Rabindranath Tagore: An Unlikely Feminist by Matthew Schumacher

“On the night of the wedding, when Mira went to the bathroom, a cobra reared up with hood fully blown – today I think if it had struck her, this would have been for the best.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, “Tagore’s Letters, A Beacon for Biographers”

These words were written in 1919 by Rabindranath Tagore in a letter to his son. With a lens to Tagore’s personal life, the letter demonstrates the evolution of his attitude towards women. Tagore expresses shame that he arranged his daughter Mira’s marriage when she was very young: “I dealt the first blow in her life—without proper thought and consideration I arranged her marriage” (qtd in Dutta 2). Tagore then relates how Mira, unhappy, came to him to ask whether she should return to her husband, and he concludes that it might have been better if she had died on her wedding night. Tagore’s literature further demonstrates the evolution of his views regarding women. His early works feature romanticized, idealized female characters, but Tagore’s successively more liberal attitudes toward woman are illustrated by many of his later short stories and novels. Indeed, he uses his early short story “Punishment” (1892) to encourage reform for Indian women, often caught between the twin patriarchal systems of British colonialism and Indian nationalism. He creates the character of Chandara to compel India to reject these patriarchal systems.

In “Punishment,” Tagore presents the story of Chandara, a woman pressured to take the blame when her sister-in-law, Radha, is murdered by her own husband, Dukhiram. Tagore draws us into this tragic story with evocative descriptions of a desperate, suffocating landscape. He describes a brimming river, “flat and sinister under the mounting clouds” (Puchner 893) and further foreshadows tragedy with hints that even the environment is out of hand. Everything is either flooded or overgrown with roots sticking up “like helpless hands clawing at the air for a last finger hold” (Puchner 893). The strongly connotative descriptions of Tagore’s characters in “Punishment” reflect his goal of writing a socially realistic story; these are not happy, romanticized rural people. After a day full of “toil and humiliation” under the zamindar landlord system, the brothers, “raging with hunger,” return to a “dark, joyless, foodless house” where Chandara had “wept buckets in the afternoon, but had now given way to sultry exhaustion,” and Radha sits on the veranda “sullenly” (Puchner 893-894). Tagore’s vivid word choices build tension in the plot. Radha “explodes,” “shrieking out,” “like a spark on a sack of gunpowder,” at Dukhiram’s “gruff” demand for food, and Dukhiram, who “roared, like a furious tiger,” snaps and kills her (Puchner 893-894). An important villager, Ramlochan, happens onto the murder scene when he comes to collect overdue rent. He questions Chandara’s husband, Chidam, who panics, claiming Chandara murdered Radha: “Chidam’s only thought was to escape from the terrible truth . . . a reply to Ramlochan’s question had come instantly to mind, and he had blurted it out” (Puchner 894). This escalation of tension, brilliantly evidenced by Tagore’s portrayal of the plodding and miserable lives of the brothers and their wives, leads to one of the more illuminating scenes in the story, in which Tagore’s omniscient narrator delves into psychological realism.

Oblivious that he had actually struck upon the truth, Ramlochan suggests that Chidam should save Chandara by telling the police that his brother, Dukhiram, had struck the killing blow because his wife did not have dinner ready. Chidam replies, “Thäkur, if I lose my wife I can get another, but if my brother is hanged, how can I replace him?” (Puchner 895). With this scene, Tagore presents a scathing comment on Indian society. Educated, affluent Ramlochan, “the village’s chief source of advice in legal matters” (Puchner 895), suggests indirectly that the British colonial police might be lenient toward a husband who murders his wife when she fails to fulfill her societal obligation to have dinner ready in a timely fashion. Furthermore, Chidam’s words point out the shame of a society which sees women as replaceable objects. This scene appears to mirror Tagore’s own disquiet with both the British colonial system and Indian nationalist movements which supported feudalistic practices. As Guha states in Makers of Modern India, “He was no apologist for colonial rule; after British soldiers fired on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar in 1919 he returned his knighthood to the King” (Guha 171). However, as Guha goes on to state, Tagore was also “dismayed by the xenophobic tendencies of the populist edge of the Indian national movement,” and thought that “India had much to learn from other cultures, including, (but not restricted to) the West” (Guha 171). With the scene between Ramlochan and Chidam, Tagore clearly “expresses frustration at the marginalization of women in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society” (Alum 221), as he does in later poems such as “An Ordinary Woman”: “I realize that it is my fate to be frustrated / and to be defeated” (Alum 283). Certainly, Tagore further critiques Indian and colonial British society in the court scene, in which it is obvious that neither Chandara nor poor murdered Radha will get a fair trial.

For instance, Chidam pressures Chandara to falsely confess in court, ultimately resulting in her execution, though both brothers had by that time confessed the true sequence of events to the British magistrate. Before the execution, when asked if she would like to see her husband, Chandara says “death to him” (Puchner 895). Here Tagore subtly and ironically refers to an earlier scene in the story in which Chidam wonders “if it would be better if she were dead” (Puchner 896). A contrast to Dukhiram and Radha in every way, the attractive Chandara and Chidam are at first happy, but their jealousy drives them apart. By the time the murder takes place, the only thing binding them together is their mutual distrust. Tagore describes their dysfunctional relationship with clear irony. He says there was “mutual respect . . . neither could defeat the other” (Puchner 896). He also claims the basis for their “firm” bond was that “Chidam felt that a wife as nimble and sharp as Chandara could not be wholly trusted,” while “Chandara felt  . . . that if she didn’t bind him tightly to her she might one day lose him” (Puchner 896). In the end, as Tagore points out to us with further irony, Chidam gets to find out if it really is better for Chandara to be dead, while Chandara obstinately allows him to do so. But Tagore wants us to realize that Chandara chooses death not because she is melodramatic, but because she would rather not live as devalued property. Her own husband uses Chandara as a scapegoat for the murder of Radha and views her as replaceable. She can never go back to living in a society that would condone such abuse.  But how have the critics regarded Chandara?

Some critics might suggest that Chandara is one of Tagore’s idealized, romanticized female characters. As such, Chandara could be considered the epitome of the submissive Hindu wife, sacrificing herself for her husband. An essay by Christine Marsh ties this idea of Chandara as the self-sacrificing submissive wife to the concept of dharma (Marsh 16 – 18). In Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean, Patrick Hogan gives varied definitions of the term dharma, but put simply, dharma is a sense of duty, that which is critical for life and for one’s relationship to every other being, the basis of human nature, and the order of the universe (Hogan 214-217). In this interpretation, Chandara’s refusal to speak the truth even if it would save her is her dharma, or duty, as both a wife and a member of the family, and she has no choice but to save both her husband and his brother, the head of the family, from their own lies. Marsh also states that Chandara’s obstinance in sticking to her original story is actually figurative satidharma, or sati, as in the ancient self-sacrifice of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband; through her own sacrifice, Chandara saves her husband from both loss of his brother, and possible prosecution for perjury. Thus, Chandara’s death is religious self-sacrifice. If Chandara is angry at her husband at the end of the story, it is because she knows sacrifice is her dharma as a good Hindu wife, and there is no way out of it (Marsh 16-18). But, notwithstanding such theories, I contend that Chandara’s actions appear to illustrate her defiance, not her submission.  Undoubtedly, the evolution of Tagore’s body of work away from the idealization of women’s lives to more realistic feminine portrayals strongly supports this conclusion.

To understand how Tagore advanced from the depiction of romantic, idealized female characters to portraying strong females like Chandara, one must understand a bit about his background. Born during the rigidly patriarchal Victorian era of British colonial India, Tagore came from a wealthy, exceptional Brahman family. His mother died when he was fourteen, but his father, a founder of the reformist religion Brahmo Samaj, stressed the education of his children, even his daughters. While the Tagore children were schooled in Indian tradition, history, and literature, they were also exposed to western culture. Several of them attained great success in their chosen fields (Alum 2 – 3). In the journal Prospects, Jha states: “His brothers and sisters were poets, musicians, playwrights and novelists and the Tagore home was thus filled with musical, literary and dramatic pursuits” (1). Consequently, Tagore grew up with wealthy, strong, educated women who were not as marginalized as other Indian women. In fact, Alum states, the success of Tagore’s sister, Swarnakumari, the first female Bengali novelist, “indicates the impact of modernization on some upper-class Bengali Hindu women” (3). In her book, “Women of the Tagore Household,” Chitra Deb claims that “even in his later years, Rabindranath always turned to the women in his family when trying to give shape to his ideas on music, dance, and drama” (qtd in “When Rabindranath Tagore Turned “). Of course, Tagore’s character, Chandara, could never have hoped for such an affluent way of life or such resounding success. Nevertheless, Tagore’s sisters were still subject to constraints put on them by their caste and Victorian society, as well as those imposed by British law.

Similarly, Rabindranath’s literary influences at this time were largely traditional and romantic. His elder brother, Jyotirindranath, was his greatest familial influence; he was a painter, musician, news editor, and theatrical producer. Rabindranath did not have much of a formal education, being educated mostly at home by his father, elder siblings and various tutors. He followed his own interests as he grew into his teenage years. People began to recognize his literary talents; by the time he was thirteen, he had published a poem in a local newspaper. Throughout his teens, he published more songs and poems, and acted in his first stage play (Alam 2-3). Rabindranath later stayed with his brother Satyendranath and Satyendranath’s wife and child in Bristol, England, in order to study English literature at University College London. He did not graduate, but returned to India in 1880 where he began writing and composing prolifically (Alum 4 – 5). As Alum states, Tagore’s time in England substantially influenced his writing: “. . . for he would often mingle western musical elements with Bengali forms and reveal the influence of the English Romantic and Victorian poets in his lyrics” (5). As Alum further points out, Tagore began writing “when poetry was gripped by the epic mode in Bengal and by late romantic or early pre-Raphaelite poetic styles” (220). For instance, there are echoes of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in the ballad-like lines of his poem, “Urvashi,” a romantic ode to a goddess, first published in a collection called “The Fugitive” in 1921:

You are the first break on the crest
of heaven’s slumber, Urvashi, you thrill
the air with unrest. The world bathes
your limbs in her tears; with colour of
her heart’s blood are your feet red;
lightly you poise on the wave-tossed
lotus of desire, Urvashi; you play forever
in that limitless mind wherein
labours God’s tumultuous dream. (Tagore 15)

In another early poem, “Stan” (1886), Tagore pens a romantic tribute to idealized womanhood: “A woman’s love stems from a soft heart, / Budding in youth, it’s nurtured by her spring, / Coming to blossom in all its loveliness, / It maddens the soul with its heavenly scent!” (Tagore 227). Certainly, Tagore’s early romantic predilections are readily apparent, as are the subsequent life experiences which transitioned him from writing romantic poems like “Uravashi” or “Stan” to writing the short story, “Punishment.

During this early period, when he was twenty-two, Rabindranath’s father arranged a marriage for him to Mrinalini Devi, who was only ten years old. Despite being an arranged marriage, over time it proved to be a successful union. They had two sons and three daughters, and Mrinalini was intellectually involved in almost everything Tagore did until she died in 1902 (Alam 6). This relationship foreshadows Tagore’s evolving views on women as individuals with ambitions rather than being simply slaves to the domestic sphere. That Tagore trusted Mrinalini enough to collaborate with him on his personal projects shows that Tagore thought of her as an intellectual equal. His early idealized female characters, part of his romantic period, eventually gave way to the modernism and realism of characters such as Chandara. The suicide of his sister-in-law, Kadambari, with whom he had an intensely personal relationship (Alum 6), may have also awakened him to the unjustly low expectations of colonial Indian women, contributing to his later characterizations.

Another experience significantly influenced his developing views. In 1890, Tagore’s father sent him to manage the family estates in East Bengal. In The Essential Tagore, Alam states, “It will be no exaggeration to say that the experience changed him decisively” (7). For the first time, Tagore saw how common, rural Indians lived. This experience changed not only his business and personal life, but his literature as well. Alum says, “His verse now was steeped in his awareness of the natural world, while his short fiction and prose took a turn way from romance, history, and legend to focus on the quotidian” (7). He began to use colloquial language and humble characters. Most importantly, he began to give women a true voice in his work, rather than to just portray them as romantic figures. In the journal Asiatic, Bharati Ray states,     “. . . he had learned to situate women in their real worlds, to see them as reasoning and desiring subjects who were constrained by social rules and norms” (73). Also, though he became deeply involved in education as well as the Nationalist movement during this period, he began to concentrate upon writing short fiction (Alum 7). As Mary Lago says in Rabindranath Tagore, “Bengali literary historians generally agree that in their literature the modern short story begins with Tagore’s stories of the 1890’s” (1). Tagore’s short stories of this period undoubtedly define the evolution of Tagore’s female characters from romanticism to gritty realism.

The short story, “Punishment,” vividly reflects the epiphany caused by Tagore’s time as a landlord in East Bengal. Chidham and Dukhiram Rui represent lowly Hindu males caught up in the zamindar, or landlord, system. They toil for very little pay, and are often forced into unpaid labor. Tagore acknowledges the desperation of their situation: “They were not paid normal laborer’s wages; indeed they were paid mainly in insults and sneers” (Puchner 893). They are exhausted and humiliated by the time they return home. Dukhiram’s suppressed rage finally erupts; his wife, Radha, bears the brunt of it, and is killed. But Tagore also recognizes the plight of the women in this tale; by tradition, Chandara and Radha are bound together in their poor home. They have very little money and status. Since Chandara is the younger wife, she has the least status of all in the family. Radha and Chandara also have to put up with the frustration and anger of their husbands. Higher caste Indian men at least had some wealth and status, though they still felt emasculated by having no power in their own country because of British rule (Dayal 182-183). Chandara and Radha’s low caste husbands do not even have power over their own work day, while their wives, stuck at home under a traditional family dynamic, have no control at all. Tagore points out that it is women who ultimately bear the brunt of this oppressive system. He illustrates that poverty and oppression, while hard on everyone, is undeniably manifest in the plight of women. Speaking through Chandara, Tagore rejects the cycle of oppression, sexual discrimination and misogyny inherent in paternalistic societies.

By the time Tagore wrote “Punishment,” India’s various nationalist movements were fervently protesting almost three hundred years of rule by the British Empire. Under British rule, some practices such as sati were banned. For many years, Indian males and their organizations, such as Debendranath Tagore’s Brahmo Samaj, also worked to prohibit cruel traditions (Robb 238). Nationalism was not always favorable to feminist causes, though the majority of nationalist movements, including many women, worked hard to better women’s lives. As Robb points out in A History of India, “Women have always been labeled and defined, but increasingly the colonial literature presented Indian women as a single oppressed or vulnerable class” (238). Some nationalist males, resentful of British allegations, began to stress traditional patriarchal values, the rejection of anything British, and the romanticizing of womanhood as a symbol of nationalist fervor (Dayal 182-183). Already disillusioned because of nationalist violence, Tagore saw the dangers inherent in these nationalist tactics. As Dayal states in Tagore’s Passionate Politics of Love, “if the colonizer had deprecated Indian men as inadequately masculine and had sought to “protect” Indian women from Indian men, the nationalists also misused women in their struggle for self-affirmation” (183). Women’s issues were often pushed into the background, as “the discourses of imperialism and nationalism became increasingly intertwined as each sought to gain control over the representations of the Indian woman” (Warhol-Down and Price 395).

In “Punishment,” one can see the influence of both empire and nationalism. Chandara must be tried by the British magistrate, a rigid system heavily biased by class and gender, which gives more weight to the testimony of British men first, higher class Indians like Ramlochan second, then to men in general before that of women. In “The Body Evidencing the Trial,” Kolsky explains, “Indian women faced a twofold challenge in colonial courtrooms . . . not only were they subjected to British legal presumptions about false charges, they also had to contend with specifically colonial ideas about the unreliability of native witnesses and other prejudicial ideas about Indian culture” (111).  For instance, when Chandara confesses to the British Deputy Magistrate, making no excuses for her crime, Chidam breaks down in the witness box: “I swear to you, sir, my wife is innocent” (Puchner 897). Upon being questioned by the magistrate, he starts to tell the true story. However, the magistrate still puts more weight on the testimony of Ramlochan, “the chief, most trustworthy, most educated witness” (Puchner 897), who testifies that Chidam asked him how to save Chandara. Ironically, Ramlochan then lies, saying that Chidam came up with a plan to say Dukhiram killed Radha, when actually Ramlochan himself originally suggested the plan. Ramlochan is self-righteous and devious: “I said, ‘Be careful, you rogue, don’t say a single false word in court—there’s no worse offense than that’” (Puchner 897). This statement is deeply ironic; Ramlochan’s main thought is to protect himself, while the British court system is complicit in the deceit by unfairly giving more weight to his testimony. Possibly, Tagore is cleverly using Ramlochan’s testimony to evoke the self-serving attitude of some nationalist Indian males toward Indian women; just like them, Ramlochan supports Chandara’s freedom as long as it furthers his own agenda. Once threatened, he retreats and leaves Chandara to her fate.

Chandara sticks to her story, though, and in the end, she is hanged. One might wonder why Tagore neglects to mention forensic evidence such Radha’s body and the murder weapon. Kolsky states, “Due to prevalent colonial conceptions about the untrustworthiness of native witnesses, British jurists put extra emphasis on objective and reliable forms of proof in India” (111). Surely a wound made by a hulking man such as Dukhiram versus that made by a young girl such as Chandara could not be confused. Perhaps Tagore’s neglect of this evidence is not a plot flaw, but a strategy to expose the unfairness Indians were subjected to in the British colonial court system. Further evidence of unfairness is that Chandara’s case is committed to a sessions trial. According to Puchner, this type of trial is settled through a court case conducted in one continuous sitting, so it must be settled quickly, with no new investigations and evidence brought in, as might be possible in a case spread out over several days (898). This further emphasizes the low value put on the life of Chandara, and also on Radha; instead of finding out the truth, the colonial British court system prefers to get a murder trial over within one day, even though there are conflicting accounts that definitely warrant a more thorough investigation. That Tagore chooses this trial method, and ignores mention of the physical evidence, is further indication that he is stressing the low value placed on the lives of native women. In the end, when Chandara is asked if she wants to see her husband and says, “To hell with him,” or in some translations, “Death to him” (Puchner 899), she is saying the same to all patriarchal systems.

In his subsequent short stories and novels, Tagore continued to present strong female characters with unique feminist voices. He surprises the reader by offering Indian women in unexpected ways. Tagore’s female characters show their ambition, their intellect, even their sexual desire, though not always in a positive fashion. Tagore writes them with flaws intact, not just as embodiments of traditional Indian values (Ray 73-79). Tagore’s letter regarding his daughter displays his shame of the arranged marriage, while Chandara and his strong female characters reflect his reformist goals. In his poem “Sabala” (1938), Tagore writes:

Why should you not let woman empowered be
With right to conquer her own destiny,
O Lord?  (Tagore 275)

Tagore wishes he had spoken out on behalf of his daughter to reject the feudal practice of child marriage, just as his character, Chandara, rejects her powerless life, and his later female characters take charge of their own.

Works Cited

Alam, Fakrul, and Radha Chakravarty, eds. The Essential Tagore. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2011. Print. Dayal, S. “Repositioning India: Tagore’s Passionate Politics of Love.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 15.1 (2007): 182-183. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Dutta, Krishna. “Tagore’s Letters: A Beacon for Biographers.” University of Toronto Quarterly 77.4 (Fall 2008): 2. EBSCO World History Collection. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Guha, Ramachandra, ed. “The Rooted Cosmopolitan: Rabindranath Tagore.” Makers of Modern India. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2011. 170-86. Print.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Orthodoxy and Universalism: Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean. New York: State University of New York, 2000. 214-56. Print.

Kolsky, Elizabeth. “”The Body Evidencing the Crime”: Rape on Trial in Colonial India, 1860-1947.” Gender & History 22.1 (2010): 109-30. Academic Source Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.

Lago, Mary. “Tagore’s Short Fiction.” Rabindranath Tagore. Boston: Twayne, 1976. 1-27. JSTOR Cengage Learning. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Marsh, Christine. The Village and The World: A Political Reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Prose Fiction. Diss. The Open University, 2006. Milton Keynes: Open University, 2006. TagoreanWorld. Word Press.com, 2006. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Puchner, Martin. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. E. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. Print.

Puchner, Martin. “Rabindranath Tagore. Puchner 889-892.

Ray, Bharati. “”New Woman” in Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories: An Interrogation of “Laboratory”” Asiatic 4.2 (2010): 68`-80. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Robb, Peter. A History of India. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Essential Tagore. Eds. Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2011. Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Fugitive – I.” The Fugitive,. New York: Macmillan, 1921. N. pag. The Open Library Project. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Alum, Fakrul. “Introduction.” Alam and Chakravarty 1-33.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Poems.” Alam and Chakravarty 219-487.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Stories.” Alam and Chakravarty 491-707.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Punishment.” Puchner 893-99.

Warhol-Down, Robyn, and Herndl Diane Price. “Introduction from En-Gendering India.” 2000. Feminisms Redux: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2009. 390-407. Print.

“When Rabindranath Tagore Turned.” Rev. of Women of the Tagore Household. DNA [Mumbai] 9 May 2010, PTI sec.: n. pag. DNA India. Diligent Media Corporation Ltd., May-June 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.


Matthew Schumacher was a recipient of the Stayton Scholarship in two categories in 2014.

Rabindranath Tagore: An Unlikely Feminist by Matthew Schumacher

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