Like most Indians, I had grown up hearing about Tagore, reading “Where The Mind is Without Fear” in our textbooks but never really delving into the vast body of his literature. While I had memorized his name as the first Indian recipient of the Nobel Prize, I could not say the same about his stories.
On the other hand, disillusioned by the lack of innovative and progressive shows on mainstream Indian television, I too had turned towards bingeing on western shows. That’s when I discovered “Stories by Rabindranath Tagore” on Netflix. Directed by Anurag Basu and first aired on EPIC Channel, the show is based on stories written by Tagore a century ago. As I binge watched it, it shone through for its relevance and ideas far ahead of its time.
What struck me the most was the portrayal of the female characters- so different from what I had seen before. They couldn’t be fit into black or white categories of the “sanskari bahu” or the vamp, neither could they be understood using an upright moral compass. They rebelled, they questioned, they desired and most importantly, they challenged the status quo of the society they lived in without fearing the consequences.
Take, for instance, Binodini from ‘Chokher Bali’
A mysterious widow, played by a fiery Radhika Apte in the television adaptation, defied the norms of widowhood, refusing to curb her sexuality and thirst for love. Her entry into the household of Mahendra and Ashalata caused an upheaval. She used her wit and beauty to win Mahendra’s love before realizing that he was not worth it. Later she sought his friend Bihari who respected her for the imperfect being she was instead of her beauty. She was, therefore, in many ways an iconoclast, moving away from the stoic, pale and dull representations of widows in books and screens.
Another feminist character which shone through is Charulata from the story ‘A Broken Nest’
Being married to a journalist who had no time for her, she developed an affinity with her brother-in-law through their shared passion for music. As her husband took lightly her love for poetry and music, she eventually fell in love with her brother-in-law. When her husband gets to know and moves away to start afresh, she chooses to stay behind on her own. Without begging him to stay.
Then there is Mrinmoyee from ‘Samapti’
Portrayed as a tomboy, the character refused to mold herself to notions of femininity, even after marriage. Having grown up climbing trees and playing cricket with a group of boys, she couldn’t stand the thought of tying her hair and wearing jewellery. Upon being told to change her lifestyle after an early marriage, she questions why it is the girl who has to make all adjustments post marriage and even runs away from her in-laws’ house twice. The character’s spirit is shown to be too free to be confined within the domestic walls.
Another character that stayed with me was that of Mrinal, from the story “A Wife’s Letter” who used the power of a pen to fight against society’s injustices.
Unable to save her sister-in-law’s younger sister from setting herself on fire due to successive abusive marriages, she leaves her husband’s home. In a powerful letter to her husband, she accuses the society of not taking a stand against the practice of disallowing a girl to return to her home after marriage, despite the nature of the marriage itself. She also indicts him of killing her talents and passions and only seeing her as a ‘bahu’ of the house.
The story “Tyaag” features a marriage between a Kayastha orphan girl (Suman) and a Brahmin boy through a trick played by the girl’s uncle that hid her true caste. However, after getting married, Suman refuses to build a relationship based on a lie and reveals her true identity. After initial apprehensions about “polluting” his caste, the boy proclaims that his love for his wife is more important to him than his religious ties. Thus, this story looks at the intersections between caste and gender identities.
A common feature in all these characters is the pride they possessed in their identity as a woman, instead of being defined as a wife, a mother or a daughter. Their rights and wrongs were not shaped by what society expects of them. They did not leave behind their passions and hobbies after marriage and weren’t afraid to look at sources of acceptance and love apart from their marriage. They challenged the concepts of dowry, femininity, chastity of widows and honor.
These characters challenge the conventions of the world as we know it today and it was only Tagore who could create them, a century ago.