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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rabindranath Tagore: the only modern man I have come close to worshipping

1. Born 1861, died 1941, Nobel Prize (first Indian) for literature 1913 (for Geetanjali in English translation), returned the honour of knighthood to the British Government after the Jallianwallabag massacre of 1919. The only person who wrote two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh).

2. Now recognized not only as an outstanding, prolific and versatile writer and musician but also a very talented painter, stage director, an educationist of rare vision (founded Vishwa Bharati at Shantiniketan with Nobel Prize money to bring the best of the West and the East together in harmony, and make the process of education more rewarding and enjoyable as preparation for a healthy life, not just preparation for livelihoods), an environmentalist long before it became fashionable in the west, a creative social worker (created Palli Shiksha Sadan and encouraged popular scientific education – lokshiksha – which encouraged Nehru to introduce the Community Development Programme with American help in the 1950s), a passionate but broadminded nationalist – he gave the title of Mahatma to Gandhiji (who in turn paid tribute by calling him ‘the Great Sentinel’), yet also strongly disagreed with him over many questions regarding the struggle for Indian independence: like Einstein (with whom he had wide-ranging and profound dialogues concerning many issues of science, religion, philosophy, art and politics), he believed in the cultivation of a universal spirit and being a ‘world citizen’ instead of subscribing to narrow and violent patriotic ideals (as Mussolini was doing in Italy and Hitler in Germany), which, he believed, invariably led to cultural orthodoxy and stagnation, and encouraged hatred, war and misery.

3. Was brought up in the Jorasanko Thakurbari of mid-19th century Calcutta. The family was not only enormously rich and well-connected, both in India and abroad, but for several generations it had produced men and women of rare talent and energy in many different spheres of life, from art to fashion to religion to business, and they were at the forefront of all major cultural experiments in Calcutta (which, being the capital city, was then the centre of British India), from English education to foreign travel to the Brahmo Samaj and the Hindu mela. Rabindranath’s own cultural upbringing was therefore extraordinarily rich and varied (this is very interestingly recollected in Chhelebela and Jibonsmriti), and being a genius, he successfully assimilated ideas and practices from many countries and historical eras to produce his own works. Thus his songs, for example, are set to tunes borrowed not only from various types of Bengali folk music but from many different parts of India, and from Europe. In his philosophy of life, too, he tried to blend everything good that he found from sources as diverse as the Upanishads to 19th-century liberal English ideas.

4. The formal methods of schooling were very rigid and uninteresting in his childhood; he, therefore could never adapt easily to it, and kept changing schools, until he gave them up altogether, and never took a formal degree. Nevertheless his education was vast, intense and meticulous – in childhood his father got him the best and most sincere teachers for everything from music to science to literature to physical exercises, and his work routine was very strict and heavy; in later life he not only read whole libraries on every subject under the sun but learnt enormously from his travels around the world, in the course of which he met and interacted with the greatest thinkers, artists, scientists and statesmen. As a result he became enormously learned. This combined with his infinite creativity produced such a vast and thought-provoking body of written work – poetry, short stories, novels, drama, songs, essays – that hundreds of scholars, Indian and foreign, have taken doctorates and spent their whole lives researching and commenting upon it; and although in a formal sense he remained ‘uneducated’ all his life, kings and presidents bowed to him, and he was honoured with the highest degrees by universities all around the world from America to China; no other 20th century Indian has received so much global recognition, except for Gandhi.

5. In turn he inspired many outstanding Indians, including the great scientists Satyen Bose and Sir J.C. Bose, the mathematician P.C. Mahalanobis (founder of the Indian Statistical Institute), the writer-director-artist Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi, and great modern-day authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadev Guha.

6. Though deeply interested in both science and religion, he was a tireless fighter against every kind of hypocrisy, cant, superstition and blind ritualism. He never glorified poverty, but he wrote again and again in glowing terms about all the nobility and simplicity he had seen amidst poverty (his ideal was that of the rajarshi, the royal hermit); at the same time, he condemned the lust for wealth, because he firmly believed that mere accumulation of things – money, houses, cars, clothes, jewellery, land, titles – can never make men either contented or happy; rather, it sows the seeds of jealousy, greed, insecurity, selfishness, fear, frustration, hatred, and ultimately degradation and destruction through disease, madness, crime, riot and war.

7. In his own life, he tried consistently to combine the roles of the ever-joyous poet and the quiet, wise sage. His life was marked with one great tragedy after another (including the untimely deaths of many loved ones), and he was much misunderstood and bitterly ciriticized by many for his beliefs and ideals, yet he remained true to his ‘religion of man’ till the last; as he himself said, it is the greatest of all sins to lose faith in man. Mankind will keep on making horrible mistakes, and show a capacity for the worst possible evils, yet again and again greatness and goodness will be born among men, and the wise and the good will show us the road to a better, happier, more prosperous future. In his address to Oxford University shortly before his death, when the sky was darkened by the terrible storm-cloud of the Second World War, he firmly expressed this faith for the last time: that humanity will prevail.

8. It is noteworthy that more than sixtysix years after his death, Bengalis as a race still identify him as their greatest achiever; rabindrasangeet is not only alive but being experimented with in new styles by many present-day singers, in India and abroad; Rabindra Rachanabali is still the most widely sold of all Bengali works, and many learned people are working to make his works known and better appreciated around the world – from 1998 onwards, for example, Oxford University Press in collaboration with Vishwa Bharati has been releasing authorized English translations of many of his writings for global circulation (and for the benefit of some Bengalis who cannot, or will not read Bengali!). 

9. The enormous richness of his interests and achievements can be seen if one visits the Rabindra Bhavan museum at Shantiniketan or his house in Calcutta, which is now Rabindra Bharati University. Unlike many modern-day ‘successful’ Indians, who imagine that they have achieved something if they blindly copy everything that westerners do, and don’t realize how westerners habitually look down upon them as a result, he was one of those great Indians (like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subramanyam Chandrashekhar) who believed he had much to give to both his motherland and the outside world, and earned the world’s lasting respect for his priceless contributions.

I am a voracious reader, debator and thinking man, and I have read things as diverse as the Gita and Plato, Manu and Kalidas, Shakespeare and Milton, Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud, Isaac Asimov and J.K. Rowling … and admired an incredible variety of men, from Jesus to Steve Jobs, from Albert Schweitzer to Robert Falcon Scott, from Leonardo da Vinci to Abraham Lincoln, from the Buddha to Gandhi, and I have acknowledged that men can ‘leave footprints on the sands of time’ in myriad ways, and literally countless men have done so down the ages, yet I believe that really knowing and understanding Tagore is everything that anyone anywhere in the world in any age could ever really need … ‘burn the libraries, because all you need is here!’ To me he is, as the magazine called Desh once said, ‘chiropather shongi’. Scholar, writer, poet, singer, dramatist, painter, actor, judoka, ayurvedic practitioner, essayist, patriot, educationist, social worker and reformer, lover, great father and family man, acute businessman, humorist and mystic … a day will come when all the encyclopedias of the world, shorn of their Anglo-American bias, will acknowledge that he was the nearest approximation to the ideal of the ‘universal man’ that the world has ever seen. Nobody in recent history anywhere in the world deserved the title ‘mahamanab’ more than he did. I believe it is an inestimable privilege to have learnt to worship him, and I count it among my life’s greatest achievements that I was once given the opportunity to translate a tiny fraction of his works for English readers worldwide. Any Bengali who thinks today that the new shopping malls and IT sweatshops and the newfangled familiarity with sms text shows how much we have ‘advanced’ in recent times need only to read any part of Tagore’s works, from Geetanjali to the fantasy stories for children to the ‘lokshiksha’ essays to the love songs to the plays which would still be too risqué to show on Doordarshan Bangla today – and, if he or she has a mind to think with and a heart to feel with, can only rue over how far and how amazingly fast we have sunk since Tagore tried to raise us to the highest imaginable peaks of culture.


Shilpi said...

What can one say?
In some of my most desperate moments - one of the things that kept me moving, or standing still but breathing, was some of Tagore's songs and poems - lines here and there that kept bellowing in my mind (and I honestly mean, bellowing).

In happier moments - I've had the pleasure of half-dozing under trees on a patch of green watching the sun dance around chasing the shadows with a Tagore song playing in my head or on a cd...
I also spent happy, lazy, lovely afternoons reading your translations, and feeling a light, dancing happy joy prancing around and flying about...

In frantic, restless, and racing moments I've spent reading 'Santiniketan'...and have written furiously, and made copious notes, never quite ceasing to be amazed that Tagore had not just sensed 'it all' - but had been able to articulate his feelings on such fuzziness as human living, existence, survival, love, 'being', 'doing', and you-name-it (to give just some instances) - and had managed to draw me into his web....
I discovered Tagore late, early, later than I should've (and I won't go into the reasons)...yet I remember my bonding with Sanchayita at a very strange point in my life...and it was a strange point, and it was a strange bond...I suddenly seemed to sense in a gush what some of his poems meant, symbolized...a sense that wouldn’t ever have come through reading explanations or hearing somebody tell me what tagore had ‘really’ meant…

I remember reading Tagore's emancipated idea of Internationalism in college and being enthralled - because here I found an idea which could be seen as far 'superior' to most of the fancy western theoretical 'notions' of civil society and communicative action...yet not many in the western academic world (and I mean the social sciences) know about Tagore or about his philosophy or about his social scientific theoretical frameworks or about his perceptions on Art, Religion/Spirituality, Personality, Humour....In fact it somehow seems almost derogatory to compare Tagore….and I don’t understand why Tagore isn’t dealt with on his own terms. How come no one in Sociology knows about him? (I must mention though, that some of my Spanish speaking friends have read Tagore’s poems…)

I read Berger's idea of social construction of reality and I find that Tagore explored these ideas and went beyond them in Personality, Religion of Man, and Sadhana.
When I've been engaged in writing a term paper on Tagore, when I've cried, and smiled, and laughed, and sobbed, and looked at the heavens with agony and a desperate loneliness, and some other times with a feeling of almost ecstatic communion (some would call ‘mad’ – and I wouldn’t disagree nor debate this matter), both intellectually and emotionally I have felt that reading Tagore is probably all that one needs to read and understand. (And Suvro da, I know I haven't read all of Tagore and I know I haven't all I'm 'supposed' to have read - but I still feel thus)..and I've often felt that sense of wonder....how was Tagore any different from the Saints or the Prophets....
Thank you Suvro da, for putting up this post...

Joydeep said...

Thanks a trillion, Suvro da, for this post of yours. It is a matter of great shame that youngsters and teenagers nowadays worship Paris Hilton and Salman Khan as their heroes, whereas they are left baffled if asked a few ordinary questions about Rabindranath Tagore. It is a pity that many people(this includes grownups,too)say nice things about Tagore just because they have been taught to do so by their parents who in turn have succumbed to their parent's dictation of praising Tagore without making a single effort to understand him. Imbibing Tagore is no mean task, alas, and not too many people are capable of doing that- only a handful of men who have studied Tagore deeply and possess a cultivated wisdom can afford to do that.

I have noticed, with certain dismay, that people who write articles about Tagore often fail to highlight all the aspects of the Great Man-a majority of them are too focussed on "Rabindra sangeet" and "Rabindra rachana".There are so many other areas in which Tagore has left his indelible mark- whether be it plays, or social work, or environmentalism, or philosophy, or scientific education- and these magnificent works of Tagore deserve to be acknowledged in the same vein as that of his songs and literature(kudos to Suvro-da, who has captured the true essence of Tagore in his essay, and rightfully mentioned all these fields).

Suvro-da, I dare say that I understand Rabindranath Tagore well. My upbringing has kept me in constant touch with Tagore's songs and literature, and whatever little I have assimilated from it has led me to belive that if ever I am to find a man who could come closest to being a 'mahamanab' or a 'bishwanagorik', it would be none other than Rabindranath Tagore.

Pushpani Chatterjee said...

Well Mr Chatterjee,
This post has literally left me dumbstruck. It has been an exceptionally competent one where your emotions have come forth from a deeply resonating experience, internalized so perfectly and without any seams, doing justice to the limited confines of ambit and space that you have consciously set for yourself. I’m in more than total agreement with you when you so passionately aver that he’s the person you have found closest to worshipping.

I’ve been lately acquainted with Tagore’s ideas and ideals (and how I rue that!) and what boggles my mind is the sheer expanse and reach of his thought and the constant amenability he showed to further review, scansion and enrich it, as one of the most enduring lessons of life. In fact, the reach of his life-construct, if we have it perceived that way, started with Purush, Prakriti, Swadesh etc gradually kept evolving and encompassed, almost concentrically, the larger domains of consciousness to those of ‘Manush’, ‘Bishwa’ and finally culminating to the cosmos. This relentless unshackling of mind, casting off successive layers of perception for the sake of a more complete and comprehensive attainment of a supraliminal consciousness, was almost pivotal to his life pursuit.

Even the typification of such popular schemas of say, God or his Jeevan Devata, underwent a slow but sure mutation as he, going through a series of the life’s trials and tribulations , attuned himself to a still higher realisation where-in the concepts of Viswamanab and Viswaprakriti merged into his schema (‘amar nam ei bole khyato hoke, ami tomaderi loke’) leading him to question some of the fundamental tenets of life and destiny; ( to wit, the short poem ‘Proshno’ or more importantly, the brilliantly portrayed characters of Atin in Char Odhyay, Jethamoshai in Chaturanga , Nikhilesh in Ghore Baire and even Biprodas in Yogajog – mark that most of them who were virtual heretics in their ages were simply atheists or at best agnostics – was it a chance coincidence or underlyingly there was more to it ? ).

The other aspect is the whole gamut of his paintings which commenced as his life’s chance discovery or should we say, a serendipity of sorts, and embodied almost a rash and vibrant spirit – the soft, supple, rounded and well-knit grooves ( the grounds on which Amito, in Shesher Kobita, castigated the very genre of Tagore’s composition – a remarkably unedifying self-critique of Tagore) gave way to sharp, stark outlines - bold and unkempt, beyond the ‘wholesomeness and fruition’ of life’s measured confines. Here, we find Tagore , consciously straying away from the predictability and uniformity of the lines and contours and merrily experimenting with the forms and fixtures (with deeply surreal underpinnings) with gay abandon!

Could you help me with any literature that faithfully and objectively deals with this aspect of Tagore and attempts to integrate it with the larger leitmotif of his life and mission ?

deepti said...

Hi there,
I just happened to come across ur blog, as I was searching for information about Shesher kobita. A very dear friend of mine who is a bengali, took the pain and translated and interpreted portions of the same in his own way, just to convey something to me. Its such a touching poem, I think I shall treasure it for the rest of my life....Anyways nice blog u got here! Keep up the good work


Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

It seems superfluous to post a comment to this blogpost but I am left speechless everytime I read this post of yours. It is indeed one of the finest tributes I have seen anyone paying their heroes.

It is a pity that this post has drawn such a small number of comments in 7 years of its existence.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for the post. I haven't read much of Tagore's works and hence I cannot fully appreciate the breadth of your thoughts. But your article is surely going to be a reminder that I should be reading more of his works.

Here is another article that probably resonates with your views-