Nineteenth Century Bengali Women's Poetry - Views & Perceptions on Social Issues

  • Manaswita Sanyal
  • Sunday, Jun 27, 2021
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In 19th century Bengal, it was very hard to correlate women as a poet or as a writer. In that period the image of a Bengali woman as a silenced, dependent, marginalized spending her day in housekeeping and other domestic chores has been cited everywhere. The reformed Bengali babu tried his best to remold his woman, who would be modern in outlook, at the same time be traditional in her inner nature. Her attire, education, and whereabouts were prescribed by bhodrolok babu whose reformist zeal was riddled with many contradictions.

That is not to say however that she didn’t progress. In this quest to become modern to say, writing gave her a space of her own. She wrote sometimes in a gloomy corner of her home, sometimes in the kitchen; always aware of the prying and vigilant eyes of her detractors. She not only expressed herself through her words but those words went well beyond what her male counterparts could comprehend. Poetry among other writings became her medium of expression and something which she was able to accommodate in her routine. We see her writing poems on a wide variety of subjects during this time. While many poems feature the acceptance of the dominant institutionalized value system (love, devotion, motherhood) which was very much imported from the Victorian culture, there were however some poetries in which she challenged and criticized social evils and norms. These poems challenged prevailing ideologies or laws of widowhood, sati, female illiteracy, and so on.

Her writings on social issues came to the notice of men like Dinesh Chandra Sen, a leading literary figure of that time. In a literary journal Pradip (আষাঢ়, ১৩০৬) he remarked that

With the advancement of Women’s education, few women poets are appearing in Bengali Literature, and what is more important that their poems convey some message on social aspects.

This was however not her first foray into the writing space. As early as the sixteenth century we find some indicators of women’s concern on social issues in poems of Chandravati. She was a Bengali poet who translated and composed the Ramayana in Bengali presenting Sita in the leading role of the epic. She also composed poems like ‘Malua’ and ‘Dosyu kenaram’. Jogeswari, an early 19th century Kabiyal should also be mentioned. she challenged the world of kabigan which was fiercely dominated by her male counterparts such as Bhola Moira. Some of Jogeswari’s compositions that have survived depict the social conditions of women at the time. The themes of her songs were mainly satires on how the dominant sex and their authoritarian social codes suffocated her and made her feel almost like a lifeless object.

As the 19th century progressed, the Bengali bhodrolok took up the mantle of reforms. Through these reforms, she was able to find a new space for herself as a new individual. Though this newfound individuality was not without its contradictions as wonderfully narrated by Bankim Chandra in his essay, ‘প্রাচীনা এবং নবীনা’. She was at a loss sometimes, her mind would tear up by the complexities of her transformation from this inward-looking wife to this outward-thinking lady. These conditions would often reflect in melancholic stanzas of her poetry. However, amidst all the chaos in her mind, we find her work defiant against the social evils of the time. Distressing conditions of child widows, illiteracy, social effects of brahmin hegemony find their depictions in her work. That is not all, contemporary natural calamities and contemporary social event such as the visit of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales also find their mentions in her work. She paid homage to the demise of men like Ishawchadra Vidyasagar and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. At the same time, she also showed remorse in the passing away of her Royal Highness Queen Victoria, which depicted her nature as a colonial ambivalent much like her male counterpart.

Her newfound individualism came to the fore when she expressed deep concerns and sympathies for the prostitutes who were exploited by the morally degraded bhodrolok. Poets like Mankumari Basu wrote poems like ‘পতিতোদ্ধারিনী’, ( বামাবোধিনী পত্রিকা, ফাল্গুন, ১২৯৯)’, ‘স্রোতের ফুল’( বামাবোধিনী পত্রিকা, শ্রাবণ, ১৩০১)’. Poet Kamini Roy also wrote a poem on them.

One piece of a poem that is worth mentioning here is a poem that expresses condolences to Miss Mayo for the death of Lord Mayo written by Smt. Lakhsmimani Debi.

‘বৈধব্য বেশ করিয়া ধারণ।

কিরূপেতে দেশে যাবে ভাবি অনুখণ।

ইচ্ছা করে লেডী তব নিকটেতে যাই।

নয়নের নীর তব অঞ্চলেতে মুছাই।’

___ বামাবোধিনী পত্রিকা, ফাল্গুন, ১২৭৮

It is these miseries inflected by societal norms and evils which united women of different social strata. In these poems, the boundaries between social politics and sentimentality are merged. In the brief space of these poems – poems if added together represents a complex set of views of a 19th Bengali woman cum writer. A 19th century Bengali woman who was not shy of speaking out about what they thought and wanted for themselves and society. Their views and way of thinking should be traced by today’s readers, bearing in mind the various upheaval she had to go through.

Manaswita Sanyal is an author and editor. Her research interests are Colonial Bengal and Gender Studies.