Sita Devi-Shanta: Life and Thoughts

The two sisters,Sita Devi and Shanta Devi from whose work a selection is now translated and offered to the English-reading public are daughters of Sri Ramananda Chatterjee, the well-known publicist. It is very much essential as well as interesting to know about Sri Chatterjee, the father of Shanta Devi-Sita Devi before further discussion of the latter’s life and works.

During that era Sri Chatterjee edited “Prabasi”, a Bengali monthly, and “The Modern Review”, an English one. Both are very influential, the latter being the most widely read of all Indian monthlies. This influence has come to him after a long struggle, in which he has shown uncompromising independence.

Sprung from a family of Sanskrit professors and priests, his own generation, his cousins and brothers, first broke through their tradition of aloofness, and learned English. The father’s whole life has been one of battle and political journalism. Yet the reader of his daughters’ stories will be struck by the way they avoid politics. The centre of interest has shifted inward, to Hindu social life. This change of interest is a natural development from the father’s effort, and completes it. Ramananda Chatterjee was one of those Indians who cherish the name of Rammohan Ray, and, amid the insolent abuse recently flung at that name, as standing for the introduction of a denationalising foreign influence, he has proclaimed its out-
standing greatness. Like Rammohan Ray, he has especially made the cause of women his own, and has never let pass any reasonable opportunity of protest against wrongs inflicted by

society. No man living has a more flaming anger at cruelty than Ramananda Chatterjee. The latest negro-burning in Georgia and the latest instance of a child-wife in Bengal committing suicide appear in his magazines, no less than the treatment of Indians in East Africa or Fiji, and go out into the bazaars and homes of all India. He carried his convictions into action in his own family.


Shanta Devi and Sita Devi were educated at home in the usual subjects, including English, and then sent to Bethune College, Calcutta. From the earliest days their father gave them the fullest intellectual freedom, never seeking to censor their reading. Both passed the B. A. with great credit, at Calcutta University. In 1912, while still students, they published a volume of stories translated from English, which were immediately popular. They introduced “Brer Rabbit” to Bengali nurseries. They trained themselves by study and translation of George Eliot’s work, and of a few stories from the French ; they kept in close touch with their own land and its life. Their literary careers have advanced together. In 1917, Sita Devi’s

first original short story Light of the Eyes appeared in Prabasi, her sister’s first one Sunanda appearing in the same magazine a month later.

In 1918, they wrote in collaboration a novel, “Udyanlata” (The Garden Creeper in English) , a serial for Prabasi. This was given over a column in the Times Literary Supplement, from the pen of the late Mr. J. D. Anderson, who knew Bengali literature as no other European did. He speaks of the books keen observation, sometimes girlishly amused, sometimes tenderly pitying, never harsh or bitter, which was rendered in a style which is in itself a delight to any competent student of Indian letters.’ They had excellent material, as he points out, in the contrast afforded between ‘the varied life of the great cosmopolitan city of Calcutta, and also of the pleasant old-world existence led by rustic dwellers in the teeming villages of rural Bengal.’ The same writer gave equal praise to Sita Devi’s “Cage of Gold”, which appeared first as a Prabasi serial in 1919. It was followed by Santa Devi’s serial, “The Eternal”, in 1920.
Both sisters have written reviews and other articles. Santa Devi was also a versatile painted and specialized painting in water colours. She is a disciple of the well-known artists, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. Sita Devi has published
in “The Modern Review” translations by herself of her own and her sister’s stories.


In the 20th century,apart from Sita Devi and Santa Devi, there appeared many talented women who wrote novels in the classical style: Swarnakumari Devi (Tagore’s elder sister), Anurupa Devi, Leela Majumdar – all these women writers have contributed literature of eternal value.

In the very modern period Alhapurna Devi (who has a trilogy) and Mahasweta Devi were awarded Akademi prizes. Her Aranyer Adhikar – Rights over the forest, is a novel about the Santali rebels. Hazar Curasir Ma – Mother of the prisoner No 1084 , is a political novel. The whole novel states the affairs of a single day. Ashapurna was a prolific authoress, while Mahasweta has been writing on how Ashapurna’s literary world war of middle class families treads on the political ideas.

Yet Shanta Devi and Sita Devi are segregated from the above writers due to their views about the emancipation of women. They always maintained a much different view about women emancipation. Their writings does not represent in any way, “feminism” in the wider form. It will also be noticed further, that their writings portrayed women protagonists and the male characters in their novels(unlike other novels/stories of that era)more than being dominant characters are more practical and have a soft corner towards womenfolk. It may be observed that both Shanta and Sita Devi have portrayed in their writings the sorry plight of the women as well as the man which may be observed by reading the story “Loyalty”. Also their way of thinking of women emancipation was different from the rest of the women authors of that era.

Shanta Devi and Sita Devi’s thoughts and beliefs about women emancipation were very much progressive of that age and it is somewhat due to that they could get the proper respect and importance which they both deserved. Here,reference should also be drawn that they both have been born and brought up in a liberal and cultural atmosphere , which was much ahead of their time.


A plethora of literature, historical and journalistic abounds so far as the writings of Shanta Devi and Sita Devi are concerned. However the studies have been independent, religious, philosophical or historical in nature. The variety which passes as history cannot escape from ideological overtones, adulations or antipathies; this naturally arouses curiosities about the veracity of their interpretations.

The attempt of this study is not to reiterate what other scholars have written, my sincere attempt would be to examine the cultural values of the society during that time as well as to examine in details about the the writings of Shanta Devi and Sita Devi as well.

It would be fruitful to historically review the short stories as well as the novels of both Shanta Devi and Sita Devi to get a critical understanding about the various spheres they touched many of whom are still being debated till date.

The study may not be able to settle the debates going on for centuries about women emancipation , but will sincerely attempt to help scholars think in a more practical and objective manner .


While working on this topic questions may come into mind about : what is the meaning of ‘emancipation’? What is the meaning of ‘women’s emancipation’? What is the meaning of the term “feminism”?
This proposal do not present a finished corpus of knowledge on women emancipation as well as feminism. This is not contingent on time, but in recognition that there is no overarching truth, no specific matter or essence is to be discovered.
This study is my reading of certain situations that one has encountered, and in which I participated. As with ‘women emancipation’, this representation must be read as a temporally contingent, ‘partial’ and ‘positioned’ truth.
The questions were simply phrased, and reflected the themes of this study:
? What is the literal meaning of the term emancipation?
? What is meant by development of society?
? What is the meaning of the emancipation of women?
? What is Feminism?


It has been noted that a historian cannot often employ the method of direct observation . Datas are thus collected from the reports of those who witnessed or participated in events related to this topic. The data produced have to be subjected to careful analysis which may be false or misleading. So, the work may be left to make his own comparisons, to see the resemblances and differences in their respective contributions.


“In doing research of of any kind, there is an implicit assumption that we are investigating something outside ourselves, that the knowledge we seek cannot be gained solely or simply through introspection” (Charlotte Aull Davies, 1999, p.3.).

The study focuses on socio-cultural dynamics that make up the fabric of Indian society and encapsulates a broad interpretation of ethnography as a research process based on fieldwork using a variety of (mainly qualitative) research techniques . Hence, elements of ethnography have been ‘borrowed’ in the sense that the researcher has carefully connected the observed facts with the specific features of the backdrop against which these facts occur, which are linked to historical and cultural contingencies (Baszanger and Dodier, 1997, p.13).

Historical Research Study Method have been adopted for the purpose of the present study. The research also intends to make use of Primary and secondary resources.

Data will be collected from experiences and observation of others, as well as the observation of the researcher. Written experiences of the two women writers will be another important and primary source to progress further.


The two sisters,Shanta Devi and Sita Devi present a wide culture, and their writings proceed from lives of unfettered freedom of thought. Other circumstances have helped to give them their detached view of Hindu society. Though born in Calcutta, they lived in Allahabad from 1895 to 1908, and most of their dearest memories cluster about that place.

They have also lived for a considerable period at Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Home of Peace’, a place where thought is as liberal as the wide spaces that surround it. Here they found their fullest powers of expression, as nowhere else.
The readers will now be in a position to understand something of the experience which lies behind these stories. He may be left to make his own comparisons, to see the resemblances and differences in their respective contributions. Bengali opinion discriminates between them by finding in Sita Devi’s stories a touch of playful malice. Santa Devi’s often show a delightful humour, with lifelike pictures of manners and persons. Both may be expected to improve greatly in technique, as they are still at the beginning of their careers. To the foreign reader, perhaps the most interesting thing in their writings will be the intellectual and personal element their keen, scornful vision and the angry contempt which blazes out.

Effective criticism of a society comes best from those who are members of it. Indian society has been portrayed in the writings of Bankim Chatterjee,of Rabindranath Tagore, of Sarat Chatterjee, and many others. But it is an immense gain to any nation that its society should be seen through the eyes of its own intellectual countrywomen; and Indian society, in its public aspects and activities, means Indian men. This fire of personality and personal feeling gives the sisters’ work significance beyond itself, and will make it a matter of deep interest to watch the development and widening of their powers. For the present, there is in their work the added interest of seeing Indian life as Indians themselves see it, and of noting how Indian society deals with the problems which are occupying society everywhere, the readjustment of the relations of different classes, and above all, the readjustment of the relations in which the sexes stand to each other.

The present work entails a probe into the works Shanta Devi and Sita Devi who had spent a great amount of time in had received little recognition. It is also a probe into their lives that how they came into the writing profession under the guidance of her illustrious father Sri Ramananda Chattopadhyay , and how progressive their ideas were in the question of emancipation in Indian society.

Though not directly through any movements but by their activities they showed their protest through their pen against wrongs done to women in the Indian society during that time.

The first chapter deals with the background of Santa Devi and Devi came in the writing field and their contributions in the i” magazine published by their father.

The second chapter deals with Santa Devi’s three selected prose and the feminist problems during that time.

The third chapter deals with Sita Devi’s writings – her portrayal of women character in her novels.

The fourth chapter deals with the question of emancipation in women and feminism from their novels.

The fifth chapter deals with the present day writings and thoughts of the women writers and their idea about women emancipatin.

The concluding chapter deals with the estimate of the works of Shanta Devi and Sita Devi’s progressive thoughts and how little recognition they have received from the Indian society.



Primary Sources

1. The Daily Star : “Postmodern Bangla Short Stories: the arrival of the departure (Part V) To Be and of Letting Be: Women Writers” By Malay Roy Choudhury
Vol. 4 Num 95

2. “Loyalty” by Sita Devi and Shanta Devi by “De Publications”

3. “Prabasi Patrika” Editor Sri Ramakrishna Chatterjee Volume XVIII Yr. Year 1913 – “The Ugly Bride” – Sita Devi and Shanta Devi (Publication House: De)

4. “The Cake Festival “ by Sita Devi and Shanta Devi “Mitra Prakashani”

5. Dr.Madhavi Dey “Works of Sita Devi and Shanta Devi” Deb Prakashani,Kolkata,West Bengal

6. Punya-Smriti written by Sita Devi (Rabindra Smriti)

8. “The Golden Cage” by Sita Devi (De Publications)

9. Indian Economic and Social History Review (Journal Published by Sage Publications,
2008 and written by R.K.Ray)

10. “Tales of Bengal” translated in English by E.J.Thompson (Publisher: Oxford University Press)

11. “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir (First Published in English: Jonathan Cape
in 1953; Publisher : Penguin)

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1. Bandopadhyay, Hiranmay, Thakurbarir Katha, (Bengali), pp. Sishu Sahitya Samsad.
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3. Choudhurani, Indira, Smritisamput, (Bengali), Rabindrabhaban, Viswabharati
4. Nag, Kalidas, Introduction to the Bethune School and College Centenary Volume, 1949.
5. Dutta, Hirendranath, Santiniketaner Ek Jug, (Bengali), pp. Viswa Bharati Granthan Vighag, Deb, Chitra, Jorasanko and the Thakur Family, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Oxford University Press
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7. Sarkar, Sumit; Modern India 1885-1947; New Delhi 1998, p. 52
8. Sastri, Sivanath, History of the Brahmo Samaj, 1911-12/1993, p. 344, p. 395, Sadharan Brahmo Samaj.
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