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Tagore Was A Great, ‘Progressive Man’, But Did This Extend To The Women In His Family?

7th May is the birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the 'progressive' poet, thinker, and writer who pit India on the global literary map. How progressive were the Tagores towards their women?

“A woman is nothing in her husband’s home but a glorified servant!”

I recently read Jorasanko, written by Aruna Chakravarti. A book which left me enchanted with the multi-layered, multi-coloured tapestry of its beauty. A book which imaginatively reconstructs the lives of the men and more importantly, the women of practically royalty, when it comes to Bengal and the Renaissance.

Yes, Jorasanko, named after the residence of the illustrious and the elite family of the Tagores stands out in one’s memory long after one has shut the book by Aruna Chakravarti.

The Tagores hailing from the Pirali Brahmins, were lords undisputed where culture, education, and progressive thinking were concerned. Wealth, both material and intellectual were the bywords where Prince Dwarkanath Tagore was concerned. After him, Maharishi Debendranath Tagore, one of the pioneers of the Brahmo Samaj, took over the reigns of the family, the estates and the very ethos of the Tagore lineage.

Needless to say, the various sons, sons-in-law, grandsons, showed promise aplenty. Be it Satyendranath Tagore, the first ICS officer or Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate in the making, a poet par excellence, the Tagores were the harbingers of emancipation, enlightenment and all round excellence. Cultural events, informed discussions regarding the latest happenings in literature, politics, fine arts, music, food both traditional and western, were the mainstay of the family life.

The Tagore women

Was Jorasanko equally supportive of its women and their empowerment? Seems not.

A firmly entrenched patriarchy saw brides as young as five, six or seven years of age being married off to sensitive boys in their late teens. The system of ‘aborodh’ (separation of the genders) ensured that women remained confined to the women’s section of the house, retaining their alabaster like complexion and painful naïveté. With having to wear the same clothing for all seasons where men would be adequately dressed according to the seasons, had child brides shivering till some or the other progressive minded husband or brother-in-law intervened. Conjugal rights, property rights, right to education, and the right to their own lives were luxuries undreamt of, for so many women.

Still, Jorasanko saw its fair share of strong women who held their own against the dichotomy of the menfolk.

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Be it the deeply religious Digambari, the orthodox Sarada Sundari, the assertive Tripura, the enlightened Gnadanandini, the melancholic Kadambari, the literary Swarnakumari, the meek and pliant Mrinalini, the independent Sarala and Bibi, the Tagore women alternately accepted and rejected one another, acquiesced to the demands of their, men yet challenged them to rethink their actions.

Some bore the burden of not being fertile while others lost all their womanly charm with unending child-bearing. Some were victims of their husband’s unbelievably cruel neglect like the sweet Kadambari who never had her brilliant but impractical husband Jyotindranath’s love, while others like Jnanadanandini became the first to step out of the aborodh, the first to acquire western education and lifestyle, the first to traverse the ocean and the first to bring a wave of modern dress-sense (famous for the modern version of the sari with blouse), thanks to her husband, Satyendranath’s constant support.

Author Aruna Chakravarti brings Jorasanko to life for us, with its patriarchy

What makes Jorasanko come alive is the way Aruna Chakravarti has used painstaking research to imaginatively bring to life the influences not just the women were exposed to, but also influencing the men in their lives, and also delineating the slow and steady blossoming of the pride of the Bengali community, Rabindranath Tagore.

An astute father Debendranath, a loving sister-in-law, Kadambari, his own genius, and later, the unquestioning love and concern of his wife, Mrinalini, made the world renowned literary figure, a force to reckon. Still, one wishes that great men didn’t have great faults!

As a reader, one cheers for every obstacle the Tagore women overcome, one despairs at the tragedy visiting them in the form of marital abuse or neglect, one simmers with anger at the sheer wastage of talent, one laments the loss of hope and the betrayal they faced.

One identifies with the emotions churned by Jorasanko all the while wishing things were different for such a great family.

One realises that even two centuries after the developments of the story, women have still to fight so many battles.

All in all, a must read for every lover of literature.

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About the Author

Sumona Banerjee

A bibliophile since childhood, I am a lecturer in one of the most prestigious schools of Prayagraj. Teaching is my vocation. A voracious reader, I veer towards feminist writings and draw inspiration from every strong read more...

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