Today we are used to seeing Bengali women working side by side with men in almost every sphere of life. But it had not been so easy for them to achieve this position. Women had to struggle and overcome many hurdles. But given the opportunity, they can perform as well as men, if not better. Leaving aside the current women leaders of Bangladesh and West Bengal, Bengali women had shown in the past that they were no inferior to men.
Bhabashankari was a remarkable woman in the sixteenth century. Impressed by her bravery, the king of Bhurshuti, Rudranarayan married her. After king’s death, she took over the reign. The Pathan ruler Osman Khan attacked her kingdom thinking that it will be an easy prey with a weak female ruler. But she fought valiantly and defeated him. Impressed by her gallantry, Emperor Akbar bestowed upon her the title, ‘Raibaghini’. In the 18th century, Devi Choudhurani was an associate of the Monk revolutionaries. Rani Shiromoni was a famous zamindar who supported the Choar and Pike revolution. During the same period, Rani Bhabani managed her zamindari very skilfully on her own.
Women made immense contribution to various fields of Bengali culture such as literature, music, art, architecture, acting, fashion etc. In the seventeenth century, Hemlata Devi gained prominence for her superb performance of Dhrupango kirton. She had profound knowledge of ‘Vaishnab’ literature. She had written a book called ‘Manabi Bilash’. From 1830, female education began on a small scale. Women were given lessons by home tuition. By 1850s this gathered momentum, the result of which was manifested in a series of writings by women. In 1856 Krishnakamini Dasi published an anthology of poetry called ‘Ontobashini’. Between 1863 and 1869, Koilasbashini Devi had published three books of poetry and prose. Then a deluge of female writers started in Bengal. Writers such as Rassundari Devi, Naveenkali Devi, Foyezunnesa Khatun, Birajmohini Dasi, Girindramohini Dasi and Swarnakumari Devi inundated the Bengali literature. During the 1880s, Krishnabhabini Das has written a travel story. We must give them credit as none of them had any formal education in educational institution.
From the early twentieth century, women started to write poetry, novel, short stories and other forms of literature in earnest. The poetries of Mankumari Basu, Kamini Roy, Kusumkumari Das were all well received by the society. At the same time writers such as Probhaboti Devi Swarassati, Priyongboda Devi, Prafullamoyi Devi, Nirupoma Devi, Pankajini Basu, Shoilobala Ghosjaya, Sorojini Naidu had written innumerable novels. Number of Probhaboti Devi Swarassati’s novels had surpassed that of Rabindranath Tagore. Other prominent ones were Leela Majumdar, Ashpurna Devi, Bani Basy, Protibha Basu and so on. Among Muslim female writers Begum Rokeya was the pioneer followed by Sufia Kamal, Rabeya Khatun, Romena Afaz, Mukbula Manzoor, Selina Hussain and others.
Women were not just content with writing, they also ventured in the field of editing and publishing. In 1860 first women magazine was published in Bengal. Within years it gained so much popularity and confidence that in 1870, a woman took over the responsibility of its editing. Mokshadayini Devi was its first editor. In 1875, Thakmoni started editing the magazine, ‘Onathini’. In the 1880s, Mohini Sen took the editorial responsibility of ‘Poricharika’. During the same period, Swarnakumari Devi took the charge of editing ‘Bharati. She carried the role for ten years and then Sarla Devi took over. In 1947, first female Muslim, Nurjahan Begum started the magazine called ‘Begum’ from Kolkata and she was its editor.
Bengali women left their mark in Bengali theatre and film quite early. In the 1830s when female education was absent in Bengal, a woman called Radhamoni played the role of ‘Vidya’ in a play called ‘Vidya Sundari’. She proved that woman could perform high quality acting. In the later part of the nineteenth century when stage performance became very popular, many women joined the theatre. Among them Golapsundari, alias Sukumari Dutta, Khetramoni, Jadumoni,and Elokaeshi are worth mentioning. But Binodini earned the most fame in that era. After Binodini came Tarasundari, Tinkori, Gangamoni and Norisundari.Outside the world of theatre. The women from Rabindranath Thakur’s family gained huge popularity. Among them Protibha Chowdhury excelled in both acting and music.
From the middle of twentieth century, film industry started growing exponentially. Number and quality of female actors also increased at the same time. In this area women’s contribution was no less than men’s. In the thirties and forties notable actresses like Kanan Devi, Devika Rani, Kusumkumari, Renuka Ray, Anupama Devi, brought new life to the Bengali cinema. In the 1950s, actresses such as Suchitra Sen, Mala Sinha, Savitri Chatterajee, Supriya Chatterjee and so on had outperformed their male counterparts. They brought a renaissance in Bengali films.
In the nineteenth century women were chastised for singing in public. They had overcome this stigma by the charm of their melodious voice. By the early twentieth century the women earned the recognition for their talent in music. Music lesson, singing in public even recording songs became widespread. In some areas they surpassed men. Being disadvantaged by marriage, childbearing, family responsibilities a lot of women had to abandon the profession. But this did not dissuade singers like Gohar Jan, Binodini Dasi, Amala Das, Manada Sundari Dasi, Niharbala, Kamala Jharia, Indubala, Angurbala, Uma Basu, Malati Ghosal etc. Amya Thakur, Premlata Devi, Dipali Nag and others. They have enriched the Bengali vocal music with their sweet voices. In the early fifties of the twentieth century, a new generation of female singers brought a new dimension to Bengali music. Most notable among them were Sandhya Mukharjee, Lata Mungheshkar, Utpala Sen, Alpona Bondopadahy, Arati Mukhupadhya, Protima Bannerjee, Hoimanti Shukla and others.
One of the dominant branches of culture is dance. In this field the women are definitely more skilful than men. That is not because of their physical beauty alone; over the years women took this profession much more ardently. In the nineteenth century those who were dancers were courtesans and actresses. Kusumkumari was one of those dancers and singers. In those days, dance was associated with drinks, prostitution and sex. Women from middle class families shunned it and even some women ventured to display their talent they were castigated by the society. In 1921-22 Reba Ray was criticised in the media for dancing on the stage. In 1925, Nandalal Bose’s daughter Gauri Devi danced in a play written by Rabindranath Tagore. Whole society was up in arms against Tagore for corrupting the society. But Rabindranath Tagore, Udayshankar and Gurushodoy Dutta turned this round and made dance popular. Udayshankar’s wife Amalashankar herself was an accomplished dancer. She had improvised Bengali dance by fusing it with Manipuri and Gujarati Garba dance.
Modern women should take a leaf out of these pioneering women and strive to strengthen women’s position in the society. The way women can drive the society towards progress and prosperity men cannot. So, it should be the motto of women of today to perpetuate the legacy of their predecessors.
- The writer, Dr Sarwar Jamil, is a retired Education Manager, Southampton City Council