Rabindranath Tagore, Drypoint by Mukulchandra De
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
In Bengal it is not unusual for boys to think of writing poetry. The Tagore family cultivated the arts within their home and Tagore was nourished in the fold. But he struck out on his own and started writing poetry at the age of eight.
He espoused no poetic camp. He was self-taught in the school of nature; he observed and played, had tons of leisure, and spoke with his own voice of innocence. Attempts were made to educate him at a regular school; he was sent at age thirteen to my alma mater, St Xavier’s in Calcutta, where a huge portrait hangs of this illustrious dropout.
He filled notebooks and scrapbooks. Sailing in country boats on the river Padma, the great tributary of the Ganges that runs through what is now Bangladesh, I can imagine him seated up front, the oarsmen rowing the craft, birds dipping and diving into the water, the river banks sailing past, flowers of every kind growing wild ashore, and hearing the sounds of nature and the songs of the boatmen. Later Tagore came to these places in Shelidah, again and again, to recoup his energies and translate his best known work, the Gitanjali, into English.
He was sent to England, but after a while his father brought him back and got him married, to an unlettered girl of ten. Sadly, Tagore’s wife, a son, and two daughters died in quick succession. The only child to survive was Rathindranath, his eldest son.
Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law Kadambari was poignant. At an early age she came to live in the extended joint family of the Tagores as the wife of an elder brother, Jyotindranath. Kadambari and Tagore grew up together and she had a better understanding of his artistic sensibilities than his siblings or his father. But Kadambari committed suicide at the age of 22, why we do not know; Tagore was grief-stricken, as if a soul-mate had been taken. They say his poem Tumi Ki Kebali Chhabi (Were you but a portrait?) was written to express his grief. He had already dedicated four works to her and was to dedicate two more. In 1901, he portrayed her as Charu in Nashtanirh (Broken Home). When Satyajit Ray came to make his film, Charulata, based on the novel, he discovered marginalia in a copy of the novel in Rabinranath's possession that established the clear inspiration of the novel in his relationship with Kadambari.
In the face of all these human tragedies that engulfed him, Tagore had a strong need to be self-reliant. This comes out in a well-known song of his, a joyful martial tune sung confidently, and a great favorite of Gandhi’s in the Independence struggle:
Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe tobe ekla cholo re |
Ekla cholo, ekla cholo, ekla cholo, ekla cholo re ||
If no one comes when you call out, then travel alone mate,
Travel alone, travel alone, travel alone, travel alone mate.
Tagore’s first poetic collections were: Manasi (1890), Chitra (1895) and Sonar Tari (1895). He used colloquial Bengali instead of the hallowed literary form. Thereby he changed not only the writing, but the speech of all Bengalis. A new standard came about, now prevalent on both sides of the border.
It was through a painter, Rothenstein, that Tagore became known in the West. Rothenstein visited India in 1910 and saw some translations of Tagore’s short stories and poems “The poems, of a highly mystical character, struck me as being still more remarkable than the stories, though but rough translations,” he says.
Tagore was invited to London. On the boat to England Tagore added a number of translations he had made in English himself of the Gitanjali (translations begun diffidently during a convalescence in his beloved Shelidah). Rothenstein held a soirée in his house in London where many literary figures were present. Yeats, the Irish poet, says:
“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains … These lyrics - which are, in the original, my Indian friends tell me, full of subtlety and rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention - display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long.”
With appreciation of that kind it was not surprising that three years later Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first to an Asian. The citation says:
“because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”
Since Tagore did not himself relish the kind of rigid education available from institutions then, with their emphasis on rote-learning and a fixed syllabus, he set out to form a school of his own, Santiniketan, at the spot where his father had an ashram. Much of the Nobel Prize money went into bringing artisans and teachers from all over the world to this country refuge, close to nature. Classes were outdoors, when possible. He believed true knowledge lay in giving students access to the best teachers, and to nature itself. A unique festival inaugurated by Tagore there was Vanamahotsav, the planting of trees. Tagore encouraged the idea of reforestation at a time when there was no such thing as Environmentalism or Save the Earth Days.
Tagore was versatile; apart from his music and his poetry, he was a playwright, a writer, a choreographer of dance dramas, and a prolific short-story writer — and he even dabbled in painting late in life. Many of his plays are famous, e.g., Dak Ghar (The Post Office). The dance dramas gave him the freedom to combine his unsurpassed genius for music with his talents as a dramatist to create colourful scenes for entertainment. Indeed, these were one of the features of the annual Paus Mela at Shantiniketan by which Tagore transformed the Bengali Paus Utsav (roughly during Dec 22-25) from a meeting ground for rural and urban arts into a full-scale festival for nurturing talented artists. It became an occasion for the students of Shantiniketan to display their own creations, and Tagore often wrote for the occasion too. His famous dance dramas, 'Chitrangada' (the style of dance is Manipuri) and 'Chandalika' were performed there.
In fiction too Tagore contributed novels and novellas, eight in number. In Shesher Kobita, he contrives a conflict between two poets, one belonging to the post-modern generation and the other, his own; he satirises himself as the overweening poet from the past. It is considered the most lyrical of his novels and contains snatches of poetry.
The figures in the Independence movement whom Tagore tried to reach out to were Gandhi and Subhas Bose. Gandhi was too revolutionary for Tagore’s universal and international tastes. For example, Tagore saw no merit in the swadeshi principle (do it yourself and be self-reliant) by which Gandhi hoped to counter the dependence fostered by imperial Britain. Tagore was closer to the urbanity of Nehru in his thinking. He wondered whether in the long term it might not lead to an exaggerated nationalism that would block the minds of Indians from the good ideas and innovations in the West. The two men engaged in frank debate (Tagore was eight years older) which was carried on privately in letters, and publicly in journal articles. Such candour without acrimony is not seen in public life today where two men can disagree, conduct a candid discussion, and yet retain a high personal regard for each other. The letters have been collected and published by the National Book Trust.
When Tagore died in 1941 he had accomplished an amazing body of work. He produced 50 or so volumes of poetry, but there is little trace of hurry in the phrases that caress the objects on which he focused his attention. He wrote lyrics and set to music about 3,500 songs. His poems and songs are the glory of the Bengali language, spoken by 200 million people today. When he died in Calcutta in 1941 Nehru was in jail, from where he wrote:
“Tagore was still pouring out song and poem and poetry - what amazing creative vitality he had! I would have hated to see him fade away gradually. He died, as he should, in the fullness of his glory.”
The estimation of people is that Tagore made impossible a range of things for those to come afterwards. Except as an exercise of juvenility, one can no longer write poems in the Tagore vein, any more than it is possible to write a poem in English with lines like these:
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time …”
Tagore will ever be recited, just as Keats, but others coming after should have to invent a new idiom; and thus indeed it came to pass in the latter half of the twentieth century when a new wave of poets injected their own life breath into the language.
However, there is no Bengali household where Tagore’s poems are not read aloud, no home however humble where the melodies of his songs are not heard. This shall be so until another Poet appears. And in an ironic stretching of his hand across time to such a future poet Tagore writes:
Aaji hothe shathabarashe pare |
Ekhon koriche gaan shay kon nuton kabhi
Tomader gharay ||
Aajikar bashanter ananda-abhibadhan |
Pathaye dilaam tar kore ||
Who's the new poet in your midst a hundred years hence, I wonder.
The joyful greetings of spring today, I send to him.
Shades of James Elroy Flecker’s “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”?
Some words from Tagore himself to conclude:
“I do not want to die in this beautiful world, but live in the hearts of men, and find a niche in the sun-sprinkled, flowering forest ... I want to build my eternal home on this earth.”
Chatterjee, Monish R. Rabindranath Tagore: Sadhaka of Universal Man, Baul of Infinite Songs. http://homepages.udayton.edu/~mchatterjee1/sadhaka.html
Bhattacharyya, Sabyasachi. The Mahatma and the Poet. National Book Trust of India, 1997.