Friday, March 11, 2016

Rabindranath and Vichitravirya

Rabindranath Tagore, also known to be the "Bard of Bengal" or "World Poet" was born in the middle of 19th century, Bengal. He skipped traditional education, often got immersed in creative writing, from his early childhood composed poems and, in his lifetime emerged as the parental figure in Bengali verse. He continued writing prose, drama, novels, short stories, songs, including controversial songs that some doubt to be full of praise for the oppressive rulers. Nevertheless, he had the valour to forego the Knighthood, point out the fallacies of overzealous nationalistic measures and also fully endorse a teaching system that denounces traditional pedagogy. He also was significantly modern in his outlooks towards social systems, including female emancipation. In his landmark short story, Strir Patra (The Wife's Letter), the protagonist is Mrinal, wife of a Bengali middle-class man. Mrinal takes the last step imaginable in contemporary Indian society. She gives up married life, apparently embracing a life much bigger in scope.

Rabindranath came to be known as the one breaking norms though, established several norms himself. The most prominent being a lyricist and composer, whose songs formed the backbone of Bengali middle-class culture for a century. The songs, often criticised for their lack of masculinity, do never fail to impress a Bengali. The moods of the song, rigorously following norms of the same non-traditional University that he set up, lead to collective swinging of heads and slowly brings out the full-moon night, where most hardworking hands gets folded in ecstasy. Whether such ecstasy leads to impotence or not, that is open to debate, but, the fact that Bengal lacks industry and industry can do without the songs of Rabindranath is something that can be established by facts.

It takes one giant like Debabrata Biswas to challenge the norms of effeminate songs with his unconventional and masculine but, only to be at the receiving end of the wrath of Rabindra-followers. Debabrata remains the challenger of norm and Rabindranath, ironically, became the norm.

Born nearly 4000 years ago, Vichitravirya, a titular king of Kuru dynasty, led a life breaking norms. His elder brother Chitrangadha, son of Shantanu and Satyabati, was anointed but, took up a fight with a Gandharva king out of sheer arrogance. In a battle lasting 3 years, Chitrangadha was killed and young Vichitravirya was enthroned. The nomenclature of Vichitravirya is shrouded in mystery. The sloka describing his birth tells that he was full of valour.

athāparaṃ maheṣvāsaṃ satyavatyāṃ punaḥ prabhuḥ 
vicitravīryaṃ rājānaṃ janayām āsa vīryavān [MB - 1.95.3]

However, it is also claimed, as was demonstrated in his short life, that he was a weakling and impotent. In [1], it was said that his name might suggest his lack of masculinity, or even unconventional sexual orientation. This is something that slowly unfolds over his life but a name that definitely cannot be ascribed upon birth. In any case, Vichitravirya became a king but did not take any responsibility. Much like Rabindranath, who was born in a wealthy family but shunned the social norms completely.

So much so was the casual attitude of Vichitravirya, either due to his inability or his immaturity, it was his step-brother, Debabrata, who had to take the responsibility of finding bride for him! Debabrata goes also by the name of Bhisma but, in this article the name, Debabrata becomes poignant, as readers might guess by now. The king of Kashi was organising Swayambara for his daughters, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika without sending an invitation to the Kuru clan. It very well might be due to the unsuitability of Vichitravirya. Debabrata was a valiant warrior, who took the court of Kashi by storm, snatching all would-be brides for his stepbrother. Amba refused to marry Vichitravirya citing her betrothal to the king of Salya. However, the king of Salya, turned back Amba. Amba grew furious over Bhisma and was reborn, according to the story of Mahabharata, as Shikhandi. 
However, for Ambika and Ambalika, Vichitravirya was the forced husband. They spent seven years in his company but remained childless, which supports the theory that Vichitravirya was impotent. He eventually died of Tuberculosis. According to Mahabharata, it could have been caused by his overindulgence in sexual pursuits.

tābhyāṃ saha samāḥ sapta viharan pṛthivīpatiḥ
vicitravīryas taruṇo yakṣmāṇaṃ samapadyata [MB - 1.96.57]

Debabrata, like the eternal guardian of rules, took over the responsibility to ensure that Kuru clan remains with heir. He consulted Satyabati, who agreed to invite Vyas. Vyas fathered the children of Ambika, Ambalika and a maid-servant, who born to become Dhritarastra, Pandu and Vidur, respectively.

Debabrata, like in modern times, represented masculinity and fighting spirit. However, the Debabrata in ancient times did so always within norms, whereas Debabrata Biswas, also known as George Biswas, broke norms at ease.

Vichitravirya and Rabindranath matched their lives in a few aspects. They both lived a life outside the tradition, apparently enjoying the beauties of life. However, while Rabindranath remained to see that his values become tradition itself and indeed felt for others, Vichitravirya died young and unfeeling to the apathy of people around him.

A more interesting point to note that, the juxtaposition of contrarian values in the lives of Rabindranath and Vichitravirya remained to bear fruition beyond their times. Rabindranath lived a relation of love and hate with British rulers. His followers used his songs to spread love but vehemently hated each other when singers like Debabrata shook the norms of his composition. Vichitravirya was touted to be effeminate and at the same time, supported the decline of woman empowerment that was caused by forcible marriages of Ambika and Ambalika. Like Rabindranath, however, Vichitravirya could not create a field for female empowerment, as his wives were forced to bear children out of wedlock. Thus, Vichitravirya did not father his children however, legally bore the fatherhood of the fierce opponents – Kuru and Pandava – who represent the most antagonistic characters in Mahabharata.


[1] Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik

Note: The author supports both male and female emancipation. Effeminacy does not mean lethargy. If such a consequence is derived from the article, the thought-process of reader is to solely blame. 

1 comment:

  1. Never before reading this article, I could imagine there might be a resemblance between these two versatile characters the earth saw at two different demographics. While Rabindranath is remembered as a hero, Vichitravirya is by far a textbook character mostly infamous for his namesake and subject matter of naughty jokes. Anupam, brilliant article!