The men of the Tagore family in Calcutta, especially its biggest name Rabindranath Tagore, have been well-documented for their roles in the freedom movement and their contributions in the fields of the arts, science and literature. However, the narratives never give due space to the women of the household. Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Sarala Devi is one such name.
To identify her merely as Tagore’s niece would be dismissing her own accomplishments and diminishing the innumerable ways in which she fought not only for the independence from British rule but for women’s rights as well.
Sarala Devi, sometimes also referred to as Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, an honorific suffix added to her name during that time, was born in September 1872 to Swarnakumari Devi, Tagore’s elder sister, and Janakinath Ghoshal, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress. Sarala Devi first came to live in Jorasanko, the ancestral home of the Tagores in north Calcutta, along with her siblings, when she was five years old, after her father went overseas to study law. She stayed in the house for a significant part of her life.
According to archives at the Rabindra Bharati Museum at Jorasanko, made available to indianexpress.com, Sarala Devi spent most of her time in what is known as the “andarmahal” section of the large mansion — the part of the house where the young girls and women of the Tagore family spent most of their time during the day. The layout of homes, especially those belonging to the wealthy, were divided into sections where women mostly kept to the interiors, while men occupied rooms on the outer peripheries.
The Tagore household was one where the environment was conducive to learning and education, even for the women. Children were home-schooled for a few years before transitioning to formal educational institutions in the city. Like other children in the household, Saral Devi first went to Bethune School at the age of seven-and-a-half.
A good student, character traits that would set Sarala Devi apart from the others in the illustrious Tagore household, became visible early on in her life. In 1886, she passed her entrance exams, a modern day equivalent of which would be a combination of the class X and XII school examinations if they were to be held together. She was the first woman in the Tagore family to sit for and then pass these examinations. Although the Tagore women were all educated, none of them, apart from Sarala Devi, have this achievement to their name.
Written records at the Rabindra Bharati Museum at Jorasanko indicate that at some point during her student years, she also engaged in the study of science and along with her brothers, would attend classes conducted at the Science Association by noted physician Mahendralal Sarkar, who was known for having treated Swami Vivekanand.
She pursued higher education at Bethune College under Calcutta University and passed with honours in English at age 18 in 1890, becoming the first woman to achieve the highest marks in Calcutta University and receive the “Padmaboti Swarnapodok”, the gold medal. At the time of her graduation from Calcutta University, she was the seventh woman student to graduate from the university.
Within the Tagore household, Sarala Devi was a woman of many firsts. For one, she was the first to step out to pursue employment opportunities. Sometime after graduating from Calcutta University in 1890, Sarala Devi travelled to Mysore and began working as an assistant superintendent at the Maharani Girls School. But there is not much information available regarding her time at the institution.
It is not clearly known when she returned from Mysore, but some accounts state that she was at the school for only a year, after which she returned to Calcutta. Jorasanko was also a place from where several nationlistic newspapers and literature would be published and a 19-year-old Sarala Devi began assisting with editing these publications. She was particularly known for editing a Bengali magazine called “Bharati Patrika”.
Around 1895, Sarala Devi became more involved in the freedom struggle, developing political views very different from others in the Tagore household, where she believed that aggression and violence against the British was the only solution. She authored a book titled ‘Ahitagnika’ for school students to generate awareness concerning the freedom struggle and also launched an underground revolutionary group. The Rabindra Bharati Museum at Jorasanko did not have a name to provide for the name of this secret revolutionary group, but their records state that members of the group were forbidden from discussing details about it to avoid detection by the British and their spies.
It is not well known that along with her academic and literary achievements, Sarala Devi was also a gifted musician. According to the Rabindra Bharati Museum at Jorasanko, key notes of a few of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs have been penned by Sarala Devi. The museum says that her most noted contribution to Tagore’s music may undoubtedly be creating the musical composition for Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s “Vande Mataram”, the song that went on to become a rallying cry against the British. Sarala Devi’s contribution to the national song has somehow been forgotten, along with the fact that several other songs used by revolutionaries were originally written by her.
The Tagore men regularly received contemporaries who were also waging war against the British, that too across the ideological spectrum. Author Samir Sengupta writes in his book ‘Rabindranather Attiyo Sojon’ that Sarala Devi got opportunities to meet and engage with several noted leaders of the freedom movement who visited the Tagore home, which helped shape her thoughts and perceptions. According to one account, Swami Vivekananda urged her to travel overseas to represent the cause of rights and freedoms for women in the subcontinent. But records at the museum say she was unable to do so because she had other engagements. She did, however, undertake extensive travel alone across the Indian subcontinent, including in undivided Bengal, speaking openly at nationalistic conferences.
Sarala Devi was among the first revolutionaries to promote the use of Swadeshi products and lived by associated values herself. In 1904, she opened a shop called “Lakhir Bhandar” in the Bowbazar neighbourhood of Calcutta that sold only Swadeshi products. In 1910, she founded the ‘Bharat Stree Mahamandal’, the All India Women’s Organization, a semi-revolutionary group with branches across the Indian subcontinent, in cities like Allahabad, Lahore, Amritsar, Delhi, Karachi, Hyderabad, Kanpur and her hometown of Calcutta, one of the very first of its kind.
In another divergence from social customs and traditions during her time, Sarala Devi got married when she was 33 years old, much later than her peers, given that women typically married in their teens. While there are versions of the story that claim Sarala Devi was forced to marry under pressure from her family, researchers at the Rabindra Bharati Museum at Jorasanko dismiss these claims as inaccurate. On October 15, 1905, she married Rambhaja Dutta Chowdhury in Deogarh, in present-day Jharkhand.
Dutta Chowdhury, a man much older to her in age, was a noted freedom fighter from Punjab and she moved to Lahore with her husband after marriage. She continued with her revolutionary work in Punjab and opened several associations and organisations for women. One such association was a home for widows, named “Widhwa Shilpashram”, where widows were given education and skills to help them find employment.
In 1919, in the aftermath of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, she and her husband were arrested because several articles critical of the British were published in the weekly newspaper ‘Hindusthan’ which they would edit and publish. The newspaper was temporarily shut down, and Sarala Devi and her husband were released only later.
Sarala Devi’s married life was turbulent, in part due to the age difference between her and her husband. According to Rabindra Bharati University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, Sarala Devi’s education and accomplishments meant that she was an individual with her own ideas. She was also deeply influenced by Subhash Chandra Bose’s political views of achieving freedom only through violence against the British, in stark contrast from her Gandhian husband. The combination of a wide gap in their ages and their differing political ideologies led to a collapse of their marriage and the two separated.
Mahatma Gandhi was a frequent visitor to their home in Lahore. She had first met Gandhi in 1901 because of her father and over the course of the next few years continued meeting him. “She was quite close to him,” says Chaudhury. He believes the relationship between the two was one of mutual admiration and nothing more. Sarala Devi’s son Dipak, went only to marry Gandhi’s granddaughter Radha.
In her book ‘Thakurbarir Andarmahal’, author Chitra Deb writes that after leaving her marital home, Sarala Devi took refuge in an ashram for women insteading of living at Jorasanko. However, in 1923, upon hearing that her husband was ill, suffering from a poisonous carbuncle, she travelled to Mussoorie, and remained with him till he died later that year. After his death, she took over the helm of the ‘Hindusthan’ and continued publishing the newspaper. During this time, she also found herself focusing more on social work and turned to spirituality.
In 1930 she returned to Calcutta but there is no mention in available records of where she lived during this time. In the city, she reduced her revolutionary work, after becoming uncomfortable with the direction in which the freedom struggle was heading, especially the work of the Indian National Congress. Spirituality gave her solace and under the tutelage of Binoy Krishna Deb Sharma, she began studying the Upanishads.
In her memoir, revolutionary Bina Das particularly remembers a public address delivered by Sarala Devi in Calcutta as an alumni of Bethune College. At Albert Hall, students of Bethune College and Presidency College gathered and were felicitated for their courage in protesting against the Simon Commission and forcing the expulsion of the college principal who opposed it. At this gathering, Sarala Devi said in a public address: “My place today is by the side of students. I am proud to have been a student at Bethune College.”
Despite the presence of larger than life men around her, Sarala Devi managed to forge an individual path and identity for herself. In Calcutta, towards the end of her life, she became increasingly disillusioned with the path the freedom struggle had taken, choosing to spend time away from the cause that had motivated her all along, instead dedicating her time to writing her biography ‘Jiboner Jhora Pata’, the ‘Scattered Leaves of My Life’.
She died in the city on August 18, 1945, at age 73. There are very few known images of Sarala Devi available. In one, presumably taken in the last decade of her life, she is seen wearing a plain khadi sari, drawn over her head. She remained a believer of the Swadeshi movement till the very end.