Protesting against the division of Bengal by the British in 1905 Tagore marched at the head of a mammoth procession which sang his protest lyric Bidhir Bidhan.. (Art thou so mighty as to sunder the fate-forged bond?) At the meeting which followed Tagore’s fervent appeal raised Rs. 50,000 – an immense sum in those days – on the spot. Tagore was already a charismatic leader and a major figure of the Indian Renaissance when Gandhi was still in South Africa and Nehru a teenager, and that primarily because he was a major figure of the Indian Renaissance.
By the turn of the century Tagore had already published over a dozen volumes of verse and as many plays, besides several novels and volumes of essays. His popularity was enormous: he was able to say “I have conquered my people by my songs” – he has been credited with over three thousand - “I have heard even drivers of bullock-carts singing my latest and most up-to-date songs.” Among the plays was a major symbolic work Chitrangada (1892) and the novel Chokher Bali (1903) which has rightly been called “the first modern novel in Bengali and, one might say, in Indian Literature.”
All this before the appearance of the English version of Gitanjali, the amazed response from Western readers, and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1913.
The impact was sensational. Gitanjali went through several printings within months and was the only volume of poetry among the ‘best books’ of 1913 (Book Monthly, Dec. 1913). Even earlier, W.B. Yeats had been an immediate convert, declaring that Tagore was “greater than any of us.” Responding to the “subtle underflow” of a “profound appreciation” of life and “beneath and about it all this spirit of curious quiet” Ezra Pound wrote a review that was almost reverent: “we have found our new Greece suddenly... he has given us beauty that is distinctly Oriental… almost severe…. it is free from lusciousness.”
But one might legitimately question the award of the Nobel Prize on the basis of a slim volume of translations to an author otherwise totally unknown to the jury (it is, however, known that one member of the jury did possess a grammar of Bengali) – was this an adequate measure of Tagore’s achievement, or could it be that the jury was infected by the vague and fervid Orientalism that was sweeping Europe at the time? This was certainly part of the response to Tagore after the award – “thousands of highly-strung and hysterical women… lost themselves in a pathological ecstasy whenever he appeared.” Tagore’s appearance – the flowing robes, the piercing eyes, sometimes abstracted, the long wavy hair and beard and the attractive voice contributed to the impact.
The question was raised even at the time: “Has the award of the prize been due to the exotic Buddhistic fashion…?” It was even surmised that the reason was political: “has England’s policy in India been, perhaps, in favour of the crowning of the Bengali poet?” while another conjecture was that Prince William of Sweden had put pressure on the judges, for he had been swept off his feet by the personality of the poet on a visit to the Tagore household in 1912.
Tagore himself has said that “whatever else a translation may retain, the vitamins are inevitably destroyed in the process” and Sri Aurobindo has pointed out that “one has only to compare this English prose, beautiful as it is” of the translations “with the original poetry to see how much has gone out with the change.” Besides, it has to be remembered that the originals were songs, belonging within a well-defined tradition of performance: Tagore has said that “song begins where mere words fail.” Perhaps non-Bengali readers could follow Ezra Pound’s prescription: “one must read each poem as a whole and then re-conceive it as song, of which you have half forgotten the words.” (Review of The Gardener in Freewoman, 1st Nov. 1913).
But whatever the difficulties for the foreign reader and whatever the truth of the Nobel award, there can be little doubt of Tagore’s importance in the renaissance of India, while there is no doubt that he fulfils Eliot’s three criteria of poetic greatness “abundance, variety, and complete competence.”
Tagore ‘Lisped in numbers’ – his brother used to get him to recite his compositions to other members of the household and to visitors. Tagore recalls publicly reciting, at fourteen, a nationalist poem full of ‘fiery sentiments’ at the Hindu Mela, that many of his youthful poems and prose pieces found their way into journals, and that his first published book Kavikahini (The Poet’s Story) came out when he was sixteen. The poet was fortunate in his milieu: “In our house, at the time, a cascade of musical emotion was gushing forth day after day… We wrote, we sang, we acted, we poured ourselves out on every side.” (My Reminiscences). He felt that he found himself in his third volume of poems Sandhya Sangit (Evening Songs) published when he was 21 – “crude enough …. but for the first time I had come to write what I truly meant.” His output was always enormous: he wrote every day, and the centenary bibliography lists over 150 Volumes.
As Tagore matured as poet and man he found his central inspiration in the Hindu religious classics – the Upanishads and in Sanskrit lyrics, though the folk songs of Bengal combined fruitfully with the classical musical idiom in his songs and though novelistic form inevitably came from the West.
Profoundly but not dogmatically religious, Tagore places himself in the mainstream of Hindu civilization: “In India, the greater part of our literature is religious because God with us is not a distant God” (What is Art?). Artistic creation, which “Reveals man’s wealth of life” is an image of Brahma’s “boundless superfluity” expressing itself in creation. And hence the best Gitanjali lyrics convey a unique sense of the holy, combining reverence and familiarity:
.....I know that only as a singer I come before thy presence.
Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who art my lord.
The familiar routine of a woman going for water in the evening becomes allegorical of the eternal quest:
The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water… It calls me out into the dusk..
I know not if I shall come back home…
And again and again we encounter the curious quiet that Ezra Pound responded to: Now it is time to sit quiet, face to face with Thee, and sing dedications of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.
Tagore, however, was no abstracted mystic. “The soul finds its freedom in action,” he wrote, “making actual what was latent” (Sadhana). Tagore repudiated the knighthood he had been given by the British “When he heard of the Amritsar massacre of 1913 to “give voice to the protest of millions of (his) countrymen suppressed into a dumb anguish of terror.” He travelled and lectured tirelessly in support of his projects, and for 40 years of his life divided his energies between his own creative work and the Santiniketan venture – a unique educational and spiritual enterprise which integrated creativity, learning, spiritual culture, community life and social action and which became a Vishava-Bharati – a university in the truest sense of the work.
Grounding in reality is most in evidence in his novels and stories. His most admired novel Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World), 1916, is both an exploration of human integrity in the triangular relationship of Nikhil, Bimala and Sandip and an allegory of the tension of values as nationalists prepare to oppose/propose opposition to British rule. Gora (1910) reflects the pressures of caste. In his first important novel, Chokher Bali (1903) there is remarkable sympathy for and insight into the tangled relationships of four tortured young people, at the centre being the awakening of erotic consciousness and self awareness in Binodhini, an attractive and intelligent young widow suppressed by the rigidities of conventional society. Perhaps Tagore’s most masterly performance is in Chaturanga (1916) where he charts the ebb and flow of relationships between the basically insensitive Bhupati and the awakening Charulatha, complicated by the meretricious romanticism of Amal and the machinations of a poor relative. Bhupati discovers too late that “simple happiness is not simple…. ‘All those twelve years, while I did nothing but write for the newspapers, I lost the art of talking to my wife.” And Charulatha is “in misery.. frightened when she saw the eagerness of his attempt and felt the emptiness of her own heart.”
In the Tagore centenary year, 1961, the flood of adulatory publications seemed endless. Albert Schweitzer and Robert Frost sent messages, the latter saying that he was “proud to take part in celebrating his greatness… he belongs little less to us than to his own country”. But at the time of the 125th anniversary there was little sign of a major revival. His name figured only sporadically in critical writing and in journals and magazines outside Bengal. Not long ago a writer to an Indian weekly even revived the tale of the influence of the royal house of Sweden on the award of the Nobel Prize.
The last sixty years have, of course, seen major changes in the Indian literary scene- as in the country as a whole- the appearance of many new writers and the emergence of consciously modernist writing. Foreign readers might only, perhaps, have access to writing in English: even here we see the range of expression in the novel from R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao of the post-Tagore generation to younger authors like Anita Desai and Arun Joshi; in poetry from Nissim Ezekiel and A.K. Ramanujan to Jayanta Mahapatra and Arun Kolatkar. (these names are of course rather a random sample). We find that Ramanujan’s “I took her, behind the laws of my land” is a characteristic note. Translations alert us to the spread of modernism in indigenous literatures, while translations have also brought to us older works from the regions like Chemmeen, Pather Panchali and Samskara.
Such a ferment of activity cannot but somewhat obscure the work of pioneers, and it has also to be granted that there is little trace in all this of a Tagorean progeny-just as the Santiniketan venture did not prove decisive in the evolution of education in India. Ought there to be some effort towards a revival?
It has to be admitted that the bulk of Tagore’s finest work - his poetry - loses inevitably in translation and that the cadenced prose of the poet’s own versions which enthralled the readers of his day now seems rather dated. Reading with the Poundean prescription quoted earlier in mind one is left with tantalizing glimpses of a sensibility of remarkable fineness, and of experiences that are not the lot of common humanity.
The novels survive translation much better; Chokhu Bali and Chaturanga have been particularly well served by the translations of K.R. Kripalani (Binadhini) and of Mary M. Lago and Supriya Bari (The Broken Nest). That they are basically realistic, nineteenth-century, in form is no great limitation: one reads them not in the light of Henry James and James Joyce but of George Eliot and Tolstoy and perhaps decides that they don’t quite belong on the same shelf, though a vein of delicate spirituality distinguishes them from a Galsworthy or a Gorky. There is at the least an abundance of ‘felt life’ and one can agree with Mulk Raj Anand that Tagore presents “his own people to themselves, and the whole world, as they really are” and also that “he did more than merely reflect the life of the region of Bengal. He caught it in the grip of that peculiar moral tension which has risen among us through the clash of the two dominating traditions: the incoming hedonism of the West and the various strands of religion and custom in our own society.”
Curiously, Anand misses a third thing which is to me precisely the hallmark of Tagore’s sensibility as well as the likeliest obstacle to a wide appreciation of the man and his work today. This is his spirituality-pervasive, but totally natural and unpriggish:
“We do not have to run to the grocer’s shop for our morning light; we open our eyes and there it is; so we need only give ourselves up to find that Brahma is everywhere.” (Sadhana)
Perhaps we are too blasé to take without some discomfort an assertion of the order of “My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch.” It might seem facile to us that the man who cries out “In desperate hope I go and search for her” could come so easily “to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish.. no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears,” and transpose his seeking into the prayer.
Oh dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness. Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe.
The symbolism of the famous plays, such as Chitrangada, Red Oleanders and The Post Office can seem merely wishful, generated by the optimism of a too-easily exalted sensibility. Readers might find it hard to accept that Binodhini, whom we have seen roused and vibrant, a determined yet subtle predator could come to say.
Because your thought was in my heart I remained chaste …your mirage I have carried in my heart, hard and severe… making my life, worthless before, infinitely valuable.
But if such perceptions and, indeed, ideals are, perhaps, unfashionable that does not make them invalid, or impossible to respect. The point is crucial to a response to Tagore. It is from this standpoint that he is able to deliver his most radical critiques of the West:
… because of this insistence on the doing and the becoming.. we perceive in the west the intoxication of power. These men seem to have determined to despoil and grasp everything by force. They would always obstinately be doing and never be done… they know not the beauty of completion.
And the civilization of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls… in fact all the modern civilizations have their cradles of brick and mortar.
These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men.. In India, it was in the forests that our civilization has its birth.. Man’s mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions. His aim was not to acquire but to realize, to enlarge his consciousness by growing with and growing into his surroundings.. To realize this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.
The humanistic dimension of his many-sided activity, the fecundity and capacity for new departures (he took to printing in his seventies and has left some 3000 very distinctive pictures) was part of an instinct for wholeness and a passion for inculcating wholeness (“the soul finds its freedom in action”) which derived from a deeply spiritual orientation towards oneness with Brahma that has no trace of disembodied sentiment or withdrawal from the real:
Those who have fully realized the soul have never talked in mournful accents of the sorrowfulness of life or the bondage of action… They hold on to life with all their might and say ‘never will we let go till the fruit is ripe’( Sadhana, p.103).
150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore
The Indian Cultural Centre in Colombo marked the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore with An Evening of Tagore Songs at the Lionel Wendt theatre last month. Distinguished Bangladeshi novelist Rabeya Khatun delivered the keynote address and vocalist Rezwana Choudhury Bannya performed some of Tagore's well loved songs to an appreciative audience which included Ministers Sarath Amunugama and Dilan Perera, Indian High Commissioner Ashok K. Kantha and Mrs Sharmila Kantha.