The less known side of Tagore: His stories and feminism

Rabindranath and his gamut of female characters, bold, feisty and definitely leagues ahead of their times, have been attributed by several readers and critics alike to the tapestry of colorful women in whose midst Tagore spent a major portion of his life. The exuberance of his sister-in-law Gnadanandini Devi, the loneliness of his bosom friend Kadambari Debi, the innocence of his wife Mrinalini Debi and the fierce creative spirit of his niece Indira Debi. Innocence and pathos is found in the platonic relationship that Ratan shares with the eponymous Postmaster, and the sudden albeit tragic turn of events that causes the two to be separated is considered to be a landmark in not only Bengali literature but also in the study of child psychology in Indian literature. Soon after Tagore tread on familiar ground by exploring a young girls’, fiendish and a truant by nature, penchant for romance in his seminal short story Samapti. In Mrinmayees’ decision to assert herself in the face of a society that expects its young women to silently garland a stranger as their husband and her refusal to be embraced on nothing short of her own personal terms was perhaps the foundation of Tagore’s widely acclaimed novel Chokher Bali.

Chokher Bali while reminiscent of the relationship shared by two women and a common man, as previously seen in Malancha, took Tagore’s advocacy of womens rights to another level. Here we find, the protagonist Binodini not only stand up for the rights and dignity denied unto her but also asserts her sexual desires and emotional needs in the face of a society that branded young widowed girls on the cusp of youthful blossom, as hated outcasts. The novel soon takes the shape of an intense love quadrangle as Binodini juggles the the impulses of flesh and heart and is brought to question the very bonds that define friendship between two women. Perhaps it was in the much talked about loneliness of his Notun Bouthan, that Tagore also found the seeds of inspiration that later blossomed into Nastanirh, where the wife of a rich household feels stifled and suppressed by the lack of affection in her marriage. The isolation of the soul here becomes a metaphor for creativity, whose eventual expression becomes a further enabler in pushing Chaity, the heroine towards the brink of a forbidden love. Not only was writing about such interpersonal and deeply feminine relationships considered path breaking but Tagore knew better than to stop here. He furthered his vision of the empowered, independent, modern woman by birthing characters such as the polyamorous and patriotic Damini in Chaturanga; Mrinal in Streer Patra who unlike her elder sister in law doesn’t bow down to the regressive housshold of her husband and unlike her childhood friend now a widow who chooses to commit suicide, she seeks liberation in the waves of the mighty sea in whose face she walks out once and for all from her husband’s house with not a shred of hatred for the man who she realised was only a pawn in the patriarchal conditionings of the larger society; and ultimately finishing his literary ouvre with the delicate Labanya, who in the final pages of Shesher Kobita, denounces love and breaks off her engagement with Amit, something almost unheard of in those days.

Tagore’s fascination with women didn’t just stop here but also spilled forth into his dance dramas where he immortalised the pining of Radha for Krishna, attacked the caste system by the tale of Chandalika and gave Indian literature one of its first prominent queer love stories in Chitrangada. Replete with overtly Buddhist imagery despite the deeply Hindu subject matter, Tagore approached the love story of Arjun and Chitrangada as a journey of self-realization through the complicit barriers of gender identity. The ambiguity in his words suggest that perhaps he was aware of the queer undertones in his narrative, but nonetheless the play eventually sparked off various debates and received mighty aplomb for its ferocious assertion of human identity.

Editor’s Note: Today is Rabindranath Tagore’s death anniversary and here we have talked about his women characters, their bold and fierce nature. We hope to get inspired from such beautiful characters and become better people.

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