Criticism: Tagore’s Chitra and Folklore’s Hidimba: Power of the Feminine

Dr. Usha Bande casts a critical glance at Tagore’s Chitrangada, based on the Mahabharata story of the warrior-princess, and Hidimba, a folklore figure from the present Kullu area of Himachal Pradesh in India.

tagoreSomehow, Chitrangada and Hidimba stand out as epitomes of feminine power and feminist assertion in the Mahabharata as well as in literature. The role assigned to them in the Epic (Mahabharata) and in folk and mainstream literatures focuses on their strength, independence of spirit and intelligence. Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrical drama Chitrangada is based on the Mahabharata story of the warrior-princess whose quest for love has both feminine and feminist overtones.  Similarly, Hidimba, the present Kullu area of Himachal Pradesh, is a folklore figure who has become a part of folk psyche and has achieved divinity. These two women are not identical; though contemporary, they belong to distant parts of the land, with different value systems and social set-ups but both are strong and both represent an era that illustrates women’s authority and agency. It is interesting to explore how Rabindranath Tagore makes changes in the Mahabharata story to give his heroine the attributes he would like modern Indian women to possess and how the folklore of Himachal Pradesh elevates Hidimba from the daemonic to the human and then to the divine.

My effort is to problematize the Tagore’s views of feminine power, not in absolute terms in its masculine connotation but in its vigour which gives woman her sense of identity and personal worth. When Tagore lets his Chitrangada declare, “Ami Chitrangada” “I am Chitrangada,” we see her as a self-assured, mature woman, conscious of her selfhood as a woman. Though this declaration comes towards the end of the play, it gives us sufficient ground to pick up our discussion from this point. In order to contextualize the Hidimba story one needs to turn to the folk practices in Kullu-Manali area, the temple lore of Hidimba Mata in Manali and the reverence with which the erstwhile royal family hold the goddess. Significantly, Hidimba remains vibrant in the oral tradition but as folklore scholars assert, oral literature represents an appropriate expression of religious, mythological, historical and cultural milieu of the rural folk and offers a continuum to the culture. Chitra and Hidimba both are mythic figures placed in contemporary realities but since myths appeal “to emotion rather than to reason” (Shaw, 1976: 10) they can stand perennial questioning and re-working of the Mahabharata myths.

Chitrangada of Mahabharata becomes a fascinating and picturesque figure in Tagore’s hands. The writer’s art has created a woman who is only remotely recognizable as from the epic. Tagore’s Chitrangada is both traditional and modern. He probes her heart, places her in the psycho-social reality of the culture and then constructing a psychological matrix, he assigns her a role that one can identify with role-distancing rather than role-playing.

Let us first recast the two women from the Himalayan region as portrayed in the Mahabharata. Hidimba was the sister of the tyrant Hidimb, the Rakshasa ruler of the western Himalaya area which is Kullu-Manali in the present state of Himachal Pradesh. While the Pandavas were roaming in that area the ruler Hidimb was angry at the intruders and sent his sister to ambush the Pandavas and eliminate them. That the ruler should send a female — his sister — to locate the enemy portends well for the esteem with which female power was recognized. Hidimba saw Bhima, lost her heart to him and approaching him directly, expressed desire to marry him. Initially, Bhim repulsed her advances. In the mean while when his sister did not return for long, Hidimb went out in search of her; saw the Pandavas and attacked Bhim. Hidimba was aware of her brother’s daemonic powers. She could not let her lover be defeated and killed. She used her esoteric powers to help Bhim. Hidimb was killed and Bhim ultimately agreed to marry her. Ghatotkach was born to them who played an important role in the Mahabharata from Pandavas’ side. Hidimba took over the reign of Hidimb’s kingdom. She was an accomplished ruler and after Bhim’s departure, she reared her child efficiently and with care.

The Chitrangada episode in the Mahabharata is short. Chitrangada was the daughter of Chitravahana, the ruler of Manipur. Since the king did not have a male heir, he brought up his daughter like a son. Once during his wanderings in Manipur Arjuna saw Chitrangada. Enamoured of her he wished to marry her. Chitravahana agreed to the proposal on the condition that the son born to Chitrangada would be the ruler of Manipur. Arjuna lived in Manipur for three months and departed. Babhruvahana is born to them whom Chitrangada brought up as a Pandava prince, inducting in him higher values and bravery of his father Arjuna.

Now the questions before us are: how does Tagore look at the Chitrangada episode? How does folklore of Himachal Pradesh treat Hidimba? Tagore’s Chitrangada is different and so is folklore’s Hidimba. In the folk psyche, Hidimba is not the young princess; she is an old woman, they call her the ‘grandmother’. The erstwhile princely family give her a place of reverence and during Dashehra festival, she is the supervising presence. Folklore has it that an ancestor of the present ruling dynasty came to the hills from the Mayapuri (near Haridwar). While wandering in the unknown mountainous region, feeling lost and tired, he met an old woman carrying a bundle on her head. She looked fatigued. The young stranger offered to help her. The old woman was happy and before leaving, she revealed herself as the goddess and blessed him with success in establishing his kingdom. The young man defeated the local chieftains and became the ruler of Kullu area. In our interview with Shri Mahendra Singh of Kullu, he revealed that the royal family holds devi Hidimba as family member. “She is the grandmother of our family. She is one of us. We celebrate the festival (Dushehra) together. If she were the deity, she would be a far off figure but since she is family, she is the loved one” (Bande and Chatterjee, 2011:91). According to another folk tale, Hidimba is called ‘Hudka’, she is married to Bhim, gives birth to a son and after Bhim’s departure felling sad and concerned for him she goes to Kurukshetra. Unfortunately, when Draupadi comes to touch her feet the holy ash that Draupadi has in her fist falls inadvertently on Hukda’s feet and she is accidentally burnt to death. Draupadi is repentant, she accepts Hudka’s son as her own (Kashyap, 1999:128-133).  Though different versions of the story come down to us because of the nature of orality, it cannot be denied that Hidimba or Hudka or Hirma are the different names of Hidimba and she is deified in the region.

As for Tagore’s Chitra, the princess, the dance-drama Chitrangada projects her in all her feminine beauty and grace. The Tagore-story is briefly thus: one day Chitra goes hunting in male attire, she encounters Arjuna, addresses him perfunctorily and pokes him with an arrow as would a boy, “With a careless tone,/To move away i asked him; but he/ Neither moved nor looked at me./Thus provoked with anger impatient/Poked him I, straight with the tip of my arrow”(Tagore, Preface:3). Arjuna looks bemused at her considering her a boy. When Chitra comes to know that the man whom she addressed so authoritatively is none else than Arjuna, she loses her heart to him. Next day she comes dressed as a woman and expresses her desire to marry him. Arjuna is not impressed by the plain woman. He tells her that he is under vow of celibacy. Thus rejected, Chitra invokes Madana (the god of love) and Vasanta (the god of spring and eternal youth) to help her. With their blessing, she becomes beautiful for one year. Arjuna is smitten by her beauty; they stay together for some time but Chitrangada is not happy. What pinches her is the fact that Arjuna loves her borrowed beauty, not her real being. She reveals herself as Chitrangada in the end.

Leaving aside the twists and turns that folklore and Tagore give to the original tales, at the basic structure the two Mahabharata stories are strikingly similar —Hidimba is from the western Himalayan region whereas Chitrangada is from the eastern Himalayas. Both are princesses and tribals – Hidimba is from Rakshasa clan and Chitra from Maite of Manipur.  Hidimba uses her esoteric powers to win over Bhim; Chitra uses divine intervention to get Arjuna. Both women rule over their respective kingdoms ably and rear their sons as single parents – a concept much debated in feminism today. But whereas Hidimba acquires the status of the patron goddess of Kullu-Manali area and is a significant presence in the psyche of the people, Chitrangada is not a folklore figure. It is poet’s art that has made her immortal. The Hidimba Devi temple in Manali finds mention with due reverence in the travel writings of Europeans like A.P.H. Harcourt, Penelope Chetwode, Christina Noble and others. The Dungri Hill where the Hidimba temple stands and a tiny shrine nearby dedicated to Ghatotkach are tourist attractions of Manali. Thus, Hidimba lives as an embodiment of oral/folk tradition. Chitrangada, the dance drama is read and watched by hundreds of lovers of literature. So Chitra becomes a living presence in the mind of those who witness the show or read the play.

The point of departure in the representation of Chitrangada is Tagore’s handling of the theme.  His Chitra has little resemblance to the Chitrangada of the epic. Many a critic rues the fact that she is not Chitrangada at all, except for her name. In his preface to the first edition of the dance-drama Tagore admits that he has based his play on the Mahabharata episode but has modelled her to suit his thematic concerns. A careful reading of the preface shows two parallel ideas on which Tagore foregrounds the presentation of his protagonist – first, the balancing of the physical and spiritual aspects of love and second, the power of a woman’s physical charm as against her inner strength. At some crucial point these aspects converge when Chitrangada stands forth as man’s mental and spiritual equal, strengthening Tagore’s concept of womanhood.

The preface also details how he chanced upon the theme. He was travelling from Shantiniketan to Kolkata on a beautiful spring day in the month of Chaitra. Along the railway track he spotted some blooming flowers. That led him to think of the short-lived nature of beauty. At that moment he was reminded of the tiny mango fruit forming out of the flowers on the mango tree in the courtyard. The fruit is the inner core of the flower and has strength to endure even when the flowers wither. Similarly, if a beautiful young woman has virtue and inner strength of character she can hold her lover through all the vicissitudes of life. There would be no satiation, no fatigue and no ennui in such a love. “Then and there, I was desirous of expressing the concept in the form of a drama and simultaneously I remembered the tale of Chitrangada in the Mahabharata.” He further adds that this “tale was concealed in my mind in a different form for a long time. At last, I got the happy opportunity of writing it down in a quiet village in Orissa, called Padua”1

Tagore wrote Chitrangada in 1892. Its English translation was published in 1914. The late 19th century saw a period of Bengal renaissance with its movements like the Brahmo Samaj, women’s education and other social changes ushering in rapid socio-cultural transformations. By and large, Tagore’s views about women were bold and radical and he put them forth in his writings with unflinching frankness – expressing women’s emotive love, extra-marital affairs, and frank articulation of their desire. In that, his representation of women is pre-eminently feminist, especially in his dance dramas, though he is not a feminist by label. He was naturally sensitized over the plight of women and wanted to establish the individuality of women so as to ensure dignity, self-respect and sexual independence to them. In his novels and short stories he experimented with women’s emancipation and sexual freedom and expressed his views on the gender question. In his dance dramas Tagore’s depiction of women is bold and experimental; the portrayals are ideologically oriented but the feminist inclinations are obvious.

In the Mahabharata, Arjun is “smitten” by Chitrangada’s charm. But Tagore wanted to place a woman at the centre of his discourse; to give her the agency so as show her strength and by focusing on her ability to understand the temporary nature of beauty as against the depth of character to express his philosophy of life. By juxtaposing asceticism and sensuality in the play, he points the way to evolve a balance between the two. As K.R.Sriniwas Iyengar points out, Tagore, a unified man, a whole man was aware of the inter-connectedness of everything in the universe and was “an example to his country and a missionary to the West, who still points the way to final harmonizing of our differences and therefore toward our mutual strength” (Iyengar, 1965: 10). In Chitrangada, he rejects both — ascetic denial of life as well as the sensual denial of spirit. In doing so, Tagore’s art weaves an altogether different picture – a girl of his time on the road to the 20th century India. Chitra becomes that metaphor, a metaphor for the esoteric in woman that underlines her power – power to hold, to let go and yet to bind. Arjuna becomes a ready prey. He looks pale as against her brilliance and Tagore brings forth the ultimate woman – delicately feminine and fiercely feminist, a female who recognizes her strength, takes on the responsibility for the “self” to emerge as the “female hero.”

The concept of the “female hero” is discussed by feminist psychologists like Marcia Westkott and others of the Stone Center, Wellesley College.  Westkott opines that when a woman gains consciousness of herself as an acting subject capable of exercising her own choice and ceases to depend on external validation, she overcomes her defensive reactions and the desire to hide. The desire to hide is the result of the accumulated fears which personality theorist Karen Horney calls “the intricate mixture of facts and fantasy” (Westkott, 1986:20) that she is being mistreated because she is weak; this victim syndrome blocks her strength to exercise her choice and to confront actual abuse. Once she is able to deconstruct the dependent character structure that sustains this fantasy, she demystifies the past, acquires self-knowledge that she does not have to be extraordinary to be worthwhile. Even otherwise, myths and legends portray women as strong and able.

This is exactly what Chitrangada intrinsically understands. Her speech towards the end of the drama bears the above characteristics when she says:

“I am Chitrangada, the daughter of a king

Not goddess to be worshipped and put up on a pedestal;

Not one to be ignored, subjugated, and treated with indifference.

If you deign to keep me by your side during good times and bad

If you let me be a part of your endeavours,

Then only you’ll know me for

Who I am.”

“Who I am?” is not Chitra’s question; it is probably her most intense self-assertion. Who is Chitrangada? Not the princess, not even the beautiful damsel, nor the ugly girl, but a woman who does not want to be forced into the ideals of womanhood. She does not want to be a paragon of virtues to be looked up to. She rejects being an object of desire or an insignificant being to be neglected. She is the representative of womanhood that would have men to treat them as human beings, to be accepted and recognized. She confesses without inhibitions, “Your child I am bearing” and assures Arjuna that if it be a boy, she will train him in heroic trends and at last, “when I send him to salute his father’s feet as Arjuna the second, then my dearest, would you perceive my descent.” The avowal to bring up her unborn son as a single parent is significant here. It is indicative of power. Culturally and historically, power is men’s prerogative. But when Chitrangada exercises her personal power, she seems to derive it out of an implicit acceptance of her identity. Discussing social power, sociologists often argue that power rests with men; as regards women’s power is often unassigned or personal and born out of an individual’s right to make decision about particular aspect of social life. In Chitrangada’s case, there is legitimacy to her actions, not because she is a mythic figure but because Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic imagination and psychological insights into the inner workings of the feminine mind.  Chitra is, as a critic says, “Tagore’s another attempt to justify the role of woman, not only as a beautiful agent of nature but also as an interpreter of truth” (Jha, 2004:137).

When Chitrangada asserts her identity, Arjuna is left spell-bound by the “bare simplicity of the truth”. Tagore states in his Preface to Chitrangada that he wanted to reconcile the dichotomy between beauty and character, sensuous love and its sublime form, “I do not know why suddenly and simultaneously I had also begun to think that if a beautiful young lady believed that she had conquered the heart of her beloved by virtue of the phenomenal emanation of youth, then she could accuse her youth and beauty of sharing in the principal part of her good fortune she acquired and show such contempt for her beauty as he would show for the co-wife of her beloved. This beauty is her outward possession as if got from Spring, the king of the seasons. It is a means of fulfilling bodily needs through a temporary spreading of fascination. If she had real strength of character within herself, then her gift to her beloved out of that fascination-free force would be a very valuable achievement for him and that would really help to a successful going on of the lives of the couple. That gift is the manifestation of the soul’s real nature and even the last phase of life has neither fatigue not satiety and so, its brightness is not spoiled by a constant deposit of dusty layers of what is known as habit.” The play ends with his words, “Today blessed I am, my love.”2 Do we see here Arjuna overwhelmed? The statement is short and ambiguous, “Today blessed I am.” What intentions do these words contain? Will he desert her in disdain? Or has he accepted her in totality? The open ending leaves much to speculate. It seems Tagore is not interested in revealing further. Nor is Chitrangada worried over the outcome of her revelation. She tells him the truth with a careless grace which seems to say, “here I am, what I am. Take it or leave it.” She has made her choice. She has chosen the exact moment when to divulge the truth and she has offered her true self to his view – she as Chitrangada “feminine in affection and manly in valour”.

Prior to this denouement, Arjuna was curious to know the real Chitrangada, the princess, because he heard stories of her valour. He was imagining Chitrangada “on horseback, holding the bridle in her left hand and bow and arrow in her right,” not knowing that his unnamed beloved is the real Chitrangada. He wanted to meet that woman who is “Lakshmi and goddess Jagdatri” – one the feminine giver, the other the fearless fighter.  Ultimately, Tagore shows that Chitra is not the lovelorn playmate of the great warrior-hero but she is his soul-mate, “A companion in happiness and sorrow.” Tagore’s concept of love accepts the demands of the body but this love also knows that there is real fulfilment and peace beyond the body’s desire.

In the beginning of the play Chitrangada is so enamoured of the handsome Arjuna that she is desperate to earn his love. Her first encounter is significant for her as it makes her aware of her true identity – she is not a boy but a woman with a woman’s heart in the boyish garb. “What I long forgot flashed into my mind,” she says, “the moment/ At that face I looked and that figure/ Completely self-composed I saw, I knew that a woman I was” (4). Her only wish at this moment is to grab his attention but considering her as a boy, Arjuna looks at her in bemused silence. Next day, she discards the manly attire, dons a red dress and bangles and other befitting embellishment for a girl and tries to woo him. But Arjuna is not impressed; he rejects her. The second revelation comes to her that she is not beautiful. She is too spirited to let go the rejection as a bad dream. She seeks help from Madana, the god of love and Vasanta, the god of “Eternal Youth” to make her beautiful just for a day. She regrets that Arjuna feigned celibacy to reject her. “Abstinence of a man!”  “Shame be on me, Shake even that I couldn’t.” She is accursed as she could not shake a Kshatriya’s vow when a woman’s beauty can unsettle even the sages. Let us admire her boldness when she frankly shares her intimate, amorous thought with Madana and Vasanta. They give her the boon for one year and happily she woos Arjuna afresh. Now it is Arjuna who is completely under her spell.  Even this is not what she would have visualized. She chides him, “Go, go back: Go back hero; worship not a thing unreal, at its subtle feet sacrifice not your courage, valour and greatness” (20). She cannot tolerate that a great hero like him should fall a prey to something unreal. “How much do you know me? For whom do you forget yourself! For whom do you in a moment’s impulse break your vow and make Arjuna Un-Arjuna?” But these are love’s little games. Both come together and have a period of unsullied bliss.

Slowly, as the year draws to an end, Chitrangada becomes restless.  She realizes that it is her “borrowed beauty” that has enamoured Arjuna. She feels guilty despite the physical pleasure of being with him. Things change for Arjuna as well. Rabindranath has astutely projected the male psyche. First, Arjuna loses all sense of judgement and wants to possess the beautiful damsel but within a year of their first encounter he seems tired of inactivity. So far he has been content to be in the young beauty’s pleasurable company. But he realizes that he does not know anything about her.  Now, he wishes to know more about his beloved’s background – her home, her name, her kith and kin. She enjoys his discomfiture and teases him that she is like a drop of dew and has neither name nor a home. Arjuna is satiated with the kind of idle life he is leading and he thinks of his hunting trips with his brothers; next he feels inquisitive about princess Chitrangada. The forest Rover has described her as “parent in love, the queen mother in affection and the prince in valour.” This feminine and feminist aspect of the princess now becomes the point of curiosity for Arjuna. The more he wants to know about her, the more his beloved (Chitrangada) discards his query with a careless, “what more would you like to hear about her?” She paints her as “Ugly and uncouth,” whose firm and strong arms can pierce a target with efficiency but “can’t tie a hero with such a soft serpent noose.” Here Arjuna is inquisitive like a child. He has learnt that she is “feminine in affection/And manly in valour.” Well, is Arjuna fed up with the feminine charm of his beloved? Is he looking for strength which he has pawned? Or is it just the curiosity of a questor? These and many such questions create as much conflict in the readers’ mind as in Arjuna’s.

Let us now look at Chitrangada’s mental conflict. Chitra is young, and is in love. Her hero first ignores her taken in by her boyish dress and later rejects her not impressed by her plain looks. It hurts. Particularly painful is the fact that Arjuna may have thought of her as a shaky and embarrassed woman, wanting in self-control; a woman like any other ordinary woman. And surely, she not ordinary. Chitra is no fool. What she shares with Madana and Vasanta amply illustrates that she is constantly undergoing self-analysis. “I am not the kind of woman who with silent patience suffers constant pangs in night-long tears” and hides them in the morning. She is not like the thousand others. She is more than that. When read with Chitrangada’s last summing up of herself these analytical remarks compare well with the feminist bent of mind. She knows she can “open the door of his heart and make a place there forever.” But she has no time and she cannot wait. With borrowed beauty she wins him over, is in ecstasy intoxicated by the first flush of love.

Chitra has taken full advantage of her “borrowed” beauty, has asserted her sexuality unabashed and offered her body passionately. This portrayal of idyllic romance is commensurate with Tagore’s idea of emotive love. But why does Tagore, after letting his Chitrangada enjoy voluptuous sensuality, shifts his focus to ethical values and from thence to spirituality? As a woman from mythology, Chitra has no inhibitions that bog down women in contemporary society. Jasbir Jain recognizes this fact– not about Tagore but in general—when she writes, “Interestingly enough, myths unconsciously project women as strong characters. Gods and men are presented open to temptation and in need of protection and support. They succumb to their circumstances, while women rooted in nature display the ability to stand alone and by themselves. When men fall the blame is thrown on others; when women fall they have only themselves to blame! They are called upon to develop their own resources” (Jain, 2002:19).

In her intense relationship with Arjuna, Chitrangada recognizes two factors that perturb her – first, she has taken recourse to falsehood; and second, Arjuna loves her “borrowed beauty” and not her real self. The proud Chitrangada who had told Madana that she is not the one to shed tear like any other woman is now overwhelmed by her sense of guilt and lack. Arjuna does not love Chitra, he loves her shadow; Chitra is not fulfilled, it is her rival that is satisfied. She laments that her beauty is the “witch”, the “co-wife” always ready to usurp her rightful place. “This false beauty will fall off soon like petals of a flower over-bloomed.” A realization of her self-worth dawns on her as she admits, “superior I am to this disguise.” She resolves to reveal herself to Arjuna. If he departs in disgust, she would not mind; if she were to die of heart-break, she would welcome it. Either way she is prepared to face the consequences than living in deceit.

Twice does she change her disguise – once discarding her male attire and then abandoning her “unreal beauty”; the first instance she discovers her woman’s heart, and in the second, she becomes her actual self. Of these which Chitrangada is real? The one who wandered in the jungle as a man unaware of her female body? Or the ugly one who disdains her looks? Or the beautiful one who allures Arjuna? The question is not whether Chitrangada is beautiful or not; the issue is the conflict, the tension to re-define her real self, her womanhood that makes Chitrangada really desirable. The one donning man’s dress is the saviour Chitra; the beautiful one is the thirsty Chitra; but the one who reveals herself in all inner beauty of womanhood is the real Chitra – Arjuna’s equal in companionship, the mother of his valiant son, and feminine in affection but manly in valour. It is this Chitra that Arjuna is fascinated with at the end.

Tagore brings his protagonist to the centre of his discourse with a wholly new sensibility. One of the significant aspects of Chitrangada’s character is her determination to get what she wants, to go to any length to fulfil her desire; yet she is not deceptive, nor is she gullible. She exercises her power and agency in her choices in life and as a self-assured, mature woman conscious of her selfhood and female desire she takes full responsibility of her actions and their results. Her journey is a spiritual journey through desire to discover her own self and her spiritual growth.

When we read the three changes Chitrangada undergoes in the context of feminism we are reminded of the three segments that Ellen Showalter has given – feminine, feminist and female. Feminist psychologists also envision these three categories. Feminism is the period of imitation, of submission; feminist is that of anger and the search for new paradigms and the female stage is the one of recognition of strength as a woman. Chitrangada as the boyish entity is in the stage of imitation followed by her surrender to Arjuna; she is feminist in her anger against her disguise and the female self when she recognizes her female power.

Chitra made choices – she has chosen her husband, she has openly invoked Vasanta for beauty, she has used her charm to the full, she has realized its temporary appeal and finally she has chosen the time to reveal the truth.

Reading a text based on mythological episodes require some probing into the portrayal of women in the original. In her paper entitled, “Mahabharata through the Eyes of Women” Kavita Sharma opines that in the great epic the central issue that stands out is their sexually defined roles. The structure of the society is patriarchal and women’s sexuality is regulated by patriarchal norms. But the paradox of the situation is that “Although women gain status through husbands and sons, they create a remarkable space for themselves within the limits set for them, almost subverting patriarchal order” (Sharma, 2002:112). This can be substantiated by the examples of Chitra and Hidimba – independent, self-confident and bold. These are their female qualities but they do not lack feminine appeal – attractiveness, motherly feelings and submission. Another paradox emerges here: it is through their sons that they gain name – Vibruvahana and Ghatotkach. Each assures her husband/lover that in his absence, she will rear the son as a true Pandava. Ghatotkach is as brave, burly and brawny as both his parents – Hidimba and Bhim; Vibruvahana is as brave and expert a soldier as his father and mother – Arjuna and Chitra. The women perform their motherly roles meticulously and show the spirit of sacrifice when they send their sons to fight.

Interestingly, what is the role or attitude of the fathers? We do not know about Bhim’s feeling during Ghatotkch’s fight but Arjuna, when confronted with his son Vibruvahana challenges him to fight with him (Arjuna) as a king and not supplicate as a father. The story stretches to the point when Arjuna is killed in his fight with his son, revived by Ulupi, Arjuna’s wife and Chitra’s co-wife. But these facts are not narrated in the texts/lore we are discussing. Some critics like Rollo and Thompson object to Chitra’s presentation by Tagore on the ground that she seems to be existing only for man’s pleasure – nurturing his child, rearing him like his family, not hers, and preparing the boy to render service to the father (qtd. in Sen Gupta: 150).

Critics were not comfortable with Tagore’s representation of Chitrangada. Even though new concepts were emerging and the society’s ideas about women were changing, the open romance as depicted by Tagore was jarring for the socio-cultural rules of propriety. Lines like “drink-drink from these lips” and many others were unacceptable. Moreover, the absence of parents and society in the play was also criticised. There are only four characters – Arjuna, Chitra, Vasanta and Madana. The Rover appears briefly in the middle of the play. But he is an important link because he tells Arjuna about their princess Chitrangada who is “parent in love,/ The queen mother in affection and the prince in valour.” This becomes the turning point in the play.

The representation of Chitra and Hidimba needs to be seen from another angle too. Feminism, we agree by now, does not mean breaking social norms but it stands for creating a social structure where women are free and able to take decision and make choices. The social settings in which the two heroines move are conducive to freedom. They roam about freely in the jungle, are fearless, have choices and the society seems to have accepted these norm. Their feminine body does not become a hindrance rather it is a site of pleasure, love and fruitful fulfilment. Both history and myth are signify the past but they have their importance. As Jasbir Jain posits, deconstructing the past can help us retrieve our lost bearings and identities. It provides a sense of continuity and imparts a sense of tradition.  The past is important on another count, its influence has been internalized by generations of people; it needs to be reviewed as a process of self-renewal” (Jain, 2002:15). The Mahabharata stories of Chitrangada and Hidimba and their folk and literary versions can help us evaluate our stand on feminism – the frank expression of the urge of the body, single parenthood, acceptance of girl child/woman as a ruler and the ability of the female to know where to draw the line. On close reading the stories reveal a beautiful balance of the female and feminine. A New York Times article which appeared on March 22, 1914 the writer puts it beautifully, “Chitra, however was a surprise. We did not look for an oriental even though a seer, to write a book (especially twenty-five years ago when this was written) that might serve as evangel to the most advanced among modern Occidental women – yet this is just what Rabindranath Tagore has done. By ‘advanced,’ be it understood, we are not referring to that group of biological freaks to whom the turn is sometimes applied, but to the sane and sincere women who are endeavouring – whether by advocating political equality with men or by opposing it is  detail – to venture the highest good for that sex” (March 22, 1914).

It may be mentioned before we end this paper that Tagore endowed his Chitra with a fiery beauty, accomplishment and intellect. She is just irresistible. It was this woman of inner strength that Pt. Nehru was fond of. He saw in Chitrangada a symbol around which a new gender construction could be built. In a beautifully written article on this aspect, Reba Som points out that Tagore projected an integrated image of woman’s sexuality and her identity as man’s comrade in the sphere outside home. The central theme of Chitrangada’s philosophy is that she may not accept being ignored, nor being placed on a pedestal. She visualizes being his companion in life sharing equal responsibilities. Nehru saw this as an indication of gender equality breaking all mental blocks and attitudinal prejudices (Som, 2009: 34-54).



  1. See “Tagore’s Preface to Chitrangada” in A Complete Translation of Tagore’s Chitrangada. Trans. Birendra Nath Roy. Calcutta: Sribhumi Publishing Co, 1957 (edition). Tagore elaborately states how he chanced to think of the theme and how his is not the story of Chitrangada but of sublime love beyond its physical aspects.
  2. In the Birendra Nath Roy’s translation that I am using for this paper the final words are, “To-day blessed am I, my love.” But some other translations have different versions like, “Beloved, my life is full.”



Works Cited



Bande, Usha and Him Chatterjee. Forts and Palaces of Himachal Pradesh. Jaipur: Literary Circle, 2011.

Iyengar, K.R.S. Rabindranath Tagore: A Critical Introduction. New Delhi: Sterling, 1965.

Jain, Jasbir. Writing Women Across Cultures. Jaipur: Rawat, 2002.

Jha, Gauri Shankar. “Feminine Sway in Tagore’s Plays.” Mohit K. Ray, ed. Studies in Rabindranath Tagore. Vol II. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2004

Kashyap, Padamchandra. Aitihasik Yevam Pauranik Kathyen. New Delhi: Himalaya Pustak Bhandar, 1999.

Sharma, Kavita. “Mahabharata Through the Eyes of Women.” Women’s Studies in India: Contours of Change. Ed. Malashri Lal and Sukrita Paul Kumar. Shimla: IIAS. 2002. 104-123.

Shaw, Harry. Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: McGraw Hill, 1976.

Sen Gupta, S.C. The Great Sentinel: A Study of Rabindranath Tagore. Calcutta: A. Mukherjee & Co. (year not mentioned)

Som, Reba. “Chitrangada Not Sita: Jawaharlal Nehru’s Model for Gender Equation.” In Search of Sita. Eds. Malashri Lal and Namaita Gokhale. New Delhi: Penguin, 2009. 34-54.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Chitrangada. Trans. A Complete Translation of Tagore’s Cutrangada. Birendra Nath Roy. Calcutta: Sribhum Publishing Co., 1957.

The New York Times, “Tagore’s Ideal Woman,” March 22, 1914.

Westkott, Marcia. The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

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