IN JUNE 1941, about two months before his death, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a draft of a short story called ‘Pragati Sanhar,’ or “Progress Slain.” Its principal characters are two brilliant students who meet while at college: Shuriti, a campus women’s leader, and Nihar, a callous womaniser. But by the end of the story and the war of the sexes that plays out in it, Shuriti sacrifices her feminist ideals, her independence, her money and her health for Nihar.
Tagore is believed to have based the story on the life of one of his protégés, the singer Amita Sen—affectionately called Khuku—who had died just over a year earlier, at the age of 26. All but forgotten now, in her centenary year, “Khuku Amita” was one of the early stars of Rabindrasangeet. In the 1930s, she was a household name among the intellectual and artistic families that revolved around Shantiniketan, the ashram established by the Tagore family about 180 kilometres north of Kolkata.
But by the time Tagore created the character of Shuriti, Sen—and Tagore’s treatment of her—was likely a source of some discomfort within these circles. Rama Chakraborty, Sen’s close friend from Shantiniketan and fellow singer, writes in her memoir, Pathe Chole Jete Jete, that Tagore read the story out one evening at a gathering at his home. It was common for him to share his creative writing with the ashram community, and these sessions often inspired lively discussions among the listeners. But when Tagore finished reading “Pragati Sanhar,” Chakraborty writes, he was met with total silence.