Portrayal of Women by Rabindranath Tagore

The greatest poet, philosopher, and artist Rabindranath Tagore wrote many stories, plays, dramas and novels; painted over 3,000 pictures; and took an interest in science. Apart from all this, he wrote broadly on women, although that is not much talked-about part of his work. In the short stories of Tagore, struggles and sufferings of women are accentuated, and the roles of his female characters, as well as their inner strength, keep on changing with a change in the society. The short story Laboratory that he had written a few months before his death, shows a new woman of that time. Overall, three aspects of women’s life–relationship between men and women, their social oppression, and the avatar of a new woman who is confident and makes her own decisions–have been depicted by Tagore. He recommended women to find their own identity, as wifehood and motherhood are just part of their entire self.

In Tagore’s writings, women are portrayed in varied ways. Though most of the female characters in his work lived a traditional life, they were not at all passive. Rather, they were outspoken. Also, a woman was portrayed either as a lover or a mother, such as in Dalia and Joy Parajoy (Victory and Defeat). His first short story on women was Beggar Girl (1877).

Tagore’s writings can be categorized into different phases:

  • In the early phase of his writings (1881-1897), the social injustice against women was the main area of concern. The inner strength of a woman was depicted through mythological female deities. Tagore emphasized that women should not be passive under any circumstance.
  • The second phase of his writings (1893-1913) was regarded as the most imaginative phase by William Cenkner, former Associate Professor of History of Religions at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. During this phase, the Indian woman was portrayed as an urban and educated woman. They were coming up with a new vigour in Bengali society, like his heroine in Bachelors’ Club (1900), who fights for human rights.
  • In the third phase of his writings (1914-1941), women in were openly speaking against the ills of the society, like untouchability, the caste system, and religious pretense. Much emphasis was given on higher education of women.

Rabindranath Tagore was fully aware of women’s role in the society. Almost all his female characters were plotted in traditional plots, but were yet very strong. His campaign for women’s liberation was ahead of its time. So the portrayal of women in his work can be regarded as one of his most important contributions to the society.

Last year, the entire India witnessed the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on her way back to home with her friend. The media has given her different names, including Damini. This was the name of the female character in Tagore’s 1916 novel Chaturanga.

His novel Jogajog accentuates the issue of marital rape. Not only this, but many social issues were picked up by Tagore in his writings, such as child marriage, dowry, wife burning, etc. Tagore’s other writings, like Chandalika and Shyama, also revolve around female characters.

Tagore also laid the foundation of co-education by starting it at Santiniketan.

Literature plays an important role in the establishment and growth of the society. Plots depicted in fictional writings are inspired from the reality. So do not treat stories just as stories but understand the ills of the society and try to work on those fronts.