Some time in 19th century Kolkata, an almost historic confluence of minds took place. No, this wasn’t the beginning of the famed Bengal Renaissance, but of another revolution that was born, both literally and metaphorically, out of sight. That is the remarkable story that’s captured in Women of the Tagore Household, Chitra Deb’s now classic account of the lives of women in the inner sanctum of the Tagore household—translated in English by Smita Chowdhry and Sona Roy, academics both.
The first family of culture in Kolkata through much of the 19th and 20th centuries is, obviously, best known for its most famous son, Rabindranath Tagore. Fortunately, Deb is not blinded by his brilliance. With single-minded focus, she reels off story after story, anecdote after anecdote, milestone after milestone, to establish the incredible achievements of the women of the Tagore family.
It wasn’t just the daughters but also the daughters-in-law who flew the flag of freedom and rebellion. Telling tales that span more than a century and include both those who were born Tagores and those who married Tagores, Deb’s slice of family and social history—rendered into English with loving fidelity—lifts the veil on events and initiatives that can scarcely be believed in the context of the period.
It isn’t actually easy to imagine such a collection of feisty women under a single roof—so to speak—who knew their minds and were eager and willing to fight for their rights. Not surprisingly, most of the accounts are of “deviant” behaviour. There was Saudamini, who went to school. There was Sudakshina, adept at riding and shooting, who ran her husband’s zamindari after his death. There was Sushama, who wanted to travel rather than marry. That all of them got their way, the book reveals, had everything to do with their determination, though it didn’t come without support and help from the Tagore men.
Women of the Tagore Household: Penguin, 640 pages, Rs499.
Not every struggle was for operational freedom, of course. The practice of asserting oneself in spite of being a woman practically began with Digambari, wife of “Prince” Dwarkanath Tagore, who discovered her husband giving up his orthodox Hindu ways to wine, dine and perhaps womanize too in the company of the British. Instead of whining or sulking, she consulted priests on whether she should forsake him or join him in his merry ways. Their advice, which she followed with a tremendous display of will: Take care of your husband no matter what the circumstances, but don’t share his bed.
All the legends are in here, of course: Jnanadanandini Devi, who not only gave the Bengali woman a more practical way to wear their saris, but also travelled abroad alone with her child; Swarnakumari Devi, the first Tagore to be a successful writer; Indira Devi Chaudhurani, the first woman from the family to graduate and a translator of French literature. But so too is a succession of other women brought to public attention for the first time through Deb’s books, each of their feats as jaw-drop-worthy as the next—for instance, Sarala, who composed a Western score for one of Rabindranath’s poems, or Pragyasundari, the first fusion cook.
An outstanding work of research in the manner in which the lives of scores of women are detailed, this book is a dramatic document of struggle. Against male prejudice, against the denial of the right to be educated. To act, to travel. So fascinating are the individual tales that you wish they had been placed on a calendar as well so as to identify the larger backdrop (some compensation, however, comes in the form of more than 100 marvellous pages of family trees).
Thankfully, Rabindranath Tagore himself is one among a cast of hundreds, more prominent than the rest only in his artistic influence. In the powerful position in the arts occupied by men of the Tagore family, it’s easy to forget the women. And yet, Deb’s chronicle seems to suggest, theirs might actually prove to be the stronger legacy.
Arunava Sinha is the translator of Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl, of Sankar’s Chowringhee and The Middleman, and of Moti Nandy’s Striker, Stopper.
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