The mystery that surrounds Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi has attracted biographers as well as researchers over the years. I was too curious knowing that she committed suicide after the marriage of Tagore with Mrinalini Devi. Curiosity lead me to go through articles here and there and added those pieces together to understand their relationship and the circumstantial facts behind her suicide.
Kadambari Devi was wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore, the elder brother of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. She was married to Jyotirindranath Tagore, on 5 July 1868 at the age of 9 years. Then Rabindranath was 7 years old. They were almost of the similar age group. When Kadambari came to in-laws house, Rabi being similar in age, became her playmate and companion. Tagore’s Biographer Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay has written- “He had been her playmate and companion ever since her marriage.” They grew up to adolescent and then to their youth.
Jyotirindranath was a multi-talented personality having interests in theatre, paintings, translation and editing, music and also in business ventures. While staying in Ahmedabad (1867), with his elder brother Satyendranath Tagore, he learnt sitar and painting, picked up French and Marathi and he translated many books, mainly dramas, from different languages into Bengali. He also having some family businesses which were looked after by him. He ventured new business of shipping in Khulna (now in Bangladesh). There was stiff competition in the business and he incurred heavy loss due to competition and finally he opted out of that business in 1889. He served as secretary of the Adi Brahmo Samaj from 1869 to 1888.
Jyotirindranath was a open minded person. He supported the cause of education of women those days and he arranged for his wife Kadambari’s education. He not only arranged for her education, but also taught her horse-riding in the public grounds of Kolkata, defying the conservative society of those days. Later Tagore wrote in his childhood memory that Jyoti dada and Bouthan (sis-in law) used to take horse rides to Eden Garden through the Chitpur.
With this background of Jyotirindranath, it is understood that he hardly could spare any time for Kadambari. It is understood that she was a neglected and lonely lady.
At the age of 22 years, Tagore was suddenly and unexpectedly married (As per Biographer Mukhopadhyay, Tagore’s marriage at the end of 1883 had been “sudden and unexpected.”) to Bhabatarini Devi of 11 years age on 09 Dec 1883. She was renamed as Mrinalini by Tagore. After 4 months and 10 days of his marriage, on 19th April 1884, Kadambari committed suicide. The family might know the reason of suicide but it was suppressed and never made public.
Kadambari Devi’s death was profoundly felt by Tagore which can be established through his own words. Much later, in 1917 Tagore said in a letter to Amiya Chakravarty : “Once, when I was about your age, I suffered a devastating sorrow, similar to yours now. A very close relative of mine committed suicide, and she had been my life’s total support, right from childhood onward. And so with her unexpected death it was as if the earth itself receded from beneath my feet, as though the skies above me all went dark. My universe turned empty, my zest for life departed.” Tagore was moved by the unexpected and sudden death of Kadambari Devi. He lost his companion, friend and what not because she was his total support for life as told in his above letter. There are number of poems that speak to or about the deceased Kadambari Devi. After 4 years of Kadambari’s death Tagore wrote a poem which is a well known Rabindrasangeet “Tobu Mone Rekho…”. This was written in her memory being in her place as if she is telling him – ”Yet, do remember, if I move far from here, Yet, do remember. If the old love is smothered by a love’s new snare” and so on.
Marie Seton, in her book “Portrait of a Director : Satyajit Ray” (1971) ,is all about Ray’s research on Tagore before his translation the “Nashtaneer” story into a film named “Charulata”. It was established that the story of “Nashtaneer” was written by Tagore keeping Kadambari in mind. It’s the story of Kadambari Devi, Her husband Jyotirindranath and himself. In this book Marie Seton at one place adds parenthetically that Bengal believed the sister-in-law “committed suicide following ‘Rabi’s marriage.”
Kadambari Devi never wanted Rabi to Marry and thats why she, once said, when she was told to search a bride for Rabi, that she did not get any bride for Rabi in Jessore (now in Bangladesh). But perhaps due to some unknown reason Tagore’s marriage was suddenly arranged by senior members of the family. Kadambari then secretly tried to stop it. Here we can understand her position, she did not want this marriage to happen but she was not in a position to oppose it openly or strongly which only indicate a doubtful relationship of her with Rabi. So she secretly tried to stop it but she could not. Finally Tagore was married to Bhabatarini Devi on 09 Dec 1883 and Kadambari committed suicide on 19th April 1884, after four months and 10 days of Tagore’s marriage.
After Tagore’s marriage, what was Kadambari’s feeling, her sufferings which led her to suicide, we don’t know. She has never scribbled anywhere. But analyzing the events it can be concluded that she did not approve the marriage because she by heart did not want her brother-in-law Rabi to marry Bhabatarini and she even tried to stop it. The way she ended her life after 4 months of the marriage, it was not the question of her wanting of the marriage, there was something more which we do not know but we have to take help of some imagination by joining pieces of events. The marriage separated or distanced them from each other, there was no doubt in it. Rabi, the most dearer and nearer, her companion her playmate since childhood was no more with her and all of a sudden she lost all her un-written rights on Rabi which she gained over the years. All this she could not tolerate in her mind. All trouble because of Bhabatarini but nothing could be done to her.
Secondly, it is also said that she was a neglected (by husband) and lonely lady. She was also issueless. In this situation, there was nobody near her other than Rabi to be her companion in her youth too. That Rabi too was no more her companion after his marriage. We know Tagore gave her a nickname “Hecate” the name of a Greek Goddess, linked to moon but also to witchcraft and magic. It shows that they were enjoying the teasing relationship which normally exists in this relation with sister-in-laws. This relation is a beautiful one which we can find it in Bengal and some other places of India. In this relation, there always be affection towards brother-in-law (husband’s younger brother). Society never minds with this type of relationship, and they are allowed to mix freely in the family. But at the same time it may turns to be dangerous too. This relationship might evolve out of affection into love by crossing the fine line of the “affection”. This what happened to Charu in the film “Charulata” (Directed by : Satyajit Ray) which is the story of Tagore himself, his sister-in law Kadambari and her husband. So it can be concluded that love blossomed in them and they were having a play tonic love. It was a natural thing to evolve love because she was lonely and starved for companionship. When Tagore got married to Bhabatarini Devi, she might felt deserted again and she lost her companion forever to a much younger woman. She might have thought of not to die by inches but to die forever because there was no solution in sight to her problem which led her to the extreme step.