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 * 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 (VB) 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. Other decay in VB has been elaborated in the Preface. However, that shrine of the finest human culture that ever evolved on our earth, is left only with its ruins notwithstanding its financial affluence to-day. 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 VB 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 VB 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 Ecole d’ Humanite in Switzerland, as elaborated in my ‘Preface’ these places also may prove better host of Tagore’s ideals in contrast with Santiniketan amidst the all round corruption in West Bengal. Yet, one would stress, Tagore cannot be captured only in brick and mortar and all these overseas razzmatazz will be largely in vain unless accompanied by transmission of Tagore’s vast creation of highest aesthetic, literary and spiritual standard goes along with it to the extent possible, mostly by way of translation of course.
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 was buried at Bristol in England.
Addendum to the Poet’s Life-sketch
How many countries owe their National Anthem to Rabindranath Tagore?
The pat answer will come- Why! two; India and Bangladesh.; owing ‘Jana Gana Mono Adhinayaka…” (= O lord of the populace) & “Amar Sonar Bangla” ..(=O, my golden Bengal) respectively to Tagore as their national anthems.
But, according to the following translated letter to the Editor of ‘Bartaman’, a Bengali daily (published on 12th May 2011), it is three.
“The rank and file readers like us knew for many years that National Anthems of two countries were composed by Rabindranath Thakur (=Tagore). Few erudite readers, researchers and historians know the real history. But, after hearing the National Anthems of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the arena of the World Cup of 2011, all knew that all the National Anthems of all these three countries were creation of Rabindranath. That history of Sri Lanka is being elaborated below.
Some student from Sri Lanka named Anand Samarkun came to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to study in the Art & Music Dept. Till 1940 he took lesson in Visva Bharati (University of Tagore). In 1938 Anand made an earnest request to Gurudev to write a National Anthem for Sri Lanka. Rabindranath did not disappoint his student and wrote one in Bengali the first line of which is – “Sri Lanka Mata…” (=Mother Sri Lanka). Anand translated the Anthem into Sinhalese language in 1953 and gave it to the then President of Sri Lanka. The President was charmed and approved of the song as his country’s National Anthem. Anand Samarkun had translated a good many essays, poems, short stories and novels by the Poet into Sinhalese language and had become famous for that. It is needless to mention that Rabindranath had set tune to both the National Anthems of India and Bangladesh. Similarly, the Sinhalese National Anthem is sung in the tune set by the Poet in the original Bengali version composed by him.
No song other than Rabindranath’s was accepted by Sri Lanka as their national anthem. The Poet had visited Sri Lanka several times. It is known that Sri Lankans are mostly Buddhists. From the time of Emperor Ashoka they adopted Buddhism and generations down they had their ablutions in this religion. The students of history know, along with other religious priests the sons and daughters of Emperor Ashoka also visited Ceylon to preach Buddhism. At the time of visiting Ceylon Rabindranath had dissertated elaborately on Buddhist theology and spirituality in various gatherings with eager participation of numerous people there. As in India and Bangladesh the World Poet is equally revered in Sri Lanka. At the Poet’s 150th Birth Anniversary also he is hailed in that country as elsewhere in the world with undiminished reverence. Paeans are still sung with deep respect and inquisitiveness. Daily he is researched in many countries.
Retd. Head Master
Bharatpur Higher Secondary School
Raigunj, North Dinajpur.