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Tagore, Rabindranath

Category: Genius

Rabindranath Thakur, anglicised to Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941), was a Bengali poet and writer, a mystic and a genius.  He was a deeply spiritual man influenced by the mysticism of Vyasa and other rishi-authors of the Upanishads, Kabir, and Ramprasad Sen.  He wrote on a vast range of subjects and was highly influential in introducing Indian culture to the West and vice versa. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.  He himself was described as charismatic, his ‘long flowing hair, and otherworldly dress earned him a prophet-like reputation in the West’.  

What is perhaps key about Rabindranath is his humanity.  He cared deeply about his fellow humans, particularly the oppressed and disadvantaged and did all in his power to encourage change.  “Seeing the common and the poor, he examined their lives with a depth and feeling almost absent from Indian literature up to that point”.

He was of course not without his critics – the oppressors.  He escaped assassination—and only narrowly—by Indian expatriates during his stay in a San Francisco hotel in late 1916; the plot failed when his would-be assassins fell into argument.

He was a very vociferous critic of the caste system and untouchability, for example, both lecturing and writing on the subject.  Tagore's Chandalika (Untouchable Girl), was modeled on an ancient Buddhist legend describing how Ananda, the Gautama Buddha's disciple, asks a tribal girl for water.  He also made "forthright denunciations of meaningless and cruel superstitious rites". 

Rabindranath Tagore in 1925.

He wrote poems, novels, short stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays on subjects as wide ranging as science and politics.  All the wrongs that Rabindranath saw in society were tackled via these mechanisms.  He never preached or railed against what he saw to be wrong, but instead wove the ‘evil’ that he saw into a plot, an allegory or a parable - a memorable lesson using entertainment as its medium.  In Ghare Baire, for example, matters of self-identity (jāti), personal freedom, and religion are developed in the context of a family story and love triangle:
it tackles the colonial conundrum by portraying the value of all positions within a particular frame.”

In Jogajog (Relationships), “Tagore flaunts[sic] his feminist leanings; depicting the plight and ultimate demise of women trapped by pregnancy, duty, and family honour”. 

Few were spared, he had a go at ‘Bengal's putrescent landed gentry’ and ‘new money and new arrogance’.  In Chokher Bali , Tagore has a go at Bengali society via its heroine: ‘a rebellious widow ….. He pillories the custom of perpetual mourning on the part of widows, who were not allowed to remarry, and who were consigned to a life of seclusion and loneliness’.  Strir Patra (The Wife's Letter) is an early treatise on female emancipation.  Haimanti attacks Hindu arranged marriage and ‘spotlights their often dismal domesticity, and the hypocrisies plaguing the Indian middle classes’.

Tagore's non-fiction also grappled with history, linguistics, and spirituality. He wrote autobiographies. His travelogues, essays, and lectures were compiled into several volumes, including Europe Jatrir Patro (Letters from Europe) and Manusher Dhormo (The Religion of Man). His brief chat with Einstein, "Note on the Nature of Reality", is included as an appendix to the latter.

With great men - Einstein (left) and with Gandhi.

Tagore also introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby ‘freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit’. His poetry has been described as ‘spiritual and mercurial’.  The collections of poetry for which he is perhaps best known include Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced), and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World).  But he also wrote  prose-poems such as Punashcha (1932), Shes Saptak (1935), and Patraput (1936); prose-songs and dance-dramas: Chitra (1914), Shyama (1939), and Chandalika (1938); and novels: Dui Bon (1933), Malancha (1934), and Char Adhyay (1934).  Tagore became interested in science in his last years; his exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy influenced his poetry, and became part of stories like Se (1937), Tin Sangi (1940), and Galpasalpa (1941).  

Tagore was also a prolific composer with 2,230 songs to his credit. The Modern Review observed that "there is in Bengal no cultured home where Rabindranath's songs are not sung or at least attempted to be sung ... Even illiterate villagers sing his songs".

At sixty, Tagore took up drawing and painting seriously; successful exhibitions were held throughout Europe. But as early as 1900, when he was nearing forty, he wrote to Jagadishchandra Bose, "You will be surprised to hear that I am sitting with a sketchbook drawing. Needless to say, the pictures are not intended for any salon in Paris, they cause me not the least suspicion that the national gallery of any country will suddenly decide to raise taxes to acquire them. But, just as a mother lavishes most affection on her ugliest son, so I feel secretly drawn to the very skill that comes to me least easily”.

Many of his paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts, and some two thousand songs has been preserved in the institution he founded, Visva-Bharati University.

At twenty, Tagore wrote his first drama-opera: Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki). In it, Tagore explored a wide range of dramatic styles, including usage of revamped kirtans and adaptations of traditional English and Irish folk melodies as drinking songs.  Another play, Dak Ghar (The Post Office), describes the child Amal defying his stuffy and puerile confines by ultimately "falling asleep", hinting that this is exactly how Rabindranath coped with his childhood – spiritual experience:

"There were autumn mornings, the time of year when kings of old went forth to conquest; and I, never stirring from my little corner in Calcutta, would let my mind wander over the whole world. At the very name of another country, my heart would go out to it [...] I would fall to weaving a network of dreams: the mountains, the glens, the forest [...]."

The interpretation now put on this play is that it means ‘death’, but to a large extent annihilation and death are synonymous,

W. B. Yeats, Preface, The Post Office, 1914
.....the meaning is less intellectual, more emotional and simple. "Ferryman, take me to the other shore of the river." It may come at any moment of life, though the child discovers it in death, for it always comes at the moment when the "I", seeking no longer for gains that cannot be "assimilated with its spirit", is able to say, "All my work is thine"

Thy will be done.

Tagore was an avid nationalist, who denounced the Raj and advocated independence from Britain.  In 1915, for example, the British Crown granted Tagore a knighthood, but he renounced it after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  And he also had one or two disagreements with Gandhi on the way independence should be achieved and the sort of India that should result after independence.

One major disagreement he had with Gandhi was over Gandhi’s belief that India should revert back to a largely rural way of life. In some senses, this would have negated everything Tagore had been fighting for all his life and he argued long and hard with Gandhi over his views.   In 1921, Tagore and agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst set up the "Institute for Rural Reconstruction", later renamed Shriniketan or "Abode of Welfare". With it, Tagore “sought to moderate Gandhi's Swaraj protests, which he blamed for India's decline”. He sought aid from donors, officials, and scholars worldwide to "free village[s] from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance by vitalis[ing] knowledge".  So in fact he desperately tried to reverse the policy.

What were Rabrindanath’s principle mechanisms of inspiration and wisdom?

Tagore was the youngest of thirteen children, born in Calcutta, India to a wealthy Brahmin family.  The area of north Calcutta in which they lived was rife with poverty and prostitution and Tagore was forced to stay at home most of the time as a child. Tagore’s mother died in his early childhood and as his father travelled widely, Tagore was raised by the servants and his siblings. The servants subjected him to an almost ludicrous regimentation in a phase he dryly reviled as the "servocracy". His head was water-dunked—to quiet him and ‘he was confined to chalk circles in parody of Sita's forest trial in the Ramayana’ if he didn’t do what he was told. 

He fared better with his siblings.  He was educated principally at home.  The Tagores were the center of a large and art-loving social group and Tagore’s older siblings were also talented. Tagore's oldest brother Dwijendranath was a respected philosopher and poet and another brother, Jyotirindranath, was a musician, composer, and playwright.  His sister Swarnakumari became a novelist. Tagore was writing poetry as an eight-year-old and by age sixteen, he released his first substantial poems under the pseudonym Bhānusiṃha.  Another brother Hemendranath tutored and ‘physically conditioned him’ with swimming, gymnastics, judo and wrestling.  His father tutored him in history, astronomy, and Sanskrit.  Tagore also benefited from occasional trips with his father to various parts of India, for example:
In mid-April they reached the hill station, and at 2,300 metres (7,546 ft) they settled into a house that sat atop Bakrota Hill. Tagore was taken aback by the region's deep green gorges, alpine forests, and mossy streams and waterfalls.”

In some respects the conditions in which he was living at home made him more appreciative of these all too infrequent views of the wider world:
There was no servant rule, and the only ring which encircled me was the blue of the horizon, drawn around these solitudes by their presiding goddess. Within this I was free to move about as I chose”.

Because his father wanted his son to become a barrister, Tagore was enrolled at a public school in Brighton, East Sussex, England in 1878, when he was just 17. He stayed for several months at a house that the Tagore family owned near Brighton and Hove.  He briefly read law at University College London, but university life did not suit him after his years of home schooling and he opted instead for independent study of European literature.  

In 1880 he returned to Bengal degree-less, but with a resolve to take the west to the east and vice versa.  Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore toured more than thirty countries with his translated works.  W B Yeats wrote the preface to the English translation of Gitanjali.  In early 1930 he left Bengal for a nearly year-long tour of Europe and the United States. Upon returning to Britain, for example, he wrote his Oxford Hibbert Lectures and spoke at the annual London Quaker meeting.  Thus we can see that Rabindranath believed strongly in the unity of man and the need to forge greater ties and understanding, and he didn’t just believe in it or write about it, he acted on his beliefs.

But, there is another more sombre and awful driver to his poetry and prose.  Grief.

His brother Jyotirindranath's wife Kadambari, slightly older than Tagore, was a dear friend and powerful influence on Tagore. Her abrupt suicide in 1884 left him for years profoundly distraught.  In 1883 he married Mrinalini Devi; they had five children, two of them died in childhood.

In 1890, Tagore began managing his vast ancestral estates in Shelaidaha (today a region of Bangladesh); he was only joined by his wife and children in 1898. Tagore’s Manasi poems (1890) were released at this time of separation from his new family and it is among his best-known works.  The period 1891–1895, Tagore's Sadhana period, was his most productive; in these years he wrote more than half the stories of the three-volume, 84-story Galpaguchchha. ‘Its ironic and grave tales examined the voluptuous poverty of an idealised rural Bengal.’  In 1890 he released what is regarded as his finest drama: Visarjan (Sacrifice).

In 1901, Tagore moved to Santiniketan to found an ashram with a marble-floored prayer hall—The Mandir—an experimental school, groves of trees, gardens, and a library.

Tagore's son and three daughters.

There his wife and two of his children died. His father died in 1905.

His last five years were marked by chronic pain and two long periods of illness. These began when Tagore lost consciousness in late 1937; he remained comatose and near death for a time. This was followed in late 1940 by a similar spell. He never fully recovered.   Poetry from these years is ‘among his finest’.  A period of prolonged agony ended with Tagore's death on 7 August 1941, aged eighty.

I'm lost in the middle of my birthday. I want my friends, their touch, with the earth's last love. I will take life's final offering, I will take the human's last blessing. Today my sack is empty. I have given completely whatever I had to give. In return if I receive anything—some love, some forgiveness—then I will take it with me when I step on the boat that crosses to the festival of the wordless end.

Sādhanā: The Realisation of Life, 1916
we never can have a true view of man unless we have a love for him. Civilisation must be judged and prized, not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved and given expression to, by its laws and institutions, the love of humanity.



References

An anthology, entitled Kalanukromik Rabindra Rachanabali, of all his works is currently being published in Bengali in chronological order. This includes all versions of each work and fills about eighty volumes.
In 2011, Harvard University Press collaborated with Visva-Bharati University to publish The Essential Tagore, the largest anthology of Tagore's works available in English; it was edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarthy.

 

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