Monday, October 13, 2008

Tagore's Legacy


Life sketch of Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore)

By RAJAT DAS GUPTA (KOLKATA)
rajatdasgupta@yahoo.com
& rajarch@cal3.vsnl.net.in

Birth : 7 May 1861 AD
Demise : 7 August 1941 AD
Nobel Laureate : 1913 AD

Born at Jorasanko in Calcutta in a Brahmo family, Rabindranath Thakur was the youngest of his siblings. His grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Thakur earned his fortune from his trade, lead a luxurious life, an atheist but tolerant to all beliefs, was very Western minded promoting modern medical science which was a taboo even in the Tagore family, while Ayurvedic, the Indian medical science, ruled the roost in this entire sub-continent. He was widely traveled and died in England. Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Thakur (“Maharshi” is an appellation for the sage-like persons) was a strict monotheist according to the preaching of Brahmo religion [in contrast with Brahminism- see note (**) at the end] and was averse to deity worship which his other family members did not give up. He was a failure in pecuniary and estate matters in which Rabindranath fared better when he had to take these over in his mid-twenties.

Rabindranath was a truant pupil both in Calcutta and England and eventually a confirmed drop-out from the formal educational courses including Bar-at-Law which more than he himself his elders had aimed.

Nevertheless, his scholarly/cultural/spiritual heritage and family environment, where such values are deeply imbibed, much more than made good his shortcomings in schooling. He was married at the age of 23 and thereafter he had to look after the huge feudal properties he had inherited, mostly located at the then East & North Bengal along the Padma river. Then, for a decade spent his time in that superb natural environment – “a meet nurse for a poetic child”.

In 1901, he came down to Santiniketan (where his University Viswa Bharati situates – about 4-hour train journey from Calcutta) the meditation place for his father Debendranath which he had shaped up in the model of Tapoban (wilderness for meditation) of ancient India, where learned sages in recluse would perform their worship and meditation along with giving lessons to their pupils on scriptures like Vedas, Sanskrit language and other classics. In that milieu of Tapoban, a gift of his father, Rabindranath built up his Viswa Bharati (=World University) true to its name which, since early twentieth century had been a pilgrim place for the scholars, poets etc. from various parts of the world, especially Britain, Germany, China, Japan etc. While this influx still continues, it is a pity the heavenly serenity there left behind by Rabindranath in 1941, when he had passed away, is alarmingly polluted by urbanization as well as onslaught of mod culture. In his learned article “The Tagore Connection” published in The Statesman on 9 January 2001, Dr. Martin Kampchen (a German scholar now translating Tagore in German language) reports about the institution ‘Ecole d’ Humanite’ in Switzerland – “ Its founder Paul Geheeb and his wife Edith were in touch with Tagore for about 10 years, almost until Tagore’s death. The impression these educationists made on each other was deep and lasting. Anybody who is aware of Rabindranath’s educational vision, can make out the similarities between Santiniketan and the Ecole d’ Humanite in Switzerland except that this vision is still thriving at Ecole, but, alas, is it still alive at Santiniketan?” Many like Dr. Kampchen are apprehensive about the finest humanistic culture at Santiniketan that ever evolved on our earth. Tagore built up this great institution under acute financial stress. Yet, the values he had built up there cannot be measured in terms of money. After independence of India in 1947 the Central Govt. of India took up the charge of Viswa-Bharati under the aegis of Jawharlal Nehru, our the then Prime Minister which solved the financial crisis. Yet, the regret of many eminent persons concerned about the institution’s future is – “earlier Viswa-Bharati had everything but money; now it has money at a high cost to everything else.”

Yet, sometimes there is a silver lining in the cloud. The Statesman in its Kolkata supplement of 3 December 2001 (Monday) reports encouragingly. The newly appointed Vice Chancellor of Viswa Bharati Dr. Sujit Kumar Basu has planned to open mini Viswa-Bharatis, one each in Japan, France and the U.K., to spread Tagore’s heritage in the fields of art, literature and music and thus to reach out to the world outside in the centenary year of Viswa-Bharati. Surely, the Bengalis will extend their wholehearted goodwill to Dr. Basu and eagerly watch his vision shape up. Like Switzerland, these places also may prove better host of Tagore’s ideals in contrast with Santiniketan amidst the all round corruption in West Bengal.

Rabindranath, however, never isolated himself from the rest of the country in his pre-occupation with his Viswa-Bharati. A fervent patriot, a number of his songs inspired freedom fighters against the British rule to whom the Poet had extended his active support also and was a suspect of the British Govt.. Interestingly, his song- “Jana Gana Mano Adhinayaka …..” is the national anthem of India while another song- “Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomay Bhalobashi… (O my golden Bengal, I love Thee)” is the national anthem of Bangladesh, thus, he is the only Poet in the world whose songs enjoy the status of “National Anthem” in two different sovereign countries. Again, the Indian one is the only which imbibes the liberal concept of internationalism, a line of which is “Purba Paschim Aashe, Tabo Singhsana Pashe …(East and West come, By the side of Thy throne)”. After the historic carnage at Jalianwalabagh (in Punjab) in 1919 by the British police, when the freedom movement was at its peak, the Poet renounced his Knighthood to outlet his torment. As he described to Maitrayee Devi, while he was intermittently her guest at Mangpu (near Darjeeling) during the last few years of his life – “ They (British people) took it as a great insult. In England people are very loyal. So, this disavowal of the King did hurt them very much……”

Yet, he was against the negative spirit of the then Swadeshi (or National movement), loaded with sentimentalism losing the wider human perspective. His conflict with Gandhiji on this issue made history. Many of course opine that Tagore in his zeal for internationalism, missed some home realities of that time.

Thus, entangled in national and international life streams side by side with his enormous preoccupations in shaping up and driving forward his dream institution Viswa-Bharati, the Poet met all his domestic obligations as a dutiful head of the family. His love and affection for all his kith and kin was as anybody else’s. But remarkable was the calmness with which he had frequently faced many tragedies including death of his children and other near and dear ones.

While various events in the Poet’s life will go down in history with losing significance, eternal will be the vast literary treasure he left for us, or so it should be as many implore, to keep elevated the human mind and soul from mundane mediocrity. Poems, songs, short stories, novels, satires, scientific dissertations and even his personal letters rising to the level of belles-lettres did spontaneously fount from his pen since his early teens till his death, in which aesthetics/spiritual perception, wits etc. of highest order run through. Far from being an authority in Tagore literature, I have not shown the impertinence to make my work all pervasive which, in any case, seems to be an impossible task even for an erudite. I have only nibbled here and there of this vast treasure to present a few of its gems in English language, however incompetently.

Yet, I think, it will not stand on the way of exposing the greatness of the Poet as each piece of his work, big or small, is a window to the panoramic perception of the Poet of the wonders of Creation and his other noblest human faculties. The magic of his words also transmits instantly to the readers/audience to raise them to the lofty level of the Poet’s intuitions, however momentarily. Assimilation of Upanishada (4000 year old Indian scripture) in his blood props up his bewilderingly vast literature with its bewildering high quality, excelling all eschatology ever discoursed. Whit surfaces most in his oeuvre is his life long quest for the ever evasive Eternal Truth which, nevertheless, has been the pursuit of all great thinkers of all time and place, Maybe, the following poem sums up well this futile search of man –

Asked the primordial Sun
To the nascent Creation
“Who are you?”
But no answer he knew;
Years rolled by –
As on the Western horizon did lie
The Sun at the day’s end,
In the solemn hour when light and shade blend,
Asked,.” Who you are?”
Followed no answer.

Yet, “God freely reveals His secret to the worthy” (as was told about Newton), only a bit of which they can pass on to us..

(**) Brahmo is a religion established in the early nineteenth century by Raja Rammohan Roy by way of defection from the Hindu religion with domination of Brahmins at that time while the whole Hindu community was ailing under the caste system, depriving the vast majority of the people of their legitimate social and economic rights. While the object of the Brahmos was to fight out all these social evils, it also aimed to stop the conversion to Christianity which the rebel younger generation in Bengal, newly enlightened by the Western education, had opted for at that time in large number. One of the major evil custom Rammohan fought against was the ‘Sati’ system under which the young widows used to be burnt alive in the pyre with their dead husbands often to usurp the estates of the dead husbands by their relatives that would otherwise be inherited by the widows had they been allowed to survive. He persuaded hard the then British Govt. to ban ‘Sati’ while the latter hesitated a lot to interfere with the customs of the Hindus,
however inhuman. Rammohan traveled to England to press upon the Indian Council there, overseeing the governance of the Indian colony of the British, to abolish this cruelty at the earliest. Eventually, Rammohan in his death bed heard the good news that the bill of banning ‘Sati’ was passed by a single majority vote. After his death Rammohan’s was buried at Bristol in England.

**********************************************************************
Prelude to Nobel:

A few English scholars played important role to win the Poet his international accolade, the Nobel Prize. Rothenstein, one of them, was the first to discover the Poet while he had visited the Poet’s ancestral home (toward the end of the first decade of the twentieth century) at Jorasanko (North Calcutta) as a guest of the Poet’s nephew Abanindranath Thakur who was a renowned painter, his fame reaching Europe and, thus, earning high esteem of Rothenstein and of many others. Interestingly, Abanindranath never traveled far and wide, as, it is learnt, he was allergic to travel, and rarely crossed the boundaries of the then undivided Bengal. It is also learnt, it is Abanindranath who was supposed to visit Delhi to meet Rothenstein there but, somehow, the reverse followed. At Jorasanko, Rothenstein did not miss the beaming personality of Rabindranath at a gathering there, and on his enquiry, learnt from Abanindranath that Rabindranath was his uncle and a poet. So, had Abanindranath overcome his lethargy for travel and really visited Delhi to meet Rothenstein there, Rabindranath might not ever have been a Nobel Laureate and would remain a lesser local celebrity of Bengal. Another mishap was, when Rabindranath went over to London at the invitation of Rothenstein, he lost his manuscript of Gitanjali (see next paragraph) in a London underground tube which, of course, he got back courtesy British Railway else this trifle slip would have been enough to deprive him of this international accolade.

It is a shame that until the Nobel was conferred on the Poet many leading academicians of that time at home would not recognize this rare genius in human history. However, it is his own translation of a number of poems, which he had translated in Santiniketan to compile in a book titled “Gitanjali” (Offering of Songs) which were eventually read (on the 30th June 1912, it is said) in a gathering of a good number if top litterateurs of England of that time, that had paved his way for the Nobel. The Poet’s own description of that evening in London, as he had narrated to Maitrayee Devi in Mangpu (near Darjeeling), while he was her guest there shortly before his death (in 1941), may be found interesting by the readers. The following are the quotes from Maitrayee Devi’s book “Tagore By Fireside”, a translation by herself of her original Bengali book “Mangpute Rabindranath” (Rabindranath at Mangpu). Thus how the Poet had narrated that evening in London –

“When I first started translating them into English, I never thought they would be readable. Many have insinuated that Andrews was doing it for me. Poor Andrews felt sorry and ashamed. When Yeats arranged a meeting of distinguished people at Rothenstein’s house, I cannot tell you how embarrassed I felt. Yeats would not listen to me. He was undaunted . A galaxy of big people came. Gitanjali was read. They never said a word. They listened in silence and in silence they left – no criticism, no approbation, no favourable remark, no encouraging comment. Blushing in shame and disgrace, I wished the earth would have opened and swallowed me. Why did I ever listen to Yeats? How could I write English, had I ever learnt it? I was filled with remorse. I could not raise my head. Next day letters started coming, they flooded in, overflowing with enthusiasm. Everyone wrote. Then I realized they were so moved that evening that they dared not talk. English people are reserved, it is their nature. It was not possible for them to express their feeling at once. What a surprise it was, unexpected and unimaginable. Friend Yeats was pleased. “

How the Poet reacted when the Nobel had finally come through? Well, he said that it (the Nobel) was like a tin can tied up to the tail of a dog (the urchins’ favourite game) who can no more move around without making noise.. The flip effect of Nobel was the award money eased out the financial stress of Viswa-Bharati and soon put the institution on the international map to its great advantages, which the Poet acknowledged, though at the cost of its earlier solitude and peace. (Refer poem “Asha” to be seen in next publication)

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