Rabindranath Tagore
(1861-1941)

Mohammad Omar Farooq

A Bangali's world is touched from the childhood by many luminaries of Bengal (somewhat constrained by the border between the east and the west), but it would be surprising if the touch won't include that of Rabidranath. If Bangalis' (or Bangladeshis') early exposure to their heritage and culture often begins with "bhor holo dor kholo, khumumoni ottho re", it would almost invariably also include "Jol pore pata nore." The first one is by the Rebel poet of Bengal and the national poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, and the second one is by none other than the world poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Bangladeshi or Bangali Muslims might drink "pani", instead of Jol. Yet, their cultural world naturally includes "Jol pore pata nore."

The challenge of writing an article about such a well-known luminary is that he is so well-known, so much has already been written and spoken about him. What can one really write even to capture a glimpse of such a luminary’s life and works? Indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls most of us encounter as unavoidable is the entrenched notion that we already know, Rabindranath or Nazrul. However, it is only upon challenging ourselves with an open, humble and inquiring attitude and approach we learn that we do have one, two or a few things to learn, including in case of Rabindranath. At least, that’s my experience.

Before any further, let me clarify my background. I am a Bangali, a Bangladeshi, and also a Muslim [Note: Readers should not read too much into the order I have listed those]. I state this explicitly so that the readers can relate to the background, experience, and frame of reference of my writing. Also, let alone disclaiming that I am an expert of Rabindranath, I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of Rabindranath are very limited, which might actually be an understatement. Yet, in recent years I have been taking greater interest in Rabindranath and I am delighted at that. [Note: My folks are from a village in the Thana of Shahjadpur, where there is a Kutthibari of Tagore’s Jamindari estate. Rabindranath has frequented that place many times as from 1890 Tagore had undertaken the management of the family estates.]

A Brief Biographical Sketch

As I am writing, this is the month when Rabindranath was born, 7th May, 1861 to be exact, in Jorasanko, Calcutta. One of the fourteen (or so) siblings, he came from a cultured and wealthy family. His father, Devendranath Tagore, was one of the leaders of the Brahma Samaj. [Tagore and the Brahma Samaj: Brahmoism vs. Hindu Orthodoxy in Gora]

Let me point out that many Muslims, especially of Bangali/Bangladeshi background have the wrong notion that Rabindranath was just a Hindu. We have a tendency of overgeneralization and/or stereotyping, a habit that very few of us are immune to, which levels everything as black and white. Well, Brahma Samaj, unlike the polytheism of Hinduism, was Upanisadic monotheism with a special touch of "Vaisnava dualism."

Apparently, Rabindranath wrote his first poem when he was merely 7. During his early life, Rabindranath grew up in a very cultured atmosphere with exposure to religion and arts, with special emphasis on literature, music and painting. Due to the wealthy family background, his early education was through private tutors. Subsequently, he studied at several institutions and even went to England to study law, but did not complete any degree program. Apparently, he "was recalled by his father in 1880, possibly because his letters home all indicated his attraction (which was mutual) to English girls." [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/centurions/tagore/tagbiog.shtml] Sanskrit classics, the Vaisnava literary heritage of Bengal as well as the English romantics and post-romantics had critical influence on Rabindranath, which is understandable as his education and exposure were primarily based on three languages - Sanskrit, Bengali and English. Amartya Sen, another Indian/Bengali Nobel Laureate mentions about Tagore family’s and that of Rabindranath’s exposure to Persian literature as well. [8]

His words and expression have the enduring power that lights up a melancholy heart, humbles the arrogance of one’s soul, broadens a narrow mind immensely, strengthens the spirit of the weak, sharpens the conscience of the society, and soothes the restless. Then, there was the romantic dimension that permeated through his prolific works. In all these regards, much of his works are transcending and universal. It is because of his transcending sage-like personality, even the Rebel one sat at his feet revering him as his "Gurudev". Indeed, Nazrul was so devoted to his "master poet" that people had to watch out for Nazrul when saying something negative about his "master poet". Read what happened one time in the hand of Nazrul to a person who said something bad about Rabindranath. [See Love of the great is like sand-bank]

Tagore is unquestionably the most towering figure of modern Indian and Bangla literature, where his contribution included novels, plays, poems, short stories, essays as well as educational books and articles. His world-class literary contribution was recognized before the world through the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. During his stay in England he translated Gitanjali into English, with forewords by W.B. Yeats, an Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, and one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. Just one year after its publication (1912), he became the first Asiatic recipient of Nobel prize in literature. After achieving worldwide fame, Rabindranath traveled and lectured extensively in Asia, Europe and America. Among the countries he traveled were: Bulgaria, Canada, Czechslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Thailand.

In the field of music, Tagore’s background was classical Indian. However, rebelling against the classical orthodoxy, as a composer he introduced a rich variety of form and content, enriched by Bangla folk-music, such as the Baul and Bhatiyali type. He is credited for both the words and music for over 2000 songs, popularly known as Rabindra Sangeet. This also includes the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, a unique accomplishment, indeed. I am not aware of any one else who has authored national anthems of two different countries. Thus, in the ethos of Rabindranath the two neighbors, India and Bangladesh, should have found harmony, but ironically, that was not to be. At least, not as of yet.

Rabindranath was not a stranger to the political arena either. He actively supported Mahatma Gandhi, and his agenda of social reforms through civil disobedience. They had their differences too. The influence was not mono-directional. Gandhi and the other founding leaders of modern India were deeply influenced by Rabindranath. His patriotism and position against the colonial rule must not be misunderstood as narrow nationalism. As Amartya Sen argues, "Rabindranath rebelled against the strongly nationalist form that the independence movement often took, and this made him refrain from taking a particularly active part in contemporary politics. … He would have strongly resisted defining India in specifically Hindu terms (note: for example, as Hindustan), rather than as a ‘confluence’ of many cultures".

Among his other notable contributions was a school he founded in 1901 near Calcutta. It was known as Shantiniketon. Later it evolved into an international university in 1921, which was to be known as Viswabharati.

The British royalty honored him as a knight in 1915. However, quite conscientiously he relinquished his knighthood in 1919 as a protest against the massacre of Amritsar, where 400 Indians demonstrating against colonial laws were slaughtered by the English soldiers. It might be worthwhile to remember his words:
"Onnay je kore ar onnay je shohe,
tobo ghrina jeno tare trinoshomo dohe"
[Nay-Dondho in Shonchoita, Cabco, Tangai, 1998, pp. 232-233]

My own crude translation is as following:
"He who wrongs others, and he who does so tolerate, 
like weeds may he burn in His condemnation and hate."

Rabindranath had two sons and three daughters. Quite interestingly, even during the early 1900s, his sons pursued their education in the United States. Much of Tagore’s works has been filmed by Satyajit Ray - who studied at Shantiniketon and also directed a film about the author, Rabindranath Tagore (1961). [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/centurions/tagore/taginfo.shtml]

 

Some Special Aspects

  1. Rabindranath, the painter:

Rabindranath is known more or primarily for his poetry and music, but he also distinguished himself in another area: modern painting. "In 1930, through a series of exhibition in Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow and New York, the world discovered the poet Rabindranath as an important modern painter. Rabindranath transformed his lack of formal training of art into an advantage and opened new horizons in the use of line and colour. He was prolific in his paintings and sketches as he was in his writing, producing over 2500 of these within a decade. Over 1500 of them are preserved in Viswa-Bharati, Santiniketan. … It is evident that in his search of newer form of expression in line and colour Rabindranath was trying to express something different from what he did in his poetry and songs. If he is seeking peace and enlightenment in his songs, he seems to explore darkness and mystery in his drawings. With the passage of time, critics and art lovers are discovering in these ‘verses in lines’ a more modern and disquieting Tagore than they see elsewhere. [Courtesy: http://userpages.umbc.edu/~achatt1/Bio/rabi1.html] See some of his paintings at http://www.calcuttaweb.com/tagore/tagore.htm .

  1. A social reformer and a universal voice of conscience

Many of Rabindranath’s works represent a protest against maladies and wrongs of the society, including oppression of women, caste system, and communal prejudices. The lives of the oppressed and powerless, poor and landless, deprived and hopeless that are exploited by the others, especially the upper caste of the society, constitute important themes of his works. While managing the family estate, he became acutely aware of the plights of the poor of rural Bengal, which is prominently reflected in his entire Galpo-Guchcho (collection of short stories).

One of the interesting aspects of his life, however, is that even though he was presumably against child marriage, he married Mrinalini Devi, while she was merely ten and he married off two of his daughters while they were thirteen and ten-and-a-half respectively. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/centurions/tagore/tagbiog.shtml] Nevertheless, women’s theme, in particular their repressed life, permeated through his vast range of works. He was also against the taboo of social prohibition against marrying widows. He married one of his sons to a young widow. A bold social statement.

Not only he represented the ushering of a renaissance in the literature and arts of Bengal as well as India, but also his ideas and perspectives continued to serve as powerful commentary in the socio-political arena of India. According to the Nobel official site, "For the world he became the voice of India's spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution." [http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-bio.html]

  1. Muslim themes in Tagore literature

Tagore is a "world poet", yet his heart and soul were rooted in India. For non-Indians, reading him is altogether different. For the Indians, it is easy to relate to the characters and imageries, contexts and themes that are almost exclusively drawn from the Indian/Hindu context. A Muslim, who is conscious about his own identity, can relate to Rabindranath at the human as well as Indian context, but is generally disappointed at the fact that Rabindranath’s wide world did not really have anything significant for Muslims to relate to, even though Muslims and their history are interwoven with India and its heritage. The void in this regard is accentuated by the contrast with Nazrul who comfortably, consciously and generously drew on both Muslim and Hindu themes. The comparison (or referring to the contrast) is not always fair, but it is also sometimes unavoidable.

Last year, I was enriched through an extended discussion on Rabindranath and Nazrul in Shetubondhon, a distinctive Bangladeshi forum dedicated to seeking common grounds and building bridges. A dear Indian e-friend, Dr. Kaushik Sen, sent me one of Rabindranath’s novels, Gora, which helped me, at least partially, to begin my effort to better understand the world-poet’s perspective. After reading Gora, I wrote a 3-part series "Reflections on Tagore's Gora: Layers of ignorance and voices against prejudice" in which I have highlighted how Muslim/Islamic themes have been so respectfully dealt with by Rabindranath. This respectfully approach can be better understood in the context that "Tagore was predictably hostile to communal sectarianism (such as a Hindu orthodoxy that was antagonistic to Islamic, Christian, or Sikh perspectives)." [Amartya Sen] Subsequently, I came across a powerful short story of Rabindranath, "Musalmanir Golpo", which was written by him just a few months before his death. I have attempted a crude translation of that story (see link). Now I can relate to Rabindranath not only at human and Indian level, but also as a Muslim.

As Amartya Sen noted that Rabindranath himself described of his Bengali family as the product of "a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British. Rabindranath's grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature." Of course, much of his devotional literary output is so generic or universalistic in reference to faith that one has to be extremely narrow minded not to appreciate the delightful, joyous and uplifting "offerings" of the heart and soul of this mystical sage, whose expressions often have transcended most narrow boundaries. It is interesting to note that the West’s enthusiasm about Rabindranath has significantly waned to the extent, as Amartya Sen has pointed out "in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, the excitement that Tagore's writings created in the early years of this century has largely vanished."

Conclusion

This is by no means an attempt to write a comprehensive article about such a great personality. Even though Rabindranath was a literary figure and philosopher of world stature, his anchor was Bangla and Bengal. As a great human being, the whole world ought to know him better. Bangladeshis should too. Unfortunately, so many Bangladeshis know about him and his life and works so little and so superficially. All those who have a nostalgic feeling about the Golden Bengal (Sonar Bangla) actually have so much to be enriched and enlightened beyond just singing "Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomay Bhalobashi".

Some Recommended Readings

  1. [Book] Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore and Modern Sensibility (Oxford University Press, India, 1996)
  2. Subhamoy Chatterjee, Of Tagore, the Politician, The Hindustan Times, April 8, 1999.
    http://www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/090499/detSTA05.htm
  3. A Chronology of Rabindranath Tagore’s life.
  4. [Book] Manindranath Jana, Education for Life: Tagore and Modern Thinkers (South Asia Books, 1984)
  5. [Online article] Beverly McClure, Rabindranath Tagore.
  6. [Online bibliography and resources] BBC, Online resources on Tagore.
  7. [Book] William Radice (translator), The One and the Many : Readings from the Work of Rabindranath Tagore (Bayeux Arts, 1997)
  8. [Online article] Amartya Sen, Tagore and His India [http://finance.commerce.ubc.ca/~bhatta/ArticlesByAmartyaSen/sen's_essay_on_tagore.html]
  9. [Book] Rabindranath Tagore, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore : Poems (South Asia Books, 1994)
  10. [Book] E. Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Life and Work (Haskel House, 1974)

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