Saraladebi Chaudhurani, born into the famous Tagore family of Jorasanko, was a nationalist, a patron of the arts, a writer and an editor. Her essays and articles in Ramanada Chatterjee’s Modern Review, as well as in Bharati and Suprabhat, highlight her insights into nation-building as well as gender relations, but it is her extraordinary autobiography-presented here in translation-that most clearly presents her personal and political convictions.
Audacious, brilliant and outspoken for her time, Saraladebi’s work adds nuance and cultural heft to a particular Indian variation of what has been called “muscular nationalism” within a colonial milieu. Women womanhood and feminism occupy a contested position within Saraladebi’s notion of such a nationalism, yet there is little doubt that she is among India’s feminist foremothers.
Sikata Banerjee’s Introduction fleshes out biographical details, ad situates Saraladebi’s ideology within current debates around gender, nation and feminisms and also reflects on the legacy of her ideas in contemporary India.
Sikata Banerjee is Associate Dean. Humanities, and professor, Women’s Studies at the University of Victoria. British Columbia. Her publications include Make Me a Man: masculinity, Hinduism and Nationalism in India; and Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, violence and the Shiv Sena in India.
During the course of my research on gender and nation in India, I came across the thoughts of a remarkable nineteenth- century nationalist woman: Saraladebi Chaudhurani (1872- 1945). Saraladebi's mother, Swarnakumaridebi (1855-1932), a politically active writer in her own right, had an enviable intellectual pedigree. The sister of the internationally known poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), she enabled her daughter's maturation as a writer and thinker by providing access to the stimulating environment of one of Bengal's foremost literary families.
Saraladebi made good use of her background. As I read her thoughts in Suprabhat, Bharati, the Modern Review, and in modern collections in both Bengali and English translation, her insights into gender relations as well as nation building and citizenship intrigued me. But perhaps the most fascinating work I read was her autobiography, Jibaner Jharapata, which I have translated as The Scattered Leaves of My Life. As I read this book, it seemed to me that her personal and political musings would enrich and complicate the history of feminist thought both within and outside her homeland. I envision this translated work as an attempt to bring both Indian and international attention to the vibrant voice of an audacious woman.
A word about the actual process of translating. Another Bengali who has lived and worked in North America for many years, Gayatri Spivak, when introducing her translation of Mahasweta Devi's (1926-) stories, cautions us that 'there is never enough closeness of fit between languages for a formal feature of a work to be mapped across from one language to another without shift of value ... ' and that 'the translator chooses in accordance with his [sic] conception of the whole- there is no way of simply translating the words. These choices are based, literally, on preconceptions, pre-judgment, prejudice.' Acknowledging the difficulties of mapping from Bengali to English, I have made my own choices. In the interests of readability, I have edited freely, deleting portions of the text that offered what, I considered, only unnecessary details. I have selected and paraphrased, avoiding verbatim translation, which had the potential of destroying the lively spirit of this work.
I hope you enjoy Saraladebi's mind as much as I did.
The Quest for Manhood, Nation and Women in Saraladebi's India
'GOAL!' thundered eighty thousand spectators in Kolkata's soccer stadium when Abilash Ghosh of Mohun Bagan grabbed a quick pass from Shibdas Bhaduri and hit the ball into the net against East York. Within two minutes the final match for the Indian Football Association (IFA) shield between East York, a British military team, and Mohun Bagan, a team of Kolkata Bengalis, came to an end on July 29, 1911. So electrifying was the victory for Bengalis that many started tearing their shirts and waving them in the air. The event became international news as Reuter reported that '[f]or the first time in the history of Indian Football, a core Bengali team, Mohun Bagan, won the IFA Shield by defeating a competent White team.'
Saraladebi was a part of this jubilation. As she writes in her autobiography:
At that time, Radcliffesahib was the editor of The Statesman. We used to meet occasionally at dinner or evening parties, he knew what I was up to, and we used to discuss this openly at times. When Mohan Bagan won for the first time against agora [English or white] team, he was in England and I in the Punjab. He was then the editor of The Manchester Guardian. When reporting the unprecedented Bengali win against the goras, in The Manchester Guardian, he also wrote as a sidebar, 'We know that the person who will be the happiest at this news is a daughter of Bengal, Saraladebi.
This event in Kolkata touches a crucial cultural aspect of emerging nineteenth-century Indian nationalism among the Hindus of Bengal, namely, a quest for manhood. This quest was an integral part of a more general social phenomenon I term muscular nationalism.
Certain ideas of manhood and male bodies were/are intimately connected to interpretations of the modern nation. Values of martial prowess, muscular strength, a readiness to go to battle, patriotism, unwillingness to compromise, and moral fortitude, form the dominant embodiment of masculinity within many interpretations of nation. Both men and women respond to the call of a nationalism glorifying muscular warriors radiating an uncompromising moral resolve to defend their nation (us) against an easily recognizable enemy (them). Most importantly, this particular vision of masculinity needs an image against which it can define itself. 'Outsiders' form such an image and more often than not, become effeminized, that is, constructed with qualities opposite to those embodied by this view of masculinity (not strong, not martial). The location of the 'outsider' within this masculine discourse intersects nicely with the political doctrine of nationalism which usually constructs an 'other' who is used to reinforce ties uniting the nation. Frequently, the 'other' is effeminate and unable to withstand the militant martial prowess of the muscular national self. I term the intersection of masculinity and nationalism, 'muscular nationalism'.
Competing views of muscular nationalism were common in many cultural contexts. The most common iconic interpretation of manhood within this view of nation includes masculine warriors defending the feminised nation: Mother Russia, Britannia, Mother Ireland (Erin), Mother India, Marianne (France) and so on. Within nations which have had a history of British imperialism (e.g., Ireland and India) constructs of an oppositional muscular nationalism are usually imagined to challenge the yoke of imperialism and these cultural constructs have certain specific implication for women's lives in each context. Saraladebi's work adds nuance and cultural heft to a particular Indian interpretation of muscular nationalism within the colonial milieu. For the purposes of this translation it is worthwhile noting that women, womanhood, and feminism as well as the interpretation of the 'other' occupy a contested position within Saraladebi's muscular nationalism.
Her founding of the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (Indian Women's Association)-an organisation providing income generating and educational opportunities for women-and various speeches she made throughout her career as well as personal introspections locate her emphatically within the feminist foremothers of India. Indeed both Bharati Ray and Geraldine Forbes endorse such a perspective." However, others, like Jasodhara Bagchi, are more cautious, arguing that the notions of woman as heroic mother and chaste wife that complemented her view of muscular nationalism may challenge such an interpretation. In an act of scholarly ambiguity I would argue that both claims are true. By this I mean that feminism is a contested term, especially when we of the twenty- first century look back to the long and conflicted history of women's struggles over the past hundred years. Saraladebi's focus on the glory of her nation and her negotiation within patriarchy contained certain provocative inconsistencies. By this I mean that although she lived a strong and active life-at points challenging social mores-there is a hesitance to explicitly challenge conventions of patriarchal marriage, motherhood, and unequal distributions of gendered power. Indeed, one of the most poignant aspects of this text is her personal struggle to find her own independent voice.
A similar provocative inconsistency shaped her vision of the 'other' in her delineation of muscular nationalism. As argued above, muscular nationalism usually requires an enemy of the nation seen as a suspicious figure bent on weakening national strength. Who is the 'other' in Saraladebi's muscular nationalism? As this interpretation will indicate, the image of the national enemy shifts within Saraladebi's discourse, sometimes the Muslim male body poses a challenge to her view of nation while at others the ire of her muscular nationalism is directed at Indian men, Hindu or Muslim, who fail to embody the proper masculine traits.
Before I move onto highlight the contours of muscular nationalism with its associated views of womanhood and the 'other' within The Scattered Leaves, I offer a brief account of Saraladebi's social milieu as well as the role of women's writing in late nineteenth century Bengal to contexualise her particular interpretation of nationalism. But first some details about her life.
Saraladebi, born in 1872, grew up to be a rebellious and independent woman. Her mother, Swarnakumaridebi (1855- 1932), was the sister of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and father, Janakinath Ghosal (1840-1913), the son of a landowning family in Krishnanagar and a leader of the Indian National Congress. Swarnakumaridebi at twelve was married to a man in his late twenties. Janakinath refused to give into the time-honoured tradition of sons-in-law moving into the Tagore family house in Jorsanko and after his marriage, he and his wife established a separate household. But when he left for England to study, Swarnakumari and her children moved back to Jorasanko.
Saraladebi was born into the Tagore family located at the forefront of the various social, religious, and cultural movements shaping nineteenth century Bengal. Thakurbari at Jorasanko, the principal Tagore family seat, was always bustling with people, debate, music, and nationalist ventures. Dwarakanath Tagore (1794-1846) was a pioneer industrialist and his son Maharishi Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) was a leading member of the Brahmo Samaj. Of all Maharishi's sons, Rabindranath Tagore, who received a Nobel prize in literature was the most illustrious and revered. He was also Saraladebi's respected Rabimarna. But other sons also excelled in various fields. For example, Satyendranath (1842- 1923) was the first Indian member of the Civil Service. He supported women's education and took his wife Jnanadanandinidebi (1852-1941), to England with him and the various places in India to which he was posted as a member of the Civil Service. For a woman to leave the shelter of her in-laws' house and travel openly with her husband was a serious challenge to contemporary mores of womanly modesty and virtue defined by female relegation to spaces hidden from the 'outsider' male gaze. In her autobiography, Saraladebi repeatedly mentions them as Mejomama and Mejomami. Their children, her cousins, are her very dear Suren and Bibi. Finally, Maharishi's fourth son, Jyotindranath Tagore (1849-1925), Saraladebi's Natunmama, began the publication of the journal Bharati, which both Saraladebi and her mother edited.
She completed her B.A. at Bethune College and challenged the social conventions of her time by, at the age of twenty- three, taking a job in a school in Mysore. For an unmarried young woman to leave home and reside in a distant city was unheard of in 1895 Kolkata. From a young age Sarala was an ardent nationalist. Indeed Bharati Ray refers to her as India's first woman nationalist leader.l! At the age of thirty-three (1905) she became noted political activist Rambhuja Datta Chaudhury's third wife. She spent eighteen years in the Punjab with her husband, continuing her nationalist work, working with him to edit the weekly newspaper Hindustan. When the Rowlatt Act was passed, Sarala's husband was arrested for his anti-colonial writings, there was some talk of her being imprisoned also, but this did not come to pass. The newspaper was closed down. When Gandhi came to the Punjab in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre he was Sarala's house guest and thus began a close friendship. She took up the cause of swadeshi and spoke out publicly in its favour. Her support for Gandhi, led to some tension with her husband (released in 1919) who did not support Gandhi's non-violence movement. But they did send their only son to Gandhi's ashram for his education. Saraladebi's support for Gandhian philosophy is also interesting, given her early support for a muscular and martial nationalism (which will be elaborated in the following pages). Her only son, Dipak, married Gandhi's granddaughter.
Sarala returned to Bengal after the death of her husband in 1923. She continued with the editorship of Bharati until it stopped publication in 1927 and in 1930 founded the Bharat Stree Shiksha Sadan. She also took over the day-to-day running of the Bharat Stree Mahamandal which had been established in 1910. Her daily life remained busy with political speeches and activities. This included a trip to Rangoon where she was invited to speak at a Hindu Conference. This trip is worth mentioning as a woman travelling alone-without male protection-by ship to a foreign country was not very common in 1928. She retired from public life in 1935 and devoted herself to .a spiritual quest under the guidance of her guru Bijoykrishna Goswami until her death in 1945.
Saraladebi's Social Milieu
The Bengal in which Saraladebi was born into and lived, was undergoing significant changes, especially in terms of elite relations with the British colonial presence and the changing nature of cultural nationalism. These broader social changes had Important implications for women as authors who constructed and debated female subjectivities in the nation. Saraladebi's maturation as an author and political thinker unfolded against this milieu.
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