Review: The Bard and his Sister-in-Law by Mallika Sengupta - Hindustan Times
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Review: The Bard and his Sister-in-Law by Mallika Sengupta

ByShoma A Chatterji
Apr 02, 2024 03:15 PM IST

While the title makes it seem like the book is about the relationship between the young Rabindranath Tagore and Kadambari, his beautiful sister-in-law, this is actually the story of the women of the Tagore household at Jorasanko in Calcutta

Written originally in Bengali, The Bard and his Sister-in-Law (Kabir Bouthan, Ananda Publishers, 2011) grew out of the author’s academic research. Head of the Department of Sociology at a Kolkata college and an established poet, novelist and gender activist, Mallika Sengupta (1960-2011) was diagnosed with cancer during the writing of this book. She died before she could see this efficient translation by Lopamudra Banerjee.

Tales of Jorasanko: A vintage picture of Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home. (HT Photo)
Tales of Jorasanko: A vintage picture of Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home. (HT Photo)

442pp, ₹550; Black Eagle Books
442pp, ₹550; Black Eagle Books

The title makes it seem like the book’s focus in on the much-discussed relationship between the young Rabindranath Tagore and Kadambari, his beautiful sister-in-law, wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore. However, as the reader is drawn deeper into the volume, it becomes clear that this is actually the strange story of the women of the Tagore household at Jorasanko in Calcutta. It begins with Gyanada Nandini, the bride of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore’s second son, Satyendranath, returning to the household in 1866, a changed woman after living with her husband in Gujarat.

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The occupants of the Thakurbari were originally Vaishnavites, whose family deity was Lakshmi-Janardan:

“For generations, the sons and their wives had observed all the pujas and rituals with austerity. Since long, Sarada had learnt all the customs and the pooja rituals from her grandmother-in-law Alaka Sundari and her mother-in-law Digambari. But her heart and soul were in tatters when her husband Debendranath had initiated himself into Brahmo religion, rejecting all forms of idol worship. Stuck between her husband’s newly embraced religion and her years of allegiance to Hinduism and its numerous customs, she continued being bruised, battered in her heart.”

Now, the extended family was divided between those who held fast to Vaishnavism and those who decided to follow Maharshi Debendranath’s Brahmoism.

This book presents many closely held secrets of the Tagore family that are not known to even Tagore enthusiasts: like the stories about Swarnakumari, Tagore’s educated sister, and the practice of sons-in-law moving into the Thakurbari instead of the married daughters moving out. Surprisingly, despite all this, the Tagore household was extremely conservative with the women themselves perpetuating patriarchal practices even though they read lots of books brought home to them by Malini, the bookseller. The books gradually turned into a formidable library in the andar mahal of Jorasanko.

Gyanada Nandini herself slowly got “Anglicised”, learnt to drape her sari in neat pleats, to pin up her pallu and wear shoes and socks. Gradually, even “jackets”, now known as blouses, were paired with the sari.

Rabindranath Tagore with French author, intellectual and fellow Nobel laureate, Romain Rolland in Paris in a picture (most probably) dated 19 April 1921. (HT Photo)
Rabindranath Tagore with French author, intellectual and fellow Nobel laureate, Romain Rolland in Paris in a picture (most probably) dated 19 April 1921. (HT Photo)

The book’s title is slightly deceptive because it is not just about the close friendship between Rabindranath and Kadambari but much more about the many women in the huge Tagore household about whom little is known. According to this book, contrary to popular belief, Kadambari loved Jyotirindranath dearly and her affinity for her young brother-in-law was influenced by her husband’s great affection for him. Deeply impressed by the poetry of Vidyapati and Chandidas, the younger Tagore would often repeat their writings and then change the tunes or the words or both, which his brother greatly admired. Jyotirindranath loved everything created by his little brother, who had no interest in academic studies but was devoted to literature. According to this book, the marriage actually began to deteriorate in England, where Jyotirindranath slowly turned cold towards his wife and she began suspecting him of having affairs with other women. Did she take her own life because of her husband’s complete indifference towards her even as he depended, emotionally and otherwise, on his sister-in-law Gyanada Nandini?

While Kadambari’s suicide is usually linked to Rabindranath’s impending wedding to Mrinalini, the focus of this book keeps returning to Gyanada Nandini. The reader learns that though she was married to Satyendranath, she was also close to his younger brother, Jyotirindranath. When the latter married Kadambari, the sisters-in-law came in conflict, with the younger woman being constantly belittled for her failure to produce offspring.

Author Mallika Sengupta (Courtesy https://universitypublication.in/)
Author Mallika Sengupta (Courtesy https://universitypublication.in/)

The book goes beyond providing detailed descriptions of the lives of the women of the Thakurbari. It covers the evolution in their dress and fashion sense, changes in food habits, their travels to Gujarat, Bombay and abroad, and their sex lives. While, at first, the women did not step out of the “andar mahal” or inner house, with time, many emerged to dance at parties, drink alcohol – much to the chagrin of traditional Bengali society – and even travelled beyond Indian shores. Most of the book’s 19 chapters are titled after women or after female adjectives like Bioyini or Birohini. These are stories of different women, which, taken together, provide a history of the Tagore women across three or four generations.

In his endorsement, the poet Subodh Sarkar says the book is “a mosaic of history and hysteria, elan and illusions, pathos and power” – a fitting description indeed of Kabir Bouthan and its English translation too.

Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.

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