By Shruti Sonal:
Like most Indians, I had grown up hearing about Tagore, reading “Where The Mind is Without Fear” in our textbooks but never really delving into the vast body of his literature. While I had memorised his name as the first Indian recipient of the Nobel Prize, I could not say the same about his stories. On the other hand, disillusioned by the lack of innovative and progressive shows on mainstream Indian television, I too had turned towards bingeing on western shows. EPIC channel changed both.
‘Stories By Rabindranath Tagore’, a bi-weekly show directed by Anurag Basu based on stories written by Tagore a century ago, shines through for its relevance and ideas far ahead of its times. What struck me the most were the female characters, so different from what I had seen before. They couldn’t be fit into black or white categories of the “sanskari bahu” or the vamp.
Here are five of Tagore’s female characters who challenged the society the lived in:
1. Binodini, ‘Chokher Bali’: The mysterious widow of Chokher Bali, played by a fiery Radhika Apte in the television adaptation, defied the norms of widowhood, refusing to curb her sexuality and thirst for love. Her entry into the household of Mahendra and Ashalata caused an upheaval. She used her wit and beauty to win Mahendra’s love before realizing that he was not worth it. Later she sought his friend Bihari who respected her for the imperfect being she was instead of her beauty.
2. Charulata, ‘A Broken Nest’: The character of Charulata married to a journalist who had no time for her, felt tied to her brother-in-law through their shared passion for music. As her husband took lightly her love for poetry and music, she eventually fell in love with her brother-in-law. Even after her husband offers moving away to start afresh, she chooses to stay behind.
3. Mrinmoyee, ‘Samapti’: The character refused to mould herself to feminity, even after marriage. One who had grown up climbing trees and playing cricket with a group of boys, couldn’t stand the thought of tying her hair and wearing jewellery. She questions why it is the girl who has to make all adjustments post marriage and even ran away twice. Her spirit is too free to be confined within the domestic walls.
4. Mrinal, ‘A Wife’s Letter’: Another character that stayed with me was that of Mrinal, who used the power of a pen to fight against society’s injustices. Unable to save her sister-in-law’s younger sister from setting herself on fire due to successive abusive marriages, she leaves her husband’s home. In a powerful letter to her husband, she accuses the society of not taking a stand against the practice of disallowing a girl to return to her home after marriage, despite the nature of the marriage itself. She also indicts him of killing her talents and passions and only seeing her as a ‘bahu‘ of the house.
5. Suman, ‘Tyaag’: The story features a marriage between a Kayastha orphan girl and a Brahmin boy through a trick played by the girl’s uncle that hid her true caste. However, after getting married, the girl refuses to build a relationship based on a lie and reveals her true identity. After initial apprehensions about “polluting” his caste, the boy proclaims that his love for his wife is more important to him than his religious ties.
A common feature in all these characters is the pride in their identity as a woman, instead of being defined as a wife, a mother or a daughter. Their rights and wrongs were not shaped by what the society expects of them. They did not leave behind their passions and hobbies after marriage and weren’t afraid to look at sources of acceptance and love apart from their marriage. They challenged the concepts of dowry, feminity, chastity of widows and honour. These characters challenge the conventions of the world as we know it even today and it was only Tagore who could create them, a century ago.