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Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore is an unsung heroine who led a social revolution in Bengal during the 19th century

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  • Indian society has this ability of continuously reforming and reinventing itself without losing its inner core. This has enabled us to adjust to changing times, imbibe the best from other societies and progress continuously. For instance who would have dreamt in the 1950’s that a Chennai girl, Indra Nooyi, would be the CEO of PepsiCo for twelve long years. Acceptance of change is a pre-requisite to growth after all.

The 19th century Bengal was very different from the Bengal that we see today.

Much like elsewhere Bengal was plagued by extreme conservatism, regression and misogynistic attitude towards women. Women weren’t allowed to step out of the house, mingle with men except for their husbands and close relatives. Further they were explicitly taught to obey their husbands and be a focal point of their desires. They had little or no access to education.

Just to put matters in perspective, “The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a Member of Parliament said “Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.” Apparently, gender discrimination wasn’t only prevalent it India. It then existed across the world.

Having said that we must remember two 18-19th century queens whose names are immortal. First is Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar, able ruler and administrator from 1767 to 1795. And second is Rani of Jhansi’s rebellion in 1857.

The above examples perfectly portray how the Indian society was reconstructing itself, because you know what they say, ‘change’ always finds its way into everything, despite all the hurdles, blockades and in this case patriarchal norms. Therefore, change did come to Bengali society in the form of a rebellious, wilful and strong lady, Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore. And this article enables you to delve into her story.  

So who was Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore?

Jnanada was the wife of Satyendranath Tagore, elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore and the first Indian ICS officer appointed under the British Raj. She hailed from a middle class Kulin Brahmin family from Jessore (now in Bangladesh). At the age of seven and in 1859 she was married to Satyendranath. This way Jnanada became the eldest daughter-in-law of the rich and prestigious Tagores of Jorasanko.  

Her marriage was followed by a life of confinement and strict ‘Abarodh or Purdah’ system imposed upon Tagore women and the women of Bengal in general. Even though her husband openly opposed the Abarodh system and advocated women’s rights it was difficult to take on the family.  

Unhappy with his wife’s condition Satyendranath took Jnanada along when he received his first posting as an Assistant Collector and Magistrate in Bombay Presidency. This move proved to be a turning point in Jnanada’s life and transformed her into a social reformer.   

Jnanadanandini’s contribution in social reformation of Bengali society

When Jnanada moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) her life changed altogether. It was challenging yet exhilarating to be amongst people who thought very differently from the Tagores.

 

Wherever she went with her husband she picked up new things which opened her mind. Most importantly she realized that there is life beyond the four walls of your home and women can play a bigger role than just producing children. 

 

She shared her learnings with fellow women of the Tagore family home in Jorasanko. Slowly and steadily the impregnable walls of the Jorasanko mansion began to fall. The rebellion started by Jnanada in her home spread like a wildfire across Bengal.

 

She contributed, in six ways, to women empowerment and societal reformation during the Bengal Renaissance period (1772 to 1941). The details are -

 

The first woman to cross the threshold of Abarodh

 

Tagore women entered the house as child brides and left only when they died. They were kept within their quarters called Abarodh. This entire system was called the Abarodh or Purdah system. If women went out in some extreme and rarest of the rare cases they took the back door. They couldn’t step foot in the front veranda or the ‘Bar Mahal’ i.e. the men’s quarters. They couldn’t even interact freely with employees and servants.

 

In a city that was thousands of miles apart Jnanada lived by different rules in Bombay. She also went to England on her own, apparently the first Bengali woman to do so!

 

She broke the boundaries for herself and the women of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Jnanada literally opened the doors of Abarodh for Tagore women. We have to understand that when the daughter-in-law of one of the most influential families of Bengal left her home, travelled abroad she made other prominent families relax and extend their boundaries for women. Not to forget that Jnanada inspired women within the Tagore household who now began looking up to her.

 

When Jnanada returned from her tour the family noticed the change in her, both as a woman and as a person. She was now more independent, confident, and mature and acknowledging this new person made her realize how important it was for a woman to have a life outside home.

 

Someone had to shake the patriarchal walls that surrounded the Tagore mansion and fate had chosen Jnanada. She now started sharing her thoughts and ways of living with her companions and the younger generation. Now she urged women to step out of their homes and lead a social life rather than be confined to their homes.

 

The mind behind Brahmika Sari

 

Since her husband was now the Assistant Collector of Bombay she had to dress appropriately. In 19th century Bengal women literally wrapped themselves up in a sari. They covered their faces with a ghumta or ghunghat up to their chests. This style of draping was highly uncomfortable, not graceful and made sitting, standing and walking inconvenient. Plus there was no such thing as a blouse or jacket to protect women during cold nights.

 

So inspired by Parsi women, Jnanada devised her own style of draping a sari in the family. This style had pleats tucked in the waist which looked elegant and made movement much easier.

 

On return to Kolkata she spread her style of draping a sari. She did not stop at that and gave an advertisement in the newspaper inviting women to come and learn from her. Much to her surprise hundreds of women showed up at her doorstep. Soon enough all the Brahmo women adopted this style which came to be known as ‘Brahmika Sari’.

 

It is thanks to Jnanada that today Bengali women carry a sari gracefully and comfortably. She is largely credited for popularising the modern style of draping a sari (which is inspired by the Nivi drape) not only across Bengal, but India as well. Apart from sari she introduced Bengali women to the concept of chemise, blouses and jackets.

 

She introduced the concept of nuclear family

 

Because of who she was and what she stood for Jnanada clashed with her father-in-law Debendranath Tagore very often. Supported by his wife Sarada Sundari he opposed Jnanada in every possible way. The conflict split the Tagore household into two which forced Jnanada to move to another bungalow with her husband and children. Theirs was apparently the first nuclear family across entire Bengal. She chose non-conformity to ultra-conservatism and set the trend for the rest of the Bengali society.

 

Social clubs for women

 

Upon returning from England Jnanada brought with her many English customs that were unfamiliar to Indians. One of them was tea and breakfast clubs. She set up breakfast and evening tea clubs within the family where everyone could interact with each other. These interactions strengthened the bond between family members and importantly gave women an opportunity to express themselves. They learned to have intellectual discussions instead of indulging in petty politics. Later she propagated this idea in the larger society as well.  

 

First woman to act in plays  

 

The Tagores were very artistic and creative people, women included. An interest in arts, literature and culture was always encouraged. Music, drama and books were an integral part of their lifestyle. This was however mostly restricted to men till Jnanada changed the rules.  

 

For starters, she assisted Rabindranath in writing plays; offered insights and improvisation etc. Probably this drove her towards acting. As a source of in-house entertainment the Tagores performed plays in their house. Mostly elders watched and the younger generation performed. Earlier men even took up female parts in plays but Jnanada encouraged women to take up acting.

 

After performing dramas in her own house for months she acted in a play called Raja O Rani publicly at another family property in Brijitalao, Calcutta (Now Kolkata). This invited a lot of criticism but opened the doors for other women to act in plays.

 

A pioneer of literature, arts and culture

 

Jnanada wrote numerous articles for various magazines and newspapers published from Kolkata. Her articles were mostly centred on nationalism, freedom and patriotism. Through her articles she often urged people (mainly women) to unite against the British and take part in the freedom movement. In this respect she followed the footsteps of her sister-in-law Swarnakumari Devi who was the first female writer to gain prominence in Bengal.

 

Her second literary initiative was a children’s literary magazine in Bengali named Balak. Much like her other work the magazine was an overnight success.

 

This is the story of Jnanadanandini Devi Tagore – a bold, tough, ingenious and fearless daughter-in-law of the Tagore family. She lived for ninety one years and dedicated her entire life to social restructuring. Yet the Tagore family were not particularly proud of her. The conservative side of Bengali society despised Jnanada her and did not acknowledge her as a symbol of the modern Bengali women. But this did not affect Jnanada or stop her.

 

Jnanada gave women a new direction. She said there were multiple facets to a woman’s life of which being a good mother-wife is only a part. Every woman has certain duties towards herself too.

 

The Bengali women of today are grateful to Jnanada D Tagore. The question is how many of them know about her? This article hopes to change that.  

References ‘Jorasanko’ by Aruna Chakravarti

Also read

1 Five Elemental Women

2 How Kandukuri V Pantulu changed women’s lives in Andhra Pradesh

3 Swami Vivekananda’s Vision for Women

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