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Gyanadanandini: Pioneer of Breaking Tradition

Chinmay Prasun Biswas

Gyanadanandini: Pioneer of Breaking Tradition

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In many ways she is synonymous with revolution and trend setter in this sub-continent. She is Gyanadanandini, wife of Satyendranath Tagore, the second son of Devendranath Tagore and first Indian ICS officer. As a member of Brahma movement Satyendranath started thinking on position of women in Indian society. Saudamini, Swarnakumari and Gyanadanandin were outcomes of that thinking. Removing the curtain of inner house Gyanadanandini was the first bride of the Tagore family to come in front of non-relatives.

Daughter of Abhayaacharan and Nistarini, Gyanadanandini was born on 26thJuly at Narendrapur, a village in Khulna (then a sub-division under Jessore) in 1850. In her autobiography Amar Jivankatha (My Lifestory) she has narrated the picture of women she witnessed after birth. Her academic life began in her father’s pathsala. It is very unusual but praiseworthy that around more than 170 years ago her father man thought of educating his daughter.

She was married with Satyendranath at 7 or 8. After marriage she was brought to Jorasanko. She cried so much that in enclosed palanquin that she vomited. Mother-in-law Sarada Devi took her inside on her lap. This description in Gyanadanandini's autobiography helps us to visualise the customs of the then society and picture of the inner house of Tagore House. 

Meanwhile, the open air of Brahma movement began blowing outside but till then it did not enter inside. When married Gyanadanandini was just a shy girl. Her mind wept for home and wanted to go back to mother.Sister-in-law Saudamini (elder sister of Satyendranath) took care of her.

At first she could not speak with Satyendranath out of shame. One day something terrible happened. Satyendranath wanted to show his best friend Manmohan Ghosh his newly married wife. Gyanadanandini has written –“----but I have no way to go out. There is no tradition of other males to enter into inner house. So, one night they two came into the house. After that he placed Manmohan in the mosquito net and himself lay down beside me. We both sat motionless.” In context of time it was more than a revolt.

Alongwith the arrival of Keshab Chandra Sen the Brahma movement gained new pace. During that excited atmosphere Satyendranath read Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor Milland decided to infuse that free air inside his family. We must remember that although Rammohan, Dwarkanath, Vidyasagar and others were active in women's liberation movement they could not bring their wives into the circle of freedom. Inversely, Satyendranath successfully did it in his own family and transformed Genumani into Gyanadanandini.

Satyendranath had to start from the root. His letters to Gyandanandini from England carry the evidence of this initiative. He wrote, "Don't you think that our women get married at such a tender age when they don't know what marriage is and they can't get married freely according to their own mind. You have not got married, it is called Kanyadan. Your father only gifted me you. We did not marry freely. We shall not enter into husband and wife relation until you are educated enough and advanced in all respects. Fortune of women are at the root of all thir progress. ---- I think that you will be an example to our women” Gyanada never heard such words. Failing to understand its meaning she trembled with fear.

Satyendranath was surprised to see the men and a women walking on roads in England. He could not match it with his own society or house but the process of developing Gyanada began ahead of Satyendranath’s coming back from England. Under veil she had to go to third brother-in-law Hmendranath for reading. Satyendranath’s direction was to teach her English. He wanted to introduce her with Merry Carpenter but Devendranath did not allow.

As the first native ICS officer Satyendranath’s place of work was Maharastra. According to custom of that time husbands stayed at their workplace and wives stayed at home but Satyendranath decided to change it. Preparation for going to Bombay began but dress of Gyanadaa rose as a big problem. A dress was made for her from a French tailoring shop at Calcutta “but it was so difficult to manage that I could not wear it," Gyandanandini has written.

Till then nobody was concerned about women’s clothes because they remained inside being covered with a single cloth, no underwear, no shoes, no slipper but time for change appeared. The issue of women’s dress became a point of concern among the Hindu families in Calcutta.

In Bombay Gyanadanandini stayed with an aristocratic Persian family named ManekjiKorsedji for a few months. Their two educated daughters Aimai and Shirinbai travelled abroad. Observing Gyanandanandini always speechless they called her dumb but seeing their clothes Gyanada left her weird clothes and started dressing like them. “They wear saris over their right shoulders but I would wear it on my left shoulder. They always wear silk fasten handkerchief around their heads and use a white thin piran under their clothes” Gyanadanandini has written.

Gradually her thoughts developed and through a number of experiments Brahmika Sari reached the doorstep of Thakurbari (Tagore House). Many Brahma women started to learn that style from Gyanadanandini which was called Bombay Dastur butwas renamed as Sari of Thakurbari in Bengal. She introduced the system of wearing petticoat and blouse with sari though it was not defect-free. However, Suniti Devi, daughter of Keshab Chandra, removed the difficulty and introduced the present style.

Gyanadanandini returned from Bombay after two years. ChitraDev, in her book Thakurbarir Andarmahal (Inner House of Thakurbari) has written – “When exquisitely dressed Gyanadanandini set her feet on Calcutta the triumph of Bengalee girls began."   Leaving the huge joint family sheshowed the courage to live at a separate house with her three children. She called a photographer for taking snaps of her mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and other girls. As a result of this strange initiative we can see their faces today. She openly expressed her disliking for Kadambari as worthy wife of Jyotirindranath.

The way of Gyanadanandini to cross the threshold of inner house was full of shame, fear, hatred and confusion but she succeeded. For this reason she is ever memorable to Bengalee womenas the pioneer of breaking tradition and promoter of new system.

 

The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes