Sita, Chitrangada and beyond…

Posted: March 6, 2011 in Uncategorized



 Gandhi and Nehru: two of the most influential men in the history of Indian sub-continent.  Yet it is difficult to ignore their differences not just on political matters, but even their personal outlook, especially when it came to women.

Gandhi, with a view to re-integrate our virtuous past into the present and future used the symbol of Sita to motivate Indian women during our freedom struggle. Sita stood for chastity, sacrifice and her selflessness towards her husband Rama. As a firm believer in a woman’s home-making abilities, Gandhi encouraged their participation in politics within certain parameters. By an inference thus, Gandhi expected a strong woman to support her husband and provide him the strength to rise up and perform greater deeds for the country.

By contrast, Tagore’s idea of the woman that he felt Indian women ought to look up to, was Chitrangada. The intrepid Manipur princess was unorthodox and epitomized equality. Nehru, who often found himself closer to Tagore’s thinking than with Gandhi’s, echoed similar sentiments. Talking about his deceased wife Kamala, Nehru wrote in his book, Discovery of India,   “Like Chitra in Tagore’s plays, she (Kamala) seemed to say to me: I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside. If you design to keep me by your side in the path of danger and daring, if you allow me to share the great duties of your life, then you will know myself…”

 It may thus be inferred that while Gandhi was still largely conservative in the role he envisaged for Indian women, Nehru, in a truer sense saw them as equal companions.

 This fundamental difference in outlook between Gandhi and Nehru extended to the way each carried their lives. While Gandhi preached ‘abstinence’ and control over one’s concupiscent desires, Nehru was a liberal in its truest sense. While the way Gandhi conducted his life bordered on the ascetical, Nehru was a romantic at heart. While Gandhi advocated some unnatural experiments in his ashram which even his staunch supporters would have found cumbersome, Nehru pursued some interesting relationships, which many believe provided the right intellectual stimulation to the genius that he was. 

 Today, several decades later, it is worth debating if Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideas about the Indian women had been a bit too simplistic. For, Indian women in the subsequent decades were seen to evolve into far more layered beings. Nehru’s own daughter, Indira for instance, went on from being equated with Goddess Durga post the 1971 war to being generously hated just a few years later.

 The Indian woman of today is a complex assortment and demystifying her would ironically require acknowledging some of the positive attributes of the most controversial woman in Hindu mythology, Draupadi. Two attributes of Draupadi that stand out are her strong will (she knew precisely whom she wanted to marry) and her ability to adapt to and succeed in adverse circumstances (it was but a careless sentence of Kunti that became the cause of Draupadi’s life long suffering).

 These attributes are not uncommon to the liberated Indian woman of today.  To that extent, apart from seeking Sita and Chitrangada, it makes sense to acknowledge the omnipresence of Draupadi.

 Nehru, being the practical visionary that he was, would sure have evolved to arrive at a newer idea of the Indian woman, if he were alive today.  

(Painting by Ramyani Dasgupta)

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