I started on this topic by chance. The plan was to get to the origin of a particular song. The song was one that I had previously written about, sung by the person I covered then, the sonorous Kozhikode Abdul Khader. The song being Padan orthoru madhurita ganam….as the words went ‘The sweet song that I wanted to sing’…..I knew that it was the 13th poem from Gitanjali. It was no mystery that it came to the Malayalee singer’s lips, for in those days much was borrowed from Bengali writings. Malayalees found emotional and intellectual attachment to Bengalis and what Bengali’s wrote. Books were eagerly devoured; many were promptly translated and discussed in mehfils and clubs and sometimes in the press. Tagore was a revered writer in Kerala and his books and poems have been available in stores since ages. I think it was G Sanakara Kurup who first translated his Gitanjali.
Anyway that song again came into my memories and soon the story behind it had caught me by the throat and I was researching it with gusto, wandering about the 3rd and 5th floors of NCSU Davis hall libraries in search of material and sources.
Until then, I had not bothered to get into the details of Tagore’s personal life, nor had I seen Ray’s Charulatha. Soon I did and dove to depths that I had not believed I would, for the story was enthralling. The mysterious lady at the centre of it all still refused to come out and show her true self and I found that as her family had wanted, she would always remain an apparition, a maid of the mist so to speak. But after so many books and articles, I got a brief and general idea and so friends, here we go, to a period long ago, a period when children were children and adolescents were adolescents and when joint family was the norm. Simple, don’t you think? Only it never was. It was far too complicated.
Tagore himself wrote sentences and poems and books and even mentioned that his story can be found between the words and sentences, if a person who could understand looked deep. But translations are not always perfect, and I knew that Gitanjali has moved people so deeply that even Bulunt Ecevit the Turkish premier learned Sanskrit (or was it Bengali) to enjoy it better and later translated it into Turkish. The people of Bengal have covered Tagore’s personal angle though not tackling it head on, so many times in the press and in books, some have fictionalized it, some have guessed the reasons and as I said before a great film maker even put to celluloid the story of that relationship, basing it on Tagore’s own novel Nashta Nir or “the Broken nest’.
A good writer uses his own experiences many a time to draw a caricature of the protagonist and the other characters of the movies, or to set the scene, and this was a classic case in Nashta Nir. Even today Bengali’s argue at length and with great passion supporting either the she or the he in this story. But for those who wonder what it is all about, here goes…I will not dwell too much on Tagore and his accomplishments for that is all available in text on various media, but for those who want to know about his muse, about the very essence of his early life, the reasons behind his early creative output, look no further, and try to get to know Kadambari Devi. I will not make judgments or conclusions, but will definitely provide my leanings & inclinations, for we are talking about human beings, much like us, though greatly and brilliantly talented. By being a genius does not elevate one to any special moral and godly pedestal and as some great people state it in simple words, it is simple and basic human actions, inactions and mis-actions which come out as an artiste’s work to enthrall us. This therefore is the story of Kadamabari born exactly a hundred years before me…..as I understood it.
We go to a mansion in Calcutta called Jorasanko Thakurbari, and into the hallways of the large house. The grandfather, the patriarch (a stony hearted Zamindar) Dwarakanath had amassed a fortune and a fiefdom from his Indigo and opium cultivation with the British and had established his large image. The son, however, though fathering a 15 member lineage, was not into successful business but was more involved with creating the Brahmo Samaj. It is to his joint family that we will pay a visit. It is situated at the Chittaranjan Ave and Dwarakanath Tagore intersection in Calcutta. The sprawling mansion, as Chitralekha Basu from the China Daily once wrote, branching out into several wings, cradling a largish courtyard illuminated by its dazzling white walls, is still pillar-box red in most parts, contrasting dramatically with the forest green on the foliage, and the wooden rails holding the ornamental grills, girdling the never-ending balconies.
Today that house has many rooms open to the public and is tastefully decorated. You will, as you walk around, find a room which is dedicated to Tagore and Mrinalini, his wife, and then the guide, if you had one that is, has finished his tour, would mention that there is a room which remains locked, an attic room. That was Kadambari’s abode. It is not open to public, but there was a time when it was the world for Robi (Rabindranath) and older brother (Jyothirindranath) and Jyothirmoy’s wife Kadambari who was roughly the same age as Rabi. The terrace where the girl bride made a small roof garden, was where Robi started out with his poetry and where Kadamabri listened to them and provided ample criticism, goading the young talent to greater and greater heights. Jyothirmoy, though 12 years older, was his mentor in many ways and initiated Robi into the world of music, thus forming a threesome intensely involved in reading, creating poetry and music. I am starting out with three young people now, not a hallowed Nobel Prize winner and his secrets, and is deliberate in not accepting him as a great person at this stage. That we will come to, much later and as the story runs it course.
In those hallowed halls and many rooms, lived the father the Brhamo Maharshi and his 15 children. The youngest of the children was Rabi (Rabindranath).
This story starts with Jyothirmoy’s marriage to a nine year old Matangini Ganguly of Jessore, the year being 1868. Carr, tagore and Co, which made fortunes with Indigo had collapsed and son Debendranath Maharshi was not a great admirer of the British. The family of Tagore’s were highly literate an even the women in the household were encouraged to delve deep into the Bengali literary world. But it was also orthodox in many ways and men married young girls, color was sacrosanct, as there is an instance of a young bride not being fair enough (Satyendranath (ICS)’s wife) being scrubbed daily with potions to make her fairer…That was the house where the child Robi was growing up and the home where the child bride Kadambari (Matangini renamed) arrived. Soon the two young kids stuck a rapport and Robi would be found often in the women’s quarters, with his playmate Kadambari. Robi took to her fancy and other women by reading Kalidasa’s works. But it was also a typical ancestral home where antagonism and back biting existed and ran akin to many of the TV soaps we see today. On the other hand, many of Tagore’s brothers dabbled in writing. The large home had a fair share of mental illness too, with two of Robi’s brothers spending much of their time in asylums.. I hope you are getting the hang of the place now.
Jyothirmoy, the most aristocratic product of the household was a fierce anti colonial person and even created a new dress which was part trousers part dhoti and wore a turban toupee even though it was banned. He was a born musician to his peers and many others who wrote about him, such as Rothstein and Satyajit Ray. He was an actor & director dabbling in theatre, and his debonair attitude was to cast in Robi’s life a companionship ‘as necessary to my soul…as the monsoon after a fiery summer’. Robi too was caught up with patriotism and read his poems at mela’s and participated in secret and public rallies.
As Krishna Dutta writes - During the 1870’s, a highly affectionate, teasing, somewhat childish relationship grew up between Kadambari, who remained childless and somewhat lonely, and the budding poet Rabi, especially after the death of his mother Sharada in 1875.”…..Whereas music drew him to Jyothindranath, with Kadambari, literature was the first bond. Kadambari seems to have read whatever Rabi wrote as soon as he wrote it…She would cook special dishes for him…Rabi says in his memoirs – My new sister in law could cook well and enjoyed feeding people. As soon as I came from school some delicacy made with her own hands stood ready for me. One day she gave me shrimp curry with yesterdays soaked rice, and a dash if chillies for flavoring and I felt that I had nothing left to wish for…that was his bouthakrun (young sister in law) ……and since then many of his stories have characters based on bouthakruns…
It was a special relationship, what they called in Bengal the Nothun botun – debar relationship which sanctioned a great level of intimacy but stopping somewhat before the border…
Tagore explains in a poem written in 1939..
Hesitantly I tried to come a little close
To her in a striped sari, my mind in a whirl
But there was no doubting her frown, I was a child
I was not a girl, but a different breed.
Soon the unwelcome intruder was an interesting visitor, and Robi started attending his mother’s gatherings in the terrace for the women of the household, making grand lectures and recitations of Ramayana in Sanskrit and translating them with some dollops of exaggeration to the amused ladyfolk. Strangely in that family of learned, Tagore was a loner with no formal education; he was considered a ‘good for nothing’ academically, flunking out of school very early.
Life went on and Tagore was soon sent away to England to become a barrister. In preparation he spent time at his brother Satyandranath’s mansion in Ahmadabad where he read English books to sharpen his somewhat poor English. Soon he was off to London, but on arrival he hated the place and missed his home and sister in law. So by 1880, he was back in Bengal, studies unfinished, writing and singing and soon published his Bhagna Hriday which caught the fancy of the prince of Tripura who became his financial sponsor, this family continued to be his sponsors all his life. Why are we talking about Tagore, we were supposed to be talking about Kadamabri, right? You see, their lives were so intertwined all these years, she was always openly disapproving but then again Kadambari was the person Robi always wanted to please. Tagore dedicated his book Bhagna Hriday to Shrimati He…Kadambari. This was also the period when their relationship, the threesome’s that is to say was at its most intimate level. Jyothi and he were deeply involved in music, and drama and Kadambari an avid critic.
Dwarakanath, Tagore’s grandfather as we saw earlier, was an opium exporter. Rabi hated it and called the shipments the death traffic, and supported China who he believed was being destroyed by England. Little was he to know that the very same drug would play an even bigger role in his own life. But in the midst of this, Tagore was soon bound for London, but he cancelled it midway (1881). Instead he moved to Chandarnagore, part of French Calcutta with his brother and kadambari. Wandering around woods collecting berries and riding or swimming, Jyothirmoy, Kadambari and Tagore spent the summer at Morans garden. The brothers sang and composed, Robi wrote many articles and poems, during this trip. It was a peaceful idyllic sojourn, far from the hustle and bustle of Calcutta.
Something was happening between Robi and Kadambari during this period, we do not know any details, but we do know that she attempted suicide. Was Tagore trying to drift away? Was he enamored by other women? Or were they getting even more deeply attached? Robi perhaps tried to warn his brother at that time by writing a poem ‘Suicide of a star’. Gossip was increasing in the Jorosonko house and Robi soon moved to a house rented by his elder brother and away from his beloved Nothun Bouthen, to concentrate on writing.
The Nothun bouthen was anguished and close to losing her life, but why? Was it because Jyothirnath had no time for her? Was the platonic relationship between her and Robi changing to something else? Who was the instigator? Was Robi falling in love with Kadambari? That a certain level of intimacy is permitted between the debar and the nothun bouthan in Calcutta of the past is well known, but who drew the border? Did the border shift or did one of them cross it? Tagore as we saw, moved out of the family house to his brother Satyendranath’s (he had returned from UK) house. Why would he do that? Was life becoming difficult at Jorasanko (for him or Kadambari?)? He moved again with his elder brother to Karwar. Tagore was 22 then. In the meantime, the Jorasanko ladies including Kadambari started a lookout for a bride for Robi. Marriage was being discussed and he was soon involved in the match making, even checking out a girl in Madras. Rabi was on that occasion was enthralled by the more beautiful girl, who unfortunately happened to be the step mother of the rather ‘plain’ girl in the market.
One fine day he was summoned by his father and within days (Dec 1883) married off to a plain & illiterate child bride (but of the same Piralai caste as Dwarakanath had insisted) just 10 years old, named Bhabatarini, daughter of an estate hand. Rabi did not complain, he obeyed his father and sat impassively through the event conducted in his own house. Many of the family were not even present, even the father came a month later, presented four gold mohurs and departed. The brides name was changed to Mrinalini and she was immediately sent away to a convent school for studies & polishing. Rabi and Mrinalini did not live together for over a year.
Why was he married off to a lesser status house, that too in a hurry? Was it because he had earlier found the girls in England like Ana Turkhud attractive? Was it something to do with Kadambari? Was there something else wrong in Jorasanko? Why was Tagore not happy with the marriage? We have unfortunately no clues or facts to provide any answers. But we do know one thing, he wrote a set of poems in 1884, again dedicated to Kadambari, some days before his marriage while at his elder sister in law Jnanadanandini’s house. The song Rahur prem ..the song of bodiless Rahu in love with the moon and swallowing her occasionally in eclipse was probably one that precipitated the relationship with Kadambari. He wrote…
"From the very beginning of time, you have been my partner because I am your shadow. You could better see me in your smile and tears.... You will be surprised to see me gazing on your face in the pitch darkness when you are wrapped in a blanket of despair...
Wherever you turn, you will see me. My shadow will taper off to the sky but it will enshroud the whole world. My miserable voice and sinister smile will resound in all directions because I have an insatiable hunger... In short, I am a malady to your mind and body. I am the sword piercing your heart. Just as the night comes at the end of the day, I am behind you and that is your destiny". (from "Rahu"s love).
Some months later, on the 21st April 1884, Kadambari committed suicide by an overdose of opium. She suffered for two days before her eventual death. The mandatory suicide letter was destroyed, together with the coroner’s report and all her other letters and diaries. The expense for suppressing the facts & events was duly recorded in the family ledger, Rs 52.00.. With that Kadambari the enigma, vanished from this world, mysteriously…
That there could be any gap in the unbroken procession of the joys and sorrows of life was a thing I had no idea of. I could therefore see nothing beyond, and this life I had accepted as all in all. When of a sudden death came and in a moment made a gaping rent in its smooth-seeming fabric, I was utterly bewildered. All around, the trees, the soil, the water, the sun, the moon, the stars, remained as immovably true as before; and yet the person who was as truly there, who, through a thousand points of contact with life, mind, and heart, was ever so much more true for me, had vanished in a moment like a dream. What perplexing self-contradiction it all seemed to me as I looked around! How was I ever to reconcile that which remained with that which had gone?
The terrible darkness which was disclosed to me through this rent, continued to attract me night and day as time went on. I would ever and anon return to take my stand there and gaze upon it, wondering what there was left in place of what had gone. Emptiness is a thing man cannot bring himself to believe in; that which is not, is untrue; that which is untrue, is not. So our efforts to find something, where we see nothing, are unceasing.
Just as a young plant, surrounded by darkness, stretches itself, as it were on tiptoe, to find its way out into the light, so when death suddenly throws the darkness of negation round the soul it tries and tries to rise into the light of affirmation. And what other sorrow is comparable to the state wherein darkness prevents the finding of a way out of the darkness?
One could speculate, One angle is that Jyothirnidranth was in deep debt, his stage activities and his business were floundering and he was perhaps involved in a fling with an actress (some letters were found in his coat pocket the day Kadam decided to take her own life). It is also known that Kadam was upset because Jyothirmoy would not take her for a party on the steamer. Then again, Rabi had drifted away by now, the threesome were no longer together and Rabi was living with his senior sister in law. He was no longer the Rahu waiting to envelop the moon. It is even said that Kadambari herself chose the unattractive bride from the estates hoping that Robi would turn down the proposal, but he accepted. Was it because of Robis’ entanglement with Ana? Finally, the childless Kadambari had previously adopted the youngest daughter of Swarnakumari, Rabi’s sister, but by late 1879, she died. By 1883, Kadamabari was sick, possibly suffering from deep and long bouts of depression, for which she had no outlet. And so, one day, she took her life.
Tagore recovered and continued to write and started Shantiniketan, and got deeply involved in his own world. Kadambari was forgotten at Jorasanko, but Tagore continued to include her in his writings. He had dreams and nightmares frequently of her and sketched faceless women, many alluding to memories of Kadambari. In fact Tagore even admitted to the artist Nandalal Bose when he was in his late seventies that it was Kadambari's eyes which lay behind the hundreds of haunting portraits of women he painted in old age. At one time, he even talked to Sigmund Freud and studied his works, to look into himself.
Kadamabari – ah the mystery lady…we know she loved poetry, music and literature, we know she read a lot, something not taken easily by the other women in the household and she cooked well, from what we know, bringing many new dishes to the household. The young Rabi was intensely jealous if she went away to visit relatives, but Kadambari handled him with much aplomb. She loved flowers and birds, it was she who converted the terrace to a garden and she who incessantly criticized him always, except his slicing of the betelnut, by doing it she perhaps kept his vanity in check as his poems brought him fame, little by little…but it was indeed a complex relationship which could never have ended ‘happily ever after’ for any of the three involved. Tragedy eventually struck Kadambari but that was to teach Tagore the essence of creation, that being pain….
That was Shrimati He, the Notun bouthan of Jorasanko. You can see her and feel her in Tagore’s poems, sangeeth and books. Read deep and you will perhaps find out more about her as Tagore intended.
Bandana Mukopadhyay sums it up very well…..As a central character of Tagore's personal life, Kadambari is all but forgotten, snuffed out for having committed suicide, disgraced for her indiscretion that she had dared to love unwisely, ignored for her socially unacceptable role in the making of a poet whose genius knew no bounds.
She was ultimately the one sacrificed and forgotten, in the midst of the people of Jorasanko searching for success and recognition.
Tagore survived, became stronger with the knowledge of grief and wrote prodigiously, but remembering his Nothun bouthen often…for she lived always, in his heart…..
Rabindranath Tagore Krishna Kriplani
Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man - Dutta, Robinson & Desai
Selected letters – Tagore, Dutta, Robinson
Tagore – Sriparna Basu
Satyajit Ray: the inner eye Andrew Robinson
Tagore – Sisir Kumar Bose
Gateway to the life of Tagore – Chitralekha Basu – China Daily
pic - Kadambari - Telegrapgh India