Rabindranath Tagore – a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher and noble laureate worshiped by millions – was also a man heavily influenced by the fascinating women who were part of his life. Out of all the women who made an impression on Tagore, sister-in-law Kadambari Devi was to become his best friend, his childhood Princess, his strongest critique and his muse.
Rabindranath and Kadambari became friends soon after she entered the Tagore household as the nine-year-old bride of Jyotirindranath. As a child, Rabindranath was lonely and so was Kadambari and they bonded in no time. After the death of Tagore’s mother, the friendship turned into motherly affection. Soon, his beloved sister-in-law became his muse.
Kadambari, a practically illiterate girl for whom books on elementary arithmetic and Bengali had to be purchased when she first became part of the Tagore family, was a remarkable young woman who grew up to be Tagore’s Muse and center of his early literary activities. An incurable romantic, she was energetic and bold.
In the afternoons, while Jyotirindranath was away in the office for a few hours of desultory work connected with the management of family estates, Rabi would read out loud to Kadambari who preferred to receive the gifts of literature through her ears than her eyes. The image of those sultry afternoons — the boy declaiming his verse to an intent young woman who is fanning him with a hand-held fan to stir a faint cooling breeze — is one of the most memorable scenes in Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata, based on Rabindranath’s own fictional representation of those sensuous days.
Kadambari was not only Rabi’s intimate companion in his journey as a budding poet, but also caretaker of his more prosaic, mortal needs. For a boy like Rabi, who has become resigned to the frugal and tasteless meals dished out by the servants, Kadambari’s lovingly cooked dishes that replaced his earlier ruder fare were a gustatory delight, as much a sign of her love as the serious attention with which she listened to his songs.
Some of Rabindranath’s biographers have called Kadambari “the deepest female influence on Rabindranath’s youth”, “playmate and guardian angel”, “deepest heartfelt realization in his life”. Even at the age of 80, Rabindranath’s boyhood memories of those enchanted evenings are as sensual as they are precise.
Whether there was a physical relationship between Tagore and Kadambari Devi is a matter unknown to us all. No longer children, the sexual current in their mutual attraction, and the impossibility of its consummation, started to have its effect and was making them more conscious about their physical closeness.
Kadambari Devi’s death is the most talked-about personal tragedy in the Bengali psyche she committed suicide just four months after Tagore’s marriage. For the first time in the history of Bengali cinema, this subject has been adapted for screen. In the letter to Andrews in which Rabindranath is expressing his homesickness for India, it is Kadambari’s features that he writes “my first great sweetheart — my Muse” and grieves, But where is the sweetheart of mine who was almost the only companion of my boyhood and with whom I spent my idle days of youth exploring the mysteries of dreamland? She, my Queen, has died and my world has shut against the door of its inner apartment of beauty which gives on the real taste of freedom.”
“Such was the depth of Kadambari’s influence on Rabindranath that at the age of 70, he confessed to Nandalal Bose that many of his paintings of a woman’s face were drawn keeping Kadambari Devi in mind,”