Tagore: A Multitalented Artist

In today’s world of specialization, it is vital to remember those geniuses who have been masters in many fields—the great talents not limited to one form of artistic expression. Michelangelo was a painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer. Goethe, one of the greatest men of letters, was also an accomplished horseman, swimmer and skater. He loved to dance and act and was an amateur cellist. There was no discipline or activity alien to him, from archaeology to zoology. His works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, humanism and science. Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer. Salvador Dalí, whose expansive artistic repertoire includes film, sculpture and photography, was not only a great painter, but also a skilled draftsman and an interesting writer. Pablo Picasso was a painter, draughtsman and sculptor.

India has also produced quite a few multitalented geniuses. Talents like Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore can never be forgotten. Ray was an excellent filmmaker, a fiction writer, publisher, illustrator, graphic designer and film critic. Tagore, a man with a multidimensional personality, was an outstanding poet, painter, prose-writer, composer and politician. These creative men had so much to give to the world.

Imagine a man bed-ridden due to sickness and yet writing fine pieces of prose and poetry. That is exactly what Tagore did in the last few months of his life. His pen remained active till the very end. Four new volumes were published in his last days, which included three of poems entitled Navajatak(The New-born), Sanai (The Flute) and Rogasajyay(From Sick-bed) and one of prose entitledChhelebela (Boyhood Days).

Lying in his bed and watching the calm life of Shantineketan, the poet brooded on the past and wondered whether he had done his best to understand and interpret what he had seen and experienced of this world; but how little it seemed to him he had seen and comprehended:

How little I know of this mighty world!
Myriad deeds of men, cities, countries…
Have remained beyond my awareness.
Great is life in this wide Earth
And small the corner where my mind dwells.

Unable to write, he dictated his verses to his students. Later he was taken to Calcutta and was operated upon. Just before his operation, he dictated his last verses:

Your creation’s path you have covered
With a varied net of wiles,
Thou Guileful…
He who has easily borne your wile
Gets from your hands 
The right to everlasting peace.

He, however, did not get the chance to read what he had dictated as his condition worsened after the operation and he gradually lost consciousness, never to regain it. On August 7, 1941, he breathed his last. The song that he had desired to be sung on his death was one of his own compositions:

In front lies the ocean of peace,
Launch the boat, Helmsman,
You will be the comrade ever…
May the mortal bonds perish,
May the vast universe take him in its arms,
And may he know in his fearless heart
The Great Unknown.

Ever since then, at each anniversary of his death, this song is sung and the versatile genius is remembered. On his death, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote” “Perhaps it is as well that he died when he was still pouring out song and poem…what amazing creative vitality he had: I would have hated to see him fade away gradually. He died, as he should have, in the fullness of his glory.”

Tagore was a prolific genius. He wrote about fifty plays, a hundred books of verse, many of which he set to music, and forty volumes of novels, short stories and essays. Later, he painted portraits with warm, sweeping brushstrokes.

What was the secret of Tagore’s creativity? Where did this “creative vitality” spring from? D.T. Suzuki’s interpretation of Zen may help us in finding answers to these questions. From this interpretation we learn that Nature is spontaneous and creative, and that man being a part of Nature, acts best when he acts with freedom.

Tagore valued spontaneity and treasured “freedom from constraining patterns.” As we know, Tagore stopped going to school altogether at the age of thirteen. No amount of family pressure could make him face the eternal grind of the school mill, which he described as a “combination of hospital and jail.”

The following lines from one of his talks during his China visit of 1924 reveal his attitude towards formal education: “When I was very young I gave up learning and ran away from my lessons. That saved me, and I owe all that I possess today to that courageous step. I fled the classes which instructed, but which did not inspire me and I gained a sensitivity towards life and nature. It is a great world to which we have been born, and if I had cultivated a callous mind and smothered this sensitivity under a pile of books, I would have lost this world. We can ignore what is scattered in the blue sky, in the seasonal flowers, in the delicate relationships of love and sympathy and mutual friendship, only if we have deadened the thrill of touching the reality which is everywhere…

He hated school education: “What tortured me in my school days was the fact that the school had not the completeness of the world. It was a special arrangement for giving lessons. It could only be suitable for grown-up people who were conscious of the special need of such places and therefore ready to accept their teaching at the cost of dissociation from life.

“But children are in love with life, and it is their first love. All its color and movement attract their eager attention. And are we quite sure of our wisdom in stifling this love? Children are not born ascetics, fit to enter at once into the monastic discipline of acquiring knowledge. At first they must gather knowledge through their love of life, and then they will renounce their lives to gain knowledge, and then again they will come back to their fuller lives with ripened wisdom.”

And so Tagore’s guardians gave up all hopes about his career and even ceased to scold him. His eldest sister lamented, “We had all hoped Rabi would grow up to be a man, but he has disappointed us the worst.” Certainly, by all academic standards Tagore had proved himself a drop-out.

School education disgusted him so much that all his life he continued to joke about his lack of academic qualifications, which his countrymen treasured, for such qualification was almost the only passport for government service under the British rule.

In a letter written to his granddaughter, Nandita, who had shortly before left for Europe, he sent her his blessings and good wishes and included among them a hope that she would fail in the University Entrance examination, which she had taken shortly before, for how would he show his face to the world if his grandchild succeeded where he had failed.

But Tagore did not play footsie with life. Writes Krishna Kriplani: “But though he played truant from school, he did not idle away his time. He was a born devotee of Saraswati, the goddess of learning and the arts, but he refused to be led to her altar by any priest. He must woo her in his own fashion. Like a wild horse he would not be yoked; he must graze at will in what pasture he liked.”

Rinzai (Lin-Chu), a prominent master during the T’ang dynasty (618-905) in China and high priest of the Zen movement, stresses in his sayings that only faith in your Self leads to true understanding. When faith is lacking, you find yourself hurried by others and unable to be your master. To be one’s own master, whether walking or standing or standing still, is all that matters. God created the world out of his free will... He was his own master, and each of us has something of this in him, ‘the same in essence as the divine will.’”

Tagore is one of the few men who really “mastered true understanding.” He was something more than a poet, a writer and a painter. He was an artist in life. His verses were a reflection of his inner self. His personal life was as clean and noble as his works.

Writing for him was an act of faith, nor a trick of grammar. What he was, determined his style. He wrote not for pleasure or profit but out of joy, conscious that his genius was a gift from the divine, to be used in the service of man. 

Rajesh Williams is a professional editor and a writer with a background in instructional design, technical writing, technical editing, teaching, white paper writing, and development of marketing brochures, flyers, and data sheets.


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