Rabindranath Tagore was not a feminist. Sati Chatterjee, retired professor of English at Jadavpur University, makes the assertion in the same breath in which she talks of some of his strident women —Malati of Sadharon Meye and Chitrangada, the warrior-princess.
Delivering the Mrs Sukhnandan Bhagat Memorial Lecture at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture on Tuesday on Tagore’s women, Chatterjee starts with how the woman who describes herself to be “of ordinary substance” yearns for a female character in a novel who would top MA at the university and get the highest marks in mathematics, a bastion of male intelligence and considered an impossible achievement for women.
“Both Malati and Chitrangada are feminist figures before their time. But ideologically Tagore believed in the comely, nurturing iconicity (‘kalyani rup’) of women.”
Chatterjee, who has prepared a two-volume concordance of Tagore’s epistles, cites two letters which underline this belief.
In April 1933, he had written to Ramananda Chattopadhyay how the social structure in the West had been disturbed by women going out of home and becoming economically independent. “He was for the division of labour — man going out and earning, and women spending judiciously while looking after the affairs at home.”
In another letter in 1910 to Labanyalekha Chakraborty, he talks of his hopes that his new daughter-in-law Pratima, a remarried widow, would administer a loving, healing touch to the family, that she would be “above all but beneath everybody” and he would see “a benign motherhood” in her.
He was alive to the brutal injustice and inequities in the system. The stories in Galpaguchchha revolve around women in vulnerable social positions.
Nirupama, the sensitive girl in Dena Paona who was humiliated to death as her father did not pay the dowry in full, Kadambini of Jibito O Mrito who has to die to prove she had not died before....
“He even exposes the process in which women turn into instruments of tyranny and enemies of other women,” Chatterjee points out. Mrinal in Streer Patra shelters the helpless Bindu but her elder sister-in-law forces Bindu to go back to the mentally unstable man she had been married off to.
In Yogayog, Kumu has been brought up by her liberal brother Bipradas to read Kalidas verses and even play chess, a male dominion of intellectual exercise. But a gender conflict ensues when she gets married to Madhusudan, with Shyamasundari, the elder sister-in-law, employing clever stratagems to stoke their conjugal differences.
The widowed sister-in-law in Ghare Baire watches Bimala’s modernisation process with a deep sense of self-pity and envy. “Deprivation, Tagore observes, kills finer sensibilities, breeds depravity and helps perpetuate the rot,” she says.
Often, the women succumb — like Niraja’s mind does to her ailing body in Malancha or Kumu when she has to return from her brother’s side to a triumphant Madhusudan on discovering her pregnancy.
But Tagore’s vision is not always bleak. In Raktakarabi, he makes Nandini the messenger of liberation while Sudarshana’s errors in Raja pave the way to the attainment of Truth. Then there are the post-modern Labanya of Shesher Kabita and Damini of Chaturanga, who reaches a point of self-discovery by realising that her unrequited love for Sachish is a treasure of her own. She describes it as a dowry that she brings in her marriage to Sribilas.
“Shesher Kabita delivers the final message in a man-woman relationship which teaches one to stand aside for the sake of love. Yet when the moment of liberty arrives, Amit hesitates and it is Labanya who returns the ring and makes space for the exquisitely lyrical poem Kaler Jatraddhwani shunitey ki pao. Amit stays silent all through. Tagore leaves it to women to blossom with effortless grace. Finally, they hold the key.”