Sharmila Tagore plays Rabindranath’s muse

She is the mystery woman that never came out of the shadows, but one that trailed Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore like a shadow and influenced his life and times. She is Kadambari Devi…

When we say, “There’s a woman behind every man’s success” we don’t realise that no matter how strong a source of inspiration the woman has been, we are content with the idea of her being in the background, somewhere hidden.

I am glad I saw this very woman come out of the shadow of the male’s glory and found myself fortunate enough to get to know her, even though not completely.

Who is Kadambari Devi? Amit Ranjan Biswas’ script based musical ‘Key Tumi’ (Who are you?) staged on the evening of New Year’s at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi, led us through some of those unread or probably unwritten chapters in history on a woman whose identity was either outlined by hearsay and unwarranted myths or at best shaped in Gurudev’s poetic verses.

Who was she? An eternal muse who awakened the poetic soul in the young Rabindranath or someone who wanted to be recognised as an ‘ordinary’ woman of emotions and desires?

Sharmila Tagore lends voice to Kadambari’s inner self: Veteran thespian Sharmila Tagore becomes Kadambari’s voice in ‘Key Tumi’ who from within the quarters of a zamindar family of Thakurs descends into a soliloquy on her momentary pleasures in listening to a young Rabindranath’s verses on the 3rd floor terrace and her assuming the role of an honest critic.

A 9-year-old Kadambari in the middle of her household duties would steal out time to be with her 7-year-old playmate ‘Rabi’. Married to Jyotindranath Tagore, 13 years her senior, Kadambari would find an escape in her young brother-in-law’s lyrics, music and compositions. Kadambari recalls how in a bid to receive a remark of appreciation from her, Rabindranath would extend a helping hand in cutting betel nuts or volunteer in guarding drying mangoes on the terrace. She would in turn goad him to bring out the ‘original’ writer in him.

While Soumitra Chatterjee, a household name in Bengali cinema recited Tagore’s poetry in a baritone to die for, Sharmila’s contrasting yet complimenting tonal texture in her soliloquies with the poet produced a mesmerising symphony the audience savoured in rapt attention.

Kadambari is the ‘universal’ muse: The director, however, maintains silence on the identity of the woman. He does not name her ‘Kadambari’ but does not shirk away from the same. She represents ‘timelessness’, someone who is the ‘universal muse’ with myriad shades and multiple names. She could be anybody as the director puts it, “she can be Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Neera or Jibanananda Das’ Bonolata Sen besides Kadambari”.

Tagore’s poetry strikes a chord: What added to the entire cultural ambiance was the befitting company of a Rabindra Sangeet musical choir that at regular intervals between the dialogue exchanges transported us to an enchanting realm. With songs like ‘Pagla Hawa’, ‘Sedin Dujone’ and ‘Bhalo Baashi’ floating in the air, the very fragrance of romance grew intense and intoxicating with every tune.

How far have we understood Kadambari?: Going by speculations, we run the risk of deducing the relationship shared between Tagore and Kadambari through the prism of eroticism and sexuality which may or may not be validated given the fact that history has so little to offer vis-a-vis the dynamics. Are we therefore mistaken in reading Kadambari’s emotional release from the claustrophobic noose of a patriarchal household in Rabindranath’s literary company as something else?

Kadambari was apprehensive about the repercussions her death would have on Tagore. She soliloquises, “Your writing frees me of my caged existence. If I were to die, will he (you) still dedicate his (your) writing to me; will I still be his (your) inspiration?”

In her death, she came alive in Tagore’s poems as a friend, mother and sister-in-law. She played different roles with changing family equation. Upon his mother Sharada’s death, a young Rabindranath found a maternal figure in Kadambari, a friend to confide in and a sister-in-law to seek solace in, which eventually translated into his writings that won him innumerable accolades and distinguishing awards.

Kadambari often wanted him to see her through the eyes of Rabindranath – the individual and not the poet who would elevate her to a pedestal of worship. She wanted to be more than his muse.

After Rabindranath gets married, a self-doubting Kadambari feels, “My companion has gone away leaving (me) love sick while I try to survive a heart wrenching conflict.” She wanted to be happy for him and bless him with a satisfying married life but she couldn’t wholeheartedly do so. Somewhere she was possessive and not agreeable to the idea of sharing him with anybody…at all. Though she later realises how, “love is not about possession but freedom.”

For author, philosopher and politician, Dr. Karan Singh, present as a spectator that evening, “Kadambari Devi sacrificed herself to see and let Rabindranath Tagore grow as a poet and writer. She was a great influence on him and when she was confirmed about him making it to the top someday, she silently went away.”

May be the brunt of agony and self-annihilation had surpassed all limits that she saw death as her ultimate calling. We paint a picture of Kadambari Devi based on conjectures, speculations and stories situated far away from truth or let’s say reality, and hence even today we continue to ask ‘Who was she’/ ‘Key Tumi’?

Cast and crew:

Director: Amit Ranjan Biswas (A consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, playwright and filmmaker based in London)

Actors: Sharmila Tagore & Soumitra Chatterjee

Singers: Lopamudra Mitra & Paramita Bandyopadhyay

Story link: Sharmila Tagore plays Rabindranath’s muse


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