Swarnakumari Devi

Swarnakumari Devi (Bengali: স্বর্ণকুমারী দেবী; 28 August 1855 – 3 July 1932) was a poet, novelist, musician and social worker from the Indian subcontinent.[1][2] She was the first among the women writers in Bengal to gain prominence.[3]

Swarnakumari Devi
Swarnakumari Devi
Born(1855-08-28)28 August 1855
Calcutta, Bengal, British India
Died3 July 1932(1932-07-03) (aged 76)
Calcutta, Bengal, British India
NationalityBritish Indian
OccupationPoet, novelist, musician, social worker
Spouse(s)Janakinath Ghosal
ChildrenHiranmoyee Devi
Sarala Devi Chaudhurani
Sir Josna Ghosal
Urmilla Tagore

Family and early life

She was the fourth amongst the daughters of Debendranath Tagore and was a granddaughter of Dwarkanath Tagore. Three of her sisters, Soudamini, Sukumari and Saratkumari, were older than she was. Barnakumari was the youngest sister. Soudamini was one of the earliest students of Bethune School. Others in the Tagore family had followed her, but it seems that Swarnakumari had her education primarily at home.[2] She was five years older than Rabindranath Tagore.[3]

Education was valued in the Jorasanko Thakur Bari. Swarnakumari recalled how, when her father Debendranath learned that the governess was writing something on a slate and having the girls copy it, he stopped the mechanical practice and brought in a better teacher. In his memoirs Rabindranath wrote, "We learnt much more at home than we had to at school."[4]

Swarnakumari had a great capability of picking up friendship with other girls from an early age. As per the custom of the day, each pair of friends had a common name, which they used to call each other. Swarnakumari had many friends – Mistihasi, Milan, Bihangini and so on.

Marriage and children

She was married in 1868, to Janakinath Ghosal, a well-educated and strong-willed young man belonging to a landlord family of Nadia district. Janakinath Ghosal was disowned by his family for adopting Brahmoism and marrying under controversial anusthanic Brahmo rites whose validity was then disputed[5] and consequently deprived of all inheritance. However, with his capabilities and determination he succeeded in business and developed his own zamindari. He was endowed with the title of Raja.[1] He was a theosophist[2] and was actively associated with the Indian National Congress from its earliest days. According to his daughter, Hironmoyee Devi, he nurtured the young organisation as a gardener nurtures a sapling.[6] Janakinath Ghosal was one of the founders of Indian National Congress.[1]

Their children were Hiranmoyee Devi (1870 – 1925),[7] Jyotsnanath Ghosal (1871 – 1962) and Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (1872 – 1945).[8] Jyotsnanath Ghosal qualified for the ICS and served in Western India.[9]

Creative efforts

The efforts of the male members of the Tagore family in the field of music, theatre and writing must have penetrated into the inner precincts of the Jorasanko Thakur Bari and touched a chord in Swarnakumari. When Jyotirindranath Tagore was involved with his experiments in music, plays and writing, he was assisted by Akshay Chandra Chaudhuri and Rabindranath. In his Jyotirindrasmriti (Reminiscence) he wrote, "With Janaki going to England and arrival of my younger sister Swarnakumari in our house, we got another partner in our literary ventures."[3] While Gyanadanandini Devi took the lead for breaking down age-old restrictions on women in the house, Swarnakumari flourished in creativity.[10]

First novel

Her first novel Deepnirban was published in 1876.[3] There is an opinion that Hana Catherine Mullens was the first novelist in the Bengali language with her Phoolmani O Karunar Bibaran published in 1852;[11] Swarnakumari was the first woman novelist amongst the Bengali people.[12][13]

Deepnirban assisted in rousing the national spirit. Thereafter she wrote extensively – novels, plays, poems and scientific essays. She was keen on developing scientific terminology in Bengali. She composed numerous songs.[1] According to comparatist Swapan Majumdar, the rise of woman writers such as Swarnakumari and Kamini Roy was exceptionally important. They "represented a flourishing generation of educated women writers, discharging with total zeal the responsibilities of their pursuit".[14]

In 1879, Swarnakumari composed what was possibly the first opera written in Bengali, Basanta Utsav.[15]


Bharati was a family magazine started by Jyotirindranath Tagore in 1877 and edited first by Dwijendranath Tagore.[16] Dwijendranath edited the magazine for seven years. Thereafter for eleven years, Swarnakumari took charge as editor and worked hard to enhance the uniqueness of the journal. Her daughters edited it for twelve years and Rabindranath edited it for a year. It was then back to her for another eight years. Again after a nine-year gap, it was back to her. She edited it for nearly two years and finally closed it after being in print for half a century.[17] Rabindranath was only sixteen years old when Bharati was first published. He started contributing to the magazine from the first issue. Indeed, the demands of the magazine enforced certain regularity in Rabindranath's writing and over the years he contributed enormously to it.[16]

Political activity

As her husband was secretary of the Indian National Congress, she was actively involved in politics. In 1889 and 1890 she served Indian National Congress. That was the first time women participated publicly in the sessions of the Indian National Congress.[15][18]

Sakhi Samiti

Sakhi Samiti (Society of Friends) was started by Swarnakumari in 1896. With her were associated other members of the Tagore family. The objective of the society was to assist helpless orphans and widows. The following report was published in Bharati and Balak in 1898:

"The first aim of the Samiti is to help helpless orphans and widows. This will be done in two ways. In those cases where such widows and orphans have no near relations or if those relations have not the means of maintaining them the Sakhi Samiti will take their full responsibility. In other cases the Samiti will give them help as far as possible. In the case of those women whose full responsibility the Samiti will take they will educate them and through them spread women’s education. After they have finished their education they will take up the work of zenana (female) education. The Samiti will give them remuneration for their work. In this way two objectives will be accomplished. Hindu widows will be able to earn through service to others according to sanction of Hindu religion."[19]

As the subscriptions from members were not sufficient to run the organisation, an annual exhibition was held in Bethune College to raise funds. Apart from saris from Dhaka and Santipur and handicrafts from Krishnanagar and Birbhum, there used to be a large collection of handicrafts from outside Bengal – Kashmir, Moradabad, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and Mumbai.[19] Her objective was to display indigenous products and sell them. The fair created a sensation in her days.[1]

The activities of Sakhi Samaiti continued till around 1906 and thereafter taken over by Hiranmoyee Bidhaba Ashram. The widows’ home started by Sashipada Banerjee at Baranagore, considered the first such venture, inspired Hiranmoyee Devi, the daughter of Swarnakuamri, to start the Mahila Bidhaba Ashram (that was named after her subsequent to her death). Among the members of the executive committee of the Mahila Vidhaba Ashram in its inaugural year were: Swarnakumari, Maharani Sucharu Devi of Mayurbhanj, Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar (the two daughters of Keshub Chunder Sen), Lady Hamilton, Priyamvada Devi, Mrs. Chapman, Mrs. S.P. Sinha, and Hiranmoyee Devi, who served as secretary. ‘It is still running quite efficiently’ (in 1949) with Kalyani Mallick, the daughter of Hiranmoyee Devi guiding the affairs of the institution.[19]

The society was christened "Sakhi Samiti" by Rabindranath. At the request of Sarala Roy, Rabindranath wrote a dance drama Mayar Khela to be staged by Sakhi Samiti for fund raising.[9]



  • Dipnirban (The Snuffing Out of the Light), 1876
  • Mibar Raj, 1877
  • Chinna Mukul (A Picked Flower), 1879
  • Malati, 1881
  • Hughlir Imam Badi 1887
  • Bidroha (Revolt), 1890
  • Snehalata ba Palita (tr. as: The Uprooted Vine), 1892
  • Phulermala (tr. as: The fatal Garland), 1894
  • Kahake (To Whom?; tr. as: The Unfinished Song), 1898
  • Bichitra, 1920
  • Swapnabani, 1921
  • Milanrati, 1925
  • Phuler Mala[1]


  • Koney Badal (Evening Dust Clouds / Time for Seeing the Bride), 1906
  • Pak Chakra (Wheel of Fortune), 1911
  • Rajkanya
  • Divyakamal[1]


  • Basanta Utsav (Spring Festival), 1879


  • Gatha
  • Basanta Utsab
  • Gitiguchha[1]


Award and honours

University of Calcutta honoured her with the Jagattarini gold medal in 1927.[15]

Further reading

  • Sudakshina Ghosh: Swarnakumari Devi. Translated into English by Tapati Chwodhurie. Kolkata (Sahitya Akademi) 2008
  • Amitrasudan Bhattacharya (ed.): Swarnakumari Devi: Swatantra Ek Nari. Kolkata (Purba) 2000
  • Mina Chattopadhyay: Swarnakumari Devi. Kolkata 2000
  • Sutapa Chaudhuri: Scientific Essays of Swarnakumari Devi, in: Muse India 53 (Jan-Feb 2014)
  • Teresa Hubel: A Mutiny of Silence: Swarnakumari Devi's Sati, in: Ariel. A Review of international English Literature 41,3-4 (2011) 167-190
  • Chaganti Vijayasree: Introduction, in: Swarnakumari Debi: An Unfinished Song. Oxford 2008, xi-xxxvi
  • Rajul Sogani / Indira Gupta: Introduction, in: Swarnakumari Debi: The Uprooted Vine. Oxford 2004, vii-xiv


  1. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, Anjali (editors), 1976/1998, Sansad Bangali Charitabhidhan (Biographical dictionary) Vol I, (in Bengali), pp. 609-610, ISBN 81-85626-65-0
  2. Devi Choudhurani, Indira, Smritisamput, (in Bengali), Rabindrabhaban, Viswabharati, pp.16-26.
  3. Banerjee, Hiranmay, Thakurbarir Katha, (in Bengali), p. 119, Sishu Sahitya Sansad.
  4. Deb, Chitra (1990). "Jorasanko and the Thakur Family". In Chaudhuri, Sukanta (ed.). Calcutta: The Living City. Volume I: The Past. Oxford University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-19-563696-3.
  5. Ghoshal was 1 of 9 such grooms who petitioned for Brahmo Marriage Bill 1871 to Sir Henry Maine. per Sibnath Sastri
  6. Devi Choudhurani, Indira, Smritisamput, Notes, p. 190.
  7. Devi Choudhurani, Indira, Smritisamput, Notes, p. 218.
  8. Banerjee, Hiranmay, Thakurbarir Katha, family chart, p. 224.
  9. Devi Choudhurani, Indira, Smritisamput, Notes, p. 195.
  10. "The Tagores and society". Rabindra Bharati University. Retrieved 4 May 2007.
  11. Sengupta, Subodh Chandra and Bose, p. 423
  12. Aziz, Mahibul (2012). "Novel". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  13. Bandopadhyay, Brajendranath, Sahitye Banga Mahila (in Bengali), in Bethune College and School Centenary Volume, edited by Dr. Kalidas Nag, 1949, p. 199
  14. Majumdar, Swapan (1990). "Literature and Literary Life in Old Calcutta". In Chaudhuri, Sukanta (ed.). Calcutta: The Living City. Volume I: The Past. Oxford University Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-19-563696-3.
  15. Amin, Sonia (2012). "Devi, Swarna Kumari". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  16. Banerjee, Hiranmay, p. 139-140.
  17. Chaudhuri, Indrajit (2012). "Bharati". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. (eds.). Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  18. Bagal, Jogesh Chandra, Rashtriya Andolane Banga Mahila, (in Bengali), in Bethune College and School Centenary Volume, edited by Dr. Kalidas Nag, 1949, p. 228
  19. Ghose, Lotika, Social and Educational Movements for Women and By Women 1820-1950, in Bethune College and School Centenary Volume, edited by Dr. Kalidas Nag, 1949, p. 148
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