Saw two films in the past few days - both left me thinking about women and their life and psyche just about 100 years ago.

The first was a french film "Camille Claudel" - based on the life of Camille, who was the pupil of Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor who attained immortality through his carving of "le Penseur"(the thinker). She was so talented and inspired in her work that she became his muse, his model and collaborator for some his best works. They had a passionate relationship which ended when she realised he would never leave Rose Beuret,his partner of 20 years. In the subsequent years she created a lot of work which showed her genius and originality but she never got over Rodin and slowly became alcoholic, depressed and paranoid. In her destructive phase she destroyed much of her work and finally had to be confined to an asylum where she lived for 30 years till her death in 1943.
A woman with immense talent, a rebel but destroyed by the her love for a man and his refusal to marry her.So much genius, so gifted but all to no end - what an immense loss to the world of art. What was the reason - love too strong or inability to accept rejection? Did she value herself only in relation to Rodin that she went on a path of destruction wheh he refused to marry her?

The second was "Memoirs of a geisha" - the story of a young girl who is sold by her parents to a okiya or a geisha house , her initial resistance and struggles and gradual transformation into acceptance of her life and its culmination in her becoming the finest geisha in town. It could have easily slipped into a documentary but for the emotional interplays involving jealousy, love and sacrifice. Nice and touching film.

What struck me was the concept of "geisha" - women who were trained in everything beautiful, artistic, gentle and doing and saying things in the right manner- whether it was pouring sake or discussing politics.At a time when wives were excluded from public life, geisha women were employed to be hostesses at social gatherings as they were trained in the skills that symbolised society's illusion of feminine perfection. Obviously such perfection can never been attained in a "real" relationship as with a man and his wife. The reality of day to day living tends to complicate life and brings out the rougher and ruder side of men and the nagging, sulking and meaner side from the woman. Real life is after all not perfect. That is where the Geisha's came in - as a periodic escape into a make-believe world where everything was beautiful, gentle and perfect. An escape into a fantasy world which cost a packet to the man in terms of maintaining the Geisha and for the woman , the cost was that she could never have the status of a wife. A classic case of commodification of women and yet a lot of women chose the profession and took pride in being the best Geisha.

Two types of women - exact opposites in terms of personality! Of course it is true that neither type of women represented the "typical" or average woman of their age. But until very recently women were expected to possess certain attributes as defined by a man's conception of what was "desirable" in a woman and this played a large role in their upbringing. "Rejection" affected them.
What is comforting is that most of the young women of today can relate to neither type of women - shows the distance we have covered in terms of advancement of women. Men and marriage have ceased to be the point of reference for what they choose to do with their life. Their life is much larger than these.
Or is it?
29 Responses
  1. Wow...what a brilliant idea...but my blog may give you a little good impression for your future, make you think out of the box and you could wash your eyes at

  2. nice post.. haven't seen either od the film :(

  3. Visithra Says:

    I remember watching the geisha movie - n found the traditions appaling but then given it was that era - i stopped short of complaining - but is indeed wonderful that in most cases - this kind of character is not normal

    but i must say there are still cases where some societies still see women as a second class citizen - that still needs to change

  4. MJ Says:

    hi nice post...but what i would like to say is that the society hasnt changed to the extent where men can understand their own narrow barrier of the women's role as a wife n geisha...they need the combi-they know that...but still cannot balance it with traditional family he hails from..n does a lot of mess to the wife.

  5. Preethi Says:

    Oh my God.. Camille must be the example for how deep love which refuses to accept rejection can bring upon downfall to the person and their talent... It feels so sad when people put their loved ones so above them that they cannot accept defeat gracefully and move on..
    I heard that Memoirs of Geisha is a great movie.. If I am not wrong, I think it also won a few Oscars, didnt it? But I didnt know the story till now... The concept of Geisha looks intriguing.. I cannot seem to accept the idea of having a woman in the house who will just be a good hostess and another women who will be the wife, yet not the hostess in the house... Wonder how the wives of that day accepted it?

  6. Usha Says:

    Doozie: Camille is from the AF mediatheque and memoirs of geisha is worth the time.

    Visi: Yes, I remember reading your post in memoirs.As education and career take a priority, women no longer see themselves only as roles ina family environment. There isa lot of ground to cover. Even in India I am not sure that things have changed much in the rural areas. What is important is that most educated young men no longer see women as objects which is a very important pre requisite for changes to happen.

    m.j: I know what you mean - that used to be the case for my generation where they struggled to be super wives and also tried to balance a career. I think there is a lot more acceptance of reality in this generation - of course there is always a longing for the perfect but at the same time people also realise it is impossible.It is also true that some times a role model such as the man's mother is imposed on the wife and the wife breaks under the burden of living up to it.

    Preeti:I think it won the oscar for the best make up and costume - I am not too sure. It is a steven spielberg film so you can imagine the attention to detail.
    NO, the geisha and the wife do not live in the same house. men could hire the services of one or more geishas for entertainment purposes. Or they could own a geisha whose services would be exclusively available to the danna or the patron who has paid the geisha house for her services and her maintenance.

  7. passerby55 Says:

    Hi USha,

    A thought provoking post!

    I have the dvd of geisha...
    Till date never viewed it...i think now i will...

    wht i wanted to put across is:
    "shows the distance we have covered in terms of advancement of women"....

    I feel education has helped many
    to understand the concept of independence and self respect...

    to quote a small example my Friend's daughter(well qualified and well placed) rejected a proposal saying, "it was buy one take two free"...his parents were dependent on him and she doesnot want to marry in such circumstances

    i wonder in this rush for independence is she forgetting interdependence!

    Whether its a Geisha or the indian Umrao Jaan such will always exist in some form or the other
    Let me know ur views.

    "A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform"...which essentially is the wife and Mother to his children!

    Being a woman .... I thankyou for bringing these issues here...


  8. Preethi Says:

    Oh my God.. that sounds all the more bad... !!

  9. Mahadevan Says:

    In one of your earlier Blogs, you reviewed T.J.S.George's biography of M.S.Subhalakshmi. I learnt that M.S. had fallen for another artist, but was not fortunate enough to marry him. She got over her frustrations, married the man who took great care of her and allowed her artistic skill to blossom further. I shudder to imagine what would have been the loss of Indian Music world, had MS allowed her disappointments and frustrations to kill her genius.
    Lata Mangeshkar too had disappointments and yet she din't allow them to overpower the artistic skill in her and all of us continue to enjoy her mellifluous music till today. Her sister Asha had earlier a turbulent married life, she married again a musical genius of her choice, and the husband-wife team provided us enthraling music for over a decade. Many of us continue to be Asha-Rahul Burman fans.

    The lesson we should learn is that unlike 'Camille, artistic geniuses should come out of their disappointments and frustrations in other walks of life and continue to be a source of inspiration to the people around.
    Such people are God's gifts and they should not be allowed to be fretted away.

    As you have correctly pointed out, reality being far from male-dominated society's 'illusion of an ideal woman', facilitators like 'geisha'( cruder version of geisha known by different names continue to exist in India) had a role to play. They knew that they enjoyed no status and yet were, often sought after. Men used to take pride in the number of women, outside wedlock, they subjugate. Maharashtra Government ran into trouble when a well-meaning home minister tried to put an end to Bar girls or dancing girls practice in Mumbai. They demean women, make huge fortune and throw some crumbs on the girls to survive.

    Last two sentences are pointer to the whole article and one certainly see the stamp of Usha in those lines.

  10. Usha Says:

    It is unfortunate that this friend's daughter took this line - She does not seem to have realised the advantage of having someone in the house whe both go away to work - especially when the children come.
    But it is good she made her stand clear before rather than causing problems later.
    "Whether its a Geisha or the indian Umrao Jaan such will always exist in some form or the other"
    I agree that as long as a market for something exists it is difficut to get rid of it. And there are dissatisfied people in all ages who seek their dream of perfection elsewhere. It is n't like all men are perfect but you do not hear of women seeking the male equivalent of an umrao jaan. It is the level of acceptance which I believe is happening among the young men of today - their idea of a perfect woman is not based on the "feminine" qualities but more in terms of compatibility.

    Preethi:I see that you cannot get over the sense of outrage.

    Mahadevan:It is interesting you thought of M.S. in relation to Camille _ I thought of her in relation to the memoirs because she was also born into what was called the "entertainment" class and her mother actually arranged to have her fixed up with a rich man which was when she sought shelter from Mr.Sadasivam and eventually married him.She was a rebel and refuse to accept the lot of the family she was born into - such a strong person would never have gone the camille way for he lost love. And thank god for it!

    It is sad that in this day and time there are women who have to be in the flesh business for a livelihood. I guess poverty pushes them into it and there will always be a market for it.
    In the last lines I was thinking how far we have come from the type portrayed in Jane Austen novels where women were trained only to be good wives and mothers and so on. A woman's worth as a person depended on the fulfilment of these roles to perfection.Today they have ceased to be the points of reference at least among the educated ones, I hope?

  11. MJ Says:

    Usha dont u think that one should not look upon the advatnage of someone having at home will so that they willlook after our kids later...isnt tht an irony..y cant they stay with us/will we be doing that to our parents too...i know some friction exists due to the changes in the life styles...n though some accept in-laws to stay with them but the question of how much they r bonded to each other staying under the same roof still exists...hey ur post n the comments r really raising many questions in me...:)....ur blog will be flooded with more i guess...:-)

  12. Usha Says:

    mj, I did not mean it in the sense of having someone to look after the kids - I meant it more as a support system to give family values to the children. I meant it in the same sense as you say - the ability to look upon either the husband's parents as part of the family. When we become parents such things become clearer to us.
    Please keep the comments coming. Thank you

  13. passerby55 Says:

    @hi mj

    "ur post n the comments r really raising many questions in me...:)....ur blog will be flooded with more i guess...:-)'
    wht you say is true!

    There are two sides to everything.
    And unfortunately this girl failed to understand.

    usha points out one of the factors had she seen another side to it!.

    Though, only luking as that factor and going ahead is also wrong...which you have mentioned.

    USha says,"When we become parents such things become clearer to us"
    which is the hard fact...

    @ hi usha: thanku for your views.
    Men of today i suppose are luking for both ..."feminine and compatibility"...Adjustments are hard learnt lessons!!

    thankyou again!

  14. MJ Says:

    @passerby55: i dont know whom u r refer to in "And unfortunately this girl failed to understand."...but if its me...may be i yet need to enter into the family n marriage may take time...n if refers to usha...i dont think she failed to understand something...its that she has made it much clear than anyone...she ia an awesome writer...i read many of her posts n she is clear of what she says in them...i said its gonna be flooded coz the post is such...:)

  15. passerby55 Says:


    Hi again...

    this girl is referred to my previous comment here on this post

    "to quote a small example my Friend's daughter(well qualified and well placed) rejected a proposal saying, "it was buy one take two free"...his parents were dependent on him and she doesnot want to marry in such circumstances"

    hey! this girl is neither you nor usha

    i am sorry if i had not been clear.

  16. Wild Reeds Says:

    Dear Usha,
    Your post brought back memories of musée Rodin for me... I remember seeing the bust of Camille Claudel done in white. She was such a beautiful woman, and so immensely talented. Will really try to get my hands on the film.
    I loved memoirs of a geisha too... had blogged about it once:

    I wish for a day when all the bizarre things that are done in the name of gender - be it neck rings for Burmese tribal women or mutilations due to female circumcisions - become a thing of the past.

  17. Usha Says:

    Passerby55: "Men of today i suppose are luking for both ..."feminine and compatibility"..." !!!! Interesting!!!

    M J: Passerby was referring to the girl in her example. She has clarified further. :) And thanks for the superlatives.

    Wildreeds : Camille _ Isabelle Adjani plays the role and Deperdieu plays Rodin and adjani is so breath takingly beautiful too.
    Memoirs:I remember that beautiful review of yours.(I love all your film review) This was a different kind of review where you had painted all those beautiful images which floated before ones eyes.
    As for the injustices in the name of gender, I wish for that day too.

  18. Men and marriage have ceased to be their point of reference -- I fully agree with that. But somewhere that also indicates even the mindset of men has travelled a long way. :)

  19. Usha Says:

    Bishwanath: I totally agree with you. The perception of a woman among today's urban men is much more as an equal, a friend and partner - in fact I know men who are scared of women who tend to be too passive or clinging. They are more comfortable with someone who relates to them on an equal footing.
    That is why I cannot relate to some of the stuff shown on television perpetuating totally outdated and unnecessary stuff. or some dialogues in tamil movies where the hero says "after all oru pomblai" ( you understand that I am sure.)

  20. Anonymous Says:

    Nice post, as usual! Bullseye with "The reality of day to day living tends to complicate life and brings out the rougher and ruder side of men and the nagging, sulking and meaner side from the woman!"

  21. Anonymous Says:

    I agree for most part. But I'm still seeing umpteen cases around me, when women are still confined to the boundries of their men. Not very apparent as in the olden days, but they feel the itch deep down.

    Men could sure do with bundling their ego and keeping it to themselves.

  22. GuNs Says:

    Hey ...
    Well written and thats a thought thats pretty much in-your-face these days. Urban women are empowered to satisfactory (and sometimes even more than satisfatory) levels whereas the situation in the rural areas continues to be grim.

    Its really unclear whose prerogative it should be to change the situation. The government, the NGOs, the police, parents...I guess education is the only way out. Education brings empowerment with it.


  23. Usha Says:

    Ravi: :)
    Kishore: Really? that's interesting. But at least they are trying to see beyond and not confining themselves to roles. I see most women not wanting to think of marriage before they have a job and valuing their independence.
    Perhaps you mean that we still have a long way to go.
    guNs: I agree.

  24. Pradeep Nair Says:

    No doubt women have moved far, far ahead; eventhough there are countless women still fighting a discrimination based on sexuality. Probably the gap -- between the progressive and traditional -- has widened; leaving us a little confused as to which woman to address.

  25. Mahadevan Says:

    Just a week back, a woman Army Officer had committed suicide because she was given mean jobs, disproportionate to her education and knowledge. I agree, they did'nt want to send the women officers for combat. But asking them to clean the table and serve cookies to tipsy officers, is no better alternative. Empowering of women does not come with the education of women. It comes with the enlightenment of man. The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not what they are, but how they are treated, says Bernard Shaw.

  26. Have'nt seen the movie yet but based on the biographical,semi-biographical accounts, I wonder how far the statement "Claudel was Rodin's muse true".By the time she came into his life he was already established as a sculptor atleast in the social circles.Yes she did influence his art.But it is more a case of Rodin being Claudel's muse.Ever wonder why it is never put that way?

    Again if one reads ancient Tamil poetry,one can identify this Geisha type of women.Infact there are references where respectable , marriageable women were discouraged from acquiring too much credentials in arts and these women were exclusively trained for that.Of course it later morphed into what became the devadasi system.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    Women: has issues; need tissues.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    Women: have issues; need tissues.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Rodin is much more famous for his sculpture The Kiss.