New Delhi: Robi Thakur was born on May 7 in 1861 to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi. Tagore started writing at the age of six and went on to become the first Indian — and the first Asian — to win the Nobel Prize for literature for ‘Gitanjali’.
Known vividly for his vast collection of poems, prose, plays, stories, and novels, Thakur was a progressive thinker, his writings were based on bold subjects that were far ahead of the time. His work put women in the forefront and conveyed feminism strongly.
Rabindranath Tagore was a man far ahead of his times. Challenging the norms of the classroom as a young boy, taking to the pen as a protest against the dominance of the British rule, and most importantly, giving a voice to women through his stories, Tagore has been a permanent fixture in most of our households.
He strongly believed in fighting for women's upliftment using his pen as a weapon. Focusing largely on emancipation, his writing campaigned for women's liberation, equality, freedom, justice, power and dignity, and rights.
Ravi Shankar the great musician, in his book Raga Mala argues that had Rabindranath Tagore “been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” This is a strong claim, and it calls attention to some greatness in this quintessentially Bengali writer — identified by a fellow Bengali — that might not be readily echoed in the wider world today, especially in the West.
Tagore became a messiah of the lyrical word for those across the world seeking inspiration in poetry, song, and art, and he would often graciously host travellers arriving at his doorstep to learn the same.
Amartya Sen mentioned in an article, “At one level it is not particularly hard to see that his native readers can get something from Tagore's writings, especially his poems and songs, that would be missed by those who do not read Bengali. Even Yeats, his biggest promoter in the English-speaking world, did not like Tagore's own English translations.”
Sen Highlighted, “Anyone who knows Tagore's poems in Bengali would typically find it difficult to be really satisfied with any translation, no matter how good. To this impediment must be added the fact that Tagore's poetry, which often takes the form of songs in an innovative style of lyrical singing, called Rabindrasangeet, has transformed popular Bengali music with its particular combination of reflective language and compatible tunes.”
For the Bengali public, Tagore has been, and remains, an altogether exceptional literary figure, towering over all others.
Today on his 160th birthday, here's a tribute, to celebrate the legacy of his leading heroines, who were bold, talented, and empowered, and challenged the embedded patriarchal notions of 19th century India.
Tagore's portrayal of women can be categorised into three broad sections.
1. From 1881 to 1897: When he first spoke about the social injustices against women
2. From 1893 to 1913: Where he first portrayed the educated and urban Indian woman who fought for human rights and equality
3. From 1914 to 1941: Where Tagore's heroines were openly challenging social evils like the rigid caste-system, untouchability, widow-remarriage, and patriarchy at large.
“For we women are not only the deities of the household fire, but the flame of the soul itself,” we've all grown up reading and quoting Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore portrayed his women as chance-takers, unconventionally. He made his women defiantly resist social and familial norms standing for their rights against the conservative society.
Binodini, Chokher Bali
Binodini highlights the importance of education when she says, “... if I had been uneducated, like other widows, I would have been able to easily endure the society's negligence.” She is smart and educated and strives to be more than just an inauspicious widow. Binodini rejects the strict rules widowed women in Bengal needed to adhere to. Binodini's character, despite its shades of grey, is refreshing as she does not accept her fate, and attempts to seek what she feels she deserves.
Binodini is reluctant to fit into the role of a lonely widow and is unwilling to forego her sexual and emotional desires. Towards the end of the story, Binodini retreats to living in women's shelters and bringing about as much change as she can to improve the condition of women.
Through Charulata, Tagore explores the idea of a woman taking reins of her own desires and ambition and making a choice of her own volition. Charulata from a broken nest lived a comfortable but emotionally void life with her ever-busy journalist husband, who had no time for her or her talents. The entry of his brother, Amal, who inspires her to take up writing and singing, breaks the monotony of her life, and she begins to experience the beginnings of desire for him. Through her time with Amal, she begins to rediscover herself and her nascent talents. And although she chooses to remain with her husband despite him offering to move away for their sake, the experience helps her find herself.
Giribala: “A woman's role is not confined to the house.”
What Tagore did: When Giribala's husband elopes with another woman who is an actress, she does not wallow in self-pity or accept this as “something men just do.” She decides to join a theater production herself, not to win her husband's affection back but rather to regain her power. At that time, it was considered indecent for a married woman to hold a theatrical profession and the story also states that Giribala's husband believed this. By becoming an actress, Giribala breaks the passivity of wifehood, she has control over her own life.
She says, “All the rules are wrong.. Did anyone try to find to what I like? You like me and I should follow all the rules.” Tagore's young, fun-loving heroine, Mrinmoyee, was what people might call an eternal tomboy. She grew up playing cricket in the mud, bringing all kinds of unidentified insects back home and discovered joy in the simplest facets of nature. Thus, when her marriage was arranged to Amulya, a graduate from Kolkata returning to his village on vacation, she naturally refused to cave. With rebellious acts like cutting off her hair before the wedding and refusing to see the groom during the entire ceremony, Mrinmoyee did anything she could to stop those who tried to extinguish the fire of her personality. Following her marriage, she refused to sleep with her husband and would often run away from home to seek solace in nature by climbing trees or making friends with little birds. On the night of her wedding, she found her way down to her favourite spot by the bank and reunited with her pet squirrel, Chorky, and celebrated her liberation from a forced marriage by swinging in the moonlight.
Mrinal, Strir Patra
Mrinal says, “I am not just the youngest daughter-in-law of your house. I am me... It took me 15 years to understand the position of women in your house and your society... I want to breath freely now.” Through Mrinal, Tagore described a woman who wasn't afraid to choose herself before her husband and his family, despite oppression from society towards her bold nature and her decision to become a writer and create an independent life for herself.
Possibly one of the most powerful portrayals of a woman calling out the evils of patriarchy, A Wife's Letter tells the story of a young woman who leaves her husband after his family forces her sister-in-law's younger sister into an abusive marriage that leads to the latter immolating herself to escape it. After several years of watching the hypocritical treatment meted out by his family towards those of the lower caste, the pressure they inflicted on her to be a perfect mother and wife, and finally their love for the superficial at the cost of human emotions and relationships, Mrinal leaves her husband and takes refuge in an island. She sends him a letter explaining that he attempted to kill her passions, and talents, treated her as an accessory, and never stood up for the wrongs his family did to her, and thus lost her respect a long time ago.
She is a fearless and an independent woman who, in a scene, speaks out against mistreatment by the British. Her father breaks off her marriage on the wedding day due to the groom's (Anupam) uncle's greed. Anupam witnesses these years after the wedding cancellation and is ridden with guilt upon realising he did not speak up against his uncle's poor behaviour. He asks for Kalyani's hand in marriage once again, however she rejects the proposal and explains, “After the wedding was broken, I found the real goal in my life. I found a new direction. I am responsible for hundreds of orphan girls. The smiles on their faces have given a new meaning to my life. I am complete now. Now there is no space for any relationship in my life. And neither do I require it.”
All of these women have one thing in common which is their rejection of the subordinate status of women in Bengali society. Tagore's portrayal of women is very intricate and detailed, he did not simply portray them as a damsel in distress, the angel of the house or as an evil temptress. His women were layered and presented a more nuanced personality.
On the basis of his heroines, it's seen how Tagore strived to be a feminist in the truest sense, empowering his heroines to fight for an equal status amongst the throes of 19th century patriarchy.