“Not a damsel in distress” – stories by Rabindranath Tagore portraying the powerful women

Stories By Tagore

Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is known for his stories that were progressive, bold, and way ahead of their times. The anthology of these stories was made in a television show by the name “Stories by Rabindranath Tagore” in 2015 directed by Anurag Basu and was aired on Epic Channel, and it received wide appreciation from the viewers and critics. The show is also currently streaming on Netflix. Anurag Basu handpicked different stories and gave it his unique touch, also the actors played their part excellently and made these stories come to life. The most striking part of the stories was that the women characters in most of the stories were no damsels in distress. The female characters woven by Tagore were bold enough for their times, when women were considered weak and dependent and were subject to oppression by the patriarchal Bengali society. Here is a list of few stories by Rabindranath Tagore in which the female characters were way ahead of their times and were revolutionary in themselves.

1. Chokher Bali

Chokher Bali
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Chokher Bali is a Bengali term which literally means ‘sand in the eye’ or ‘the particle in the eye causing constant irritation’. The term perfectly describes the complex web of relationships between individuals, and especially the term describes the envy between two ladies who want the same man. Radhika Apte, who plays the character of Binodini, a girl who got widowed early, is depicted as a femme fatale, who has her eyes on Mahendra, who is married to Ashalata. Binodini is a widow, which was considered to be the oppressed and deprived section of the society. She had an urge to explore her sexuality, while trying to her lure Mahendra by her sensuality. It was a blend of lust and jealousy, because Mahendra rejected the proposal to marry Binodini without even seeing her, and married Ashalata, who was a beautiful but uneducated woman. Binodini had a deep grudge in her heart that whatever fate she was facing in her life was due to Mahendra and Ashalata, and she believed she was a better match for him. She befriended Ashalata and saw this as an opportunity to get close to Mahendra.

    Binodini’s widowhood didn’t make her suppress her sexual desires. Though she is portrayed as a vamp, there is no denying the fact that she was the victim of the circumstances. Her right to a happy life was snatched by her fate. She was no saint, but just a woman whose actions were moved by love, lust and jealousy, without realizing that it ruined more lives and did no good to her either. Radhika Apte as a versatile actress did justice to the role of Binodini, which became one of the most powerful and sensuous characters of Tagore’s stories.

2. Maanbhanjan

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The story revolves around Giribala, a beautiful and talented lady, who is married to Gopinath, a wealthy but debauch landlord. He fell out of love for her and started seeing a theatre actress Latika. Once, Giribala secretly went to the theatre to see the source of her husband’s indifference towards her. She watched the play of Laila Majnu featuring Latika, and was mesmerized. She decided to adopt the charm of the theatre actress to win her husband back. Despite her beauty and several attempts Gopinath stayed aloof. He once thrashed her badly and eloped with Latika. After Latika’s absence from the theatre for a considerable period of time, she heard the news that a new actress replaced her. She was disappointed and urged Gopinath to take her to the theatre to find out who replaced her. Gopinath was flabbergasted and shocked, seeing that the new actress who received heaps of praises was none other than his own wife Giribala.

    Though some viewers are of the view that  that Giribala became a theatre artist to lure her husband back, in my opinion, I came across the interpretation that once she joined the theatre and became a renowned face, it was a perfect revenge taken by her from Gopinath who left her for another theatre actress. The story showcases the plight of a married woman who is abused by her husband, while it also shows the strength of the same woman who rose above her sorrows to make a name for herself.

3. The Broken Nest (Nashtanirh)

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Focusing on an emotional attachment which a lonely housewife develops outside her marriage, the title of the story is perfect as it shows how a marital relationship is shattered because of an unintended love triangle. Bhupati, a newspaper editor was so much engrossed in his work that he was left with no time for his wife Charulata, a beautiful, talented and educated woman with a penchant for music. He invites his cousin Amol, a law student, to live with them so that he can give company to Charulata. Amol, with his jovial nature, turns out to be a great company for her, while also giving her music lessons. The devar- bhabhi duo started bonding over the music, poetry, and nature. Gradually, Charulata developed a fondness for Amol while ignoring her husband. Amol realized this and decides to distance himself from her, and accepted a marriage alliance which he refused earlier. Charulata begs him to stay but he didn’t. Crestfallen, she becomes lonely again and lost all interest in music and poetry once Amol left. Bhupati was heartbroken once he came to know that his wife, who was his only support, is lost in his younger brother’s thoughts. He left the city to take up a job in Mysore, telling Charulata that he will only take her with him if being with him would end her sadness and loneliness. She decides to be truthful and refused to accompany him, knowing that there was no emotional attachment left in this marriage.

   For a conventional world it may seem an absolute sin for a married woman to fall for another man. But Tagore was bold enough not to paint the character of Charulata black.  The show very beautifully portrays the loneliness of a lady, her melancholy, her desire to be accompanied in all the little things of life, all that of which Charulata was deprived. Amrita Puri playing the character of Charulata mesmerises the viewers with her aura and makes the story emotionally riveting.

4. Ant aarambh (based on “Samapti”)

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It is a love story between two polar opposite individuals. Apoorba, a boy belonging to a wealthy family, educated, and obedient towards his widowed mother, falls in love with Mrinmoyee, a tomboyish girl from a humble family. She was aversive to the idea of being a daughter- in- law and fitting in a traditional household. Apoorba’s mother also didn’t approve of Mrinmoyee, but finally yielded to her son’s only wish, and got them married. Mrinmoyee clearly tells Apoorba that she didn’t love him, and also never tried to match the standards of a daughter- in- law of an orthodox family. But Apoorba’s kind heart and his love towards her, made her fall for him, while she also developed a fondness for her mother- in- law and started winning her affection.

     The story sends a message that a woman doesn’t have to fit into the societal norms of femininity, elegance, or grace to make a man fall in love with her. She can be herself, and the right man would love her in spite of all her imperfections. Here, Mrinmoyee was unable to fathom as to why a girl’s life changes drastically after marriage, while a boy’s life remains the same. The show explores the traditional idea of the journey from being a girl to being a woman, and the protagonist standing against these ideas.

5. Punishment (Based on ‘Shasti’)

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“If I lose my wife I can get another, but if I lose my brother how can I get another brother?” These lines said by a character in the story reveals the painful reality of dehumanization of women, especially that of a wife and a daughter- in- law. Women are merely treated as cheap, replaceable objects in the society. A matrimonial home is considered to be a woman’s real home, but what if she is betrayed and treated as replaceable thing? ‘Punishment’ is one such story, based on Tagore’s ‘Shasti’, where a young girl Mini who is loved and pampered in her parental home, tries her best to adjust in her new home. Her elder sister- in- law was an ill- mouthed lady who always reprimanded her for work shirking, while her husband Upendra is a loving man, her only solitude in the house. On a fateful date, a heated argument took place between her brother- in- law and his wife, and in the heat of the moment, he killed her. When the police came, Upendra shifted the allegations on innocent Mini, who was completely shocked by this. He told the police that there was a quarrel between two ladies, and Mini unintentionally hit a vase on Radha’s head. Mini kept quiet all the way. She didn’t negate. She remembered her father’s words that she should fulfil the duty of an obedient wife. When Upendra couldn’t bear the guilt anymore, he claimed in the open court that he was the culprit. Upon seeing his brother’s sacrifice, elder brother Devendra finally confessed that it was he who killed his wife. In all this commotion, Mini didn’t step back, and since she was the only one alleged earlier, she was sent to gallows by the court.

    Outwardly, it may seem that Mini was fulfilling the duty of a good wife who was saving her husband and his brother. But in reality, it was her silent revolt. A revolt against her husband who betrayed her trust and sent her to prison. She stood her ground and was ready to die to send her husband into a life sentence of massive guilt, loneliness and remorse. She was ready to give her life to the gallows than to her husband who backstabbed her. It was Mini’s silence throughout the trial and till the end that proved to be the most powerful, heart- wrenching speech in the story.

6. Dui Bon (Two Sisters)

Dui Bon (Two Sisters)
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The story is similar to that of The Broken Nest, with the change in gender of protagonists. Here a man falls in love with his wife’s sister. The story portrays the two forms of a woman. One is that of a beloved – happy, unrestrained and free, amorous, and full of enthusiasm. Other is a form of motherly love – full of affection, care, and protectiveness. A man always wants both these forms in his life partner, but seldom any woman has got all of these attributes. So the man remains in dilemma, getting attracted to the things missing in his life. Shashank is the husband of Sharmila, the elder sister, who has got all the motherly traits. But she is too protective for him, and this makes him feel like he is living in a cage, though he loves her a lot. Also he owed great favours from Sharmila’s father, so he felt a sense of gratitude towards them and could never open up about his feelings to her. Urmi, the younger sister of Sharmila, who is studying medicines, comes to live with them when Sharmila falls ill. A workaholic Shashank, who barely had time for his ailing wife, was now spending most of the time in home. He and Urmi shared friendly and comfortable relations, had a common interest in tennis, and often spent light- hearted moments together. He started ignoring his work so much that his business suffered a loss, of which Sharmila came to know. She mortgaged her jewellery to pay off the loan and start the business afresh, ensuring that Shashank doesn’t comes to know about it. Soon Shashank and Urmi fell in love with each other. Sharmila was very well aware of this intimacy, her health kept deteriorating, her love was going away from her, yet she stayed quiet for the happiness of her husband. She felt that she had a very short lifespan left. So she called Shashank and Urmi and asked them to stay together forever. Meanwhile Shashank came to know of the mortgaging of jewellery by Sharmila. A guilt trip strikes him, a feeling that he betrayed his loving and caring wife just for his own selfishness. He decides to make amends and tells Sharmila that he will part ways with Urmi, as it was just a mistake. Meanwhile, they both get a letter from Urmi who already left their place, and was going abroad for further studies. In the letter she asked for forgiveness from her sister for this illegitimate relationship which caused so much pain to Sharmila.

     It is often said that in order to keep a man from going to another woman, a wife should do her best to keep him happy. The story portrays the sacrifices of a wife done for her husband, who still got swayed and fell for her sister. It tells the tale of courage of a lady, who saw her husband and her sister getting close when she needed him the most, and still kept quiet for his happiness. It also tells us about the will power of a lady, who in spite of her attachment and strong feelings, had the courage to tread the right path and retreat her steps from the illegitimate relationship, for the sake of her sister’s happiness.

7. Mrinaal ki Chitthi (Based on ‘Streer Potro’)

Mrinaal ki Chitthi Based on Streer Potro
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The story revolves around Mrinaal, a beautiful, intelligent girl, fond of writing, belonging from a poor family, was selected by a wealthy family for marriage only on the basis of good looks. It was a conservative family where women’s lives were confined to the kitchen. Her elder sister- in- law, who was always taunted for her dark complexion, accepted the norms without any question. But Mrinaal was different and always questioned the sexism. When her elder sister- in- law’s distant sister Bindu, a little girl, came to live with them, everyone treated her like an unpaid servant, with only Mrinaal standing by her side. To get rid of the burden of Bindu, they arranged a marriage for her. Though Mrinaal had her fears, yet she had hopes that Bindu would be happy in her new home. After marriage it turns out that Bindu’s husband was a mad man, and his family used to physically abuse her. Mrinaal tried to bring Bindu back but her family opposed her. She resolves to leave the house on the pretext of pilgrimage to Puri and take Bindu with her away from her home. But she got the tragic news that Bindu had committed suicide by setting herself on fire. Broken and shattered, she writes a letter to her husband, and tells him of her resolution to never come back to his house where there was no respect for women.

    The story is very touching and a heart breaking one. A lady alone challenges the patriarchal norms of the society, refuses to be subjugated by the commands of her husband, and fights against the atrocities experienced by  a little girl, with nobody by her side to support her. Bindu died, but her death lit the extinguished lamp of self- esteem within Mrinaal, who was now ready to leave her family back and live her life on her terms. She realized that there was so much to do in life, which she couldn’t accomplish by being the daughter- in- law of that house. Mrinaal’s character, played by Amrita Bagchi, appears to be innocent and serene, but is one of the strongest and fiercest female protagonists sculpted by Gurudev.

      While women of that era were still struggling to ensure that their voice is heard in the society, these powerful female characters penned by Gurudev overshadowed other characters in the story.