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Living under a shadow: Tales of the daughters of Rabindranath Tagore

In spite of their education and a stalwart father, Rabindranath Tagore’s daughters were married young and faced severe gender bias. Author Aruna Chakravarti unravels their story

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Oct 27, 2016 19:25 IST
Soma Das
Daughters of Jorasanko
An archival photo of the Tagore family: (On left) The eldest son Rathindranath and youngest daughter Meera; (On right) daughter-in-law Protima and eldest daughter Madhurilata(HT file photo )

In spite of their education and a stalwart father, Rabindranath Tagore’s daughters were married young and faced severe gender bias. Author Aruna Chakravarti unravels their story

As a Bengali child growing up in Delhi, author Aruna Chakravarti (now 77) would be told stories of the Tagore household. But they would mostly revolve around the Nobel Prize-winning poet and author Rabindranath Tagore, or of Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Services (ICS).

Rabindranath Tagore during a reading session (Photo: Getty Images)

Chakravarti became curious about the women in the household. “I thought someone should research the contribution of the Tagore women. They would have also impacted the lives of people,” she says.

Read: ‘My hardships made me more sympathetic to writing about such times’: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

In 2013, she wrote Jorasanko, a semi-fictional novel that revolved around the Tagore family during the Bengal Renaissance (a cultural movement from the 19th to early 20th century that ushered modern thinking).

The book highlighted the role played by Jnanadanandini Tagore (wife of Satyendranath) in breaking away from the antarmahal (women’s quarter) to accompany her husband on his postings, opting for a nuclear household, and teaching Bengali women to wear a Parsi-style sari with a jacket and chemise (as blouse and petticoat). Other characters that stand out are of Kadambari Devi (wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore) who helped Rabindranath hone his poetic skills, and Rabindranath’s wife, Mrinalini, who sold her jewellery to fund Vishva Bharati University in Santiniketan.

Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi with Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan (HT file photo)

Testing times

Chakravarti is now releasing a sequel to the book. Titled Daughters of Jorasanko, it revolves around Tagore’s daughters, nieces, and muses. The book focuses on the professional achievements of the Bengali bard between 1902 and 1941 — when he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and set up Vishva Bharati University — interspersed with personal tragedies during that span.

“There was a lot of glamour on the surface, but a lot of pain, melancholia, and madness running in the Tagore household. It was a characteristic of Bengali aristocratic families,” says Chakravarti.

Despite being a modern thinker, Tagore had his daughters Renuka, Madhurilata and Meera married before they turned 15. Their subsequent unhappiness would make Tagore regret this decision for the rest of his life.

The poet also witnessed a number of deaths in his immediate family: his wife passed away at the age of 25, he lost his young son, Shami, to cholera, and daughter, Renuka, to consumption. Also central to the book are his muses: Ranu Adhikari, a young girl of 12, who prompted him to write love poems, and Victoria Ocampo, a 35-year-old Argentine writer who inspired him, and looked after him when he was in Argentina.

(From left) Author Aruna Chakravarti; the book cover of Daughters of Jorasanko

Between the lines

Taught to read and write Bengali and English, the Tagore women (daughters and daughter-in-laws) were encouraged to write for the family journals — Bharati and Baalok (for children). “Since it was a family journal, the women couldn’t really speak against anyone, or fully express themselves. But one can read between the lines to understand aspects to their personality. For instance, Kadambari Devi was prone to self-doubt. So, despite having a poetic sensibility, she never wrote for the journals.”

And despite the education, and relative prosperity, women had few rights in those times, which made their suffering all the more intense: “They were exposed to a modern world, but were expected to lead a traditional life and not pursue a career,” says Chakravarti.

While writing the novels, Chakravarti faced a challenge due to the lack of information. “I would read many books to perhaps find one reference about a character,” says Chakravarti. She spent almost three years researching the book.

Don’t hold your breath for a trilogy, though. Chakravarti says that with Daughters…, she has exhausted all the major characters of the Tagore family.

Daughters of Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti will be out on November 2.
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Price: Rs 399