Rabindranath Tagore and the Feminine: Contemporary Perspectives — Malashree Lal


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.

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.

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

1.     “Two kinds of women”

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.

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

2 Three women and some epistolary

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?

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.

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

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.

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.



being in every part yearns for yours

hearts’ union beckons the union of our bodies.

self, overcome by desire

to cover you with passion.

you, my eyes turn

lips wish to melt into your lips.

thirsty heart cries out piteously

to adore you with all its senses.

heart hidden in the lake of the body,

calls to the shores of life.

let my desperate senses caress you,

me lose myself in the mysteries of the body.

my body and soul at all times

merge, unite, with all parts of you.

Malashri Lal



off your clothing, remove the sari-end

only the ornament of your nude self

a nymph divine, draped in light.

body in full bloom, tender,

carnival of life in youth and sweetness.

proudly alone in this wondrous world.

moonlight caress every crevice of your body

gentle breeze play with your curves.

to the infinite blue

the stars, nude in nature.

God of Love may hide his face amid clothing

unclothed your splendid body.

gentle dawn approach the human world

unabashed, unclothed body in its pristine purity.

(Translated by Malashri


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.

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.

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.

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

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’.

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’,
‘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

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

the Feminine

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
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

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