Whenever we hear the surname Tagore, our minds drift to the Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Truth be told, the entire Tagore family, or what we Bengalis call Thakur poribaar were stalwarts of their time, and each contributed to society in one way or another. During British rule, they were one of the most influential families and played a key role in the Bengali renaissance.
When I first came across the Thakur poribaar, I was five. For most, it began with listening to a Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s poems-turned-songs). However, I was introduced to the family with a quite different person: Jnanadanandini Devi, the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s elder brother. Flipping through the dusty pages of my ma’s old books, she introduced me to Devi for the first time.
“She was so strong,” ma always said. Jnanada, as Bengalis often call her, was my original feminist icon, and to say she was strong is putting it mildly. As ma would read to me what Jnanada had done during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.
During the 19th century, the attitude of Bengal towards its women was misogynistic, restrictive, and immensely sexist, even for the 1800s. People were extremely conservative, and women were forced to obey their husbands and never express their own ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Throughout their lives (from their marriage which happened even before the age of ten) until their death, they were forced to live entrapped within the four walls of their quarters, unable to even go out for a walk.
Such was the condition of Bengal women, and Devi took it upon herself to trailblaze change.
As ma would read to me what Jnanada had achieved during her life, a feeling of power would flood through me. It was foreign, yet familiar.
At the mere age of seven, thanks to child marriage, Jnanadanandini Devi married Satyendranath Tagore. Although education was not commonplace for women during the 19th century, Devi’s family exposed her to education and learned to explore the world beyond what she already knew. However, said exploration was confined to books because of the purdah system.
But this setback didn’t stop Devi from breaking free of society’s confinements.
To receive probationary training for his Indian Civil Service, Tagore set out to England while Devi stayed home. When he returned, the couple moved to Bombay (present-day Mumbai) where Devi plunged into educating herself. She even took a solo trip to England, at a time when a woman walking out of the house was unheard of. She transferred this change of environment to Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), which shifted the condition of the women.
Devi was the first woman from Bengal who crossed the Abarodh, or the purdah system. She started on the first thing that identified women as second-class citizens: how they dressed. During the 19th century, it was tradition to wear the sari differently, in an uncomfortable way that restricted movement. Women always had to wrap themselves up (quite literally) and drape a ghomta over their faces so that they weren’t visible to others (think wings for Handmaids in Gilead, but longer).
Inspired by Parsi style, Jnanada created a new technique for draping the sari with pleats over the left shoulder and tucked in the waist. With this more comfortable style, women could finally move freely. She added a blouse and petticoat to offer an elegant look. Advertising this in Bamabodhini Patrika, she inspired and taught other women to wear the sari the Brahmika way.
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Devi was also a pioneer of literature and the arts. She wrote multiple articles for Bharati, and wrote about the patriotism and freedom that every Indian deserved. She wrote, “every benefit that the British have bestowed upon us is a blow to our mission of national liberation” in her article Ingrajninda O Deshanurag (Criticism of the British and Patriotism).
In 1885, she published a children’s magazine called Balak. She wrote two plays, Takdumadum and Saat Bhai Champa, both of which are considered irreplaceable in today’s Bengali literature. If these accomplishments were not rebellious enough, she also took part in multiple plays like Raja O Rani, written by Rabindranath. She also urged the women of the Tagore family to partake in these plays. Not surprisingly, she received waves of criticism from journals and society, but that never broke her independent spirit. Before her death in 1941, she even wrote a few memoirs that were published as Smritikatha O Puratani, carving an ultimate mark in the women’s literature spectrum.
By this point in her life, she’d made a name for herself, but it still wasn’t enough for members of her family to give her the respect she deserved. Debendranath Tagore, Devi’s father-in-law, didn’t approve of her independent spirit, which caused disruptions in the family. So in 1868, she left the Jorashanko house to live in a mansion by herself. Even though Devi and her father-in-law lived close by, they never interacted, which was unimaginable in those days. Living against tradition, she moved out with her husband and children and set an example to the rest of Bengal (take that, Debendranath).
Even though she came from a very privileged and influential background, Jnanadanandini Devi went above and beyond to spark change. For a woman in Bengali society, existence was like a prison, and Devi confronted that head-on. Today in most countries, the female experience has come a long way since Devi’s time, but there are still issues that must be addressed. The word “no” never thwarted her, and Devi’s story reminds us that when it comes to defending what’s right, nothing can make us give up.
To read more about the evolution of women’s roles in Bengal, read The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 by Meredith Borthwick.
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