By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi,(IANS) The high priestesses of fashion and modern lifestyle in early 20th century Bengal were none other than the women of the Tagore household who lived in a sprawling 18th century mansion christened Thakurbari in Jorasanko, an old residential neighbourhood in northern Kolkata.
It was the house built by Dwarakanath Tagore, the grandfather of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who was born there in 1861.
The women of the Tagore clan, progressive members of the Brahmo Samaj, a liberal spiritual order founded by Raja Rammohan Roy, set the early Bengali fashion and lifestyle trends, says writer Chitra Deb in her book "Women of the Tagore Household" (Penguin-India).
The book has been translated by Smita Chowdhury and Sona Roy.
The queen of haute fashion in the household was Jnanadanandini, the second daughter-in-law of Maharsi Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore.
Jnanadanandini was the wife of Satyendranath Tagore. She contributed greatly to women's advancement and was supported by her husband, the first Indian to join the civil service and a pioneer of women's liberation movement in Bengal.
Jnanadanandini entered the Tagore household as a shy child bride of seven. Satyendranath was keen that his wife become the ideal of Indian women in every way inspired by the freedom he saw women enjoying in Britain.
He also showed keen interest in the plight of women's fashion in Bengal and wanted women to experiment with variations of Mughal style ensembles.
The 'peshoaj' (a multi-layered Mughal outfit) was in fashion. An order was placed with a French shop and an "oriental" dress was tailored for Jnanadanandini. But the dress turned out to be cumbersome.
It set Jnanadanandini thinking about convenient women's wear. The modern way of draping the sari with the 'pallu' (end of the drape) thrown around the left shoulder in neat pleats was the result of Jnanadanandini's efforts, says Chitra in her book.
When Jnanadanandini, who spent two years in Mumbai with Satyendranath, returned to Jorasanko wearing the sari "Bombay style", it created a flutter in the Tagore household. The common Bengali called the style "sarees of the Tagore family", says Chitra.
Jnanadanandini advertised in the papers to teach others to wear the sari the way she did. A number of aristocratic Brahmikas turned up to learn the art.
She also introduced the practice of wearing petticoats, chemises, blouses and jackets with saris, Chitra says in her book.
Rabindranath Tagore observed that "cut pieces of silk from English tailoring shops along with bits of nets and cheap lace were used to stitch blouses for women".
Jnanadanandini's close friend Suniti Devi, the Maharani of Coochbehar, simplified the inherent awkwardness of the Bombay style by pinning a broach to keep the shoulder drape in place. She wore a small triangular piece of cloth on her head like a Spanish mantilla to give the sari a dash of western glamour.
Apart from modernising women's dress, Jnandanandini introduced two other unknown habits to the household and in elite Bengal - evening outings and birthday parties, says Chitra. Birthday parties became lavish affairs in the clan.
The custom of lighting candles corresponding to the year of birth was introduced by another woman of the Tagore household, Hironmoyee.
Jnandanandini's legacy of wearing the sari was carried forwad by other women of the Tagore clan, including yesteryears actress Sharmila Tagore.
Kadambari Devi, wife of Rabindranath Tagore's older brother Jyotirindranath, was the first woman in the household to ride a horse to the "maidan" in full riding habit, Deb says.
The erudite woman, who was a skilled actress and musician, brought performing arts - especially theatre - to the household. The family made up the cast and plays were usually staged in the courtyard of the Jorasanko home.
Mrinalini Devi, the poet's wife from Jessore, went to Loreto School after marriage "to improve her English and to learn to play the piano" while Swarnakumari, often hailed as the brightest star of the Tagore brood, wrote her first full-length novel even before completing her education.