On Rabindranath Tagore’s 79th death anniversary, Shoma A Chatterji explores Tagore’s outlook towards women in the context of his dance dramas Chitrangada and Chandalika as well as his own approach towards his daughters.
One interesting contradiction in his life is that Tagore paid dowry for the marriages of all his three daughters Madhurilata, Renuka and Atashilata and got them married much before they had reached adolescence. He did not give his children formal education in schools but educated them at home through teachers who taught them basic subjects like Sanskrit, English and Bengali other than crafts with stress on Sanskrit. He married his wife Mrinalini when she was nine years and nine months old and he was around 12 years older than her.
Saad Kamalii[i] writes that Tagore did not send his five children to school on the advice of Sister Nivedita. This is strange because other children of the extended Tagore family that included some older than Rabindranath, daughters, sisters, daughters-in-law, grand-daughters and even widows attended noted schools and colleges across the country and beyond. This stands in direct conflict with Tagore’s great and unique contribution to education and to the founding of the unique institution Viswa Bharati. He was acutely aware of the importance of educating boys and girls in science, general knowledge and craftsmanship and made every attempt to contribute to the movement towards an alternative way of formal education. But answers to why he decided to keep away his child-wife and his own daughters from formal, institutional education are not available even from his later biographers.[ii]
Tagore was in a hurry to get all three daughters married early despite the fact that personally, time revealed that like most of the Tagores, he encouraged ‘youth’ marriages. The probable reason is that he had to seek the help of his father Maharshi Debendranath to fund his daughters’ marriages. Debendranath, already in debt by virtue of his father Dwarkanath Tagore’s indulgent and extravagant lifestyle lay aside Rs.5000 in the Tagore treasury as a ‘gift’ for every marriage in the Tagore family. Tagore depended on this sum because he did not have the means or the money to spend on his daughters’ dowries.
The short stories Tagore wrote much after the failed marriages of his three daughters are perhaps traced back to the deep pain he experienced as their father. Following Mrinalini’s passing away, he was an excellent single parent to his children. But he must have looked upon these as his personal failure. Besides, the misery the marriages brought into the lives of his three daughters culminating in the untimely death of two filled him with a deep sense of guilt and remorse and made him change some of his earlier philosophies about girls and women he had voiced in his essays on the education of women.
His romanticism extended to the dreams of getting highly educated and academically brilliant young men to marry his daughters. The three sons-in-law were all highly educated and academically brilliant. But they were not good human beings and were not possessed of self-respect and the minimum amount of dignity in expecting and accepting a monthly allowance from their father-in-law. Dowry was a normal practice in those times. But then, what did all that higher education really mean?
The dance drama Chitrangada was published in book form as a play in 1892. Tagore borrowed a small segment from the Mahabharata to create this play that marks a milestone in Tagore’s representation of women in his writings and is a departure from his usual oeuvre. Chitrangada’s birth itself is a challenge. Mahadev Umapati Shiva, pleased with the meditation of the King of Manipur, had blessed the king with the boon that the royal family will always be blessed by sons. But Chitrangada’s birth proved that the boon had failed.
The King brings up Chitrangada like he would a son and trains her in archery and royal administration. She is as bold in her archery as she strikes terror among the King’s enemies and ill-wishers and brings succour and hope to the vulnerable.[iii] She has acquired all the qualities of men born into royalty. She is passionate about victory at war, about her brave attitude towards war all of which are real in her life. But she is also capable of falling in love. This goes against Tagore’s own projection of the role of women through his short story Two Sisters (Dui Bone). He states through this story that the world has two kinds of women. “One is primarily a mother while the other is the lover,” says Sharmila, one of the two sisters in the story. This underscores the reality about Tagore’s ability to change his ideology with time and in keeping with the demands of the original source he derived his narrative from.
Tagore invests Chitrangada, the Manipur princess, with the position of subject, free of ambivalence and confusion. The story from the Mahabharata probably attracted Tagore because of this very uniqueness in portraying a princess who became a ‘prince’ when her father, Chitrabahan actually organized and conducted a yagna according to the dictates of the Hindu scriptures to invest his daughter with the name, title and qualities of a son. This ensured that Chitrangada’s son would automatically be the heir to the royal throne in future. According to the Mahabharata, after Chitrangada, it was Babhrubahon, the son born of the union of Chitrangada and Arjun who accessed the throne after Chitrangada as crown prince.
Tagore made some departures from the original text. In Vedavyasa’s Mahabharata, Chitrangada was beautiful and feminine and her training in princely skills intended for a male did not strip her of her feminine traits. But Tagore’s Chitrangada was “kutshito kurupo” which means ugly and invested her with manly looks which makes Arjuna dismiss her mistaking her for a boy or balaka. This arouses anger in Chitrangada directed towards herself because she realises that she is a woman and needs to be recognized as a woman. Why did Tagore depart so from the original text? The end of the drama answers this question. After being blessed with a boon from Madana, the God of Love, Chitrangada turns into an exquisite beauty for a year and Arjuna falls in love with her. But during this time, he also keeps hearing stories of the valour and bravery of the Manipur princess, not knowing that it is this same woman he is in love with. Chitrangada approaches Madana again and requests him to take away his blessing and turn her into her former and original self again.
So, what lesson does Tagore which us to take from this story? That a girl can, with training, lifestyle and social conditioning actually “become” a boy which automatically places the man as the superior sex and relegates the woman to secondary position? Or, does Tagore drive the point that since Chitrangada was basically a woman, when she grew up and saw a handsome young man, she fell in love realising that love was as necessary for her as valour? If she goes back to her former self and then joins Arjuna’s, does that define a completely different profiling of a woman who accepts the valour of manly pursuits and insists that she is a ‘different’ woman but she accepts her love for Arjuna’s all the same and implores him to accept her as she is, not the beauty Madana had turned her into?
Stepping out of her trappings of feminization she had acquired to attain the love of Arjuna, she introduces herself as follows:
I am Chitrangada
I am not a Devi,
Nor am I an ordinary woman
You will worship me and hold me aloft, I am not that either,
You will neglect me
And hold me as a pet behind you, I am not that too.
If you hold me beside you
In times of stress, if you share me with complex thoughts, if you (permit me)
To dedicate myself to your committed causes
If you make me a partner in your grief and happiness
Then will you know who I am.[iv]
Tagore’s improvisations and additions to the Mahabharata episode throw up two things – that it is easier for a brave man like Arjuna to weary of the beauty and charms of a woman than it is to desire a woman with qualities of character – courage, skills, administration and so on in which case beauty is scaled down in the ladder of preferences. The second thing is that Chitrangada realises that beauty in a woman is skin-deep, temporary and fragile the charms of which can fade away with time for a man like Arjuna but qualities like valour, justice, kindness and generosity cannot. Tagore made a bid to break free from the clichéd stereotype of victimhood of women and tried to prioritize the well-being as opposed to the ill-being of women, the two categories identified by Amartya Sen in his emphasis that gendered resistance writing is about representation of women as active agents of social change.[v]
But if we try and read it against the grain of its acknowledged and affirmed feminist statement, we ought to question why the king was so insistent on bringing up his daughter like a son. He decided all on his own to bring her up like the son he never had. He does not take the failure of his worship of Lord Shiva as a sign that one cannot really decide the sex of an unborn child, not even Lord Shiva. Nor does he ever ask Chitrangada whether she likes being a boy and then a man. But she probably does not know the difference!
His later writings reflect his struggle between the strong pulls of radical modernism at one end and traditionalism on the other. Prakriti of the dance drama, Chandalika (1933) for example, renounces the material world through her personal will, after she meets Ananda, the Buddhist disciple who is brought to her through her mother’s magic mirror. She chooses to walk out of the destined trap of her birth, which includes withdrawing herself from Ananda who has already renounced the material world. Much earlier however, one sees him emphasizing the inner strength of a woman.
We are introduced to the mundane fun of young maidens as they encounter everyday street vendors like the bangle-seller and the vendor selling molasses who refuse Prakriti even to get close to them, much less buy the bangles or the molasses lest they, and the products they are selling are rendered impure. Prakriti for the first time gets a taste of her socially ostracized birth and life. Her sense of alienation is complete. But unlike her mother who has accepted it as destined, she raises questions about her untouchable condition for no fault of hers.
Chandalika is an epitome of the master dramatist’s experiment with three significant issues – spirituality, untouchability, and sexuality. The play is a perfect labyrinth of Indian society having three prominent themes; the most prominent being the ‘spiritual liberation’, while ‘emancipation from the scourge of untouchability,’ and the ‘burden of sexuality’ constitute the other two underlying themes. The play displays close interlinking of caste, gender, and religion in subtle and significant ways that we can detect and debate.[vi]
One of his greatest contributions towards the evolution of a modern mindset lies in his concept of choice and his ability to create alternative spaces to choose from. This includes the metamorphosis in some of his memorable creations of female characters in his writing. In Ghare Baire (1916), a political novel, the personal liberation of Bimala, an educated by purdah-bound zamindar’s wife, becomes linked to the Swadeshi movement and the national struggle. There is a danger that both the woman and the country might mistake liberty for license, being misled by a false leader, who is also an unscrupulous seducer.[vii]
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
[i] Kamali, Saad: Rabindranath, Nari O Bibaho (Rabindranath, Woman and Marriage), Patralekha, 2011, pp.14-24.
[iii] Kamali, Saad: Robindrabhabonaye Nari O Bibaho, Patralekha, Kolkata, 2011, p63.
[iv] Rabindra Rachanavali Volume Five, p.470. English translation by Sanjukta Dasgupta.
[v] Dasgupta, Sanjukta: Three Modern Women: Tagore’s Transgressive Texts, in Krishna Sen and Tapati Guha (Ed). Tagore and Modernity, Department of English, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, 2006, p.121.
[vii] Chakravarty, Sudeshna: Tagore and a Sense of History in Krishna Sen and Tapati Guha (Ed). Tagore and Modernity, Department of English, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, 2006, p.77.
(The views expressed are personal)
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