Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011

Female Sexuality:
An Intertextual Analysis of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray

Saumitra Chakravarty

  1. As we approach the one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, it is necessary to re-define and reiterate the far-sightedness and comprehensiveness of his work on our own terms. If the Nobel Prize carried his words beyond Indian shores as early as the second decade of the twentieth century, the cinema as a visual medium popularised in the later decades, was instrumental to a large extent in exposing him at various international forums. In this essay, I will attempt an exposition through the meeting point of the two men—India's first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and her only life-time Oscar winner, Satyajit Ray. Andrew Robinson, writing of the link between the two says, 'Tagore and Ray are indissolubly bound. If non-Bengalis know Tagore at all today, it is mainly by virtue of Ray's interpretations of him on film.'[1]
  2. The question to be raised in this essay is how do these two geniuses Tagore and Ray, complement (or confront?) each other in the exploration of the status of women in the upper class society of Bengal? The changing status of women, a product of the social reform movements of the nineteenth century, must be viewed against the emergence of the monotheistic Brahmo Samaj, its protest against Hindu polytheism, orthodoxy and the concomitant social evils like the caste system, the victimisation of women in a patriarchy through the practices of sati (immolation of a widow on the husband's funeral pyre), child marriage and kulin[2] polygyny.
  3. I have deliberately posed the question of confrontation because the intertextuality of fiction and film, of translating the written word onto the cinema screen, is at best problematic. Robert Stam, in an introductory essay on The Theory and Practice of Adaptation, says, 'The conventional language of adaptation criticism has often been profoundly moralistic, rich in terms that imply that cinema has somehow done a disservice to literature.'[3] Stam goes on to say that one of the sources of hostility to adaptation is iconophobia, the fear of exposing the subtle symbolism of the written word to the more explicit iconography employed by the cinematographer. While this essay will delve into the possible ramifications of this fear in the context of the two, its primary connotation emerges in the cinema's handling of the works of a literary figure who is Bengal's most revered icon, who, even today enjoys bardic status, even when the maker of that adaptation is no less a figure than Satyajit Ray. It is further problematic because the subject under consideration here is Tagore's analysis of the emergence of the New Woman (nabeena), battling the confines of prescribed space within the andar mahal/antahpur (inner domain) of the home in a patriarchal society in a pre-colonial context. How does Ray, paying his centennial tribute to Tagore in the 1960's and thereafter, present this to a more permissive post-colonial generation for whom the stained glass windows of the andar mahal of Victorian mansions had long since collapsed. Talking of just such a dilemma of depicting Charulata's barely-controlled extra-marital passion for her brother-in-law Amal in Tagore's short story Nastanirh, on which Ray made a film he called Charulata, Andrew Robinson comments, 'Like so much that Tagore did, Nastanirh attracted adverse criticism from Bengalis at the time. The story gave the foundations of family life a shake, which many people resented. He (Ray) found people still sensitive to the issue sixty years later, 'A lot of people seemed to think it was a very risky subject because of the illicit relationship. I never had any such doubts at all. I made the film and it was proved that I was right, because it was very widely accepted.'[4] The contentious issue of repressed sexuality of the new woman vis à vis the old, will be examined in this essay with particular reference to two of Tagore's works, his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and his short story Nastanirh (The Destroyed Nest) both of which were made into powerful movies by Ray.
  4. Any discussion on the changing status of women must be viewed as earlier noted in this essay, against the socio-religious background of the Brahmo Samaj and the resultant reform movement of the Bengal Renaissance. With the spread of Western education and the availability of Western texts, the bi-lingual upper-class élite in Bengali society was deeply influenced by Western philosophy and the histories of social revolution and religious reform in Europe. Raja Rammohan Roy (credited with being instrumental in the abolition of sati) and Dwarkanath Tagore (Tagore's grandfather), established the monotheistic Brahmo Samaj.[5] The Samaj was at the forefront of the social reform movements of the time. It was more egalitarian in worship than the Hindu religious order, allowed free mixing of the sexes in the prayer meetings, called for female education, widow re-marriage and the advancement of the age of marriage for girls. It benefitted not only the members of the Samaj, but brought about the winds of change through the Bengal Renaissance of which humanists like Tagore, the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee,[6] educationist Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and the religious leader Swami Vivekananda, were at the forefront. Incidentally, Satyajit Ray was also a member of the Samaj. However, this socio-religious movement of the Samaj, also caused a deep divide within Bengali society between those committed to reform and those entrenched in Hindu orthodoxy—a divide nowhere more evident than in the plight of the occupants of the andar mahal and that of their more liberated counterparts. Partha Chatterjee calls it the spiritual/material dichotomy.[7]
  5. The andar mahal[8] was a sacrosanct domain within which upper class women were contained and confined by a patriarchal society, unseen by men beyond the immediate family and to which even husbands had access only at night. The nineteenth century re-invented this domain as a sort of sanctum sanctorum of Indian spirituality and heritage in what Partha Chatterjee calls the last frontier of uncolonised space where no encroachments by the coloniser could be permitted by Indian men who were themselves exposed to Western culture and education and adhering to the Western value system in public life. The victim of this male desire for preservation of tradition was the woman, stereotyped as chaste wife (pativrata stree), willing womb or repressed widow. The ideals of womanhood in orthodox Hindu society were re-enforced by allusions to mythical and epical references to female chastity, thus introducing a religious dimension to the worship (Tagore uses the word bhakti at the beginning of Ghare Baire) and care of the husband. The emergence of the New Woman towards the end of the nineteenth century, educated, liberated, dressed differently from her more traditional counterparts[9] and exposed to the 'provocations' of 'literacy and literature', yet confined to the andar mahal, precipitated a serious clash of personalities. It is this clash that Tagore exteriorises through the study of repressed female sexuality and Ray through a series of symbols signifying the dramatic turmoil within women like Charu in Charulata and Bimola in Ghare Baire. These are portraits of lonely, sensitive, dissatisfied women locked away in ornate affluence in enormous Victorian mansions. These women are counterpoised in both Tagore and Ray against their more traditional counterparts (pracheena). Instances of the latter are seen in Manda (Charu's brother's wife, and one of a large retinue of dependants thriving on her husband's largesse) and Bimola's widowed sister-in-law, also dependant on the generosity of Nikhilesh, Bimola's zamindar[10] husband in Ghare Baire. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, in a serious critique of the dichotomy between the progressive woman and the orthodox in his essay Pracheena and Nabeena, decries the loss of a traditional value system, which included chastity, respect for and care of the husband, disciplined domestic labour and philanthropy as a religious observance. The nabeena he says, with her insufficient learning, has lost the values and the dharma of her traditional counterpart and not benefited from the values to be inculcated from modern education. Laziness and excessive leisure is at the root of all domestic ills.[11]
  6. Both Charu and Bimola fail the first requirement of patriarchal stereotyping, they are empty-wombed. Though they do not suffer the social stigma attached to the same owing to pride of position, their childlessness certainly generates the sexual crisis which later brings about their downfall and which motherhood might well have averted. The question whether they remain childless due to their husbands' treatment of them as if they are fragile commodities to be handled with care and reverence, remains unanswered. Their husbands are kind, gentle, affectionate and without any addiction to the typical upper-class vices of wine and women. Women like Charu and Bimola (as also Monimalika in Tagore's Monihara, filmed by Ray as part of his trilogy on Tagore's women characters), apparently have everything; large Victorian mansions scattered with expensive European bric-a-brac, (among them gilded, ornamental mirrors, whose significance will be discussed later in the essay) a retinue of servants, leisure, privacy and encouragement to pursue their literary hobbies far from the prying eyes of the large number of dependants who were an inevitable part of such households. These were privileges unknown to many of their less fortunate peers.
  7. However, while Charu's husband Bhupati, kind, indulgent and affectionate as he is, remains absorbed in the political news sheet he publishes with great passion (ironically he calls it Charu's co-wife or shotin at a time when polygyny was still in practice), Bimola's zamindar husband Nikhilesh's attraction towards her borders on

    Figure 1. Charulata with her lorgnette. Source: Life, Films and Film-making of, online:, accessed 19 September 2010.
    obsession. The opening scenes of the two movies accentuate this difference. Ray's film Charulata opens with a shot of Charu wandering restlessly around the huge mansion, picking up a volume of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novel Kapalkundala, focusing her lorgnette through the closed shutters of the window at the roadside scene, while the grandfather clock chimes in the background. Bhupati enters lost in thought, passes her by without being aware of her presence, picks up a book and returns to his work. Again she picks up her lorgnette and this time focuses it on him. In contrast, Ghare Baire opens with Bimola trying on her expensive new jackets one by one, watched over by her husband, (the jackets are the result of her husband's desire to dress her in the latest fashion) in front of the large ornamental mirror, her saree trailing provocatively on the ground behind her. Her widowed sister-in-law's lewd comments fall on dismissive ears. The scene from Charulata, in black and white denotes the haunting emptiness of space,
    in spite of what John Hood calls the 'oppressive clutter' of the mansion because the ultimate effect is 'an obvious emphasis not so much on people as on things.'[12] The other from Ghare Baire is rich and ornate with dark, vibrant colours yet with a chiaroscuric effect of light and shadow. Of the relationship between Bhupati and Charu, Tagore says,

      Many a night he spent at his press, by which time his child wife Charulata had slowly blossomed into youth. The editor of a newspaper did not get this vital news. The moment at which a young couple discover themselves in matchless splendour in the first flush of their love, that golden moment came and faded into the past without discovering each other.[13]

  8. On the other hand, in Ghare Baire he says in a society where women were expected to worship their husbands, often without reciprocation, Nikhilesh's

      greatest pleasure was to dress her in beautiful clothes, to give her Western education through an English governess, to shower upon her whatever she desired or did not desire, to address her bodily needs as reverently as a parijata (heavenly flower), to admire her personality as if it was his privilege to do so.[14]

    In Monihara, the husband showers jewellery sets upon his avaricious wife Monimalika (the name literally means a string of gems) in an effort to buy her love. Ironically the same jewels lead to her death, when she elopes with her cousin dressed from head to foot in her jewellery, in an effort to safeguard them from the husband she has never loved and grossly misunderstood. Both Nikhilesh and Bhupati are seen as Renaissance men who have inculcated reformist values with varying degrees of success. But while Tagore's novella Nastanirh, was written as a critique of men who called themselves reformers but were unsuccessful in implementing those reforms within their own homes, Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire, conducts a daring social experiment of exposing his wife before his friend and pays the penalty.[15] The ideal of a more progressive marriage based on companionship which challenged female stereotyping, made impossible demands on these women in transition as Nikhilesh ultimately realises, 'In moulding the sahadharmini (a wife who shares her husband's vision), we corrupt the wife.'[16]
  9. Yet these women continue to be dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Their peers who still remained confined within the category of the pracheena might have been overwhelmed with such bounty and devoted themselves to their service-unto-death vow to their lord and master. The attitude of willing self sacrifice which the pativrata traditionally practiced is described both by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his essay and Tagore at the beginning of Ghare Baire, as leading to a submergence of the ego, which was its own spiritual reward. In the novel, which follows the structure of a diary, Bimola in an introspective flashback, talks of the dangers of negotiating the chasm between the pracheena and the nabeena. She is initially eager to practice the rituals of service demanded of a pativrata, much to the distress of her educated husband who prides himself on his liberated views. She is unable to handle the freedom of choice her husband so generously grants her. At the end of the novel, Bimola returns to the bhakti and worship which is part of the dharma of the pativrata, but at this point she has to earn the right to offer that worship which she has lost in the intervening period. Tagore's novel focuses on both these aspects of her character because it begins with a flashback. In the film however, Ray shows a Bimola (enacted by Swatilekha Chatterjee) who grows increasingly arrogant and narcissistic taking her husband's affection and generosity as her birthright. The scene of the changing of jackets before the mirror is a prelude to that. The reconciliation with her husband at the end in the film is executed through a passionate kiss rather than any offer of bhakti. Charu (refreshingly portrayed by Madhobi Mukherjee, Ray's most sensitive actress) on the other hand, remains unaware of the growing demands of her blossoming body and the consequent restlessness as she flits bored and impatient from one inane task to the other, with time hanging heavy on her hands and no one to make demands on her. With the nabeena's periphery still in transition, these generous, considerate husbands, by not being 'demanding,' left unsatisfied the feminine desire 'to give' in a marital relationship. This desire was rooted in the traditional 'dharma' of womanhood with near-religious fervour. Tagore, analysing this chasm between the old and the new, says in Monihara, 'Traditionally, women like raw (sour) mangoes, hot chillies and stern husbands.'[17] The implication is that if a man does not make demands on his wife, he is considered to be weak, lacking in masculinity and does not command respect from his wife.
  10. Into such a scenario enters the third of the love triangle. The arrival of Charu's young brother-in-law (played by the brilliant actor and matinee idol, Soumitra Chatterjee) is heralded by a storm in Ray's film, in which shutters bang, the birdcage swings violently and the room is in turmoil. In the film Ghare Baire, the demagogue Sandip (also played by Soumitra Chatterjee) arrives on the shoulders of his saffron-clad followers with shouts of 'Vande Mataram' rending the air against the background of the swadeshi movement triggered off by Lord Curzon's attempts to partition Bengal in 1905–06. Bimola watches along with other womenfolk from behind the purdah of a bamboo curtain and at one point, mesmerised by his rousing speech, she unconsciously parts the curtain and their eyes meet. Bimola's diary records her introspective comments in the novel: 'Was I the bride of the palace? At that moment I was the sole representative of Bengal's womanhood—and he, the manhood/icon of the bravery of Bengal.'[18] The enhancement of her own image to identify with the Motherland/Mother Goddess concept is part of her growing narcissism which leads to her downfall.

    Figure 2. Momentous journey from andar mahal. Source: Life, Films and Film-making of, online:, site accessed 19 September 2010.

    Figure 3. Bimola with Sandip. Source: Life, Films and Film-making of, online:, site accessed 19 September 2010.

    Beguiled by Sandip, she believes herself to be an emblem of feminine Sakti/Power, which was part of the cult of the Mother Goddess introduced in the nineteenth century by the Hindu Revivalist movement (intended as an antidote to the increasingly militant attitude of the faction-ridden Brahmo Samaj and skilfully used by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in the Vande Mataram anthem) which the Nationalists were exploiting to fire the popular imagination and further their cause. The first step beyond the periphery of the andar mahal has been taken. She now responds eagerly to her husband's call to step out of the inner domain to meet his friend, a demand earlier rejected by her. Ray's camera traces the long journey of the pair down the stained glass corridors, a journey loaded with symbolism, and focuses on the ultimate step of two pairs of feet across the final threshold beyond which Sandip awaits them. The voice narrative, with the strains of instrumental music in the background, makes the formal announcement of the date of this momentous event. Once taken, nothing and no one can keep Bimola away from her daily tryst with Sandip, as her husband and her well-wishers watch helplessly. By alternating the first person narrative voice with the third, Ray offers his directorial comments on the same. The power centre subtly shifts from the male to the female, in fact to the destructive potential of a female who is newly aware of her own power. Bimola herself says: 'We are like a river, when we flow within boundaries, we devote ourselves to nurturing. When we overflow our boundaries we devote ourselves to destroying.'[19]
  11. Henceforth, both novel and film abound in sexual imagery loaded with culture-specific connotations. Bimola, the rani (queen) of the palace, is now called 'Makkhi-rani' (Queen bee) by Sandip, an overtly sexual term indicating a woman`s desire for multiple sexual gratification. Her widowed sister-in-law's lewd comments follow her everywhere, 'You have decorated your body like a shop displaying its wares, aren't you ashamed of yourself?'[20] Snatches of song hummed suggestively by her as Bimola plunges headlong into disaster, rushing into the outer chambers for her daily meeting with Sandip, associate her with Radha hearing the irresistible call of Krishna's flute. The Radha-Krishna love myth is replete with the explicit sexual and physical connotations in the celebrated love poetry of Sanskrit literature. And later, when the communal riots provoked by Sandip are raging across Nikhil's zamindari and he rushes out to quell them, the sister-in-law shrieks, 'Witch! Demoness!' But by then it is too late; Bimola stands paralysed by the horror of what she has done. Ray's camera focuses a moment on her expensive black saree, (ironically woven from foreign yarn, reversing the very ideology of the swadeshi movement which she and Sandip were fostering) her beautiful jacket and jewellery and the now smudged vermillion dot on her forehead. The camera then moves to a framed black and white wedding photograph of Nikhil and Bimola on the wall and then back to Bimola as the vermillion dot slowly fades away and the shorn hair and the widow's weeds take over. The slow funereal hammering of drums announces the stately march of Nikhilesh's cortege down the long driveway of the zamindar's palace. In the novel however, though the nature of Nikhilesh's injury is stated to be life-threatening, its outcome is left uncertain.
  12. Satyajit Ray uses the fire motif throughout the movie to highlight the destructive potential of a woman's unleashed sexuality. Embedded in this motif lie two subtexts which are immediately evident to a Bengali audience. The first is the image of grihadaaha (literally, a home engulfed by fire also used by Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chatterjee denoting the collapse of the marital home), used throughout the film. The film begins with the fire of swadeshi raging across a darkened screen[21] and then the camera zooms in on the flames of Nikhil's funeral pyre burning in the distance as the cast of the film is announced on the screen. We hear Bimola's opening words in her first person narrative voice which introduce us to the second subtext embedded in the fire motif: 'I have passed through the fire, what can be burnt is ash, what is left of me cannot be consumed by the fire.' The opening words of Ray's film are the closing words of Tagore's text.[22] By implication Bimola has failed the fire ordeal that is the traditional test of chastity in Hindu mythology as that of Sita in the Ramayana. Other references to the fire motif in the domestic context in the film include Nikhilesh watching the burning end of Sandip's cigarette left in the ashtray after his departure following the latter's first meeting with Bimola. The shot ominously anticipates the fire that will eventually engulf the home. Sandip is a fiery character, fiery in his speeches as a rabble-rouser, fiery in his dealing with women who he boasts should be used and then discarded to test masculine virility. This sensuous, anti-heroic quality is what attracts Bimola to him. Her husband by contrast is too restrained, too undemanding. Nikhilesh says of his wife: She enjoys that aspect of manhood that is untamable, angry, even one who is a wrong-doer. Sandip's character has a tinge of coarseness and lust.'[23] Within the marriage, Tagore hints at a romantic rather than a sexual relationship between Nikhilesh and Bimola as opposed to Sandip's rather coarse good looks and uninhibited sexuality. In the film, the husband and wife hold hands in bed or gently embrace in the opening scene before the mirror. The only instance of a kiss is in the scene preceding Nikhil's fateful departure into a night of rioting as Bimola lies in his arms overcome by the enormity of her error. In contrast Sandip holds her close, pulls the veil away from her forehead, thus eliminating the last tinge of wifely modesty, following which there are several scenes of passionate kisses between the two. John Hood has termed the kiss clumsily executed and says he cannot accept the build-up to the kissing scene.[24] How successful Ray is in inflicting this cultural shock of an `illicit kiss' upon a Bengali audience conditioned to Tagore's restrained hint of an intimate relationship between the two, is open to debate. Given the immense popularity of actor Soumitra Chatterjee (who was actually his first choice for the genteel Nikhilesh) as a matinee idol in Sandip's anti-heroic role, as opposed to the relative newcomer Victor Banerjee in the role of the noble, heroic and restrained husband Nikhilesh, the audience's readiness to accept this casting is another issue that Ray probably had to contend with. Nikhilesh as a liberated, educated man believing in the liberation of women from gender stereotyping and marital pressure, has given his beloved wife Bimola the rather injudicious element of choice in a marriage, has exposed her to the outer world, to the company of other men and has experienced the pain of her inability to handle that freedom of choice after centuries of incarceration within the andar mahal. This is an experiment whose credibility critics have been skeptical about. Watching her fatal attraction for the coarse, sensuous Sandip, he comes to realise that the Bimola whom he had worshipped was the Bimola whom he had moulded in his dreams, his manasi, not her flesh and blood counterpart, the manushi who is equally coarse, arrogant and narcissistic in the sudden realisation of her power and position as queen of the manor, who could command the attraction of at least two men and enjoy her power over Sandip's youthful followers too. This realisation makes it easier for him to let her go. Tagore's emphasis on the clash between the manasi (idealistic conception of a woman) and manushi (the woman as she really is) makes us realise that even in an apparently perfect marriage, the demands on a wife are overwhelming and the husband's treatment of her as an object to be worshipped, leaves her physically and sexually unfulfilled. In an essay on female sexuality, Ann Rosalind Jones says, 'Although Kristeva does not privilege women as the only possessors of pre-phallocentric discourse, Irigaray and Cixous go further: if women are to discover and express who they are, to bring to the surface what masculine history has repressed in them, they must begin with their sexuality.'[25]
  13. Charulata, (winner of numerous national and international awards including the Golden Bear at Berlin for Best Direction) on the other hand, Ray's black and white adaptation of Tagore's short story, talks of a failed marriage in simpler and more conventional terms. The sexual imagery is less explicit mainly because the more youthful Charu is scarcely aware of her blossoming physical needs and her sexuality. Husband and wife exchange no more of physical proximity than an arm around her waist and a fatherly kiss on her forehead. Nor is Amal initially aware of her fatal attraction for him because the younger brother-in-law traditionally enjoys a very intimate and tender relationship with the elder brother's wife in Bengal. Their early song and dance sequence bears testimony to that. The only hint of a sexual connotation in Ray's film is in the offering of pan, the betel leaf that reddens the lips and has embedded within it a hint of sexual intimacy when shared with a man who is not the husband as Andrew Robinson comments on a scene from another of Ray's classics (Aparajito of Ray's Apu trilogy). The relationship between Amal and Charu, initially revolves around their shared passion for poetry which she believes is a secret bond between them that shuts out the world,

    Figure 4. Swing scene from Charulata. Source: Life, Films and Film-making of, online:, accessed 19 September 2010.
    including Charu's uneducated sister-in-law Manda. The relationship is carefully built up by both Ray and Tagore and though film is naturally more physically explicit (as seen in the scenes of passionate embrace between Bimola and Sandip, in Tagore, it is no more than a holding of her hand), the only hint that we get is in the famous scene where Charu is on the garden swing, swinging in ever widening arcs with the sky as the background and Amal spread-eagled at her feet singing a love song. The scene invokes the archetypal image of Radha and Krishna on the swing in the festival of Spring. Elsewhere Charu sings of the nectar of Radha's parted lips. The publication of Amal's article in a literary journal is for her a terrible betrayal of her trust and the desecration of the secret world they have built around themselves. As he becomes an
    acknowledged literary figure growing in the eyes of the world around, including that of the gullible Manda, she feels her hold on him slipping away. It is then that the physical aspect of her attraction manifests itself in her jealousy of Manda, her casting of herself into the unwilling Amal's arms. Amal leaves abruptly so as not to betray his elder brother's trust. His departure, like his arrival is announced in Ray's film by a nor'wester, those sudden summer storms which are a characteristic feature of Bengal. The storm motif is less pronounced in the film than the fire motif in Ghare Baire. But as the enormity of the truth dawns rather belatedly on Bhupati, he rushes headlong from the mansion, wandering brokenly around in the storm in his hackney coach. The storm has overtaken his marriage as well and destroyed what he had always believed was an indestructible

    Figure 5. Ray's use of mirrors. Source: Life, Films and Film-making of, online:, site accessed 19 September 2010.
    sanctuary even when all else failed him. Evening falls, Ray's camera catches Charu in front of the large ornamental mirror. John Hood, commenting on the rich interiors of Ray's mansions, says, 'The reflection of so much in mirrors tends to create a crowdedness in the large room while in the late afternoon and evening the excessive bric-a -brac casting its shadows on the walls adds further to the sense of oppressive clutter.'[26] It is time for traditional married women to tie their hair and to put the vermillion dot on the forehead before offering the evening prayers. Charu hesitates a moment and then slowly puts the vermillion dot back on her forehead, unlike its ominous disappearance in Ghare Baire that marks Bimola's widowhood. The storm has abated, Bhupati comes back and in the dim light of the evening lamp, Charu holds out her hand. 'Come,' she says, but the film ends without the two hands meeting. Analysing the chasm between the two, Tagore says, 'Bhupati probably had the traditional conviction that a man did not have to earn his hold over
    his wife. A wife was like a pole star, self luminous, a light that no wind could blow out, that needed no fuel to burn brighter. When the world outside the home began to betray him, it never even occurred to Bhupati to find out whether cracks had developed within the home as well.'[27] The cracks that develop within the marriage announce Charu's awakening to the realisation of her own sexuality and the dissatisfaction in a largely asexual marital relationship with a man many years her senior with whom she had nothing in common. The relationship with a younger brother-in-law teetering dangerously on the sexual was the natural outcome for women frustrated in marriage who had no access to male company other than this. It is an endlessly debated topic in the literature of Bengal.
  14. Another aspect of repressed female sexuality which finds expression in Ghare Baire is that of young childless widows. Forced into a life of severe abstinence and prayer, widows were often deprived of their rights to their property and abandoned in dire poverty in the holy city of Varanasi. Deepa Mehta gives powerful expression to their plight and their enforced prostitution in her Oscar-nominated film Water. The question of inheritance and financial support from Nikhilesh to the widows of his elder brothers and Bimola's resentment towards his generosity towards them haunts Ghare Baire as well. Ray uses colour contrasts to give powerful expression to a widow's life. The pallor of Bimola's sister-in-law, the stark whiteness of her unadorned widow's weeds are initially contrasted with the rich colours of the ornate interiors of the mansion, the extravagant toiletry of Bimola's dressing table. Ray's camera includes in a single frame the rather dark and plain Bimola changing her expensive and colorful velvet jackets one after another before the dressing table mirror and the reflection of the beautiful sister-in-law in the cruel, irrevocable whiteness of her saree and chemise. The sister-in-law makes an overt comment on Nikhilesh's obsessive love for his wife. She calls it an addiction and contrasts it to her own marriage which remained unconsummated due to her husband's sexual indulgence with courtesans as was customary for the zamindars of the time. However, the same sister-in-law has her lips reddened by the betel juice forbidden to her, a sign of her inability to accept in totality the sexual abstinence and denial that widowhood forcibly imposes upon her.[28] She repeatedly contrasts herself with the eldest sister-in-law committed to obligatory ritualistic worship (she worships Nandagopal, a child image of Lord Krishna, which may be interpreted as a childless widow's wish fulfillment through religious observances dedicated to a child god). She sings snatches of lyrics suggestive of extra-marital love. She listens to lewd songs from folk theatre being emitted rather shrilly by a cranked up gramophone and gossips with her maids rather than restrict herself to the life of prayers and elaborate ritualism. Her relationship with her younger brother-in-law Nikhilesh carries sweet memories of an intimacy built up since the day she entered the gilded prison of the zamindar's mansion as a child bride of nine, but it is a relationship of which Bimola is instinctively jealous. Nikhilesh, at the end of the novel realises how this unfortunate woman, deprived by fate of husband and child, had nurtured this one relationship with all the stored up nectar of her heart. It brings him great solace amidst the domestic storm that ruins his life. It is one which could teeter dangerously on the sexual given the proximity of age and the shared experience of growing up together in an andar mahal environment which was certainly hostile for a child bride where the only sympathetic ear was that of the husband's younger brother.
  15. Female sexuality and extra-marital relationships were, and continue to be a sensitive issue in Bengali films despite portrayals in later films, including Ray's own in a film like Pikoo. Perhaps these issues become more sensitive to the audience given the period under consideration in the two films and the crossing and re-crossing of the peripheries of the andar mahal and its significant social connotations, as earlier discussed in the essay. In my opinion, the development of the theme is more convincing in the texts, particularly in Ghare Baire. This brings us back to the question of 'confrontation' raised in the introduction. Virginia Woolf raised the bogey of a novel's complexly nuanced idea of love in the pages of a novel being reduced to a kiss on the screen.[29] Is the kiss really clumsily executed without adequate build-up in Ray? In Ghare Baire he has indeed used subtly suggestive devices like the strains of a Tagore song (Rabindrasangeet), recurring motifs and the device of analepsis and prolepsis to match Tagore's use of the diary method of introspection (in the same novel) to develop the effect of sexual repression on a woman and the ensuing confusion, frustration, despair and overwhelming sense of guilt on those traversing the dangerous periphery between the inner and outer chambers. Of Charulata, Supriya Chaudhuri in her essay, 'Space, Interiority and Affect in Charulata and Ghare Baire,' talks of the

      structure of strict parallels in Nastanirh which Ray does not attempt to reproduce, just as there is no parallel in the novella for the densely allusive literary conversation between Amal and Charu in Ray's film turning on Bankim's distinction between the traditional and contemporary woman, the prachina and the nabina,'[30] ,

    which builds up a secret kinship leading up to Charu's sexual attraction for her young brother-in-law. If the response of the Western audience was not unanimously favourable, we have to remember the many contentious issues that Ray had to wrestle with in his adaptation of these texts.


    [1] Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Calcutta: Rupa & Co., 1989, p. 47.

    [2] Kulin system—belonging to the same kul or clan, refers to the custom of getting upper-class girls married within the same kul, often to men many years their senior. Introduced in Bengal by King Ballal Sen in the twelfth century, this practice had the unfortunate fallout of child marriage, early widowhood as well as polygyny and was practised till late into the nineteenth century.

    [3] Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 'Introduction: The theory and practice of adaptation,' in Literature & Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, ed. Stam and Raengo, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005, pp. 1–52, p. 3.

    [4] Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, p. 159.

    [5] The Brahmo Samaj started in Calcutta in 1830 as a reformation of the prevailing Brahminism of the time. It denoted worship of the supreme Brahman, its vision was based on the Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta sutra and therefore devoid of the ritualism of Hindu forms of worship. The Samaj attracted the foremost intellectuals of the time, but suffered factionalism and became increasingly militant in its attacks against orthodox Hindu society. Its rigidity is critiqued by Tagore in his novel Gora and in an essay entitled The Service of Brahmo Samaj, even though his forefathers were its founders and he himself a believer.

    [6] Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, was one of the foremost novelists of the time and composed the Vande Mataram anthem which became the rallying cry of the Nationalist movement and even today is India's national song. Both Tagore and Ray use him as a unifying theme for Charu and Amal.

    [7] Partha Chatterjee, 'The Nation and its Women,' in Partha Chatterjee Omnibus, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 120.

    [8] The creation of the andar mahal/antahpur was a fall out of the Muslim conquest of Bengal and was intended to preserve the chastity of upper caste women and the eugenics of the race/caste imposed by the endogamous practices of the kulin system. Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire tells Bimola that women in ancient India enjoyed a greater degree of freedom including that of choosing their own husbands from an open assembly (swayamvar sabha) of eligible princes.

    [9] While orthodoxy demanded that women wear a single length of cloth as the saree tightly draped around them with their heads covered and remain bare footed, the new woman wore the saree with a brooch at the shoulder over a frilled and lace edged jacket/blouse and wore shoes. This style of dressing was popular with the educated and liberated women of the Brahmo Samaj to which Tagore belonged. The scene in Ray's film with Bimola changing jackets before the mirror, mentioned in the essay, acquires significance in this context.

    [10] Zamindar, literally, landlord, here enjoying absolute control over his territory and subjects and given the title of 'king.'

    [11] Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Rachanabali, vol. II, Calcutta: Sahitya Sansad, 1954, pp. 252–53.

    [12] ) John W. Hood, Beyond the World of Apu: The Films of Satyajit Ray, Hyderabad: Orient Longman Pvt.Ltd., 2008, p. 243.

    [13] Rabindranath Tagore, 'Nastanirh,' in Collected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore, Calcutta: Vishwabharati Publications, 1938, pp. 433–74, p. 433.

    [14] Rabindranath Tagore, Ghare Baire, Calcutta: Vishwabharati Publications, 1937, pp. 7–8.

    [15] Tagore's elder brother Satyendranath Tagore conducted the experiment of introducing his friend to his wife under the mosquito net in her bedroom. A similar exposure of their wives to their friends was made by a group of young Brahmo men during the Christmas celebrations of 1864.

    [16] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 341.

    [17] Rabindranath Tagore, 'Monihara,' in Collected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore, pp. 379–91, p. 381.

    [18] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 32.

    [19] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 73.

    [20] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 11.

    [21] The fire is part of the swadeshi movement of Sandip and his followers promoting homespun yarn and protesting against foreign made ones. Bimola, inspired by Sandip is supportive of this move to burn the goods being sold by the poorest subjects of Nikhil (the majority of whom were Muslims) at the village fair. Nikhil (and Tagore) is fiercely critical of this move of the revolutionaries because homespun was scarce, expensive and therefore beyond the reach of the poor. Also, it would alienate the Muslims from a nationalist movement which was primarily Hindu and upper class. Tagore had the foresight to anticipate this. In the film, Nikhil is killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots which follow the forcible burning, while Sandip makes good his escape in good time.

    [22] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 344.

    [23] Tagore, Ghare Baire, p. 53.

    [24] Hood, Beyond the World of Apu, p. 243.

    [25] Ann Rosalind Jones, 'Writing the Body: L'Écriture Feminine,' in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter, London: Virago Press,1992, pp. 361–77.

    [26] Hood, Beyond the World of Apu, p. 243. However by alternating the images framed in the mirror, Ray highlights the pairing of Bimola with the two men in her life. Whereas these are full body images of the pairs, a single image of Bimola clutching the mirror in a paroxysm of grief, highlights her face and anticipates the singleness of her future life.

    [27] Tagore, 'Nastanirh,' p. 463.

    [28] In another Ray film, Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), there is a very subtly-executed scene where a young widow momentarily loses her self control, satisfies her feminine desires by dressing herself up in the tribal jewellery she has bought at a fair and confronts a male acquaintance whom she has invited into the house. She is sweating and breathing heavily, he is holding his breath in utter shock when she appears before him dressed in that fashion. The moment passes and both relapse into the customary polite formality that social convention demands.

    [29] Stam and Raengo, 'Introduction: The theory and practice of adaptation', p. 3.

    [30] Supriya Chaudhuri, 'Space, interiority and affect in Charulata and Ghare Baire,' in The Journal of the Moving Image, no. 6 (Dec. 2007), online:, site accessed 29 June 2010.

Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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