On the anniversary of his birth, we revisit Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's female protagonists


On the anniversary of his birth, we revisit Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's female protagonists

The writings of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were a source of dread and wonder for her as a young student trying to comprehend the first chapter of "Anandamath" in her textbook for Bengali literature. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, one of the very first individuals in India to create novels, had an obvious influence as a literary figure during the Bengal Renaissance. In addition, he was the first author to modernise Bengali fiction, opening up the language to the general public even if it is more complex and Sanskritized than the Bengali we use today.

I realised that Bankim Chandra's writings were truly epic once I conquered my dread of reading his novels and was able to understand his dense style. They are fantasy tales that combine romance, history, thrill, adventure, and suspense with action and other elements.

The majority of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's significant works have female characters who serve as the protagonists and ultimately the story's heroines. From the dacoit leader Devi Chaudhurani to the brave bride Kapalkundala, it is worthwhile to examine some of Bankim Chandra's female protagonists during the week of his birth anniversary.

Jagat Singh, Tilottoma, and Ayesha form a love triangle in Bankim Chandra's historical adventure book "Durgeshnandini." Ayesha realises that she cannot marry a Rajput prince despite her love for Jagat Singh, so she aids the two in escaping her father's control and tying the knot. It's interesting to see how Ayesha's compassionate and altruistic character contrasts with that of her father, rebel Pathan commander Katlu Khan. Ayesha is forced to intervene in order to prevent Tilottoma from being molested by her father, in what can be interpreted as a clichéd representation of Muslim sultans.

Under the direction of Bhabani Pathak, the sweet-natured Prafulla transforms into the fearsome and feared commander of the dacoits in "Devi Chaudhurani." In the first pages of the book, Prafulla's father-in-law forbids her from entering the house of her husband. After her mother passes away, Prafulla is lost and has no idea where to go until she encounters Bhabani Pathak, a ruthless dacoit. She is taken under Pathak's wing and is taught how to fight to the point where she poses a threat to the British soldiers themselves.

Along with rescuing her husband and father-in-law, Devi Chadhurani and her gang of dacoits successfully take down the British soldiers, maintaining the novel's strong anti-colonial tone. However, Prafulla marries her spouse once more while posing as someone else towards the novel's conclusion, which is incredibly paradoxical. Readers witness the scary woman dacoit commander happily married to her husband (together with his two other wives) and performing her household duties at the novel's conclusion.

A feminist reader in the twenty-first century would prefer a Prafulla who terrorises the British soldiers until she is old, therefore the novel's conclusion is distinctly unfeminist. Bankim Chandra, however, provides Devi Chaudhurani a happy ending by transforming her back into Prafulla and bringing her and her husband together in accord with his own times. The argument that Prafulla never seems to have a noteworthy or strong personality that sticks out throughout the book may be reinforced by this finale. The person who sticks out, regardless of Prafulla's gender or sex, is her teacher Bhabani Pathak because of his ascetic-like outlook and harsh discipline.

The book "Indira" is not an epic, historical tale, unlike some of his previous books, such "Rajsingha" or "Durgeshnandini." The story of "Indira" centres on the title character, whose first visit to her husband's house is cut short when they are robbed by dacoits in the woods. Indira is led by nice strangers, none of whom seem to harm her or harbour any ill will, until she reaches Kolkata and is engaged as a chef in a wealthy family. Indira does not know her husband's address or village. The remainder of the novel is one of home tranquilly, some conflicts that are made with the best of intentions, and a brave action by Indira as the author figures out a clever way to get her back together with her husband.

Both husband and wife were unable to recognise one another because Indira and her husband were married when she was a young child. Indira initially goes to her husband and voluntarily accepts the role of his mistress in order to win his love and affection as well as to prove to him who she really is and make sure he does not doubt her chastity. Her husband doesn't realise that his mistress is actually his wife until after they have been married for some time.

The choice to pose as her husband's lover was not one that many modern heroines adopted, even though Bankim had restored Indira's established patriarchal status and dignity through the comfort of marital relationships. The portrayal of the "andarmahal," or the private areas of an affluent home that the ladies were in charge of, is another aspect of the book that makes it stand out.

The reader nearly wonders how a guy could describe the tender friendship between Indira and Shubhashini, as well as their spontaneous (and frequently vulgar) humour and sincere dialogues. These two young women can also be observed quietly defying the traditions and guidelines set out by the mother-in-law or the elderly cook.

Another book titled after its female lead is "Kapalkundala." The foster daughter of a tantric guru, Kapalkundala, prevents her father from sacrificing a boy named Nabakumar by intervening on his behalf. Once more, the heroine valiantly saves the hero from misfortune through her shrewd and impulsive action. Nabakumar marries the woman who saved him after falling in love with her and renaming her Mrinmoyee. Kapalkundala, however, was never able to live up to her new destiny as Mrinmoyee because she began to feel constrained by the modern standards and traditions of an urban, affluent household—things she had never had to deal with as a free spirit in the woods.

In addition, Kapalkundala's father and Nabakumar's first wife deceive Nabakumar into believing that she is unfaithful to him, which makes him doubt Kapalkundala's love for him. The tale closes with Kapalkundala drowning in the sea, despite the fact that he realises his error and begs for forgiveness. Although it was a horrible manner for her to end her life, some have suggested that Kapalkundala drowned in order to escape a world that did not understand her spirit or her limitless existence.

Without a critique of "Anandamath," the novel in which the entire country assumes the role of a mother and woman, any discussion of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's writings or his female protagonists would be lacking.

"Anandamath" is based on the accounts of the Sannyasi insurrection in the Bengal province and tells the story of a group of militant ascetics who join forces against Bengal's dominant Muslim rulers. A vivid and upsetting description of the Bengal famine of 1770, which affected almost three crore people in the area, opens the first chapter. Following the famine, crime has taken over the area, and tax rates are at an all-time high.

Mahendra and Kalyani, a husband and wife, get split up in this situation as they are making their way to the city. Bhabananda saves them both and takes them to his home, or "math," where he explains the tenets of his aggressive religion. Bhabananda gives Mahendra three statues in a moment that is unmistakably symbolic of how the country is compared to Hindu goddesses.

The first is an idol of Jagaddhatri, who represents what the "mother" or the country once was: prosperous, beautiful, and rich. Mahendra then sees the dark, plain, and naked idol of a ferocious Kali. The nation was represented by the idol of Kali as what it had devolved into under the oppressive control of the Muslims, and it was only through the valiant efforts of her followers that it might become the third idol of goddess Durga.

Goddess Durga was selected as the future because she is the ideal synthesis of a mother and a warrior; she nurtures her offspring while also defending them from harm. The Muslims in "Anandamath" pose a menace to society, reflecting the author's own biases and prejudices. Thus, the national anthem "Bande Mataram" serves as both a war cry for defending the country and a tool for sectarian Hindu nationalist groups.

The tale also features another heroine by the name of Shanti who contrasts Kalyani, who is depicted as being weak. Her husband fled to join the group and left Shanti behind. She adopts a guy persona, though, and follows her husband into the sect. She picks up combat skills with her husband and, at the book's end, accepts an ascetic lifestyle, which sets her apart from Bankim's other married protagonists.

Despite the fact that Bankim Chandra's heroines are all breathtakingly attractive (his lyrical prose goes into great depth to describe their beauty), they are all complex, nuanced beings who have their own travels and, more importantly, experiences. The tales are intricate and interesting representations of womanhood at a time when Bengali women were confined to their houses for the entirety of their lives.

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