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RESEARCH SPECTRUM (ISSN 0976-5964)

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AN ECOFEMINIST READING OF TAGORES THE RED
OLEANDER
Nikhilesh Dhar, Research Scholar, Vidyasagar University, West Midnapore, West Bengal


Abstract: Feminism is an ideology which seeks not only to understand world but to change it to the advantage of
women while Ecofeminism is a social and political movement which points to the existence of considerable common
ground between environmentalism and feminism, with some currents linking deep ecology and feminism. Tagores
play Raktakarabi translated as The Red Oleander can well be considered from an Ecofeminist perspective for
here in the play both the Nature and the main protagonist, a spontaneous girl Nandini prominently mirror to each
other. Under the backdrop of the city of Yaksha (the demon-king) and the dominant malign power politics ,
Nandinis fight for restoring the agrarian social structure or in other words, benevolent aspect of Nature is
beautifully portrayed here by Tagore. However, with the eventual victory of the human values and the restoration
of the order along with ecological balance in the society, the play lays bare the damage done to Nature on account
of mans thirst for power and greed.
Keywords: Feminism, Ecofeminism, Nature, Patriarchy, Ecological Balance.
Feminism is, of course, a heterogeneous
concept that refers to political, cultural and economic
movements aimed at establishing greater rights, legal
protection for women, and / or womens liberation. It is,
in other words, the belief in the importance of gender
equality, invalidating the idea of gender hierarchy as a
socially constructed concept.
1
It is also concerned with
the representation of women in literature and with the
changing of womens position in society by freeing her
from restraint and developing an identity away from the
androcratic patriarchal social structure. Simone de
Beauvoir writes, the first time we see a woman take up
her pen in defense of her sex
2
was Christine de Pizan,
who wrote Epitre au Dieu dAmour(Epistle to the God
of Love) in the fifteenth century and thereafter it
developed in three waves first, in the 19
th
and early
20
th
centuries, second in the 1960s and 70s and third
from 1990s to the present. Post colonial feminist
literary theory that emerged in 1980s as a separate
branch of feminist criticism reacted against the
negligence of gender issues in much of postcolonial
criticism and also against the universalizing tendency of
feminism. Colonialism and patriarchy are seen as power
structures that exploit and, therefore, the former is seen
as a paradigm of the latter in feminist literary criticism.
Ecofeminism is an activist and academic
movement that sees critical connections between the
domination of nature and the exploitation of women.
The term ecofeminism, first used by French feminist
Francoise dEaubonne
3
in 1974, was hailed as the third
wave of feminism. Ecofeminism, as Karen Warren
notes,
4
is an umbrella term for a wide variety of
approaches. One may be a socialist ecofeminist, cultural
ecofeminist, radical ecofeminist, ecowomanist, etc.
Although the categorization of eco feminism is a
contested point, what holds these disparate positions
together is the claim that, as Karen Warren writes,
there are important connections between the
domination of women and the domination of nature.
5

In the words of Mary Mellor It takes from the green
movement a concern about the impact of human
activities on the non-human world and from feminism
the view of humanity as gendered in ways that
subordinate, exploit and oppress women."
6
A central tenet in ecofeminism states that male
ownership of land has led to a dominator culture
(patriarchy), manifesting itself in food export, over-
grazing, the tragedy of the commons, exploitation of
people, and an abusive land ethic, in which animals and
land are valued only as economic resources. Other
ecofeminists claim that the degradation of nature
contributes to the degradation of women. Vandana
Shiva makes it clear that one of the missions of
ecofeminism is to redefine how societies look at
productivity and activity of both women and nature who
have mistakenly been deemed passive, allowing for
them both to be ill-used. For example, she draws a
picture of a stream in a forest. According to her, in our
society it is perceived as unproductive if it is simply
there, fulfilling the needs for water of womens families
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and communities, until engineers come along and tinker
with it, perhaps damming it and using it for generating
hydropower. The same is true of a forest unless it is
planted with a monoculture plantation of a commercial
species. A forest may very well be productive,
protecting groundwater, creating oxygen, allowing
villagers to harvest fruit, fuel, and craft materials, and
creating a habitat for animals that are also a valuable
resource.
7
In a broad sense Ecofeminism thus seeks to
do away with all kinds of oppressions and hold the
belief that no attempt to liberate women will be
successful without a similar attempt to liberate nature
from the onslaught of modern technology and
colonialists.
8

There are different relevant schools of feminist
thought and activism that relate to the analysis of the
environment. Ecofeminism argues that there is a
connection between women and nature that comes from
their shared history of oppression by a patriarchal
society; this connection also comes from the positive
identification of women with nature. This relationship
can be argued from an essentialist position, attributing it
to biological factors, or a special connection to the
environment through their daily interactions with it that
has been ignored. "Women in subsistence economies,
producing and reproducing wealth in partnership with
nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic
and ecological knowledge of natures processes. But
these alternative modes of knowing, which are oriented
to the social benefits and sustenance needs are not
recognised by the capitalist reductionist paradigm,
because it fails to perceive the interconnectedness of
nature, or the connection of womens lives, work and
knowledge with the creation of wealth.
9

Tagores play Raktakarabi translated as The
Red Oleander was written towards to the end of 1923
with the title Yakshapuri or The City of Yaksha (the
demon-king).Tagore further revised the manuscript and
retitled it as Nandini after the name of the female
protagonist of the story. In the final version published in
Pravashi in 1924 the title was further revised to
Raktakarabi (The Red Oleander). The shift in
emphasis, it can be noticed, is from the city
(Yakshapuri) through a character (Nandini) to a flower
(Raktakarabi) and makes Raktakarabi essentially a
symbolic drama.
10

The story of this play runs like this: The
kingdom of Yakshapuri flourishes on gold mining and
forced labour. Its king lives behind locked steel doors,
veiled in mystery, awe and terror. Into this brave new
world comes a young and wilful girl, Nandini, the
bearer of the message of reality, the saviour through
death who fears no one and upsets the whole order, not
only making the workers rebellious but luring the King
himself out of his hiding. When he sees what his
henchmen have made of his people, he himself leads the
revolt against his own generals but not before
Nandinis beloved companion, a brave and carefree
youth, Ranjan, who refuses to be conscripted, is killed.
Therefore, in The Red Oleander, the conflict
between the kingdom of Yakshapuri and Nandini and
the working class is in reality an eternal struggle
between the exploited and the exploiters. Krishna
Kripalani perceives that while the earlier play
Muktadhara dealt with the diabolical use of
technological knowledge (symbolised by the machine)
for colonial exploitation, this one raises the more
fundamental issue of the free spirit of life set against the
more terrible machine of a highly organised and
mechanical society which turns men into robots,
reducing names to numbers.
11
Indeed, Tagore noted
with deep concern the assault of the industry-oriented
materialistic life upon the agriculture-oriented rural
ways which had taught men to live in harmony with
nature. He was also worried over the exploitative
materialistic societys insatiable accumulative instinct
which enjoyed wielding enormous power. To
Rabindranath therefore the King in Red Oleanders is an
abstraction that represents the in-thing of the Western
civilization a terrible reality, a titanic power with an
endless curiosity to analyse and know, but without
sympathy to understand, with numberless arms to
coerce and acquire, but no serenity of soul to realise and
enjoy.
12
During Tagores tour to the west in 1916-17
and in 1920-21 all of his lectures were compiled in the
books like Personality and Creative Unity where a new
Tagorian outlook on the womanhood is expressed. It is
here for the first time Tagore alluded to a kind of
woman-force which is very essential to save the
civilization from the clutch of destruction. Tagore
states:
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True woman-liness is regarded in our country as the
saintliness of love. It is not merely praised there, but
literally worshipped, and she who is gifted with it is
called Devi, as one revealing in herself woman, the
DivineThus the Eastern woman, who is deeply aware
in her heart of the sacredness of her mission, is a
constant education to man.
13

Interestingly, this concept of ideal eastern
woman is concretized through Nandini, a young and
wilful girl, who fears no one and whose beauty charms
everyone, upsets the patriarchal and male-dominated
order of the kingdom of Yakshapuri wailing under the
rule of the king, living behind locked steel doors,
literally and symbolically implying the iron-curtain. She
not only made the workers rebellious but lured the king
himself out of his hiding. In the words of Tagore
himself, Nandini, the heroine of the play, has definite
features of an individual personNandini is a real
woman who knows that wealth and power are maya
,and that the highest expression of life is in love.
14
Nandini is like a lightning that contains the potential
thunder: I have brought the thunder, I shall strike the
golden citadel.
15
Thus, in the drama Rabindranath not
only represents the role of woman in bringing about
liberation for the toiling mass, but simultaneously
makes their representative Nandini equal in all respects
except physical strength with her male counterpart, the
demon-king of the gold-mines.
The play can well be interpreted from the eco-
feminist perspective for here in the play Tagore has
portrayed a woman at the centre who manifests the
spirit of defiance against the dictates of this powerful
killer and is presented, in his own words, as the
embodiment of the benevolent aspects of Nature.
Tagore remarks : The entire play is an elaborate portrait
of Nandini, a woman. She represents the joy of life, the
simple beauty and pristine purity of Nature (Preface)
Because of the fact that consumerism, an effect of
industrialization has robbed man of his soul, the
environment has been plundered ruthlessly and an
organised passion of greed is stalking abroad in the
name of European civilisation, Nandini as the
mouthpiece of the playwright warns us :
Mans basic needs are limited. Physical appetite has a
limit. But there is no end to Mans desire (662)
In the play there is an unconscious attempt on
the part of the writer to create an emphatic relationship
between the wounded self of Nandini and the plundered
nature. Nandini wants to fight against this greed of
human beings along with the help of Ranjan, her love.
But still keeping tune with the Wordsworthian dictum
Nature never did betray. Nandini finds solace in the
lap of nature, the benevolent earth, becomes part of the
landscape. As Nandini represents the innocence and
opulence of Nature, the call of Paus, the hervesting
season is a call of Nature in her pristine purity and
limitless bounty. Accordingly she remarks:
The Earth gives away her treasures happily through
Nature. But when man in his pride and arrogance
exploits Nature by doing violence to her a curse falls on
him (656).
The Red Oleader, as an Ecofeminist text,
however, in my considered view addresses itself to such
fundamental human issues as cruelty and violence, both
of which are associated with power. In a very
disquieting piece of reflection, the heroine identifies
herself with the nature so that her tragedy and that of
the nature mirror to each other, reflect each other. What
men do to women, they do to Nature as well. However,
by the end of the play we find that the king has been
moved by the spirit of Nandini and there is a clear hint
that ultimately the order will be restored and human
values will triumph. It is at this point interesting to note
that Nandini in this play bears certain resemblance to
the unnamed narrator of Atwoods novel Surfacing
who refuses to be victim and decides to give birth to the
child in her womb. She tells: I can not know yet: its too
early. But I assume it: if I die it dies, if I starve it starves
with me. It might be first one, the first true human, it
must be born, allowed
16

With protagonists determination to give birth
the child, Atwood has hinted that germination will take
place and the implication is crystal clear thats both
women and nature will be protected provided they
defend themselves against the onslaught of men over
them. Seen from an Ecofeminist perspective The Red
Oleander too lays bare the damage done to Nature on
account of mans insatiable thirst for power and greed
and ends on a note of hope for the restoration of
ecological balance and consequently possible
redemption of man.
17

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Notes & References:
1. Nancy Cott, The grounding of modern feminism(New Haven:Yale University Press, 1987),pp.4-5. Print
2. Simone, de Beauvoir, English translation 1953.The Second Sex (U K: Vintage Books, 1989), p.105,print
3. Francoise d'Eaubonne, "Le Feminisme ou la mort." In New French Feminisms: An Anthology,eds.Elaine M
arks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press,1980).print
4. Karen Warren, ed., Ecological Feminist Philosophies (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 1996)
x.print
5. Ibid. 103.print
6. Mary Mellor, Feminism & Ecology(NewYork: New York Univerity Press,1997), p. 1.print
7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecofeminism. web
8. Bijay kumar Das, Critical Essays on Post-Colonial Literature (New Delhi: Atlantic Publisher, 2007),p.66
9. Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India (New Delhi: Zed Press,1988),p.24. print
10. Mohit Kumar Ray, The Ramayana, Raktakarabi & Surfacing: An Eco-Eeminist Perspective in Studies on
Rabindranath Tagore,ed. M.K.Ray, Vol.11.(New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2004), p.185,print
11. Krishna Kripalani, Tagore: A Life (New Delhi: National Book Trust,1986 ( 3rd Ed)), p.181,print
12. The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Oct 1925.Vol.111,No.3.pp.283-85.print
13. Rabindranath Tagore, Woman and Home in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Sisir Kumar
Das, Vol.11.(New Delhi: Sahitya Academy,1996),p.554,print
14. The Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Oct 1925.Vol.111,No.3.pp.283-85.print
15. Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindra Rachanabali (Collected Works of Tagore)vol.6. (Calcutta:Govt. of West
Bengal,1961.),p681. print[All the incidental translations are mine]
All subsequent references mentioned otherwise of the texts are from this version, from which only line
numbers of the concerned vol. will be given hereafter
16. Margaret Atwood, Sufacing ( Ontario: Paper Jacks Ltd, 1980),p. 206,print
17. Mohit Kumar Ray, The Ramayana, Raktakarabi & Surfacing: An Eco-Eeminist Perspective in Studies on
Rabindranath Tagore,ed. M.K.Ray, Vol.11.(New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2004), p.190,print

Web Versions:
1. skat.ihmc.us/rid%3D1174588237625.../ecofeminism.pdf
2. www.wloe.org/WLOE-en/background/ecofeminism.html