’(Asamiya Sahityar Buranji). On the other hand Satyandra Nath Sarma remarked that Sudharmar Upakhyan is not without importance so far the characterization and plot construction of the novel are concerned. Though it is not well-structured and well-arranged, there is no complexity in the story. The characters found in the novel are the men and women around us though the characterization is not perfect. (Lekhika, sixth issue, 1977: Sudharmar Upakhyan: Swadhinata Mahanta).

Though different critics put forward different opinion regarding estimation of ‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’ as a novel, it is a significant step in the development of prose fiction. At a time when women’s formal education was a far cry, a privately educated woman without any knowledge o town life composed a story incorporating the characters like hunter, hermit and natural landscape like hill, river, lake, hermitage etc. Such a story should not be underestimated only because it was created by woman. This story is really a valuable contribution to the initial stage of Assamese novel.

Devi Phukanani wrote at a time when Bengali was the official language in Assam. So her writings were not free from the influence of Bengali. Besides, the writings were not free from spelling mistakes. She wrote her novel in prose but in places she very skillfully inserted poetic conversation also. These poems were full of poetic sensibility and beauty. When Sudharma missed her husband, she addressed the trees about the where about of her husband. Her impatience at the loss of her husband can be compared to the wailings and restlessness of the lovelorn women of Brindabana waiting for Lord Krishna.

The prose style of ‘Hitsadhika’ and ‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’ may not possess the high literary value, but these two books have historical importance in the development of prose fiction. Atul Chandra Barua:’ In every novel it is natural to have a synthesis of dialogue, philosophical analysis and description of nature. The beauty of a novel lies in the combination of all. If this is true ‘Sudharmar Upakhyan’ is a successful creation of Deviphukanani’.


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