My grandmother Joyasree Sen would have been 100 if she was with us today. But that was not to be. This is a tribute to her, from a collection of essays that family members have put together for her 100th birthday.
She was a daughter of the Bengal Renaissance – with many of her family members, including grand-uncle Rabindranath Tagore, as the stalwarts who provided the intellectual ammunition that helped in creating modern Bengal as we know it today. Joyasree Sen (nee Tagore) was born and grew up in an era when history was being carved out in many different ways and the young Joyasree was influenced, we have heard, by various social and political movements of her times. She was sensitive to Communist thought and, not surprisingly, Brahmo philosophy had a very early and deep impact on her. But the biggest revolution in her life was probably standing up against the wishes of her genteel and well-known family members and marrying Kuloprasad Sen after a two-year romance, when she was just 19 years old.
Girls from the Tagore family – during Joyasree’s youth - were pioneers in women's education and socially ahead of their times. But not many of them, perhaps, had the courage to fall in love with someone who was not socially or economically their equal and marry despite family pressure. Joyasree and Kuloprasad’s wedding was historic, with Rabindranath as the Acharya or the Brahmo officiating priest. Later, he also composed and dedicated a poem to the two of them as a gift for their wedding anniversary when he was visiting them in Meerut. Joyasree did not show off about such things. As author Chitra Deb was to say in her book, Thakur Barir Andarmahal: “Joyasree is reticent in talking about herself”.
Joyasree’s striking good looks were visible even when she was a child and later in her youth she came to be known as one of the most beautiful ‘Tagore girls’. But quite characteristically, vanity was never one of her vices. It was probably her graceful demeanour, flawless and fair skin, stately bearing and classically well-etched out face that attracted the attention of one of the best-known painters of her times – Nandalal Bose. Joyasree was to be the muse for one of his paintings, where he depicted her as Goddess Saraswati playing the Veena. She was at that time a shy, young girl in her 20s and had patiently posed with her musical instrument, while the already well-known painter created his masterpiece.
Joyasree and Kuloprasad’s romance and their marriage was a fairytale that all of us have heard so much about. She was Mrs K.P. Sen and the significant other in the relationship – but in many areas, including running her household and bringing up her children, she also held her own. She was the mother for all seasons. Mother of triplets and her two elder sons, grandmother and great-grandmother – Ma, Dondon, Didun, Didimum and Boro-Didun! She was often found ministering to the needs of her children and grandchildren who were ill.
And even though, the story of Kuloprasad (Motru) and Joya (Joyasree) together has been told and retold, she lived for more than 20 years without her husband after his death, independently and mostly happy with herself. Though she started off by choosing to live alone because she wanted to keep Shesher Kobita the way he would have wanted it to be kept, she then went on to carve out her own independent existence, which was what Shesher Kobita then came to represent for most of us.
It would have taken great courage for an aged lady, who had never been alone before, to pick up the pieces and to carry on, which she did with great fortitude. She was the new age granny, who knew her Swiss chocolates and played a game of Scrabble with her youngest grand-daughter to chillout. She took all the relationships that her children and grandchildren entered into in her stride and was always understanding and supportive. She even advised a granddaughter to remain single because she felt that was best for her. A voracious reader who enjoyed Sidney Sheldon as much as she enjoyed Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Joyasree also deeply appreciated music and turned to Tagore's songs for peace and solace. She even selected her favourite songs, which were to be sung at the 'sokh sabha' after her death!
It was Joya’s garden which bloomed for all those 20 years after Motru passed away; it was her friends of all ages and social groups who visited her and kept her company. And, of course, it was her close and extended family members for whom she was a focal point. On her 95th birthday, when Srila (her eldest and favourite grand-daughter) had organized a birthday party, all of us who had gathered in Shantiniketan had made a wish – that we come together with her again on her 100th. Sadly, that was not to be and Joyasree fell short of a grand century by just three years. But we are now bringing out this book together – and we hope that she lives on in this effort that we are making together as a family, to remember her and capture our memories in print.
New Delhi, June 2008