When the editor of a literary journal asked me to write a short article on Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore I was in a fix. Nobel Laurate, poet, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, singer, musician, composer, choreographer, educationist, painter, sculptor, philosopher and religious leader, Rabindranath was all this and more. A colossus towering over the cultural life of Bengal for over half a century. How can one encapsulate the life of this multifaceted genius in the short space of an article? A daunting task, indeed. So I decided to share with the readers information on some aspects of his life of which I am aware, and my own exposure to the great man's works over the years.
My interest in Rabindranath began early in life when I found that a senior cousin was named after the poet because my uncle was a member of the Brahmo Samaj. At school in Nagpur, I was moved to tears by Rabindranath's stories Home Coming (Chhuti in Bengali) and My Lord the Baby (Khokababur Pratyabartan in Bengali) in our High School English Reader and amused by his poem Writing in our Poetry book. In college, one of our Rapid Readers was Marjorie Sykes's engaging biography of Rabindranath Tagore. She goes into amusing details of his childhood. For example, he was so fair that many thought he was either of European blood or had been washed with brandy at birth! He was also effeminate taking advantage of which his older brother Satya (Satyendranath Tagore) persuaded an older schoolmate that Rabi was actually a girl and the latter shot off a love letter to the girl-boy! Rabi was so impressed by the hills while on a holiday that he tried to recreate the scene in the flat topography of Calcutta by setting up a mud hill.
Sykes sharpened my interest in Rabindranath and thanks to the open access system in our college library, I read many of his works mostly in Hindi translations. I was moved by his short stories and plays particularly Post Office and Muktodhara. As I grew up I read his other works, this time mostly in English translations, fascinated by the artistry with which he chiselled the characters in his novels, The Wreck and Gora, and the beauteous sync between words and thoughts in his poetic works, The Gardener, Lover's Gift, Crossing, and of course Gitanjali.
I had no inkling then that I would soon be in the land of Tagore. Getting posted to Eastern Railway, as an officer in Indian Railways Traffic Service, I saw for the first time how Tagore was intricately involved in the life of the average Bengali. There could be no cultural event without Tagore's work in one form or another, Robindro Songeet (Music), Robindro Nrityo (Dance), Nrityo Natak (Dance drama), a play or recitation of a Tagore poem. These events began with an opening song which was mostly Anandoloke, a Brahmo prayer I had heard my uncle sing. Bolpur, the railhead for Shantiniketan was one of the stations on Howrah division of Eastern Railway, where I was first posted. It gave me a chance to visit the serene grounds of Shantiniketan frequently.
My connect with Shantiniketan was renewed when I became the head of Howrah Division in 1987. I must digress here to recall Rabindranath Tagore's relationship with Indian Railways. Rabindranath's grandfather Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, an inustrialist who owned several colieries near Raniganj, was so impressed on seeing the railway in England in 1843 that he wanted to build a railway line to his collieries. He set up a Company called the Great Western Bengal Railway Company primarily for movement of agricultural and mineral products from Raniganj and Rajmahal Coalfields. In the mean time R McDonald Stephenson had already floated shares for East India Railway Company incorporated in England. Dwarkanath's efforts in England to persuade the East India Company to allow construction of the line came to nought when his scheme was rejected by the Court of Directors of East India Company because they did not want to permit a company under native management to construct such an important railway line.
Rabindranath himself is said to have travelled by train for the first time when he was 11 years old, the journey taking him from Bolpur to Calcutta. Rabindranath’s last journey too was between the same two stations. When he fell sick for the last time, the Chief Operating Superintendent of East Indian Railway, Sir NC Ghosh, sent his inspection saloon to Bolpur for the poet's journey to Calcutta for treatment. The coach was preserved carefully thereafter and in 1987, I had the privilege of installing it near Bolpur station as an exhibit with memorabilia of Rabindranath’s connections with Indian Railways.
I got interested in Rabindranath's Brahmo prayers, because of my family’s connection with Brahmo Samaj. Some of these were in the Telugu Brahmo Geetanjali and also in the Hindi Brahmo Geetmala. Rabindranath wrote Sandhya Sangeet (Evening songs), a volume of Bengali verse, published in 1882. By 1890 various volumes of his poems appeared, together with a profuse output of prose articles, criticism, plays and novels. His works number twenty-nine volumes and include some sixty collections of verse, novels and plays. His collection of 2500 songs called Rabindra Sangeet is a proud possession of every Bengali household and the starting point of musical education of Bengali children. The devotional songs in Gitanjali, which are offerings to God, find their place in the Brahma Sangeet as glorifying the One Eternal Immutable Being. The Western world paid homage to his genius soon after he had translated his Gitanjali into English, culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize. Brahma Sangeet appealed to people because of its tunes based on Hindustani classical music, Western music and folk tunes. Rabindranath with his vast repertoire changed the style and flow of Brahma Sangeet, transforming them from mere lamentations of the devotee to a treasured piece of literature glorifying the Almighty as Truth, Beauty and Nature.
In the abode of joy and benevolence lies the beautiful truth
Your glory shines across the vast sky
The universe ornaments your feet.
Give me a place at your feet, O Lord,
Abode of Peace, Object of the seeker
Thy eyes remain unseen, but
Thou art in every eye
In what new tune, to what new song, does my lute awake?
My heart vibrates to the heartbeat of the universe.
What new restlessness comes to disturb my upper garment?
The woods swing to the dance of light in unbounded joy.
The 1993 edition of Brahmo Sangeet published by Sadharan Brahmo Samaj Calcutta contains 1128 compositions of which Rabindranath alone composed 462. A further 125 are composed by other members of the Tagore family making a total contribution of 52% by the family.
Rabindranath’s grandfather Dwarkanath was a staunch supporter of Rammohun Roy's attempts at reforming Hindu society. His father, Debendranath was one of the leading figures of the newly awakened Bengali society. He compiled Brahmo Dharmo, a collection of slokas from Upanishads, Vedas and Puranas that specifically support the concept of the One Eternal Immutable Being. This became the Bible of the new religion.
Debendranath personally tutored his son in Sanskrit, astronomy and the scriptures, that formed the basis of his reformed religion, during their stay in Shantiniketan and at Dalhousie in the Himalayan foothills. Rabindranath got close to nature during this period, freely roaming in the fields and forests or exploring mountains. Later, despite his literary pursuits, Rabindranath began sharing his father’s religious responsibilities. In 1911, he took over the leadership of the Adi Brahmo Samaj, which under his influence began to show signs of revival. The old rule of allowing only Brahmins to the pulpit was relaxed and men of other castes were invited into it. A new band of writers began to contribute to the Samaj’s journal, The Tattwabodhini Patrika, and young men trained under Rabindranath came forward to take up the work of the Samaj.
Rabindranath felt that Brahmoism and reformed Hinduism were similar, that Hinduism needed to be altered in a way that it reflects the "inner Hinduism" that is the true Hinduism. While espousing the idea that Brahmoism was the true form of Hinduism, Rabindranath agreed with Keshub Chandra Sen's idea of universality. This put an end to the bitterness between the two factions of the Brahmo Samaj. Rabindranath wanted Brahmos to help the Hindus to reach the right path of reform. If Brahmos remain in "isolation" or in the "self-confinement of sectarianism," warned Rabindranath, then they will not only "place obstacles in the path of reformation," but assure their own extinction. He condemned all forms of factionalism, sectarianism, communalism, and Brahmo nationalism.
With the adoption of his Jana Gana Mana as the National Anthem, Rabindranath Tagore has attained a permanent place in the life of the country. But a controversy exists about its origin. Every now and then, it is circulated in social media, often with the intention of damaging the reputation of the greatest Indian poet of the twentieth century. After I received a particularly scurrilous mail a few years ago I did some investigation. It was alleged that India 's national anthem was written by Rabindranath Tagore in honour of King George V and the Queen of England when they visited India in 1919. I was skeptical because it was the year he had returned the knighthood in protest against the Jallianwalla massacre. How can these two be reconciled? The entire criticism of the anthem was built around various unfounded assumptions. I found the answer on the internet itself. In a letter to Pulin Behari Sen, Tagore himself wrote:
"A certain high official in His Majesty's service, who was also my friend, had requested that I write a song of felicitation towards the Emperor. The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Vidhata (God of Destiny) of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India's chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George. Even my official friend understood this about the song. After all, even if his admiration for the crown was excessive, he was not lacking in simple common sense."
I see no reason to disbelieve the word of Rabindranath against the attacks of ill-informed critics with dubious agendas of their own.
To end this article I can do no better than quote the lines Telugu poet Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, often called the Tagore of Telugu poetry, wrote after meeting his inspiration,
My song, divesting itself of its adornments,
Bowed its head to touch the dust of your feet
These lines echoed Rabindranath’s own lines in Gitanjali,
My song has put off all her adornments.
She has no pride of dress and decoration.
Ornaments would mar our union;
They would come between thee and me;
Their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight.
Oh master poet, I have sat down at thy feet.
Only let me make my life simple and straight,
Like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.
Published earlier in Virtuoso, Hyderabad