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Updated: May 11, 2010 19:17 IST

A legend of Tagore women

Prema Nandakumar
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Generations of women who were born in the Tagore family or came to it as brides make Women of the Tagore Household a rich compendium of laughter and tears, education and social service, music and dance, religion and atheism. Patriotism too!

Undulating is the word. Typical story-telling. Aunt's narrative style. No chapters, no divisions. A legend of Tagore women that begins with Dwarakanath Tagore's mother, Alakasundari. As in an old aunt's reminiscences, the tangle of relationships ties us up in knots. Generations of women who were born in the Tagore family or came to it as brides make Women of the Tagore Household a rich compendium of laughter and tears, education and social service, music and dance, religion and atheism. Patriotism too!

The Tagores were an aristocratic brahmin family but society still did not give them a high status. Marrying into the Pirali brahmin household was frowned upon. It was especially so for the menfolk. “Brahmin youths were found to marry the daughters of the family and they came to live as ghar jamais. This was because the doors of their own homes were barred against them once they married into the Pirali family.”

Lucky

The girls who came in were lucky. Here was freedom to learn and sing and spread one's wings. Not widely (societal changes take time), but enough to gain soul-satisfaction. As for the daughters of the family, unless Fate was determined to pour tears into their lives, they were able to become achievers.

The names keep coming from Chitra Deb like the jingling of anklet bells when a dance is going on. Saudamini, Hiranmoyee, Manisha (who corresponded with Max Muller), Digambari, Madhurilata … None of them is a nobody, because Chitra has cared to do serious research with unpublished material and conversations with elderly members of the far-flung Tagore family. We have one hundred pages of genealogical tables in this volume!

Even in the 19th century we have Kadambari riding a horse, and Sudhakshina would even ride an elephant and wield a gun. The first Tagore girl to graduate was Indira who married the writer, Pramatha Chaudhuri.

The Tagore family space, with Jorosanko as its centre, seems to have been a vast nest of beautiful and talented women. Naturally, women's liberation sprang from here including the epoch-making move for the marriage of widows.

The first such marriage in the Tagore family was initiated by Rabindranath Tagore himself, the groom being his own gifted son Rathindranath. Pratima was to become an ideal housewife. The services of Mrinalini and numerous women of the Tagore household for the growth and sustenance of Shantiniketan are stories by themselves.

In silver screen

These women certainly ventured into different paths. One of them, of course, was the silver screen. Devika Rani's Achchut Kanya remains a classic. She is remembered for her regal living whether as the wife of the filmmaker Himangshu Ray or the painter Svetoslav Roerich; so too is Sharmila who married Tiger Pataudi.

Marriages, arranged or otherwise, help the constant movement of the memoirs. The groom's party going with jewels to decorate the bride; the problems of Hindu tradition having to come to terms with the Brahmo Samaj; depressions, dissensions, property disputes, and possible jealousies inevitable in such households are all touched upon by Chitra.

The author is at pains to show that, despite their achievements, the women of the Tagore family were all good cooks too. Obviously it is the culinary art and the management of a kitchen (with or without cooks) that mark the ultimate feminine grace, the image of Annapoorna. So the reader will have plenty of recipes too. Pragya was a fine painter, but then an excellent cook as well. She published three volumes that give weighty information and useful tips on cooking.

Though no dates are given, Women of the Tagore Household is valuable social history. The perfect paperback to toss into the backpack when one prepares to board a transcontinental flight.

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