Tagore's women - Elle India


Tagore’s women

Kalki Koechlin and Konkona Sensharma introduce us to the women in the literary giant's life

BY Sonam Savlani | April 29th, 2014

Two women – decades apart, continents apart, realities apart – are linked across time through one common bond: Rabindranath Tagore, the man they came to love and leave. Neatly tucked into speculative tomes so far, merely footnotes in hoary biographies of the great poly-math, Kadambari Devi and Victoria Ocampo now get their due as Tagore’s most powerful muses in two new works featuring Konkona Sensharma and Kalki Koechlin.

Set to release next year, Kadambari is a Bengali film being directed by Suman Ghosh, in which Sensharma will play the skittish child bride of Tagore’s older brother, Jyotirindranath. Kadambari was the boy Rabi’s confidante, witness to the beginnings of his literary inclinations and by some records, his teenage crush. Koechlin, meanwhile, steps into the shoes of the Argentine feminist and intellectual Victoria – adoring acolyte of the literary giant, post-Nobel Tagore – for Manav Kaul’s play Colour Blind, which has been touring the country since September last year, with more dates planned for this year. Both productions, centred on the two women that “bookend Tagore’s life” as Sensharma puts it, come on the heels of his 150th birth anniversary. And both actors have had to piece together these extraordinary characters from scant accounts and hearsay to shed light on the tumultuous private life of a very public icon.

“Having grown up in Calcutta, I knew of Kadambari, but she was always this shadowy figure, never spoken about very much. There was a lot of speculation because she was his muse, though we don’t really know the exact nature of their relationship,” Sensharma says. By most accounts – Sudhir Kakar’s recent book Young Tagore included – Kadambari and Tagore shared a deep affection for one another. In 1868, at the age of nine, she was married to Jyotirindranath Tagore, 13 years her senior. Not long after she entered the Tagore household, Kadambari found a consort in the lonesome Rabi, who was two years younger than her. “Even when his mother was alive, he was kind of neglected because there were so many kids – the help would feed him and look after him. When Kadam came in, she became the one to take on that role,” reveals Sensharma. He had already begun writing then, and Kadambari became his sounding board. “She wasn’t literate, but she was sensitive and romantic, and over time she developed a fine literary sensibility. She was also very critical of him, and often compared him to other writers who were his contemporaries.”

Victoria is separated from this narrative by at least five decades, and yet, Koechlin and Manav Kaul realised they’d have to revisit the time of Kadambari and Tagore as soon as they began working on Colour Blind. “We couldn’t discuss Tagore the literary genius without discussing Tagore the teenager. The man he was at 63 [when he and Victoria met] had everything to do with what he went through when growing up – and he went through a hell of a lot,” says Koechlin. “To be young and to fall in love with your brother’s wife, who kills herself a year after you get married [Kadambari took her life by overdosing on opium at 25 or 26] – it had to have been terribly hard.”

Koechlin studied Kadambari while preparing for her role as Victoria: “She was a lonely woman in a lonelier marriage – her husband, a playwright, musician and painter, was partly responsible because he completely ignored her and spent his time with female actors. And that’s what Tagore’s book, The Broken Nest deals with,” Koechlin says. “Nastanirh, yes,” Sensharma agrees, referring to the Bengali title. “Kadambari was sick with malaria often, which meant spending a lot of time in isolation. And she couldn’t have children, either. I think she was missing companionship.”

How does she plan to etch this essentially fey character? “I’m not just looking for strength in Kadam, I’m interested in her weaknesses too,” Sensharma says. “I want to know what led her to commit suicide – it was an intensely hushed-up affair.” Koechlin, on the other hand, seeks to understand who Tagore had become when he met Victoria. “I feel like he always turned to writing to quell his grief. He lost his mother very early, at 12, I think, and he just kept writing – he lost his father, and he wrote. He lost his wife, his daughter, his youngest son who he was very close to, and he wrote. But there’s a difference here. He wrote a poem about his son dying, in which he sounds like he’s welcoming death, because by this time, having dealt with so much loss, he’d started on this spiritual journey. By the time he met Victoria, he had already gone beyond death and attachment. [And after he met her] he wanted human attachment again. It’s a human contradiction – we want to be detached and yet we yearn to be loved and cared for.” 

Koechlin says Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s In Your Blossoming Flower Garden provided the blueprint for her Victoria Ocampo. The book presents a factual account of what transpired between them in the two months that Tagore stayed at Victoria’s family home in Buenos Aires, in 1924, when the Peru leg of his Gitanjali tour was cut short because he took ill. It is culled from both their memoirs, as well as the English secretary’s who was travelling with Tagore at the time. It also features the letters they exchanged after Tagore returned to India, which were discovered later.

 

How did she know him then? “Only through his work. Gitanjali had won the Nobel prize and Victoria, a member of the Argentine gentry with a serious eye for literature, had read its French translation by Andre Gide with some bewilderment. “As soon as she heard that he was travelling to Peru via Argentina, she rushed to offer him hospitality. He was to stay for a week, but it stretched into two months. He cancelled everything else – he never went on to Peru.”

What began as utter adoration on her part quickly changed to mutual affection and later, accounts suggest, may have ended with him becoming besotted with her. “She was in awe of him during their time together. The language was a barrier, but she always wished she could say more,” Koechlin tells us. “By the time they began to exchange letters, she was getting quite famous across Europe for publishing the literary magazine Sur. And she had some personal notoriety: she left her husband, had public affairs, smoked and drove a car – unheard of for a woman of her social class in conservative Christian Argentina. (‘She was definitely his intellectual equal,’ Sensharma adds, ‘more so than Kadambari.’) Meanwhile he was getting older, he was in Santiniketan and was almost begging her to come visit. For her it must have seemed unreasonable. She was half his age, we’re not sure that her affection for him was romantic, and there was no way that they could be together.”

Koechlin’s fascination with the character has to do with being star-struck, she’ll admit – Victoria had hobnobbed with every one of her literary heroes. “Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, F Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Neruda – all the people I have read and loved, she had either known, collaborated with or been with. For me, it was a bit like Midnight in Paris. All these people linked because of this one woman.”

For both actors, understanding these women meant uncovering a side of Tagore that has always been eclipsed by his literary achievements. Kadambari and Victoria offer a glimpse into the man – lonely, vulnerable, lovelorn. “In her posthumously published memoir, Autobiografia, Victoria recounts an incident where he was napping in a chair while she was cleaning up, and when she bent over him, he cupped her breast,” Koechlin says. “Nobody ever talks about it, it’s a tiny little aside in the book, but it made him so human and relatable. It’s a reminder of how we are not linear, and neither is time. You can be a grown-up writing masterpieces when you’re 15 and like a child, pining for what you cannot have, when you’re 63.”

Photographs: Suresh Natarajan, Styling Nidhi Jacob, Art Director: Reshma Rajiwdekar, Make-Up: Sonic Sarwate/M.A.C Cosmetics, India, Hair: Shimsha Shetty/B:Blunt; Assisted by Akanksha Kamath, Neeti Gadodia (Styling)

Two women – decades apart, continents apart, realities apart – are linked across time through one common bond: Rabindranath Tagore, the man they came to love and leave. Neatly tucked into speculative tomes so far, merely footnotes in hoary biographies of the great poly-math, Kadambari Devi and Victoria Ocampo now get their due as Tagore’s most powerful muses in two new works featuring Konkona Sensharma and Kalki Koechlin.

Set to release next year, Kadambari is a Bengali film being directed by Suman Ghosh, in which Sensharma will play the skittish child bride of Tagore’s older brother, Jyotirindranath. Kadambari was the boy Rabi’s confidante, witness to the beginnings of his literary inclinations and by some records, his teenage crush. Koechlin, meanwhile, steps into the shoes of the Argentine feminist and intellectual Victoria – adoring acolyte of the literary giant, post-Nobel Tagore – for Manav Kaul’s play Colour Blind, which has been touring the country since September last year, with more dates planned for this year. Both productions, centred on the two women that “bookend Tagore’s life” as Sensharma puts it, come on the heels of his 150th birth anniversary. And both actors have had to piece together these extraordinary characters from scant accounts and hearsay to shed light on the tumultuous private life of a very public icon.

“Having grown up in Calcutta, I knew of Kadambari, but she was always this shadowy figure, never spoken about very much. There was a lot of speculation because she was his muse, though we don’t really know the exact nature of their relationship,” Sensharma says. By most accounts – Sudhir Kakar’s recent book Young Tagore included – Kadambari and Tagore shared a deep affection for one another. In 1868, at the age of nine, she was married to Jyotirindranath Tagore, 13 years her senior. Not long after she entered the Tagore household, Kadambari found a consort in the lonesome Rabi, who was two years younger than her. “Even when his mother was alive, he was kind of neglected because there were so many kids – the help would feed him and look after him. When Kadam came in, she became the one to take on that role,” reveals Sensharma. He had already begun writing then, and Kadambari became his sounding board. “She wasn’t literate, but she was sensitive and romantic, and over time she developed a fine literary sensibility. She was also very critical of him, and often compared him to other writers who were his contemporaries.”

Victoria is separated from this narrative by at least five decades, and yet, Koechlin and Manav Kaul realised they’d have to revisit the time of Kadambari and Tagore as soon as they began working on Colour Blind. “We couldn’t discuss Tagore the literary genius without discussing Tagore the teenager. The man he was at 63 [when he and Victoria met] had everything to do with what he went through when growing up – and he went through a hell of a lot,” says Koechlin. “To be young and to fall in love with your brother’s wife, who kills herself a year after you get married [Kadambari took her life by overdosing on opium at 25 or 26] – it had to have been terribly hard.”

Koechlin studied Kadambari while preparing for her role as Victoria: “She was a lonely woman in a lonelier marriage – her husband, a playwright, musician and painter, was partly responsible because he completely ignored her and spent his time with female actors. And that’s what Tagore’s book, The Broken Nest deals with,” Koechlin says. “Nastanirh, yes,” Sensharma agrees, referring to the Bengali title. “Kadambari was sick with malaria often, which meant spending a lot of time in isolation. And she couldn’t have children, either. I think she was missing companionship.”

How does she plan to etch this essentially fey character? “I’m not just looking for strength in Kadam, I’m interested in her weaknesses too,” Sensharma says. “I want to know what led her to commit suicide – it was an intensely hushed-up affair.” Koechlin, on the other hand, seeks to understand who Tagore had become when he met Victoria. “I feel like he always turned to writing to quell his grief. He lost his mother very early, at 12, I think, and he just kept writing – he lost his father, and he wrote. He lost his wife, his daughter, his youngest son who he was very close to, and he wrote. But there’s a difference here. He wrote a poem about his son dying, in which he sounds like he’s welcoming death, because by this time, having dealt with so much loss, he’d started on this spiritual journey. By the time he met Victoria, he had already gone beyond death and attachment. [And after he met her] he wanted human attachment again. It’s a human contradiction – we want to be detached and yet we yearn to be loved and cared for.” 

Koechlin says Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s In Your Blossoming Flower Garden provided the blueprint for her Victoria Ocampo. The book presents a factual account of what transpired between them in the two months that Tagore stayed at Victoria’s family home in Buenos Aires, in 1924, when the Peru leg of his Gitanjali tour was cut short because he took ill. It is culled from both their memoirs, as well as the English secretary’s who was travelling with Tagore at the time. It also features the letters they exchanged after Tagore returned to India, which were discovered later.

 

How did she know him then? “Only through his work. Gitanjali had won the Nobel prize and Victoria, a member of the Argentine gentry with a serious eye for literature, had read its French translation by Andre Gide with some bewilderment. “As soon as she heard that he was travelling to Peru via Argentina, she rushed to offer him hospitality. He was to stay for a week, but it stretched into two months. He cancelled everything else – he never went on to Peru.”

What began as utter adoration on her part quickly changed to mutual affection and later, accounts suggest, may have ended with him becoming besotted with her. “She was in awe of him during their time together. The language was a barrier, but she always wished she could say more,” Koechlin tells us. “By the time they began to exchange letters, she was getting quite famous across Europe for publishing the literary magazine Sur. And she had some personal notoriety: she left her husband, had public affairs, smoked and drove a car – unheard of for a woman of her social class in conservative Christian Argentina. (‘She was definitely his intellectual equal,’ Sensharma adds, ‘more so than Kadambari.’) Meanwhile he was getting older, he was in Santiniketan and was almost begging her to come visit. For her it must have seemed unreasonable. She was half his age, we’re not sure that her affection for him was romantic, and there was no way that they could be together.”

Koechlin’s fascination with the character has to do with being star-struck, she’ll admit – Victoria had hobnobbed with every one of her literary heroes. “Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, F Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Neruda – all the people I have read and loved, she had either known, collaborated with or been with. For me, it was a bit like Midnight in Paris. All these people linked because of this one woman.”

For both actors, understanding these women meant uncovering a side of Tagore that has always been eclipsed by his literary achievements. Kadambari and Victoria offer a glimpse into the man – lonely, vulnerable, lovelorn. “In her posthumously published memoir, Autobiografia, Victoria recounts an incident where he was napping in a chair while she was cleaning up, and when she bent over him, he cupped her breast,” Koechlin says. “Nobody ever talks about it, it’s a tiny little aside in the book, but it made him so human and relatable. It’s a reminder of how we are not linear, and neither is time. You can be a grown-up writing masterpieces when you’re 15 and like a child, pining for what you cannot have, when you’re 63.”

Photographs: Suresh Natarajan, Styling Nidhi Jacob, Art Director: Reshma Rajiwdekar, Make-Up: Sonic Sarwate/M.A.C Cosmetics, India, Hair: Shimsha Shetty/B:Blunt; Assisted by Akanksha Kamath, Neeti Gadodia (Styling)