Histories of the sprawling aristocratic Bengali joint families seem to follow an inevitable trajectory. There’s the glory of the original patriarch who is responsible for the fame and wealth of the family.
There’s the gradual erosion of that wealth as his lesser entrepreneurial minded descendants mismanage or spend it away. It eventually descends into petty squabbling and domestic politics before resulting in an acrimonious split usually over property. The Tagore family, the famous residents of Jorasanko, it seems followed this predictable pattern of events till they were rescued by the luminous brilliance of Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath is the most famous inhabitant of Jorasanko. Of this there is no doubt. The mercurial poet, writer, playwright and musician occupies a position in the much-lauded pantheon of Bengali heroes that is second to none. And Rabindranath is still primarily the reason people write books about the Tagores. However, what makes Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti an immensely interesting read is that it’s not exclusively concerned with Rabindranath or the other male stalwarts of the Tagore family. The main protagonists of the story are the women of the Tagore household.
It’s not that the Tagore women haven’t been written about before. Chitra Das’s Women of the Tagore Household was published just a couple of years ago and it covered the lives of many remarkable women of the Tagore household, many more than are mentioned in Jorasanko.
However, this is no historical chronicle; or an attempt to rescue from the footnotes of history the various achievements of Tagore family women in public life. Nor is it only concerned with the women who successfully rebelled against the prevailing patriarchy. You get the sense reading Jorasanko that Chakravarti writes about these women because they were interesting individuals and not merely because they happened to carry the title of Tagore. And this particular distinction makes the book unique.
The story begins with Jnanadanandi or Genu as she arrives with great fanfare at the doorstep of the famous Tagore family house of Joransanko. Only eight she’s already the wife of the adult Satyendranath Tagore. It’s Jnadanandini who holds the narrative together, she who had arrived as a cowed little girl is transformed through her own agency and with the constant encouragement of her husband into a modern, relatively emancipated woman. She crosses not only the imprisoning boundaries of the andar mahal of Jorasanko but in an unthinkable move for a Bengali woman of the time travels with her civil servant husband to different parts of India. Later she even travels to England along with her little children but without her husband.
A spirited woman she takes on the established order of the Jorasanko household eventually setting up with her family an extremely rare nuclear household in Bengal. She’s of course been lauded by other authors for her trendsetting ways in these respects along with her maverick way of wearing a saree. It became famous all over Bengal for affording women the freedom of movement without sacrificing the familiar feel of the traditional garment.
However, Jorasanko is hardly a hagiography of Jnadanandini or the other remarkable women of the Tagore household. Jnadanandini is portrayed as a stubborn and imperious to the point of being contemptuous of other women who didn’t fit her ideal of a modern woman. In the book she is one of the main reasons behind the isolation of the beautiful and melancholic Kadambari, wife of her brother-in-law Jyotindranath.
There is the recurring theme of extraordinary emotional attachment between the Tagore men of Rabindranath’s generation and their sisters-in-law.
First between Jnanadanandini and Jyotindranath and later between Kadambari and her brother-in-law Rabindranath. It’s not difficult to see why. These women —married off at an extremely young age -- had nothing in common with their much older husbands. Instead they found companionship which grew to deep attachments with their similarly aged brothers-in-law.
And so Jnadanandini actively sought and coveted her all too easily enamoured brother-in-law’s attention and time leaving Kadambari with nothing but loneliness and neglect. And while Rabindranath who had fallen deeply in love with Kadambari was her constant companion in her early days at the Tagore household, he too was whisked away by Jnadanandini completely isolating her and possibly leading to her suicide. In a cyclical turn of fate, Rabindranath’s enduring love and fascination with Kadambari in turn leads to the neglect of his wife Mrinalini.
Jorasanko never avoids complexity to highlight a narrative agenda. The Tagore women are illuminated warts and it gives the reader a sense that they’re reading about real people beholden to the same failings and virtues like the rest of us. The eschewing of tradition and partriarchy by certain Tagore women are lauded of course but never glorified in the book. The women who succumbed to the pressures of patriarchy at the Tagore household are given as much thought and space as those who transcended it. This is not to say that the story confines itself to merely domestic politics and tragic love stories.
The context and the texture of the period of the Bengali Renaissance and the conflicted characters of the Tagore men caught between domestic traditionalism and public liberality is brought out beautifully through the narrative. The fact that Chakravarti is able to flesh out such varieties of characters in a nuanced manner and do justice to them all is a feat of great storytelling. She is able to effortlessly blend historical detail and social context with the highly poignant emotional lives of the individual. And this makes the book a true delight to read.