Tagore’s Views on Women's’ Education and Empowerment
Expressed Through His Articles, Novels and Short-Stories
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Where the mind is without fear
and the head
Is held high, where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into
Fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of
Truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost
Its way into the dreary desert sand of
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever widening thought and action…
Into that heaven of freedom, my father
Let my country awake. GITANJALI
The word education has a
Latin derivation from ‘educare’ which means bringing up children physically
and mentally. Education is basically a social process which is concerned with
how the student develops as an individual and in group relations. Its objective
is to prepare the individual for participation in society, and it serves as a
vehicle by which the culture of the group can be transmitted and perpetuated.
The efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to uplift the condition of women by education
them had its social impact. As early in 1819, a school for females was opened at
Calcutta by the Calcutta Female Juvenile Society. But education of women did not
make much progress because of the strict observance of the purdah and
superstitions fear of widowhood of an educated girl. Women’s education became
more common after the Hindu Girls’ College, the present Bethune College, was
established in May 1849 due to the efforts of J.E.D. Bethune, President of the
council of Education. Ishwar Chandra Vidhya Sagar, the great social
reformer of Bengal after Raja Ram Mohan Roy also played an important part in the
spread of women’s education.
With the advancement of Women’s education, the tempo of social changes
increased. The age of marriage of the girls of the upper middle class and also
their educational qualifications increased with the passage of time. This fact
can be noticed when we study the heroines and other female characters of
Tagore’s novels in a chronological order.
The heroine of Tagore’s first great novel, Binodini, published in 1903,
did not have any formal education even though her father appointed a European
Governess for his daughter’s instruction. Again in the same novel Asha, the wife
of the hero, Mahendra was an uneducated girl. Sucharita and Lolita in the novel
Gora (1910) did not have any college education since the story pertains to the
latter half of the last century. Though HemaMalini in The Wreck (1906) studied
in a college, she was not a graduate. Similarly, Bimla, the heroine of The Home
and the world had no formal education.
The heroines of the novels written in the interwar period (1918-39) were
educated Labanya, the heroine of Farewell My Friend written in 1928 was a post
graduate. Similarly Ela the heroine of Four Chapters.. written in 1934, was a
research scholar before she joined the revolutionary party.
Being the champion of the emancipation of women in the true tradition of Raja
Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidhya Sagar, Tagore through his novels brings
out the problems of the women of his age. For this purpose he makes women the
protagonists in almost all his novels. He tries to focus the attention of the
society on the major problems of the women such as:-(1) The struggle of the
modern educated young women for equality and freedom in the male-dominated
conservative society.(2) The plight of widows in the joint families who are economically exploited
and prevented from remarrying.
(3) The complications that arise in the family set up when the modern women
participate in the freedom struggle.
The novelistic world of Tagore embodies a vision of India caught up in the cross
current of opposing ideologies, of the questioning of the old or traditional
moral sanctions in search of self fulfillment, the clash between the reformist
an evivalist forces the conflict between the moderate and extremist elements in
politics as well as the eternal struggle in the human consciousness between love
and sacrifice. The novels Binodini, The Wreck and Chaturanga relate to some of
the pressing social issues which rocked the Bengali Hindu, society towards the
end of the last century. The first novel dramatizes the struggle of young
beautiful window for self actualization and selfhood in a social system that
denies all scope for such attempts. The heroine Binodini though brought up in a
village is skilled in all the households arts like cooking, knitting and
interior decoration. Her father despite his limited resources engaged an English
governess, to educate his daughter at home.
Binodini is very fortunate to
receive modern education which many girls of even the affluent classes were
denied, Modernity is ridiculed by Annapurna she taunts Mahendra, “Would you
rather have her as a modern girl, lazily longing about the whole day, reading
novels or doing fancy knitting wanted upon by other.”
Hemaline of the novel The Wreek is a traditional woman. She is the true
representative of the new emerging class of emancipated women of the early
twentieth century. Sucharita of the novel Gora heralds the age of the modern
women who refuse to sit idly at home. She is eager to serve the country and the
people. She is the precursor of Bimla (The Home and the World), Ela (Four
chapters) and Sarla (The garden) who show political awareness and interest in
freedom movement of the country. Sucharita surpasses the other heroines of
Tagore in her keen perception, critical judgment and liberal out look. She is
necessary for the growth of Gora’s personality and his self realization. Because
of her, he realizes that women too have a role to play-in the upliftment of the
country. In the same novel Lolita anticipates the modern women who rebels
against all, sorts of tyranny and oppression by at least a generation. She is
the harbinger of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the twentieth
century. Tagore forewarns people that the days of women of the Sita and Savitri
image are numbered. Women like Lolita are ready to come out of the portals of
tradition and orthodoxy and will not allow themselves to be oppressed by the
male dominated society.
Anandamoji appears to be a symbol to Tagore’s broad vision of life, liberal and
non-sectarian outlook and universal love. She echoes the novelist’s ideal of
heaven of freedom, where there is not barrier between man and man. She believes
that human beings are not born with caste and there is no reason why they can
not be united in wedlock in spite of their different religions. Anandamoyi is a
great rebel as a true follower of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. She does not care for the
traditional and orthodox practices proclaim her a rebel against the customs and
conventions of the conversation society. She is the only one in her class to
wear bodice. She is mockingly referred to by her people at ‘Mem Sahib’. Bimla in
the novel ‘The home and the world’ comments:-
“I was no longer the lady of the Rajah’s house, but the sole representative of
Bengal’s womanhood. And he was the champion of Bengal …I said within myself that
his language had caught fire from my eyes, for we woman are not only the deities
of the household fire, but the flame of the soul itself”. The theme of all the
novels of Tagore revolves around a woman. Among the modern heroines of Tagore
labanya (Farewell, my friend) is the first to take a post graduate degree and
earn her livelihood. Urmila (Two sisters) the western educated woman takes her
place in the company of Hemalini, Labanya. She is the first woman who goes to
Europe unescorted. Urmila plays tennis and is interested in literature and
The tragic condition of woman in Bengali society was best demonstrated in the
feudal backwardness of the society. In the question of woman’s emancipation
Tagore agreed with the enlighteners. The analysis of the stories of the nineties
confirms that as far as the questions of the position of woman in society was
concerned Tagore was never influenced by patriarchal views. It is not sheer
chance that in many of his stories Woman characters are drawn more powerfully
and in a brighter way than the characters of many spineless men. In the story
Punishment (1938) the author takes us to the world of poor peasants where woman
have no human rights. Tagore thus showed that woman protested against feudal
oppression. Though their protest is positive one it is important to note that
they resented against the set norms and customs and was not ready to accept
humiliation in a sub missive manner.
In the story ‘Atonement’ (1894) Anathbondhu like Jaigopal from the story
‘Elder Sister’ belongs to that section of middle class society which at the
first opportunity would used the helpless position of woman. Anath bondhu is an
idler whose only intention is to make money without much effort. He married
Bindhyabasini, a girl from a well-off family and led a parasitic life in the
house of his in-laws. The author depicting the tragic position of woman
emphasizes the real character of the heartless representatives of the middle
class through the character of Anathbondhu. In this story Tagore sharply
criticizes the meaninglessness of feudal religious rituals but the pathos of his
work in revealing the true picture.
Tagore in his stories also depicts the progressive section of the
intelligentsia, who ceaselessly struggled against fedul backwardness and
colonial oppression. In the story ‘The Renumciation’ Tagore shows the
harmful effect and backwards of caste system which was an obstacle in the
development of normal human relations and one of the main hurdle in overcoming
feudal backwardness of society. Peari Sankar utilizes the custom of prohibition
of inter-caste marriage and encourages Hemanta to marry Kusum belonging to a
Many stories of Tagore are devoted to the theme of exploitation of women. In the
most glaring manner this them is revealed by the author in “Elder Sister”
(1895).Tagore in this story shows that the middle class in spite of their
education were still sticking to old cruel feudal morals. Jaigopal, one of the
main characters of the story, is a typical representative of the middle class.
His wife Soshi, a modest and kind-hearted woman, loves him and greatly respects
him. Tagore reveals the extent of the submissiveness of Bengali women to their
husband, characteristic feature of Indian society for ages. Husband to the wife
was almost like God and disobedience to husband was considered a great sin. In
this story Tagore shows that had already stared protesting against humiliation
and injustice. Soshi fully realizing the difficulty of her position does not
despair and takes upon her the odious task of defending her brother. When Soshi
approached the Deputy Magistrate for help, he refused to help an unprotected
woman. He did not approve that a lady from a respectable family should come out
of her home and start a dispute with her husband and property. Soshi dies
struggling against injustice. Her death symbolizes the awakening of women. In
the character of Soshi a splendid picture of Bengali Women has been revealed.
Their brave, decisive and kind nature capable of loving intensely and struggling
for justice has been reflected in the story.
Tagore as a whole suggests an emerging pattern seeking to encompass his vision
of Indian reality and his adumbration of ideas about the nature of Indian
society and culture caught up in the throes of radical change. Tagore’s
distinctiveness lies in his responding positively to the forces of historical
acceleration in Indian milieu without abandoning the age-old values Tagore also
shows their keen practical sense and the purposive ness of their character.
Tagore believed in progress and in freeing women from feudal bondage and he also
believed that given equal rights and opportunities they may occupy their
rightful place in society side by side with men.
1. Humayun Kabir: Rabindranath Tagore, Tagore LECTURES 1961(Londen School of
Oriental and African studies, 1961) p.29.
2. Edward Thompson: Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Works rev by Kalidas Nag
(Calcutta Y.M.C.A Publishing House, 1961)
3. Bhabani Bhattacharya: “Tagore as a Novelist” in Rabindranath Tagore,
1861-1961, a centenary volume, ed. S. Radhakrishnan (New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi
4. G.V. Raj : Tagore, The Novelist , sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, New
5. Humayun Kabir (ed): Towards universal Man Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1961
6. M.Sarada: Rabindranath Tagore: A study of women charactersin his novels,
Sterling publishers Pvt.Ltd.(1983)
Dodiya (New Delhi : Prestige: 19999): 149-155.
5. Qtd. U.R. Anantha Murthy, Introduction to Tughlaq(Delhi:OUP,1972):VIII.
6. rajinder paul, “Girish Karnad Interviewed, “Enact, no. 54(june 1971): 2-6.
7. Three plays, translated by Girish Karnad (Delhi: OUP, 1994).
8. Veena Noble Das, “Use and Abuse of History in Tughlaq”, Girish Karnad’s
plays: Performance and Critical Perspective (ed.) Tutan Mukherjee. (New Delhi :
Penecraft International, 2006): 91-95.
Ram Sharma, Lecturer in English,
Janta Vedic College MEERUT, U.P.
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