Two thousand songs, eight novels, poems, letters, dance dramas, articles on philosophy. His work is vast
“A century from now,
who art thou,
so lovingly reading my poetry?”
This is one of the better known poems of Rabindranath Thakur, or Tagore. Did the bard know he would still be read a century beyond his time? He obviously did, and he dared to write about it. Such was his genius.
Tagore: Jana Gana Mana… Ekla Chalo Re… Geetanjali and a Nobel Prize in literature. That is what most people know about him.
Most have not heard the song: “Ei monihaar amay nahi shajey” which he wrote while repudiating his Knighthood in protest against the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.
Most people do not know that he was among the first Indian advocates of contraception because he believed that women have the right to physical enjoyment without being forced into motherhood, and he in fact campaigned contraception with Marie Stopes in the mid-1920s.
Most people do not know that he gave Raksha Bandhan a political meaning when in 1905, he called upon the people of undivided Bengal to come to the streets and tie rakhee to each other in protest against the Partition of Bengal on communal lines by the British.
Most people do not know that he had tried all forms of literature and the arts in his lifetime, including making a film with the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.
Most people outside of Bengal in India, barring perhaps in Punjab, know very little about Tagore. In 2011, I was in Chandigarh. I found it perplexing in the beginning: all the roundabouts of the city had very big hoardings outlining the daily schedule of the 10-day festival to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore.
Details of his works are much better known abroad, though, for he had moved the stalwarts of his time: Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, TS Eliot, Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Romain Rolland… and well… Victoria Ocampo, a beautiful Argentine intellectual who fell in love with Tagore and took him home to recover when he fell ill during a visit to Chile. Tagore was then 63, and Victoria just 34.
Someone once told me that decades from now, computer software experts would say that there was actually no single person called Rabindranath Tagore…. That many people contributed to the body of work which was collectivised as Tagore. Let us take some stock:
• 2,230 songs, and with
• Eight novels and four novellas!
• Hundreds of poems, including some resounding ones such as Africa! (His first published book was when he was just 16.)
• Seven major dramas.
• Several dance dramas, the music for which too he scored
• An entire collection of letters and Tagore made letter writing a fine art.
He wrote letters on his sojourn to American, Europe and Japan…
• Articles on philosophy, arts and politics.
• Two autobiographical sketches
• Scores of paintings, the chief theme being women and their pain.
• An entire collection of four-line poems with philosophical outlook
And it is not as if that is all that he did. As I said, his activities went from campaigning for contraception to anti-British political activities (though he never joined the Freedom Movement in any capacity) to travelling widely, attending a Majlis, or Parliament of Iran, among other things, and of course, his crowning glory, founding of Shantiniketan’s Vishwabharati University, originally conceived of as a centre of unconventional learning.
So if someday someone avers that Tagore was no single person, they could hardly be dismissed off the cuff.
‘Robi’ was one of the many grandsons of Prince Dwarkanath Thakur, a man so rich that he owned as a personal property a Roll Royce Phantom in those days. Dwarkanath was what Marxists would call comprador bourgeoisie, but nevertheless, he owned ships and massive zamindaris, and salt and opium business in China and other businesses. By the time Robi came along, though, the family, which owned several palaces in Bengal but stayed at the Jorashanko (now in Chitpur), the family had lost much of its wealth, and Robi’s father, having brought on a total of 13 surviving children, had become a Rhishi, Maharshi Devendranath.
Wikipedia writes: “The (family) hosted the publication of literary magazines; theatre and recitals of Bengali and Western classical music featured there regularly. Tagore’s father invited several professional Dhrupad musicians to stay in the house and teach Indian classical music to the children. Tagore’s oldest brother Dwijendranath was a philosopher and poet. Another brother, Satyendranath, was the first Indian appointed to the elite and formerly all-European Indian Civil Service. Yet another brother, Jyotirindranath, was a musician, composer, and playwright. His sister Swarnakumari became a novelist. Jyotirindranath’s wife Kadambari Devi, slightly older than Tagore, was a dear friend and powerful influence. Her abrupt suicide in 1884, soon after he married, left him for years profoundly distraught.”
But the least known aspect of Tagore is his world outlook. Originally from the reformist Brahma Samaj, his grasp of the Vedic philosophy was astounding. His lyrics, most often, are pure Upanishadic, which is better left for another full article on that. And all this by a man who as a boy rejected schooling, and as a young man, dropped out of University College, London, refusing to study law.
It is sad that in India, most people, even in his native Bengal, today know little beyond Jana Gana Mana and Ekla Chalo Re about Rabindranath Tagore, a genius who his next generation of intellectual stalwarts would love to hate and yet admit, that he was the beginning and that there will never be so towering a figure as him.
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