Rabindranath Tagore and the Feminine: Contemporary Perspectives — Malashree Lal


    Rabindranath Tagore should be honoured beyond his Bengali heritage and considered through his worldview, travels and his English writing. Let’s remember that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in the basis of the English Gitanjali and though Bengali readers have claimed it to be flawed translation, nevertheless it had a universal appeal then and has continued to hold a fascination  even after a century.

My interest lies in the cosmopolitan Tagore rather than his identity as a Bengali writer. Let us acknowledge that two national anthems are songs Tagore wrote: India and Bangladesh, and a third, Sri Lanka has also been found to have originated in his lyrics. His travels through many parts of South and East Asia resulted in a deep and aboding interest in Buddhism, nationalism, women’s identity in India and abroad, prominent examples of which are dance dramas such and Saapmochan and Chandalika,  stories such  as  ‘Abhisaar’, and the use of puppetry forms from Bali and Indonesia. Afghanistan remains memorable through the short story  ‘Kabuliwalah’. The Mahabharata and Ramayana in multiple versions in South Asia featured extensively in his essays, and a poem such as Karna-Kunti Samwad is memorable for the language he attributes to the mother who abandoned her child.

My talk today will cross the geographical boundaries and focus on the theme of “Rabindranath Tagore and the Feminine: Contemporary Perspectives”.  Family  influences were strong.  Born on 7 May 1861 to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi in the affluent Thakurbari of Jorasanko, Robi, the thirteenth child of his parents could not have received much individual attention. Yet, it was a populous household with many branches of the family and its many children sharing a regimented routine of education, sports, language learning, music and cultural activities. Given the environment of the Brahmo Samaj and a progressive household, some of the Tagore women became leaders of social change in Bengal—in journalism, fashion such as the modern saree, fusion cuisine, horse riding, stage performance of dance and music.     Rabindranath  passed away in 1941, a celebrity writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, a person who had returned his Knighthood in protest against the atrocities at Jalianwala Bagh, an institution builder of Shantiniketan in rural Bengal, a world figure who lived in the glare of public adulation.

From this rich and varied life, I am extracting 5 aspects of Tagore’s views on Woman.

1.     “Two kinds of women”

Rabindranath Tagore’s negotiations with the feminine were deeply problematic for himself and his times, and continue to perplex his readers today. Perhaps for that reason, one tends to return repeatedly to those teasing and unforgettable portrayals in his fiction and poetry, song and philosophy. But readers have too long trusted Tagore’s own rather simple ways of expressing his intuitively complex understanding of the feminine as a concept, a trope, and a manifestation, and not investigated the subtexts. He said for instance, “There are two kinds of women, or so I’ve heard some pundits say. One is mostly maternal. The other is the lover.” In a different mood the gender divide is dissolved and we encounter the words, “Our nature holds together, inseparably linked, a wilfully itinerant male, impatient of all bonds, and a shut-in home keeping female being....The one leads us outward, the other draws us back home.” Hence, “we are all ardhanarishvara: sometimes half and half, sometimes in unequal proportion.” Did Tagore lean towards the ‘performative’ idea of gender or the ‘normative’ and traditional one? His use of androgynous principles has received scant attention partly because they occur as subtle subversions of the patriarchal norm. Androgyny is but one example of how the subject of Tagore and the feminine commands new attention.  Tagore’s vast corpus can lead to fruitful  debates on feminism and gender identity that remain implicit throughout his work, and are relevant today. There are surprisingly candid poems on the body and sensuality, clever play with mythology, deep empathy with rural poverty and woman’s deprivation, exploration of the woman-nation equivalence, challenges to patriarchy while there are also tributes to woman’s familial role.

Maternal/ The lover/ the androgyne (Aradhanariswar). Gender as Performative 

2 Three women and some epistolary moments

Sakhi, bhalobasha kare koy! She ki keboli jatonamoy?

Se ki keboli chokher jal? Se ki keboli dukhero shvaas?

Friend, what is ‘love’? Is it always full of pain?

Is it all about tears? Are sighs its only breath?

Primarily three women have been associated with Tagore: first, Kadambari Debi, the ‘Notun Bouthan’, who was his Muse and remained so even after her mysterious death on 21st April, 1884; second, his wife Mrinalini Debi (married 1883), to whom Rabindranath wrote several letters in Bengali which I have translated into English ( several letters to Mrinalini from 1890 to 1902, the year of her untimely death); and third, Victoria Ocampo, his Argentinean host in 1924 to whom he wrote letters all his life. On the periphery are some others such as Anna Turkhud and Ranu Adhikari.

Personal letters are often the most revealing of documents, hence famous families do not always allow public scrutiny. Of Tagore’s correspondence the most fulsome are the letters exchanged with Victoria Ocampo, collected meticulously by Ketaki Kushari Dyson and presented with an invaluable commentary. Tagore was sixty-three years old when they met and Victoria was thirty-four. He was a celebrated poet, she an aspiring litterateur. Victoria was married to Bernando de Estrada but had left him without a formal divorce, for a lover, Julián Martínez. Tagore’s accompanying secretary was the suave Leonard Elmhirst, himself engaged to be married in a few months. According to Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Victoria was reverential towards Tagore and deeply in love with him; this did not prevent her being flirtatious towards Elmhirst, who gladly reciprocated the compliment. I wish to lay emphasis on the fact that to neither of the men did Victoria mention her hidden lover Martínez, though she appears to have sobbed to them about the tragedy of her dull and disappointing married life. Victoria was married and childless but presented herself as a singular, wealthy and free European woman to Tagore and Leonard. Clearly in such a scenario, the categories of Wife and Beloved were excitingly mixed up. The sheaf of letters exchanged between Rabindranath and Victoria would be a Freudian psychologist’s delight. She tells Elmhirst that she would like to sleep outside Tagore’s door like a dog awaiting a call! Tagore, in turn, renames her ‘Vijaya’(Victorious) and teaches her the one Bengali word that is important—‘Bhalobasha’or ‘love’.

Rabindranath’s relationship with Mrinalini was of a householder and a caring husband but it lacks the tense passion that showed in his letters to Ocampo even when he was over sixty. It couldnot have been easy to be the wife to Rabindranath. He was married when twenty two years old, to ten-year old Bhabatarini, the daughter of an employee in the Tagore estates (1883). The family went about renaming her Mrinalini, appointing tutors to rid her of her Jessore accent in Bengali, and teaching her the civilities and manners of a premier household. She was also sent to Loreto School to learn English. In this makeover, Mrinalini developed her own unique personality as the mother of five children, a caregiver to all those who came asking for help, including a Punjabi darwan (doorman) who needed a constant supply of wheat for his chapattis. She was known for her culinary skills, improvising the exotic recipes that Rabindranath brought to her. (It is believed that he helped her cook, at times). She assisted in the elaborate dressing up of women in the Tagore household but neglected her own appearance. One evening when she was persuaded to wear showy earrings, she quickly covered up her ears when Tagore appeared on the scene!

Compare the emotions in these two letters :

Sahajadpur, June, 1891

Dear wife, Bhai chhuti,

Come now, tell me one thing. For what good reason have you never mentioned receiving the fine rich butter that I have strenuously procured for you from the best dairies of Sahajadpur, and sent in your service? I see that you are getting so many presents all the time that your sense of gratitude is quite numbed. Fifteen seers of pure ghee you accept every month as though it’s simply the normal thing in your life, as if this was an agreement I made with you when we married! Your dear Bhola’s mother is ill and bedridden. I assume that this ghee is proving useful for many people. Wonderful! The one positive thing about it is that the servants won’t fall ill after stealing and consuming the ghee of such fine quality…..


To Victoria Ocampo : August. 2. 1925

Dear Vijaya

…..You express regret in your letter that I could not continue my stay at that beautiful house near the river till the end of summer,– you do not know how often I wish I could do so. It was some lure of duty which drove me from that sweet corner with its inspiration for seemingly futile idling; but today I discover that my basket, while I was there, was being daily filled with shy flowers of poems that thrive under the shade of lazy hours. I can assure you, most of them will remain fresh long after the time when the laboriously built towers of my beneficent deeds will crumble into oblivion. Very few people will know that they ought also to thank you for this gift of lyrics which I am about to offer to them,

My bhalobasa

Rabindranath Tagore

Kadambari Debi’s role as Rabindranath’s muse has been speculated upon endlessly. In his writing we can only find her indirectly. Their youthful attachment in the relationship of devar-bhabi was couched in the usual rhetoric of an easy friendship rather common in joint families but the sequence whereby Robi was first sent away from home, then suddenly married, and a few months later, Kadambari committing suicide- cannot escape conjectures of a tense romantic drama.16 Moreover, the powerful Thakurbari prohibited any public exposure and to this day the manner of Kadambari’s death is not known. All letters and diaries were destroyed, the many retainers compelled into silence, the patriarch Debendranath personally preventing any leakage of news. For young Robi, Kadambari was a secret love that became apotheosized as poetry or image. “Tumi ki keboli chhobi?”(“Are you just a picture?”) is a famous lyric said to address the absent Kadambari. She died childless, and that could have been one of her privations. In his essays, Tagore always associated Indian women with family and mothering, though his fiction sought other idealized alternatives. Abiding by the decorum of the family, Rabindranath could never write letters to Kadambari directly. However, when he wrote from England to his family elders he knew the letters would be read publicly and Kadambari would be a listener. By proxy, they were in communication from abroad. At home they could only be friends.

3.     Gender and Sexuality

Love cannot be altogether in the abstract. Until recently it has been difficult to address sexuality in the writings of Tagore because of an invisible censoring that operates upon material concerning famous men. Jawaharlal Nehru’s friendships were the subject of conjecture but not brought under the pen until Stanley Wolpert published Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny (2008). After decades, a candid biography of Mahatma Gandhi could be published by Joseph Lelyveld (Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, 2011) though attacks persist on some of its claims. Both Nehru and Gandhi were, by and large, open about their emotions, treating expressions of love as a legitimate part of their lived experience. In a sort of parallel, Rabindranath Tagore’s personal relations with women have been much speculated upon but not authentically written up.

Rabindranath Tagore was nineteen when he wrote Kori-o-Komal (1880), containing rather explicit poems on physicality. The title itself bears reflection. Translating as ‘Flats and Sharps’, the obvious reference is to musical scale, however it would not be farfetched to imagine a poetic subtext of amorous play, its highs and lows.


(Deher Milon)

My being in every part yearns for yours

The hearts’ union beckons the union of our bodies.

My possessed self, overcome by desire

Yearns to cover you with passion.

Towards you, my eyes turn

My lips wish to melt into your lips.

My thirsty heart cries out piteously

Asking to adore you with all its senses.

The heart hidden in the lake of the body,

Sorrowfully calls to the shores of life.

Today let my desperate senses caress you,

Let me lose myself in the mysteries of the body.

Allow my body and soul at all times

To merge, unite, with all parts of you.

Translated by Malashri Lal



Cast off your clothing, remove the sari-end

Wear only the ornament of your nude self

Like a nymph divine, draped in light.

Your body in full bloom, tender,

A carnival of life in youth and sweetness.

Stand proudly alone in this wondrous world.

Let moonlight caress every crevice of your body

Let gentle breeze play with your curves.

Surrender to the infinite blue

Like the stars, nude in nature.

The God of Love may hide his face amid clothing

Seeing unclothed your splendid body.

Let gentle dawn approach the human world

See unabashed, unclothed body in its pristine purity.

(Translated by Malashri Lal)


Poems such as these present an acute and candid understanding of male desire in relation to the female body. A burgeoning sexuality yearns for fulfilment and far from etherealizing the beloved, the young man calls out for reciprocal passion in full expectation of mutual joy.

Such a stance may be misread as the male gaze trained upon a commodified woman. However, Tagore’s empathy with the woman would not permit such slippage. Read carefully, these poems attribute will and power to the woman who is in control of her sexuality and whose desire must match that of the admirer before any physical passion is expressed. The emphasis is on mutuality.

The Indianised context of the female body is worthy of a postscript. ‘Modesty’, ‘coyness’ and ‘shyness’ are not good equivalents for conveying the meaning of ‘lajjaa’ which alludes to a woman’s hesitation in admitting sexual attraction. There is a cultural prohibition to women in showing desire.

4.     The feminine force & spiritualism: Gitanjali

In the amazing range of capacities that Tagore attributed to women, sexuality, gender identity and spiritualism formed a continuum. We can say that Tagore arrived in the Western world through Gitanjali. It is commonly known that the original songs and poems existed in Bengali (1910), and that one time in 1911, Tagore while convalescing in Shelidah, took up casual translation of selected poems from Gitanjali, Naiyeda, Kheya and Gitamalya which eventually grew into a formal collection. The further narrative of how this manuscript went with Tagore to England, was lost in the Underground station, retrieved dramatically and eventually found its way to W.B Yeats and William Rothenstein, is told in pictorial detail in “The Story of Gitanjali” a documentary produced by the Ministry of External Affairs (2011). I will not repeat the stories associated with the ‘arrival’ of the Gitanjali text in the midst of the literary cognoscenti in London but I would recall the significance of the English text which reached a large number through the Macmillan publication in 1913.

A series of events culminated in the award of the Nobel Prize to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, but let me focus on Tagore’s reputation in the West as an Eastern mystic from the time that W.B. Yeats wrote in his introduction to Gitanjali, “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics-which are in the origin, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes....... Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

The spiritual force portrayed in Gitanjali often has a feminine face. Poems about a Divinity whose sign is the feminine.


SHE WHO EVER had remained in the depth of my being, in the twilight of gleams and of glimpses; she who never opened her veils in the morning light, will be my last gift to thee, my God, folded in my final song.

Words have wooed yet failed to win her; persuasion has stretched to her its eager arms in vain.

I have roamed from country to country keeping her in the core of my heart, and around her have risen and fallen the growth and decay of my life.

Over my thoughts and actions, my slumbers and dreams, she reigned yet dwelled alone and apart. Many a man knocked at my door and asked for her and turned away in despair.

There was none in the world who ever saw her face to face, and she remained in her loneliness waiting for thy recognition.


Such  poems show Rabindranath’s confident handling of the Bhakti style.Gitanjali alerts us to his recurrent image of the flickering light of the soul. The images of the feminine in quasi-religious Bhakti literature could be smoothly adapted to secular or social purpose. What is striking is Tagore’s adoption of the female persona as a ‘beggar girl’, signalling his empathy with the underclass woman in many instances of his writing. Poem : The Santhal Girl, Shadhran Meye,  short story ‘Durasha’.

5.     Woman Extraordinary :  Tagore’s Androgynous Imagination

To understand the feminine principle and give dignity to the woman’s mind and body, a writer must be gifted with an androgynous imagination. Tagore entered the realms of the mythical to find icons for his androgynous imagination. The idea of a companionate romance was dear to Tagore’s heart and his dance-drama Chitrangada (1892), was based upon this value. The original episode in the Mahabharata is altered in many details. Rabindranath embroiders the story to make Chitra (as the heroine is called in the 1913 English transcreation by Tagore himself) a dual character, the warrior, man-like person whom Arjun rejects and the luscious beauty with whom he falls madly in love. He named the two sides of Chitrangada as ‘Kuroopaa’ or‘ugly’, and‘Shuroopaa’or ‘beautiful’ leading to much criticism in feminist circles and problems of performance on stage. Chitrangada prays to Madan, the God of Love, to make her this alluring beauty. Tagore used the Shuroopaa image as a device for educating Arjun in higher values. Chitrangada’s composite identity as the strong warrior and the seductive beauty contains the male as well as the female, and teaches a lesson to the archetypal male, Arjun, that a true partnership is above biological difference or socially constructed roles.

Why Arjun? Tagore was not a polemical writer and one would need to read into the interstices. Chitrangada’s duality is closely paralleled by the Mahabharata section in which Arjun adopts the female form as Brihannala and has to cope with his male desire. In the epic, as we might recall, the Pandavas are required to undergo the thirteenth year of exile in an incognito form. Arjun for having insulted Urvashi is cursed to live out the year as a‘kliba’ which is a gender-ambiguous category in the Vedas and the Puranas. Such a person bears physical as well as emotional characteristics of both man and woman, and hence is an undefined ‘third gender’ (tritiya prakriti). Arjun becomes Brihannala, a dance teacher with tremendous grace as well as prowess.

Associated with the story of Arjun’s cross-gendering is the figure of Urvashi, the alluring nymph of dawn about whom Rabindranath wrote a haunting poem admired by Edward Thompson as the “crown (of) his first great period.”According to Puranic legend, Urvashi was born full-grown from the sea, and immune to the lures of sexual appeal by her numerous admirers. She could never be wife or mother or be engaged emotionally by a single man, but she in turn could wreak havoc upon men, and even could break the concentration of sages. Arjun made the mistake of underestimating Urvashi’s power. Though some critics have cited the poem ‘Urvashi’ as the epitome of male fantasy, I suggest an opposite track that she is Tagore’s medium for gender questioning. Feminist discourse has convincingly shown patriarchal ideology to be located in the reproductive capabilities of women. Therein derive the codes of lineage, polygamy, ‘son preference’, feudal systems, rituals of initiation and other rites of passage, ashramitepractices, maltreatment of widows and a lot else. It is the code which creates the story of Madhavi fated to give sons to many kings and magically turn virgin with each new partner. It is the code that guides the fate of Kunti, Gandhari, Draupadi and Sita to say the least, and Tagore wrote about all of them. Urvashi is outside this code, protected from being sexually exploited in a manner specially reserved for dependent women. She has a female body with its allurements but without its commitment to domesticated, reproductive functions. In Rabindranath Tagore’s poem:

Neither mother nor daughter are you, nor bride, Urvashi. Woman you are to ravish the soul of Paradise.

Tagore’s poems of female assertion, the most enduring being the climactic lyric from the dance-drama Chitrangada wherethe princess addresses Arjun on the values of a companionate marriage: Ami Chitrangada rajendro nondini/ Nohi ebi nohi shamanya nari/ Puja kori more rakhibe urdhe she nohi nohi/ Hela kori more rakhibe pichhe she nohi nohi/ Jodi parshe/ rakho more shaunkote shompode/ Shommoti dao jodi kothin brote shohaye hote/ Pabe/ taube tumi chinite more/ Aj shudhu kori nibedon/ Ami Chitrangada rajendro nondini [“The princess Chitrangada, I am,/Neither a goddess nor an ordinary woman/ I am not the one to be placed above and worshiped/ Nor am I the one to be neglected and cast aside. If you keep me by your side as a companion in danger and prosperity, only then will you know my worth”] (Translation by me). There could not be a stronger feminist statement on the status of women in India at the turn of the century

Redefining the Feminine

I conclude then by saying that in Tagore’s oeuvre it would be untenable to maintain the western theoretical distinctions between the female, feminine and feminist as the nuances of each term slide into the other. Rabindranath’s special gift for the creative arts led to constructions of the feminine that were excitingly new and contextualized in India. He reworked the old mythologies investing them with new meaning, daring to play with some iconic tales such as those of Kunti and Gandhari in the Mahabharata. Keenly observing the predilections of women in his life and social ambit, he successfully rendered women from all classes, perhaps recognising a gendered experience that separated their world from men in a patriarchal frame. Apocryphal tales abound in relation to Tagore, a poignant one being of the severally marginalised Boshtami, ‘pagla khepi, an abandoned, homeless, wandering ‘madwoman’ who occasionally strayed into his rural abode in Birbhum. One day Rabindranath’s house attendant was throwing out flowers in a vase and placing new stems. Boshtami swooped down and picked up the wilted blooms and holding them close said they were fit for her Gods. Tagore was deeply moved by her simplicity and devotion, and learnt a lesson in frugality from a pagli; mad woman, he said.

Such contexts are rooted in India and one must seek an understanding of Tagore’s delving into the feminine from that perspective. The concept of the ardhanarishvara as the androgyne identity was an extension of his sympathy with the women’s cause. In his life and his works we find several examples of crossing the gender boundaries. He was ‘motherly’ towards the little children in the Shantiniketan school after Mrinalini devi passed away. Fascinated by the pre-pubescent stage of childhood he wrote Shishu, Shishu Bholanath, Post Office and Bhanusingher Padaaboli toexplore his capacity to enter maternal space. He adopted complex relations with women such as Victoria Ocampo and Ranu Adhikari, who were younger to him. Clearly, a simplified masculinity or femininity could not account for such a proliferation of gendered sympathies. Tagore was redefining the east and the west and his imagination was catching fuel from the intellectual ferment of his time and his travels. Today, perhaps it is through Rabindranath’s protean self, that an aspect of the feminine in India can be mapped.