Devi: The Clay and the context
The image of Durga fades-in, as the font of the film ‘Devi’ covers up the portrait of the goddesses. It is an unfinished face of hers. Just the barren clay without any colour —untouched by human brush-strokes. As the title-card rolls, Devi becomes more definitive. Facial features get detailed. Jewellery appears. She acquires life-like features. After-all, faith and devotion require a human form. That is the idol, worshipped and subsequently emersed. With a flurry of fire-crackers, festivities come to an end. And the narrative begins in Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960).
Apparently, it is a conflict between Hindu traditional orthodoxy of an archetypical-zamindar-patriarch (Kalikinkar) and his urban-English-educated enlightened son (Umaprasad). Umaprasad could defy Kalikinkar’s predicaments. But it is much more than a head-on collision between tradition and modernity. Even though there is a constant confrontation of these two opposing forces, our modern man eventually fails to rescue his wife from the clutches of blind faith.
Optimism does not always rest on happy-endings. The disastrous end in the film with literal and metaphorical death of two characters actually leaves us with a lot of hope, hope towards the quest for being more modern — overcoming the shackles of orthodoxy. And attaining more gender parity — shedding extreme forms of patriarchal imposition.
Letter-writing: Finding conjugal love in colonial domesticity
From the public-spaces of pompous aarti and visarjan in a zamindari estate of the mid-nineteenth-century-Bengal, the cinematic narration cuts to a scene of nocturnal, conjugal intimacy. The scene is coded and loaded with several layers of information of that era — both on gender and modernity.
The scene starts with Umaprasad handing over a bunch of empty envelopes to his wife, Dayamoyee. He lovingly demands and expects her to write and post one letter every day without a miss. This informs us that Dayamoyee is literate. Women’s education was an integral part of colonial modernity, particularly in Bengal, Madras, and Bombay presidencies.
Her anguish over her husband’s departure refers to a new form of modern conjugal romance that unfolded in that period between the educated husband and his newly literate wife. And in that scheme of communication and participation, ‘letter-writing’ played an instrumental and romantic role. Letters carried and expressed romantic desire and informational exchange.
A modern envelope could formally cover-up the shared intimacy between the husband and wife without any intervention and scrutiny of elder members of the family. Mundane information-exchange was also necessitated because the husband was often away on business and the wife was in charge of domesticity. As part of the romantic understanding, we hear Umaprasad jokingly mentioning if you do not write a letter every day, there will be severe consequences.
City-calling: Modern aspiration over traditional ascription
The newly-married couple is seen having a leisurely laid-back conversation. The female protagonist is apprehensive about the departure of her husband. She is not willing to part with her newly-wed husband. However, the husband has to go to the city to complete a degree in the newly-formed centre of educational excellence — Calcutta. That rural-urban migration and the pursual of higher education by the upper class/caste— both are integral to the unfolding of the modernist agenda of that century.
Dayamoyee asks why it is necessary for Umaprasad to go to the city at all. To which, the straightforward answer is — do I not have to complete my education? She does not seem to be very convinced with this answer. She counter-questions the value of earning a degree and a job or even the purpose of learning English? A degree will eventually get one a salaried job, right? But he is the son of a wealthy zamindar with sufficient financial resources. So, why not stay back with his wife much like his elder brother! To which Umaprasad’s unhesitant reply is—even Rammohan was rich enough. Did he not study? Did he not study English?
We realise that English is the new social currency. And traditional wealth, if not immaterial, has lost its allure for a certain generation and class. Pride is no longer located in ascribed and inherited privileges, but is to be found through achieved modern knowledge. As he claims, or rather boosts off, to his wife that his friends and his teachers in Calcutta call him ‘Vidyan’ — a knowledgeable man. It is quite obvious that he is certainly a lot prouder of that modern-tag than his zamindari ancestry.
Dayamoyee pursues her line of counter-argument by adding that her husband’s elder brother may not know English, but isn’t he vidyan too? To which Umaprasad’s answer is: “Well, he might be educated, but there is huge difference in their forms of knowledge.” He is obviously referring to the Western modern rational knowledge of his own as opposed to traditional knowledge received by his elder brother.
New women: Under the aegis of new patriarchy
The construction of the ‘new-women’ in colonial India, under the aegis of ‘new-patriarchy’ was substantially different from its pre-modern predecessor. It was a project in itself. The new-patriarchy would like new-modern-women to be educated, so that she can educate her children; so that she can she can keep a tab over domestic accountancy. More importantly, so that she can participate and communicate with her educated husband.
While it is normal for the husband to go away for higher education, primary or secondary education for women was good enough to fulfil the needs of the new-patriarchy. Only that much of education was permitted for her as was needed for rearing children or for bettering household activities, bettering care and cleanliness and hygiene standards at home.
Numerous instruction-manuals were printed during late 19th century, addressing the newly educated women. They advised her how to be perfect daughters, wives, and mothers. These were patriarchal advises by the educated men for the educated women on appropriate hygiene, nutrition, child-rearing, dressing, behaviour towards elders, and other male members.
Controlling women was a necessary nationalist agenda to uphold traditional integrity because there was loss of male-agency in the outer, material, and the political spere due to colonialism. Women were designated into the inner/spiritual/private sphere which was sacrosanct, autonomous, and sovereign. And the new-patriarchy was desperate to limit the Westernising-influence on new-women by making her the repository of traditional values. The new patriarchy inculcated modern ‘womanly tendencies’ or made her learn the virtues of stridharma that called for submission, obedience, devotion, and fidelity. Dayamoyee did the same. She submitted. She remained silent.
The paradox: Empowered Devi and disempowered Dayamoyee
Isn’t it easy to mould the clay and give it shape? Isn’t it the same for the 17-year-old helpless housewife —the female protagonist, Dayamoyee— on whom a divine incarnation is imposed by patriarchy? Is it possible for her to plan an escape; hatch a resistance; or to put up an act of self-preservation? Can we even expect her silence to gather words when she could barely speak-up to her father-in-law? She is the soft clay that can be easily be moulded by patriarchy.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Dayamoyee is a repository of compassion and forgiveness and submission too. Her submission is complete in every possible manner. Her subdued nature does not represent loss of agency or the lack of it —for she never had one as an individual. On the contrary, blind faith granted her too much of undue and illogical divine powers, making her all more helpless. As an individual, she was left with no choice. Doing what exactly is expected of her incarnated-self is to get remoulded like the unfinished face of the goddesses in the opening shot, not by an artisan but by the triple-tyranny of religiosity, patriarchy, and blind-faith. Tradition and societal expectations drove her insane, eventually.
Men’s fight: Faith versus reason
Ray spends considerable time capturing the reaction of utter shock and disbelief on Umaprasad’s face when he returns home after being informed about Devi-puja. Rays of modernity had given the courage to the educated son to fight his father’s blind faith. It is quite a black and white battle. The father could be financially and traditionally way more powerful. But rationality and modern education has empowered the modern man to question his father’s faith. Those decisions defy logic by modern standards.
This is why Umaprasad could say aloud that his father has gone insane. This is why he could show his disapproval and laugh at the fact that his father has imposed devitwa on Dayamoyee just because he has got some divine instructions in a divine-dream. None of this makes any sense to the enlightened Umaprasad because he is seeing the world through the lens of reason. He has internalised certain enlightenment principles that have rendered the ‘divine’ optional, or personal, or even redundant.
This is also why he keeps asking his wife whether she actually believes that she is an avtar and not a human being. He constantly demands proof from his father, whereas his elder brother, under the shadow of his father, follows his elderly orders and obediently falls down on Dayamoyee’s feet when asked to do so.
Two forms of patriarchies: Men who impose and men who pause
As a consequence of colonial modernity, conjugality as a unit becomes very important — so important that it can now challenge old patriarchal authority. According to the new-patriarchal order, the unit of the husband and wife became ultimate — over and above anyone else in the family. This is why the educated son can dare to speak up to his father and say it aloud during their final confrontation that the father has committed a crime by imposing devitwa on Dayamoyee, that it has no rational basis, all this is a whim, and it is a sort of an imposition that has doomed her life. He goes to the extent of saying his father has killed his grandson by denying him modern healthcare.
That the modern conjugal unit is moving towards an autonomy from the old patriarch and is being able to challenge it somewhat is clear when Umaprasad feels responsible to rescue his wife and take her to Calcutta. The city, Calcutta, stands for liberation from this spell of superstition. We see hints and roots of nuclear family formation from a joint family under the tyranny of an old archetypical patriarch.
In the climax-scene, Kalikinkar lays shattered, deeply saddened by the loss of his grandson, whom Doyamoyee could not save by her divine qualities. Umaprasad dares to swing the final sword of reason. He asks, “Did the boy get enough medical attention?” The traditional authority gets all the more disturbed and tormented by such a question. Clinging onto his faith, Kalikinkar defends himself by saying that he offered the boy on the lap of the almighty Devi after all.
While incarnation is imposed without caring about consent by Kalikinkar, Umaprasad bestows ample agency to his wife and her decision-making. During their first attempt to escape to Calcutta, after coming close to the river and before boarding the silhouetted boats on a starry-night, she changes her decision. She says, “What if this sort of an eloping has a bad bearing on her husband?” So we witness care and concern for each other. The husband is most important to his wife and vice versa. Umaprasad, as an educated man, could have forced her to elope, but instead of insisting that he knows what is best for her, he respects her decision to return.
Liberal men: Love or inheritance?
There is a scene that unfolds after Umaprasad and his close friend are returning from having watched a play in the city in a horse cart. The friend seems to be less concerned about being disinherited by his father because he has fallen in love with a widow. Needless to say, widow-remarriage was a burning modernist social-reformist movement of 19th century Bengal. But as a new-found possibility, widow remarriage will be unacceptable to his friend’s father. Hence, he fears that he’ll be punished if he makes a modernist choice to remarry a widow.
But then, he is being assured by Umaprasad, who is very confident of his argumentative skills to convince his friend’s father. He claims that all of Vidyasagar’s arguments are on his fingertips. And then while getting off the cart, Umaprasad wishes to meet the lady. Again, yet another recognition of the conjugal unit, as he says — should I not meet the women whom I am fighting for?
The modern trio: Wisdom, conscience, conscienceless
There is a drawing room scene with Umaprasad’s teacher. The old man had converted to Christianity. He tells Umaprasad that he needed to go through a lot of pain for rebelling against his father during and after the conversion. He added that resistance against tradition is bound to attract societal injunctions. He encouraged his student to follow buddhi —wisdom or intellect, vivek —conscience, and chetna —consciousness, and fight it out on his own. No one else can fight on his behalf. He has to fight his own battle. He said, “If your wisdom, conscience, and consciousness cannot accept something as ‘truth’, then there must be something wrong with it.”
Though Umaprasad followed this advice, and though he showed the right intent, he does not succeed to be the saviour. Religious orthodoxy does not win, but it ends up taking multiple lives. But in that loss, there remains hope. In Doyamoyee’s silence and in Umaprasad’s resistance, we learn to locate a possibility. That is the possible plight of modernity and the possible trajectory of gender parity in times to come.