Reviewed by Ammara Khan
Anyone with a little interest in Indian literature has heard of Rabindranath Tagore, the poetic genius who won the first Asian Nobel Prize for literature for his brilliant collection of poems, Gitanjali. Although he survives as a national icon, people remain unfamiliar with a lot of his work as well as his life. Who was the man behind the saint-like persona we have come to associate him with? Does his contribution comprise a handful of translations, a few impressive plays? As the man credited with having two of his compositions selected as national anthems — of India and Bangladesh — did he guide the flow of the political changes of his time?
Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya is an attempt at an interpretative biography of Tagore. Instead of giving the mundane details of his day-to-day life, the writer weaves a fascinating account of Tagore’s struggle with the changing world around him. Bhattacharya’s basic motive is to unveil the life of the legendary figure while focusing on the intellectual evolution of his work. He tries to frame his work in the genres of biography and literary criticism — calling the result an intellectual biography. He admits that “to look at the interrelationship of the inner and outer life of Rabindranath Tagore is not easy for a biographer”.
Remembered as a poet and lyricist today, Tagore was also a thinker who greatly influenced his contemporaries and successors alike. The political and social atmosphere of his time helped form his philosophy of life. Empire and nation are two inseparable discourses that emerged out of the close contact between European imperialism and Third World nationalism.
A believer in the multi-faceted nature of humanity, Tagore was equally suspicious of imperialism and modern nation states and considered them as hindrances in cultural interaction. Although an eminent supporter of the Swadeshi movement, he never restrained from criticising the emerging discourse of nationalism in India for being guilty of chauvinism and parochialism. He believed in a balanced development of the individual, and by extension, the whole nation.
Moreover, his allegiance to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) was central to his philosophy of humanity. He believed that spiritual as well as worldly harmony can only be attained by complete eradication of the self (ego). Based upon the principle of non-duality, Tagore’s philosophy seeks to sacrifice the dichotomy of self/other for a peaceful existence as part of the world as a whole.
Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation offers an enlightening glimpse into the creative evolution of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. How far the writer succeeds in delivering what he promises can be determined by a careful analysis of the basic structure and message of this book.
Bhattacharya is aware of the fact that when we look at things from a distance of many years, there is always a possibility of different — and sometimes conflicting — perspectives. So he draws heavily from Tagore’s own works and statements to validate his interpretations.
Divided into six chapters, the book focuses on various stages of Tagore’s intellectual evolution covering a period of 80 years.
The chapter, “The Enchanted Garden”, is an account of his early family life. Being born into a privileged and intellectually rich family was undoubtedly a chief factor in the kindling of creativity in young Rabindranath. However, his golden memories of childhood, argues Bhattacharya, could be “slightly gilded”.
Despite Tagore’s fond reminiscences of his childhood, his home wasn’t quite ideal. Firstly, there was a clear distinction between the roles of the two genders — if men were sent abroad for studies, “the women of the Tagore family remained in an enclave of home-education with no contact with the external world and the institution of formal education”. Secondly, there was the element of “domestic dominance”, as young Tagore liked to call it, the asymmetrical relationship between the elders and the young in the family. This conflict between the traditional and modern ideas, says Bhattacharya, “produced a complex discourse of modernity within indigenous parameters” and shaped Tagore’s philosophy.
In “The Sage of Santiniketan”, Bhattacharya talks about Tgaore’s disillusionment with the contemporary politics of his time. The school he established — Santiniketan or The Abode of Peace — was modeled after the forest hermitages. It was the changing political scene and his personal existential crisis that forced him to seek refuge in his school and work. Like his political ideology, his model of education was at once radical and traditional.
As opposed to the leading nationalist thinkers of his time, Tagore believed in the alternative path of “rural reconstruction of nation building”. Bhattacharya argues that Tagore’s “approach stemmed from his understanding of Bengal’s society, the problems facing the peasantry, the need to develop atma-saski or inner capability of the people as he perceived it”. He was of the opinion that middle class is “isolated from the life and mind of the common people”.
The book ends with an analysis of Tagore’s philosophy of humanity. A holistic thinker, he believed in a harmonious, casteless world where cultural intercourse and friendship among nations could freely flourish.
Bhattacharya carefully examines the evolution of Tagore’s quest for true identity that lasted till his death. On his seventieth birthday in 1931 Tagore said, “I realise that I have only one identity and that is that I am only a poet”. Bhattacharya is of the view that this anxiety for his role as a political and social thinker is part of his angst of surviving as writer after his death.
“Intellectual solitude is very often the destiny of great minds,” Bhattacharya writes and Tagore, like many other writers, was troubled by the question of immortality of his work. We are told about how he considered himself a “literary outlaw”. Even when he became centre of attention in his country after the award of Nobel Prize in 1913, he was weary of the attention and considered it “temporary excitement”.
The writer complains that we have reduced Tagore to “a saintly person who belonged to an ashram, not to the contemporary world”. He also questions Tagore’s decision to translate only his spiritual poetry into English that is largely responsible for creating his reputation as a spiritual poet.Most importantly, Bhattacharya is honest in his efforts to bring home to his readers the vivid world of Tagore, aware of the many challenges of writing a posthumous biography. He succeeds in capturing Tagore’s extraordinary mind as reflected in his writings and art.
The Tagore that emerges out of these pages is not merely an epitome of sagaciousness but a critical thinker, acutely aware of the questions of loneliness, depression, fear of rejection, and death — a man of many conflicts and contradictions.
However, these very contradictions make the saint a thinking and perceptive human being who is emotionally accessible to his readers. It is Tagore the critical thinker that eventually wins over the overbearing persona of Tagore the poet, providing unprecedented access to his thought and works.Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation
By Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
320pp. Indian Rs499
The main theme of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry is the essential unity (or continuity) of all creation, which is also the main theme of the ancient Hindu Upanishads. Indeed, a brief summary of Hindu belief provides a useful introduction to Tagore’s work. According to Hindu thought, the only absolute, unchanging, eternal thing is Brahman, the supreme being or world soul who forms the essence of everything. In living things, the essence of Brahman is known as Atman, or soul. Brahman operates through three aspects: Brahma, the creator; Siva, the destroyer; and Vishnu, the preserver or renewer. Brahma’s work is finished, but Siva and Vishnu are necessary for change, and change is necessary so that living things may grow toward union with Brahman, a perfect, changeless state, nirvana. Few, if any, achieve nirvana in one lifetime, so reincarnation is necessary. In each successive incarnation, one improves one’s status in the next through good karma or deeds (broadly interpreted as actions, thoughts, or faith).
The questions raised by Hindu belief may be ignored here (for example, why would Brahman create something imperfect in the first place?); so also may certain negative social implications (such as the potential for inaction, the caste system, and unconcern for the individual human life). Instead, what should be noticed is the positive emphasis of Hinduism, in contrast to Western thought as characterized by the old Germanic notion that everything is moving toward Götterdämmerung; the Christian emphasis on Original Sin, evil, and Hell; the masked versions of human sacrifice. It is the positive implications of Hindu belief that Tagore develops in his poetry. For example, his imagery—dwelling on sunrises and sunsets, flowers and their scents, songs and musical instruments, the beautiful deodar tree (deodár meaning “divine wood”), the majestic Himalayas—is a constant reminder that creation is charged with divinity: Beauty and majesty are concrete manifestations of Brahman. Change, natural disasters, and death are necessary for renewal, which will come. All people have divine souls, so they should tolerate, respect, and love one another. The advantaged should help the disadvantaged; thereby, they both rise toward Brahman. The individual should strive to live in such a way as to throw off impurities and achieve the essence of divinity within the self. The development of these and related themes can be traced throughout Tagore’s oeuvre.
Gitanjali Song Offerings
Published in 1910, Gitanjali Song Offerings is Tagore’s most popular work. The English edition, published in 1912, includes translations not only from the original Gitnjali but also from other collections, particularly Naivedya (offerings). As light work to keep his mind occupied, Tagore did the translations himself while he was convalescing from an illness at Shelidah and on board a ship for Great Britain. He showed them to British friends who wanted to read his work. They in turn showed the translations to William Butler Yeats, and the result was English publication followed by the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. Aware of the undistinguished quality of his translations, Tagore himself could never understand why he was rash enough to do them or why they created such a sensation.
Sometimes compared to the Book of Psalms, Gitanjali Song Offerings explores the personal relationship between the poet and divinity. This divinity he calls Jivandevata, which he often translates as “Lord of my life” or “life of my life” but also refers to as “my God,” “King,” “Father,” “Mother,” “lover,” “friend,” and “innermost one.” The range of terms here suggests the varied associations of Jivandevata and also the conventional metaphors Tagore generally uses to develop his relationship with Jivandevata. Perhaps the most numerous poems are those in which, like John Donne or Saint Teresa of Ávila, Tagore speaks of the deity as a lover with whom he longs to be united. In Song 60 (numbers refer to the English edition), Tagore varies the formula somewhat. He describes a woman who dwells in purdah within his heart. Many men have come asking for her, but none has seen her face, because she waits only for God. The woman represents the spark of divinity in Tagore which longs to be reunited with its source, and the purdah suggests its loneliness and purity. The divinity within inspires Tagore’s songs and motivates him to lead a pure life, but he confesses that involvement in commonplace events sometimes creates a smoke screen that obscures the divinity within and without. The commonplace, however, also has its divinity. God is to be found not only in the temple but also with the workers in the fields. Because divinity runs through everything, even the metaphors that Tagore uses to describe God have an element of literal truth.
The most interesting poems in Gitanjali Song Offerings are a group dealing with death. Songs 86 and 87 are about a family member—probably the poet’s wife—whom death has taken. Although heartbroken by her death, Tagore welcomes the visit of God’s “servant” and “messenger,” and seeking her in the oneness of the universe has brought Tagore closer to God. Thus reconciled, Tagore welcomes his own death as “the fulfillment of life.” His dying will be like a bride meeting her bridegroom on the wedding night or like a feeding babe switching from the right breast to the left breast of its mother. Meanwhile, his soul is like “a flock of homesick cranes,” on the wing day and night to reach “their mountain nests.”
A Flight of Swans
Perhaps Tagore’s best work, A Flight of Swans, takes its title from the image on which Gitanjali Song Offerings ends. Thematically, A Flight of Swans also takes up where Gitanjali Song Offerings ends. Although A Flight of Swans continues to develop the personal relationship between the poet and divinity, there is a new emphasis on the impersonal workings of divinity throughout creation. The dual emphasis can be seen in the opening poem of the English edition, the title poem, wherein the flight of swans breaking the silence of the evening symbolizes not only the aspiration of the human soul but also the yearning of inanimate nature for “the Beyond.” Even the mountains and deodar trees long to spread their wings like the “homeless bird” inside the breast of Tagore and “countless others.” The images of movement and yearning here also serve to introduce the theme of change so prominent in A Flight of Swans.
For Tagore, the abstract notion of change is embodied in the dance of Siva, the destroyer, who is featured in several poems. Sometimes called Rudra (the terrible one), Siva brings violence, destruction, and death. To scholars of Sigmund Freud, Tagore’s worship of Siva might sound like an Eastern version of the death wish, and his reveling in “the sea of pain” and “the sport of death” might repel squeamish readers. Nevertheless, there is a reason for Tagore’s embrace of resounding agony. The dance of Siva purges the cosmological systems. It prevents the flow of “gross Matter” from backing up and putrefying, “renews and purifies” creation in “the bath of death,” and speeds souls onward toward nirvana. The only thing which survives Siva’s dance is immortal art, as represented by the Taj Mahal. Becoming Siva’s partner, Tagore aligns himself with the young rather than the old, with the unknown rather than the known, with wandering rather than home, with movement rather than stagnancy.
With its focus on movement and change, on the cyclic nature of things, A Flight of Swans breathes the same spirit as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: If Siva comes, can Vishnu be far behind? Indeed, Tagore hoped that Vishnu, the preserver and renewer, would come soon. Tagore wrote A Flight of Swans at the outset of World War I, and the poems reflect his awareness of the war’s catastrophic violence. Once the war started, he hoped that it would at least bring about some good results—that it would clean out the evils of the old world system and bring about a new order of peace and brotherhood.
Patraput means “a cup of leaves.” The poems in this collection are the leaves shed by the poet’s tree of life during his old age. Patraput is also a reminder that Tagore wrote poetry on subjects other than religion. He was a love poet, especially in his early career, a nature poet (Banabani) concentrating on trees and plants, and he even wrote a collection of humorous poems that he called Khapchada (a little offbeat). Patraput represents not only the mellowness of Tagore’s old age but also the variety of his subjects. There are even a few love poems from the seventy-five-year-old poet.
Many of the poems in Patraput celebrate subtle effects. With humor and sensitivity, two poems (2 and 7) explore the idleness of holidays. At home by himself in the countryside (probably Santiniketan), the poet has trouble adjusting to doing nothing but feels himself better off than vacationers scrambling through railway stations. In the surrounding scenes of nature that Tagore pauses to observe, God provides him with a “change of air” and a visit to “the eternal ocean” for free. Meanwhile, he knows his “return ticket” will soon expire and he will have to return to the workaday world, “to return here from here itself.” These two poems and others contain some attractive descriptions of nature. Another excellent example is Poem 9, which traces the coming and passing of a storm. A number of the poems also trace shifts of mood, from one season to another, from one time of day to another, from one scene to another. In some of these small effects, there are suggestions of bigger themes. For example, there are intimations of the poet’s coming death (“return ticket”) in the description, as though he is sinking slowly into the placid Indian countryside. The epiphany in Poem 1, where the poet climbs a mountaintop to see the sun setting on one hand and the moon rising on the other, is reminiscent ofWilliam Wordsworth’s topping of Mount Snowdon in The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850).
Another interesting group of poems in Patraput consists of those containing social commentary. In Poem 6, Tagore urges the reader (“O thou hospitable”) to invite in the destitute pilgrim so that the poor fellow can rise above his mere struggle for existence. In Poem 15, Tagore, himself ostracized when a child, identifies with the untouchables who are prohibited from entering temples, and with the itinerant Baul singers, who sing that God is “the Man of my heart.” Like them, Tagore has no caste, no temple, no religion except the religion of Man. Poem 16 is a lament for Africa, ransacked for slaves by the purveyors of Christian “civilization.” Their phony belief in religion is duplicated in the modern era by the militarists who seek Buddha’s blessings for their killing (apparently a slap at Japanese aggression in Manchuria).
Criticism of formal religion
As the unflattering references to Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists indicate, Tagore had no more enthusiasm for formal religion than he had for formal education. Nevertheless, along with such figures as Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, Tagore is a leading religious poet of the modern era. The social commentary in Patraput marks the final stage of his spiritual journey. In Gitanjali Song Offerings, he is concerned with his personal fate, his individual relationship to God. In A Flight of Swans, he explores the impersonal workings of divinity through the terrible dance of Siva; and in Patraput, he shows that religious belief must ultimately be expressed through concern (and action) for one’s fellow men. With his “religion of Man,” Tagore ends up in a position very similar to Western Humanism, but it is a position that retains its ties to ancient religious belief, belief summed up in the teaching of the humble Baul singers that God is “the Man of my heart.”