Saturday, July 20, 2013

Digambari Devi

The history of the Jorasanko Thakurbari is well-known. This fairytale ‘palace of dreams’, cloaked in mystery and adventure, has been the focus of the Bengali mind’s curiosity for a long time now. We know how, from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) two men of this dynasty came over to the village of Goobindapur—one of the constituent areas of Calcutta—and set up home there. Their former title was ‘Kushari’. A descendant of this family used to, much later, work in the position of what we would describe today as an ‘order supplier’ on one of the British ships. His subordinates were mostly coolies and labourers, needless to say all from the so-called lowest classes of society. And they used to address their brahman employer as ‘thakur-mashai’. Following their example, the British took to addressing Panchanan Kushari as ‘Thakur’ or ‘Tagore’. Thereafter their title Kushari was gradually replaced by Thakur and this is the name which the outside world began to use when addressing that family.
Nilmoni, one of Panchanan’s forefathers, was the one to come to Jorasanko with his family in 1784. Although the Jorasanko Thakurbari was to attract public attention much later in the future—in the time of Prince Dwarkanath. It was from his time that the house grew to be renowned for its associations with wealth-luxury-affluence-artistic inclinations and education. But none of that now. The topic of my discussion is his wife—Digambari Devi. The very same Digambari Devi, paternal grandmother to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Women had been turned into no more than decorative furniture for a long time, thanks to the decrees of Manu and the practice of the purdah as urged upon them by Islam. Men who bore no relation to the family were barred from entering a home’s andarmahal, its inner quarters which was where the women spent their days. Stepping outside the house meant for the women to be carried from one place to the other in a palanquin covered on all four sides. Carried by the bearers and the lathi-wielding durwan running beside it all the way. Only the colours of the palanquin’s curtains would reveal the family it belonged to. If on the rare occasion a woman received permission for a dip in the Ganga, then the bearers would plunger the entire palanquin complete with its female passenger into the waters of the river. This is what constituted a holy dip for a woman! And for visits to other relatives for births and other social functions would mean another palanquin ride, the palanquin carrying on until the very threshold of the andarmahal of the house at the other end, not a footfall earlier. The rules and regulations of society had wound themselves around the minds and bodies of women, forbidding them even from a glimpse of sunlight.
Child marriages, polygamy, marriages where there were incredibly vast differences in the ages of the bride and the groom, sati, and other such social crimes along with numerous other torments seemed to curl around the women’s ankles, gripping them tightly in their poisonous clutches. Education, proper clothes, wearing shoes, stepping out of the house—women were allowed none of these. But today I wish to share with you the tale of how, in the midst of this habituated life, Digambari Devi staged her rebellion.
The extremely beautiful Digambari Devi was the very life and soul of the Thakurbari. The Thakurbari’s fortunes began to flourish it seemed from the moment she stepped over its threshold—aged six, and married to Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. It is rumoured that the Thakurbari’s Jagaddhatri idol was sculpted in close imtitation of Digambari’s features. Her peaches and cream complexion and curly black hair that seemed to flow down her back, her little plump fingers, and her feet, like those of a clay goddess. And all indescribable beauty was accompanied by a tremendous personality and strength of character which had earned her her mother-in-law’s respect. She was also a conscientious follower of religious rites and rituals and possessed a fearless temperament. In an age where a woman was bereft of her very identity without her husband, Digambari Devi had the courage to enquire of the brahman pandit and scholar of the shastras if it was appropriate to abandon a husband who had himself abandoned his family’s religion and all rites and rituals associated with that religion.
Not only did the prevalent patriarchal society not critique her but greeted her with genuine respect and admiration.
But why did she ask the pandits such a question? For, as we have come to know, Dwarkanath had been a conscientious vaishnav brahman. He would perform the daily puja before the household deities of Lakshmi-Janardhan himself while his wife Digambari would provide him with all the various things needed for the ritual. So far so good. But suddenly, discord strikes. A storm breaks. And blows through the routine of marital life.
Along with commercial success, a life of luxurious indulgence and other elements of babu-dom took over Dwarkanath’s personality. When he began to mingle freely with the British, that is came into contact with ‘heathens’, he gave up the performing of the daily puja before Lakshmi-Janardhan. A salaried brahaman was employed to take over the task thereon. Apart from this, in the interests of business and commerce, he also began to cultivate a taste for meat and liquor. Dwarkanath and Digambari Devi’s lives were never to run on the same lines again; henceforth their paths would run separate.
Dwarkanath built a garden house in Belgachia in 1823. It was a house built with every provision for amusement and entertainments. Fountains, chandeliers, pavings of coloured tiles in the garden, statues imitating Western works of art, expensive oil paintings and so much more went into the house of his dreams. It is impossible to calculate the amount expended just for one night’s entertainment.
At first Digambari Devi, busy with the household and her religious tasks, did not notice this transformation in her husband. Her elder son Debendranath had been married and her daughter-in-law Sarada welcomed into the family home. At times vague rumours would come to her about her husband but in the course of her daily prayers and duties, they would slip her memory. Or she would dismiss them as attempts at calumny by the relatives when the news first reached her. On the other hand, the house at Belgachia was resounding to the sound of laughter and adda sessions accompanied by free-flowing alcohol. Getting over her initial disbelief, Digambari Devi decided to not rely on the words of others but to see things for herself. This decision taken by the devoted wife Digambari Devi, given the social milieu of her day and age (179 years ago) is not only a moment of historical revolution but one to be remembered for all eternity. Taking with her her shy daughter-in-law Sarada and a few other female relatives, Digambari Devi set off for the Belgachia house with the aim of recovering her wayward husband. With astonished eyes she witnessed her husband, sharing a seat with the foreigners—both sahibs and memsahibs—and drinking. She spared no effort at trying to change his ways but it was all in vain. Unlike other women, she spent no time in self-pity and tears of grief. Nor comforted herself by imagining it was all no more than her fate. To her, religion and duty stood equal. Hence she summoned the contemporary erudite pandits and enquired of them what her duty should be under the circumstances. Should she uphold her family’s religion and faith and abandon her husband? Or should she abandon the faith and embrace her husband, live his new life and adopt his new ways? Thus began the pandits and their hairsplitting interpretations of the shastras. After much debate and discussion they came up with the following—although it was her duty to look after her husband and serve him and respect him, it was not compulsory for her to cohabit with him.
From that day on, apart from looking after his physical well-being, Digambari Devi severed all other relations with Dwarkanath. Her devotion however had been so profound that not a person outside the family came to know any of this. Every morning she would visit her husband and do a pranam to the floor, beside his bed. If she required a conversation with him for property or other household matters, the talk concluded, whether it be day or night, she would immediately have a bath in water from the Ganga and purify herself. Due to the unendurable nature of her self-inflicted rigours she did not live very long. After her death there was many a moment when Dwarkanath felt the acute absence of a ‘grihalakshmi’. Thus when a ship carrying valuable cargo of the CAR Tagore company was shipwrecked, he was heard lamenting that since gracious fortune or lakshmi was now gone, what was to prevent misfortune from rushing at him?
This is how, 200 years ago, Digambari Devi, a woman of great spirit and tremendous personality gave voice to that inner rebellion and revolt that burns in the heart of every woman and yet maintained her twin priorities of religion and duty. Her actions have helped further the woman’s movement for generations after her.

Tapati Dey

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