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Rabindranath Tagore: Beyond Comprehension

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.


He was put into the Oriental Seminary, but quite it, saying that there was no proper learning system in the schooling of his childhood days. Was that the seed that lay dormant for decades till he founded an amazingly modern and advanced university, the Vishwa Bharati in Santiniketan in 1921?

Could be. Rabindranath Tagore is what is often termed the encyclopaedists, or monumental intellectuals who straddled across disciplines, from poetry to composing music (for more than 2,500 songs), to lyrics, to novels, short stories, dance dramas, dramas, letters, essays on politics, philosophy art and culture, to painting and even making a film based on his own poem, not to mention the founding of a university. To my mind in living memory, without belittling any stalwart, perhaps there have been just two such persons in history, Tagore and before him Leonardo da Vinci.

Rabi Thakur, as Bengalis call him, came from perhaps the wealthiest family in Bengal, and among the wealthiest in India, with his grandfather, Dwarkanath Thakur having huge business interests, from opium trade with China to shipping and other businesses, plus a sprawling zamindari across Bengal. But rather than being just a crude moneyed man, he was well versed in Bengali, English, Arbi and Farsi, and perhaps this is also the foundation of the cultural fortress that his Jorashanko Thakur Bari, in Chitpur, North Calcutta, became. Dwarkanath was declared a Prince by the Queen of England.

Rabi Thakur was born in this milieu, though he arrived 15 years after his grandfather’s demise. His intellectual felicity was massive from a very small age. His intellect was developed by his constant companionship of his father Debendranath Thakur. He was a deeply religious person and a master of Upanishads, and this became the spiritual and intellectual foundation of his son Rabindranath.

Here, to understand the roots of Rabi Thakur, one must take a short glimpse of his family, his brothers and sisters.

Debendranath married Sarada Devi (died 1875) and they together had 15 children. They included:

Dwijendranath (1840–1926) was an accomplished scholar, poet and music composer. He initiated shorthand and musical notations in Bengali. He wrote extensively and translated Kalidasa's Meghdoot into Bengali.

Satyendranath (1842–1923) was the first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service. At the same time, he was a scholar.

Hemendranath (1844–1884) was the scientist and organiser of the family. He was a spiritual seer and Yogi and he was responsible for the development of modern Brahmoism which is now the Adi Dharm religion.

Jyotirindranath (1849–1925) was a scholar, artist, music composer and theatre personality.

Rabindranath (1861–1941)

His other sons were Birendranath (1845–1915) and Somendranath.

His daughters were Soudamini, Sukumari, Saratkumari, Swarnakumari (1855–1932) and Barnakumari.

Soudamini was one of the first students of Bethune School and a gifted writer.

Swarnakumari was a gifted writer, editor, song-composer and social worker. All of them were famous for their beauty and education.

As they say, it was a galaxy of intellectual stars. Of these, Jyotirindranath was extremely fond of Rabi Thakur, and the latter always mentioned him as Jyotidada, with whom he went on various adventures, including riding an Arabian horse! Jyotidada had a massive influence in shaping then small Rabi, being a playwright, editor, musician and a painter.

By the meagre age of 20, Rabi Thakur had completed three books of poems, Sandhya Sangeet, Pravat Sangeet and the novel, Baikunther Haat (1881). The legendary litterateur of Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, was so taken by Sandhya Sangeet, that a wedding reception when he was garlanded, he took it off and put it on young Rabi’s neck!

I have read somewhere that his father Debendranath was so delighted with Sandhya Sangeet that he gifted Rabi with Rs 500… in those days.

By this time, Jorashanko Thakur Bari had become a one-family cultural hub. In the sprawling courtyard of the palace, there would be held dance dramas and theatre. It is here that Barsha Mangal, a compilation of songs celebrating the monsoon was first performed.

Rakta Karabi", "Shyama, Chitrangada, Chandalika, Kalmrigaya, Valmiki Pratibha, Prakritir Protishodh, Mayar Khela, Tasher Desh and Biday Abhishap. However, many of his other dramas, such as Tagore’s dance dramas included Natir puja", "Raja", "Arupratan", "Muktadhara" were also clubbed with his songs and performed as what is termed Nritya Natya.

Tagore was a great traveller, often riding the luxurious ‘bajra’, or a grand houseboat. And from each place, he would send letters to his friends and relatives. These letters are a treasure trove by themselves.

What most people do not know, however, is that even before all this, say around when he was 20 or 21, at age 16, he had composed the fabulous series of songs known as Bhanusinha Thakurer Padabali, which are songs of Vaishnava philosophy songs written in Brajbuli. Being a singer myself, I know the tremendous depth of the philosophy ingrained in these songs.

Now, imagine a 16-year-old learning Brajbuli sitting in Calcutta, composing Vaishnavite songs, composing its music… I wonder when he found the time for all this, and of course, this is surely not what he was doing.

Rabi Thakur’s family, in the meanwhile, was imprinting its influence on the socio-political scenario of Bengal. Father Debendranath was a confirmed Brahma Samaj person. Brahma Samaj was a major reformist movement against Brahmanical tyranny, and was one of the foundations of the fabled Bengal Renaissance, a huge socio-cultural movement with intellectual giants such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Keshav Chandra Sen and others.

It is also little discussed that Rabi Thakur had an active political life and thinking. This reflected in his novel Gharey Bairey. Tagore was against the armed revolution, and the chief character in Gharey Bairey, a proponent of armed revolution, turns out to be a coward in the end.

Tagore’s political involvement was most remarkable in his organizing the ‘Rakhee’, or Raksha Bandhan in 1905. Entire Bengal had by then come under the scorching nationalist movement, and to hit back, British Viceroy Lord Curzon devised the Partition of Bengal, or Banga Bhanga. This would wedge a rift between the Muslims of eastern parts of Bengal and Hindus of the western part.

Rabi Thakur found that the implementation of the partition would be in the month of Sravana, the month when the traditional Raksha Bandha is held. He gave a call for Raksha Bandhan, and on his call, thousands of Hindus and Muslims came out in the streets of Calcutta, Dhaka and Sylhet and tied the rakhees as a promise to protect each other.

Rabi Thakur’s other major political stance was seen after the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre.

in recognition of the name he has established in India & Europe and of his genius as a poet”. But such was his aura at the time that the Viceroy was fearful that Tagore might refuse. Anyway, he has conferred knighthood. But when the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre took place in 1919, Tagore repudiated his knighthood. He wrote to Viceroy The British government had in 1915 decided to confer knighthood on Tagore, “

“Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for the destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification.

“These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.

Yours faithfully,

Rabindranath Tagore

“Ei Though a confirmed nationalist, he was not a typical British hater, and he was one of those who looked upon British education as a factor leading to the Bengal Renaissance. Thus came his famous song after the repudiation of the knighthood: monihaar amay nahi shajey… ere porte gele lage, ere chindte gele baje…” This garland of gems does not behove me. I feel pained to wear it, and feel strained to tear it…”

By this time Tagore was being fated across the world by top intellectuals, which included George Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland and Einstein. British poets Yeats and Ezra Pound were the main promoters behind his getting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first non-European to bag the award. His friendship with the top intellectuals would remain a major feature of his life till he died. In 1924, Tagore was travelling to Chile, but fell ill on the way, and was forced to deboard in Argentina. The fabled Argentine intellectual came to greet him, and took him home. It has been suggested that they had a platonic affair, but rare is the evidence behind that. However, Tagore and Ocampo spent two months together, Tagore convalescing at her place.

By the time, in 1921, Rabi Thakur had set up Vishwa Bharati in Shantiniketan. That land was a part of the family zamindari and had been used by father Debendranath as his spiritual abode. Rabi Thakur set up the university on 23 December 1921, with proceeds from the prize money of the Nobel Prize he received in 1913 for the publication of his book of poems Gitanjali.

The university was s sort of a gurukul, firmly rooted in Brahma Samaj traditions. And Tagore managed to pull some of the best intellectuals of the country as teachers in the various faculties. In fact, he founded the first ever Chinese centre with professor Tan Chung, who had to leave communist China. And when he had met Einstein, the latter had informed him of a brilliant physicist, Jagadish Chandra Bose, who Tagore was not aware of till then. Bose was Einstein’s collaborator and he headed the physics department for some time.

The unusual university was a major draw, of course, also due to Tagore’s nationalist leanings, so much so that Mahatma Gandhi once wrote to his financer, Ghanashyam das Birla to send Rs 30,000 to Tagore to help run the university.

The unending creativity of Tagore also saw him start to paint at a late age, influenced by painters of South France who he met.

It has been suggested that he could have been colour blind, which is reflected in the unusual colour schemes. But more importantly, his major paintings, which I had the fortune to see in Jorashanko, relate to women and their pain. Though such terms as feminism were not coined until then, Tagore would be called thus had it been coined, and it was reflected in not just the paintings.

In his famous novel “Charulata”, for instance, a forlorn wife’s craving for sexuality is graphically depicted, seen clearly in Satyajit Ray’s eponymous film. Interestingly, Tagore actively collaborated with European feminist Marie Stopes in promoting birth control in India because he felt strongly that women must equally enjoy life without just being made the carriers of the husband’s children.

When I accepted to write this article, I was aware that a man of such monumental height cannot be put in a capsule of a few thousand words. I ask for forgiveness from my readers for failing to write much more. But if I have ignited some curiosity in them to delve into Tagore, then my effort will have been rewarded.