At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

By Meenakshi Malhotra


In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme  has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.

In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.

Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:

Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”

She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the “battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129).  Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.

The Scattred Leaves of my Life By Saraladebi Chaudhurani

Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece.  The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.

Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity

One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.

In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.

  Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.

The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.

According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.    

Four Chapters by Tagore

The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Char Adhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.

Interestingly, there is a further dimension and  addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.


Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black

Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP

Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper

Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.

Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women

Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature, Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s