Continued from Zamindar Rabindranath - 9
Today it may be asked, ‘What was so remarkable about Rabindranath’s decision to leave Calcutta and go to Shilaidaha?’ More than a century has passed since this happened and in the meantime the changes that have taken place in the Bengal countryside are revolutionary. Communications have vastly improved; virtually no place is beyond 24 hours of journey from Calcutta both by rail and road; there are schools, colleges and even universities, hospitals, malls and markets and most other modern amenities like electricity, TV, telephone and internet connections which are available in a big city. Yet when a Bengali is transferred in his job today to some place outside Calcutta, he feels as if the sky would fall on his head. He will go to any length to avoid such a disaster.
Ever since that city came into being it has exercised a kind of magnetic pull on the Bengali mind. With the passage of time, even with the loss of its former importance as an imperial capital, there has been no sign of lessening of the force of that pull. Those whose favourite pastime it is to criticize Rabindranath on any excuse will do well to remember this fact. They may also see two short films of Satyajit Ray on Tagore stories – The Postmaster and Samapti to form an idea about the physical and social environment of the countryside of those times. Incidentally, in Tagore’s short story after a virulent attack of malaria the postmaster ignored his emotional bond with the village girl who had nursed him to recovery, resigned his job and returned to Calcutta.
Rabindranath’s going to Shilaidaha becomes all the more remarkable if we consider how he was circumstanced at the time of his departure from Calcutta. The children of the Tagore family were bred and brought up in an aristocratic fashion. Soon after its birth the child was placed in charge of a wet nurse who was no more than a maid servant. It was looked after by servants and was neglected and ignored by the adult members till its adolescence. Rabindranath could never forget this painful experience of his childhood throughout his life. He virtually forced his way into the adult society when one day he abruptly supplied a more appropriate song for one of the patriotic dramas written by his elder brother Jyotirindranath and earned his respect and friendship. When he grew up he treated the children with sympathy and the children in their turn expected him to lead them in all their activities as their natural leader. The tips how to write poems in rhymes were provided to the child poet for the first time not by an adult but by another child of the family, Satyaprasad– the son of his eldest sister. His first book of poems was published again not by an adult but by his immediately elder brother, Somendranath. The poet wrote plays which the children staged. He composed songs which the children sang. His nephew Abanindranath, who was to become famous later as an artist, could not sing and hence accompanied the poet on his esraj. The would-be artist tells us that according to them his Robi uncle was the best poet, the best singer, in fact best in everything he did and none else was better than him. They would be after those who disputed this fact. They often ‘ganged up’ to do many mischiefs together. For example, once Robi had to compose a doggerel for the children to describe a zamindari official who had always an air of solemnity. On another occasion to embarrass and annoy the Anglicized Bengalis, who in those days in dresses and manners imitated the Europeans, the Tagore boys, led by our poet, attended one of their assemblies deliberately dressed in the native fashion. As a ‘gang’ they also attended the session of the Provincial Congress party held at Natore similarly dressed and shouted down the speakers who lectured in English and compelled them to speak in Bengali.
As the Secretary of the Brahmosamaj he had a good following and he was to organize all its events and ceremonies. He had to play the role of the ‘defender’ of the Brahmo faith whenever there was an attack against it from the fundamentalist Hindus. In many of his poems and essays the poet criticized these people. Most amusing is however his satirical poem Dharmaprachar included in the collection Manasi. Once he fought a pitched battle with none other than Bankimchandra Chatterji, who was the acknowledged leading man of letters of the time. As a writer he was a regular contributor to the literary magazines published by the family. He had also made a name as a song writer, composer and singer. Scarcely there was a public meeting in Calcutta where he was not an invitee to entertain the audience with his songs. Once at the request of Bankimchandra himself he was to sing a good number of songs in a meeting and temporarily lost his voice. He was a voracious reader and to buy books regularly visited the Newman, the largest and the leading bookshop in the city. For the education of
the children his ICS brother Satyendranath’s family was staying at Ballyganj, the most posh neighbourhood of the city, where many leading men of the native society regularly assembled and Rabindranath frequently went there with his family. At times he visited Satyendranath’s place of work in the Bombay Presidency where his brother’s colleagues came and the poet had to entertain them with his songs. Sometimes even the European guests sang with him in chorus. And during their excursions the ladies of the family always preferred him as their attendant. To know how he fared in this role one may read the very fascinating first letter of Chhinnapatravali which describes a visit to Darjeeling. As a promising writer he had also gathered many aspiring writers around him.
Then there was his own family to which his attachment was very deep. His wife had already presented him with a daughter at the young age of only thirteen. Nursing of this child was our poet’s one of the major responsibilities. To know how deep was his love for her one must read his famous poem ‘Jete nahi dibo’ (I won’t let you go) where the four years old daughter is none other than the poet’s own daughter. Initially his family could not accompany him because the Shilaidaha Kachharibari was yet to be made suitable as a family residence by new construction and repairs. At that stage our poet had to spend a considerable part of his time in the boat Padma.
Thus at Calcutta though he had no regular vocation he was never idle nor a single moment in his life was dull or monotonous. In fact most of the time it was quite exciting. He had struck his roots there very deep indeed. But here at Shilaidaha he was virtually rootless having none with whom he could socially mix or share his intellectual and literary life. Only once before he had come to this place in his
adolescence with his elder brother Jyotirindranath. Otherwise it was an alien place to him and his stay here was a kind of banishment. One of his closest friends, Taraknath Palit, practiced law at Rajshahi no doubt but that place was a good day’s journey from Shilaidaha. Here he was the ‘zamindar babu’ who was expected by tradition and convention to stay at a respectable distance from his tenants who were poor and illiterate. The majority of them were again Muslims. Some of them, particularly those of the Birahimpur mahal whose headquarters Shilaidaha was, were of a rebellious type. In our poet’s grandfather’s time they had petitioned the government against their zamindar. They had good reasons to be so. The majority of the suckers who sucked their blood – the zamindar and his field officials, the jotedars, the businessmen, the mahajans and the lawyers were Hindus. The Tagores were Brahmo but they did not enjoy any advantage on that account. To the Hindus they were apostates. Any Hindu’s social truck with them invited the severest punishment – excommunication. Could their relationship with the Hindus of Shilaidaha be friendly? Could it improve when the new zamindar would shortly clash with the vested interests represented mostly by those Hindus? Was the motive of the local media-man Kangal Harinath, the consistent critic of the Tagore zamindari, purely altruistic? There was no paucity of oppressive zamindars in those days.
Not very long ago in 1873 there was the first major peasant revolt in an adjoining zamindari in the district of Pabna. We do not know of any other Kangal Harinath who indefatigably reported on that zamindari or on any other oppressive zamindari of the time. Thus the new environment in which our poet found himself could not be said to be very congenial. How could he acclimatize himself in such an environment and spend there for more than a decade – the most fruitful period of his life? This we propose to relate in our next blog.
Continued to Zamindar Rabindranath - 11