Taming the Warrior Woman and Other Tales from the Bengal Autumn
On Gender Politics in Durga Pooja
October 16, 2018
Satyajit Ray’s 1960 classic ‘Devi’, based on a short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, brings out the tragedy of ‘being a goddess’. Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), a landed patriarch in nineteenth century rural Bengal, dreams of her daughter-in-law, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) as an incarnation of the goddess Kali, his tutelary deity, and rushes to fall at her feet, in a gesture of subservience. Doyamoyee, socialised to the sacrality of the paternal patriarch, is taken aback- bewildered, she turns to the wall, scratching it with her nails, her feet curving inwards in aversion to her father-in-law’s submissive touch. The irony of the situation lies in Doyamoyee’s complete lack of agency, the inability to resist her divinisation. The goddess is made, a human unmade, familial men being the craftsmen of this anomaly. She is ‘installed’ in the family altar and offered worship, as her conjugal bed slips away. Doyamoyee is addressed as ‘maa’, a maternal attribution that comes at the cost of the woman’s sexuality. She is the benevolent mother goddess, her only relation with men is that of a universal maternity, above and beyond all carnal passions. The image of a wilted Doyamoyee being worshipped by over enthusiastic men reminds one of the numerous popular prints, oleographs and lithographs of the Bharat Mata, produced in the ‘Swadeshi’ art studios. The nation-mother is at the mercy of her nationalist sons, who unchain her from two centuries of colonial oppression, while limiting her agency by drawing new cartographies (Ramaswamy: 2010) and curating new iconographies of her maternal body.
The tragedy of ‘being a goddess’ is inscribed in the image of Durga widely worshipped in Bengal. As Doyamoyee, the domestic housewife is ‘divinised’ and ‘deified’ (read dehumanised), the warrior goddess Durga is ‘domesticated’, divesting her of the unshackled rage of the battlefield. A frame is used to curb the perceived limitlessness of the battlefield. The chaal-chitra or the semi-circular backdrop to the image of the goddess is inspired by the sloping roof and curved cornice of the thatched hut seen in rural Bengal, and incorporated in North Indian architecture as the Bangla chaal in its Akbari phase (Koch: 2013). The image of the warrior goddess in combat with Mahishasura is thus put in a domestic context, under the roof of the rural household. The chaal-chitra is painted in the traditional patachitra style, and the presiding deity in the middle of the arch is Shiva, forming a central axis with the goddess just below him. Outside the classical cannon, Durga is considered to be Shiva’s consort, and the popular culture of Early Modern Bengal is replete with folklore, parables, idioms, tales, and icons on this divine yet earthly couple. This axis mundi is in keeping with the prevalent gender politics, connecting the husband and the wife in a visuality of vertical hierarchy. While Shiva dwells in the mountains, it is believed that Durga comes to visit her natal home in the plains. Hence, the vertical positioning connects two disparate geographies, the rugged ‘masculine’ terrain of the hills and the fertile ‘feminine’ swathes of the plains. This iconography becomes more pronounced in the long nineteenth century, with the emergence of a new bourgeoisie in colonial Bengal. Paintings in the ‘picturesque’ tradition, painted by European traveller-painters in the eighteenth century, show a somewhat different iconography of the goddess. A painting by Frans Baltazard Solvyns, who lived in Calcutta between1791 and 1803, depicts the goddess in an arched, foliate background frame, with slender baluster-like columns dividing the image into three parts, with the goddess in the centre, flanked by two deities each on either side. The frame has a diffused Mughal impress. The nineteenth century bourgeoisie would nurture a different pietistic aesthetic, a transcultural one in the age of capital mobility.
The transition from an agrarian social structure to an urban milieu necessitated the legitimation of the nouveau riche, and the ‘invention of traditions’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger: 1983) in the bourgeois public sphere. Durga Pooja became one such occasion in which the patron’s carefully crafted ancestry, consumption patterns and social capital was articulated in the making and renewing of relative social identities. In this grand festival of the goddess, women of the patron’s family remained largely ‘invisible’, observing rituals behind the venetian shutters and covered balconies overlooking the outer-courtyard of the mansion, which was the nucleus of the celebrations. Adhering to the rules of the purdah, the need was to restrict the ‘male gaze’ from seeing women of a particular class and caste. Hence these women remain unarchived and unrepresented in the Pooja chronicles. The only women, except for the goddess herself, who make unabashed appearances in the overwhelmingly male public sphere are those who dwelled beyond respectability- service women (‘servants’) and courtesans/performers. Service women, like the barber’s wife, were part of the domestic establishment but did not have to necessarily maintain purdah because of her husband’s lower caste and class status. Women not being seen by other men (pawr-purush) was a mark of the man’s honour, something that lower caste men did not command in the society.
The most striking antidote to the feminine virtue of domesticity was the city’s indispensable courtesan culture. The courtesan’s salon or the kotha was an alternative establishment at the crossroads of the private and the public. In the salon, female desire and agency was neither regulated by indigenous legal codes nor Victorian morality- a site of transgression in the heart of the city. Homosocial companionship and homoerotic love co-existed with heteronormative lexicons of performing the seductive (Vanita: 2012). Courtesans and other public-performers featured on matchbox covers, calendars, and product labels. Gauhar Jaan, the ‘darling songstress’ of Calcutta is one such ubiquitous female presences. Paintings of nautch performances during the Pooja depict courtesans performing to an all-male audience. Roshan Kumari’s spell-binding kathak recital in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958) is a brilliant illustration of the nineteenth century culture of connoisseurship and patronage, and its asymmetrical gender dynamic. However, Krishna Bai (Roshan Kumari), a courtesan from Lucknow, is economically independent and commands great musicality and curatorial skills to fashion herself, in stark opposition to her patron, Biswambhar Roy’s (Chhabi Biswas) wife, who has no control over her own resources, her streedhan, which has been mortgaged by the decadent zamindar to host nautch performances. While Krishna Bai inhabits an ‘islamicate’ setting epitomised by Lucknow, Biswambhar Roy’s wife, who remains unnamed in the film (addressed as ‘ginni’ or the householder-matriarch), is the ideal housewife in a Hindu, upper caste gentry family. This dichotomy gets furthered in the twentieth century nationalist discourse, which would compel courtesans to get ‘domesticated’ to enter the All India Radio studios at the turn of the century, a classic case of gendered disciplining by the nascent nation-state.
The iconography of Durga has become multifarious with the coming of ‘theme poojas’ in Calcutta. The binding chaal-chitra is no longer a necessary prop, and many recall the chaal with nostalgia. The goddess is subject to experimentation by the contemporary artist, she could spring from a Dali masterpiece somewhere, and appear in the guise of a Gond girl elsewhere. What remains etched in the mind of Bengalis is her homecoming as a daughter, the warrior icon is a mere token, invoked in the indecipherable Sanskrit chants. Central to the festival is the goddess’s temporary break from her husband’s house. The agomoni repertoire, which welcomes the daughter to her natal house implores Durga to stay back forever- “giri ebaar aamar Uma eley jete debo naa” (Uma’s mother Menaka declares that she’ll not let her daughter return to her marital home this time). Such a wishful suspension of reality is something that Durga cannot afford. She is the ideal housewife, and hence must conform to the norms of patrilocality.
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