The Ballad of Savitri: A Critique of a Critique

The act of revisiting the past is akin to responding to the texts that exist there in a particular culture. Since this culture is ever evolving, so is the understanding of the text. The socio-cultural changes that are brought with time lead one to look at old texts again for often there is a possibility of a newer meaning. One myth that resurfaces time and again in Indian literature is the myth of Savitri. This particular text (“The Ballad of Savitri”) attempts to look at the subversive elements of the original myth. The central idea of this essay is that in the poem “The Ballad of Savitri” by Tory Dutt, Savitri is shown as a woman of agency despite conforming to patriarchal norms and performing her duties within the parameters of a dogmatic society.

Toru Dutt was one of the poets who, like Derozio, did not live up to maturity. There were a few problems with her works. Much of her poetry was an imitation of English poets, and this was quite evident. If one is to apply the author-centred approach to this text, this element would surface time and again in the poem. There are many romantic elements in her poems, and “The Ballad of Savitri” is no different. However, it is interesting to note that through these romantic elements, Toru Dutt effectively wrote about a legend, psychologising its human aspects. While, sometimes the story of Savitri seems a bit too glorified, overall, it captures the essence of the master narrative, and ascribes newer meaning to it. The excessive delineation of nature, as well as the romanticisation of certain events (like death), are some key elements that Toru Dutt tends to take from the West. What this does to the text has been debated by scholars over time, but the poet’s tendency to imitate the west is her own idiosyncrasy. In the context of this poem, Savitri and Satyavan, through these romantic elements, are shown as having an unbreakable bond. They seem to be fighting cosmic forces, and it is the sheer will of Savitri that defeats the forces. Hence, this is an entirely different take on the story.

The title of the poem is very significant in the context of this poem. Unlike the popular myth, that is called “The Myth of Satyavan and Savitri”, Satyavan doesn’t figure into the title of this poem. This itself seems to be a transgression of sorts. The way the role of many women is denied in patriarchy, the role of Satyavan in this myth has been negated. The title gives a very powerful meaning to the rest of the poem. Much like the poem, the title accords agency to Savitri without overstepping boundaries.

The poem is divided into 5 parts, each part a beautiful segment that chronicles a part of Savitri’s life. It is in the latter parts when Yama appears. The structure of the poem suggests fluidity and continuity. In the first part, Toru Dutt talks about Savitri’s childhood:

“Stern warriors, when they saw her, smiled,

As mountains smile to see the spring.”

The poet effectively uses hyperbole to talk about the beauty of Savitri. In this part (Part I), the poet effectively establishes that Savitri is a woman of beauty. However, she doesn’t delineate her as a woman of substance. However, among these lines, one interesting line has been lost:

“In those far-off primeval days

Fair India’s daughters were not pent

In closed zenanas.”

In these lines, the poet has effectively taken a political stand. She attempts to ask about the social condition of women in India, and therein lies the beauty of this poem. It serves as a subtle critique of the dominant social assumptions of patriarchy that perpetuates violence against women, even if that violence manifests in the form of oppression. The sexual oppression of Savitri happens much later, but the poet notes that marginalisation of women was the status quo in the Indian society even then.

Another interesting point about this poem is that it shows a reversal of gender roles. In this text, the male character plays a passive role, and hence is sidelined in the narrative, while the female character plays the main role. This itself is an act of transgression. This figures in the original myth too, and to derive new meaning out of this aspect of the myth is inevitable. These few elements of the poem make it abundantly clear that it has summarized the subversive aspects of the original myth. Due to the transgressive nature of the story, it almost sounds like a retelling.