The Bengali folktales are primarily women’s tales. The chief teller of these tales are mostly women - grandmothers, mothers, aunts, or elder sisters; the setting in which these tales are typically told - at night by the bedside or in the kitchen during meals or during the afternoon nap in a hot and humid Bengali summer day - traditionally constitute the so-called women’s realm. The stories themselves center on women - they are typically full of women characters, telling about a woman’s world - the household - concerning central issues in Bengali women’s lives - marriage, childbirth, motherly nurturance, obedience, self-sacrifice, kindness to others, the domestic concerns of everyday life.
When a woman shows passive obedience as a wife and gives birth to children, she is appreciated by the society but when, as the Rupkatha show, the same woman desires for control over her own life, she becomes as threatening to the society as an evil demoness to be destroyed.
The Rupkatha also records the presence of strife, conflict, competition, jealousy and greed among the women of a family expressing the strong moral norms that regulate the intra-familial social relations between women. Moreover, these tales are directed towards an woman audience, primarily. It is the little girl, rather than the little boy who listens again and again to these tales and remains enamored of these tales even when she grows up to be a mature woman.
Women are central to these folktales and consequently, these fantastic stories thus abound in female characters on one hand. In these folktales, women frequently appear in semi-magical roles, in touch with super human forces - it is the women who act as fairy godmothers helping the brave young Prince in adventures, rewarding the ever helpful sweet little girl with riches and a husband. The women act as evil connivers too - plotting against the King and the virtuous Queen, ousting the King from his throne, banishing the Prince from his castle and usurping his royal powers and privileges with evil cunning. Women thus play a central role in making or marring the fantastic world of Bengali Rupkatha. Women, on the other hand, are almost never portrayed as protagonists.
Even in Bengali Rupkatha where women hold the center of stage as heroines, supernatural agents or narrators, women are almost never shown as active protagonists in control of their own lives and destinies. Women’s sphere is clearly defined: women are seen as belonging to the ‘home’ - they are the so-called homemakers, they perform household chores, take care of the family, nurture the children. They have no education, no material wealth and except for menial jobs like rag-picking /cleaning the zoo or midwifery, women have no profession either. They have no place in the outside world and even in their households, within the family units, they have no say in any decisions, their only aim is marriage and their function in society is to give birth and nurture children. Significantly in the Rupkatha, women are always portrayed in relation to men - as mother, wife or daughter or sister, not as individuals, as if they somehow belonged to the men as properties.
Women in the traditional Bengali social and family structure, as presented in the Rupkatha, lead their lives within strict boundaries of appropriate behavior. The tales consistently present an image of the woman as virtuous benevolent, nurturing Devi - the ideal woman - emphasizing her beauty, patience, passivity and tolerance. These women possess extraordinary virtues - they are good, kind, self-effacing and devoted to the welfare of their husbands, sons, family and community while outside forces control their own lives. These benevolent women are represented as nurturing mothers, obedient daughters, kind sisters, passive and dutiful wives, rewarding and benign goddesses or helpful and considerate supernatural agents. This model of the ‘Devi’ in Bengali Rupkatha has an exact parallel in the figure of the Victorian Angel-in-the-House. As Virginia Woolf, in her Professions for Women, described this Angel: “She was intensely sympathetic; she was immensely charming, she was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily…She was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all…she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty - her blushes, her great grace.” (Woolf: 1931).
The perfect woman in Bengali culture, adulated as Devi, held chastity as an ideal and kept to her family, centering all her life in keeping the house clean, the meals ready, the children well disciplined and daughters chaste and obedient. The association of domestic virtue with passivity made the active aspiring woman threatening. Significantly, women who aspired for power are typically represented in Rupkatha as evil witches, ghosts and fearsome demonesses. The malevolent, evil women are represented as wicked stepmothers, vain daughters, cruel sisters, dominating wives, plotting aunts or demons, ghosts and other female supernatural beings. Significantly, these basic categories of female portrayals are not distinct and separate, rather they are fluid categories frequently merging into each other. An obedient wife can turn out to be an aggressive demoness while a mother can either be a goddess to be worshipped or a demonic creature to be ruthlessly destroyed. An evil demoness can act as a benevolent protectress of one human being while the same demoness can lust for the life of another kin. Moreover, these transformations from one category to another are not arbitrary: they follow a definite set of rules which in turn are derived from a set of complex socio-cultural norms and ideals.
When a woman shows passive obedience as a wife and gives birth to children, she is appreciated by the society but when, as the Rupkatha show, the same woman desires for control over her own life, she becomes as threatening to the society as an evil demoness to be destroyed. The split image of Durga and Kali in Bengali religious mythologies is reflected in the Devi/Rakshashi dichotomy in Rupkatha. The Devi is the beautiful, obedient, passive and loving mother concerned with the welfare of the family while the Rakshashi is the dominating woman whose unbridled passion for power upsets the socio-moral stability of the community.
In Bangli Rupkatha, evil thus enters the society, mostly in the guise of a woman - in the form of a cruel stepmother, a jealous co-wife, a wicked aunt and evil rakshashi or a scary female ghost. It is interesting to note that women characters in Bengali Rupkatha are always presented as foils to each other. On one hand, there are the so-called acceptable women - divinely good, weak, passive, tender, caring, dependent and homely and on the other are the unacceptable women - aggressive, assertive, dominating, proud and independent. This dual image of women presents the qualities - good or bad - in their extremes. Either the woman is extraordinarily good, touching divinity or she is unimaginably evil, baser than the basest. Their evil nature is accentuated by their fierceness: their very existences are aimed to bring harm to mankind.
These evil women are portrayed as querulous, jealous and venomous, abducting children, murdering infants, plotting against virtuous women, changing the good women into a non-human form by means of magic, seducing the male, lusting for human flesh. The way the male characters are portrayed with respect to these aggressive women is also interesting. Men are shown as manipulated for desired ends, they are unwitting accomplices used by the aggressive, evil woman as a tool in her animosity toward some other female.
In a group of tales labeled as Ruptarashi in the famous collection of Bengali Rupkatha, Thakurmar Jhuli (The Grandma’s Satchel), published by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar (1877-1957) in 1907, the wicked co-wives of the Raja are replaced by a man-eating, power-hungry, bloodthirsty demoness - a dual personality - a fearsome demonic creature in reality who impersonates as a human wife - only revealing her secret, vicious and ferocious nature at night. The unsuspecting Raja remains spell bound by the magical powers while she tries to rule the kingdom. As a result of the disruption in the socio-moral order, created by the aggressive demonic queen, the kingdom is on the verge of destruction. The young prince then hunt out the evil consorts of the demon queen and destroys them one by one - saving the soul of the demon queen which he destroys with one stroke of his sword at the very end. The moral order is restored in the kingdom and everyone lives happily ever after.
The most common supernatural agent in Bengali Rupkatha is the ‘Rakshashi’, a demonic female who changes her appearance to entice unsuspecting males into marriage, thus integrating herself into human communities and families. The Rakshashi Rani (Demonic Queen) hungers for power and control. This demonic woman is portrayed as the threatening wife who paralyses and stupefies her husband, rules his kingdom and intends to devour the male heir to the throne - she is also depicted as ferocious mother who does not hesitate to destroy her own son in order to fulfill her own desire. The phenomenon of the demoness or Rakshashi represents the ultimate threat a patriarchal society feels regarding female power.
While physically and magically empowered superhuman female characters reflect long tradition of worshipping the feminine, their demonization reveals societal ambivalence toward strong women and the potential danger that such women pose to the integrity of the partrilineal kinship structure. Even more significant than the portrayal of the assertive, aggressive woman as the fearsome demoness is the ritual killing of the demonic soul of the Rakshaski by the young Prince at the very end of the tale. Interestingly, in almost every story that tells the tale of a Rakshashi Rani, soul of the power hungry demoness is preserved in a bird or an insect (eg. The tia bird and the maran hornet in Sonar Kati, Rupar Kati and Neelkamal and Lalkamal respectively). After killing all her kin and destroying her homeland, the young Prince and his male consorts take possession of the soul of the Rakshashi Rani and kill it with one stroke from their sword forcing her to surrender all her power. This ritual destruction of the soul of the demon Queen symbolizes the killing / subjugating the soul / self of the assertive woman - killing her individual spirit, forcing her to live as an object, an Other in the male world. These tales also remind the audience that women can never be a match for men.
However independent, assertive or powerful women may be, they are not invincible. In the end, when the evil is exposed, they would have to face destruction in the hands of the male - they will either be buried alive in the ground with thorns at their feet and above their heads or their soul would be vanquished through cunning and collaborative effort among the men. The tales concerning the demon queen in the Bengali Rupkatha show a parallel female oriented social structure along with the conventional social structure in which a male ruler is at the head of the society. The home land of Rakshashi Rani is ruled by a female head, Jatbijati Ayima, an old crone with voluminous tangled hair, who is the mother of the demonic queen and all her female and male demon consorts. The ultimate destruction of the Rakshash land, the home land of the demon queen, along with the killing of the female head and her kin by the male Prince suggests the destruction and replacement of a matriarchal, matrilineal social structure by a patriarchal and patrilineal one.
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