Rabindranath Tagore:

        Sadhaka of Universal Man, Baul of Infinite Songs


Monish R. Chatterjee

During his lifetime, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a towering and epochal figure of legendary proportions not only within the bounds of his native Bengal, or his beloved India , but to a considerable extent, throughout the world. As a multifaceted genius and renaissance man par excellence, he not only carried the literature and arts of Bengal, virtually single-handedly, to dizzying heights of creativity, but, by his inspiring words, his lyrically unequalled songs, his unstinting support for the cause of India's freedom during a long and turbulent phase of her history, he lifted Indian culture and the Indian psyche to an unprecedented level of revitalization. In many ways, the arrival of Tagore was perhaps a natural culmination of the cultural reawakening of India, stimulated partly by contact with the West, which began with Raja Rammohan Roy (1773-1833)(see here too), whom Tagore himself labeled Bharat-Pathik, or Pathfinder of India. It took shape via reform movements covering diverse areas of religious and social problems associated with a complex and ancient civilization such as India. Rammohan himself founded the Brahmo Samaj, a philosophical and reformist society based upon the principle of the Advaita or Non-Dual Brahman. Later, the society splintered into two branches, the Adi and the Sadharan, of which the mentors were Maharshi Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), son of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), and father of Rabindranath, and Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884). Perhaps as a consequence of the Brahmo Movement and other somewhat West-inspired novelties such as the Young Bengal Movement (a key figure in which was Henry Vivian Derozio), there also began a crucial, parallel phenomenon based upon the ancient Hindu and Vedantic ideals. This led to the formation of the Arya Samaj of Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883), and the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Missions, established by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the illustrious disciple of the saint and spiritual Master, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886). Alongside, there also emerged such giants of education and social reform as Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), and pioneers of poetry and literature as Madhusudan Dutta (1824-1873) (known, as it was customary at the time to compare Indian talents with their European counterparts, as the Milton of Bengal), and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) (known, likewise, as the Scott of Bengal). Interestingly, Tagore himself was sometimes described as the Shelley of India.

As a supreme symbol of India's culture and spirit, Tagore was a contemporary of the other colossus of contemporary India, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Tagore and Gandhi were great admirers of each other, despite their differences in matters of politics, nationalism and social reform. It was Tagore who called Gandhi "The Mahatma in a peasant's garb" and Gandhi, in turn, called Tagore "The Great Sentinel". To render some perspective on Tagore's divergence of political views vis-a-vis Gandhi and some other prominent political leaders of British India, let me quote here a few relevant passages from Leonard Gordon (Brothers Against the Raj, biography of Subhas and Sarat Chandra Bose, Columbia University Press, 1990).

"...Tagore was never in full agreement with any of the political leaders, though in the last decade of his life he was sympathetic to the approach of Jawaharlal Nehru. Tagore never entered politics quite so directly after his disillusionment with Swadeshi (the emergent concept of Indian nationalism - author). He remained, however, a frequent and penetrating commentator on the development of the movement and his relinquishment of his knighthood after the Jallianwalla Bagh incident (refers to the 1919 massacre by British troops in Amritsar of more than 800 Indians gathered peacefully in defiance of a demeaning and unfair political Act - author) in 1919 was widely applauded in India. Certainly from the year of his Nobel Prize, 1913, Tagore stressed his international concerns, and shrewdly denounced the excesses of nationalism not only in India, but in Japan, China, and the West.

In October 1921, Tagore published his first major essay on Gandhi and non- cooperation, "The Call of Truth", which argued that truth was of both the head and the heart; while Gandhi stressed inner truth and love, he was fostering blind, unquestioning obedience to his message of charkha (the spinning wheel - Gandhi's symbol of India's self-reliance on her own cottage industry - author) by one and all. Tagore wanted Indian economists and leaders to fully investigate whether this made any economic sense. Tagore had his doubts and he resented that all were told to simply "spin and weave."

Tagore also objected to the burning of foreign cloth because it was foreign. Gandhi stressed the need for Indian self-sufficiency in every sphere of life, while Tagore saw the need for international cooperation and sharing. In the modern age, the poet insisted, India must learn from abroad, for example, in science, as well as look inward. Tagore believed that India had a message for the world, but he thought India must also incorporate others' messages into her own cultural repertoire. Like Gandhi, Tagore belived that inner swaraj and cultivation of the self was vital, and some aspects of Gandhi's constructive program were not foreign to the oft-repeated teachings of village reconstruction and paths to Indian revitalization which Tagore had put forward.

Gandhi answered Tagore with his essay, "The Great Sentinel", published in Young India, October 1921. Gandhi said that the spinning wheel had been chosen as the centerpiece of his program after due reflection and he wanted all to spin because, "when a house is on fire, all the inmates go out, and each takes up a bucket to quench the fire." Ignoring Tagore's suggestion of research and evaluation by economists, Gandhi insisted that the constructive program including the charkha would be the economic salvation of India. He also implied that Tagore did not have the welfare of India's masses at heart and preferred, along with other non-spinning aesthetes, the soft life. Neither spoke directly to the other's concerns..."

Tagore's involvement with Indian nationalism and patriotism began early in his life. In association with his older brothers, notably Satyendranath and Jyotirindranath, as well as his older sisters, particularly Swarnakumari, Tagore participated in the family's cultural outpourings from early in his life through such functions as the Swadeshi Melas (National Fairs). It is well-known how Tagore's initiation into his later musical creativity began with his stringing words to tunes that Jyotirindranath would spontaneously compose on the piano. It was through the inspiration of such Swadeshi Melas that Jyotirindranath Tagore's famous patriotic song Chal re chal shable Bharata santan (Go forth, children of India), Satyendranath Tagore's Mile shabe Bharata santan (Together, children of India), Sarala Devi's Atita gourava bahini mama vani (My words speak of our glories past), Tagore's first play Valmiki Pratibha (The Genius of Valmiki), and scores of others began to emerge. Evidence of Tagore's love of India as the motherland, and especially of Bengal, the land of his birth, is strewn in vast and eloquent numbers throughout his poems and songs. One of his more famous songs, Ekla Chalo (Walk Alone), was Mahatma Gandhi's favorite (this song was especially appropriate in the context of Gandhi's famous "Dandi" or "Salt March"). When the British first announced an infamous Settlement in 1905 for the Partitioning of Bengal (a part of their divide-and-rule policy along religious lines), Tagore wrote another potent song entitled Bidhir bandhan katbe tumi (You think you will undo the bond of Fate?). Even though the Settlement was finally repealed in 1912 in the wake of extensive socio-political upheavals and demonstrations, ironically, Bengal did not escape the cruel axe of partition when the British finally left India in 1947. During events of great significance within India or Bengal, many were the times when the nation benefitted from his sagacious benediction via a new song or a poem. Many decades ago, Tagore encouraged the idea of reforestation at a time when there was no such thing as a wave of nature conservation, green alerts, or Earth Days. On one occasion, he ceremoniously celebrated nature and woodlands by planting trees during a festival he called Vanamahotsava (Celebration of Forests). At that time, he wrote the song Maruvijayera ketana urao he shunye (Raise aloft the banner of the conquest of the desert) which carried emphatically the idea of fertility and the connection of life itself to the soil and the bounty that it brings forth. At a Rakhi Utsav, also known as Raksha Bandhan throughout India (in which sisters place a bracelet around the wrists of brothers for protection and good luck), he received the rakhi (bracelet) from his aging older sister Barnakumari, and wrote the famous song Banglar mati Banglar jal (May the Earth and Water of Bengal be blessed, O Lord). At times he pined for the arrival of the Great Leader of his people whom the nation could embrace with love and despatch to his heroic task with confidence. This wish of his is exemplified in the song Tomar asan shunya aji (Your seat lies empty). When Tagore formally conferred the title Deshanayak (Leader of the Nation) upon Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and perceived in him the highest quality of courage, patriotism, vision and leadership that an independent India would need desperately, he probably was fulfilling the wish expressed in his song mentioned earlier. The story of the triangular connection involving Tagore, Gandhi and Bose forms an inseparable and vital link to the history of the Indian freedom movement, one that post-independence historians of Europe and even India, have either deliberately ignored, or presented with slants and distortions. Only recently there appears to have begun a new level of awareness in this regard at least in some Western quarters, and Leonard Gordon's book on Bose certainly makes a commendable effort in setting some of the records straight. I would like to present here a few vignettes which highlight the Tagore-Gandhi-Bose triangle directly out of Prof. Gordon's book:

"... To the government, the students were unruly children and had to be brought into line and only "constitutional" means of questioning the actions of the rulers were permissible. In a microcosmic form this event and other similar events during the Swadeshi agitation were rehearsals for the bigger and more directly political events of the coming years.

One of the most sensitive commentators on these events was the poet Rabindranath Tagore, himself an educator. He said in his essay, "Indian students and Western Teachers," that Indian students needed sympathy and inspiration, but that, "the least insult pierces to the quick." The university, he argued, could be the arena for the beneficial meeting and sharing of cultures, but it could never be such as long as the British stereotyped the Bengali, made men into adjectives rather than nouns, and demanded a relationship based on fear and hate. In his own Indian-run school (Visva-Bharati University - author), Tagore said that there were both good and bad European teachers, but only in an atmosphere of free intercourse between men, could the desirable relationship exist.

... Subhas was becoming more widely known in Bengal and India even while he was serving his time in prison. Indeed, the prison term and the suffering he endured there contributed to his reputation. He was becoming known as a hero and martyr for India. Anil Baran Roy told Jogesh Chatterji, "Subhas Chandra is the rising sun of India. How far and in exactly what direction he would go, no one yet knew. Subhas himself was probably not sure, but he thought of a favorite poem of Rabindranath Tagore in writing to a friend,

I am building my mind all by myself
And growing worthier for the tasks ahead
Who knows when shall I be able to declare with all my heart:
I have reached my Realisation,
Come all, follow me,
The Master is calling you all,
May my life bring forth new life in you all,
And thus may my country awake.

... While he was completing The Indian Struggle, Bose was searching for a prominent literary figure to write a preface to his book, for the publisher thought this would help the sales. He wrote to Rabindranath Tagore seeking assistance in contacting Bernard Shaw. He chided Tagore for the perfunctory letter Tagore had written to Romain Rolland on his behalf earlier, and then Bose wrote,

Apart from Bernard Shaw, it might also be a good idea to get a foreword from H. G. Wells. I had also thought of M. Rolland, but he is too much an admirer of Gandhi. I am not that and I have told him that. So I cannot hope that M. Rolland will agree to write the introduction to my book. Bernard Shaw or Wells have a high opinion of Mahatmaji, but they are not his blind admirers, so they might agree. I had also thought of you, but I do not know whether you would be inclined to write something for a book concerning politics. Besides, you yourself have recently become Mahatmaji's blind admirer - at any rate, people might get this impression from your writings. Under the circumstances whether you would be able to tolerate criticism of Mahatmaji, I do not know.

Tagore declined to write to Shaw and he did not comment on the rough-and- ready, blunt manner in which Bose wrote to him. As the skillful historian of the Bose-Tagore relationship, Nepal Majumdar, noted, people did not usually write to Tagore in such a fashion. What Tagore did in reply was to give Bose a serious lecture on the history of Indian politics. The poet told the politician that before Gandhi the people of India had been dormant. What Gandhi had done was to awaken the Indian people to their strength, and, whatever the Mahatma's deficiencies, Tagore thought that Gandhi had and would have an enduring impact on India. To ignore Gandhi's power, Tagore told Bose, was to blind one's self to the realities of modern India ...

Among other matters, Nehru was concerned with the Muslims' objection to the song, Vande Mataram, from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novel Ananda Math, and widely used as a nationalist anthem. It was a Bengali, Hindu song which the Muslim League said the Congress was "... foisting .. as the national anthem upon the country in callous disregard of the feelings of the Muslims." Nehru obtained an English translation of the novel from which the song was drawn and saw how there might be Muslim hostility to it, if not to the song itself. Following Bose's advice, he agreed to come early to the AICC (All India Congress Committee - author ) session that was to be held in Calcutta (Nehru was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1935, and Bose in 1938 and 1939 - author) and discuss the matter with Rabindranath Tagore. Subhas Bose, although a Bengali, was not dogmatic about the use of the song. Later, a song of Tagore's, which was clearly secular and had none of the overtones of Vande Mataram, was transliterated into Hindi and used as the national anthem (this song, "Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka," later was also adopted as the national anthem of free India - author).

... Throughout his adult political life, Rabindranath Tagore had been critical of using force, man against man, class against class, nation against nation. He had sharp words for the Japanese when he visited Japan at the time of the First World War and in the late 1930s; he was hostile to their use of force in China. On the political left in India, there were strong anti-fascist sentiments as well as anti-imperialist views. As yet there was no problem of opposing both German and Italian fascism and British imperialism.

... As early as October 1938, Gandhi wrote to a confidant, "There is bound to be some difficulty this time electing the President." (This refers to the well-known and controversial Presidential election of the Indian National Congress at Tripuri in 1939 in which Subhas Bose won despite Gandhi's opposition- author.) Rabindranath Tagore urged that Bose be re-elected in a letter to Gandhi, but Gandhi said it would be better for Bose not to run. ... On January 29, 1939, Subhas Bose was elected Congress President, besting Sitaramayya (candidate backed by Gandhi- author) by 1,580 votes to 1,375. Subhas Bose had won a victory, but a serious war with the Gandhians was just beginning.

... Through a series of controversies in which Subhas Bose had been involved from late 1938 through late 1939, one prominent figure, the giant of India's cultural life, Rabindranath Tagore, supported him stoutly. As he explained, Tagore had his doubts about Subhas, but now, with Subhas besieged, the Poet spoke eloquently for him and to him in an essay entitled "Deshnayak". He said, in part,

As Bengal's poet, I today acknowledge you as the leader of the people of Bengal. The Gita tells us that from time to time the eternal principle of the good arises to challenge the reign of the evil ... Suffering from the deadening effect of the prolonged punishment inflicted upon her young generation and disintegrated by internal factions, Bengal is passing through a period of dark despair ... At such a juncture of nation-wide crisis, we require the service of a forceful personality, the invincible faith of a natural leader, who can defy the adverse fate that threatens our progress ... I have ... witnessed the beginning of your political sadhana. In that uncertain twilight there had been misgivings in my heart ... Today you are revealed in the pure light of the midday sun which does not admit of apprehensions ... Your strength has been sorely taxed by imprisonment, banishment and disease, but rather than impairing, these have helped to broaden your sympathies ... You did not regard apparent defeat as final: therefore, you have turned your trials into your allies. More than anything else Bengal needs today to emulate the powerful force of your determination and self-reliant courage ... Let Bengal affirm in one united voice that her deliverer's seat is ready, spread for you ... Long ago ... I sent out a call for the leader of Bengal who had yet to come. (This refers to Tagore's song Tomar asan shunya aji mentioned before- author.) After a lapse of many years I am addressing ... one who has come into the full light of recognition. My days have come to their end. I may not join him in the fight that is to come. I can only bless him ... knowing that he had made his country's burden of sorrow his own, that his final reward is fast coming as his country's freedom.

Privately as well, Tagore had made every effort to help Bose, asking Gandhi and Nehru in late 1938 and early 1939 to accept Bose as Congress President again without a squabble. In December 1939, Tagore asked Gandhi to have the ban on Subhas lifted and his cooperation cordially invited in the "supreme interest of national unity." They declined his advice throughout. At the end of 1939, after all the arguments with Bose, they had quite a different view of him from that of Tagore. Writing in Harijan in early 1940, Gandhi said,

The love of my conception, if it is as soft as a rose petal, can also be harder than flint. My wife has had to experience the hard variety. My eldest son is experiencing it even now. I had thought I had gained Subhas Babu for all time as a son. I have fallen from grace. I had the pain of wholly associating myself with the ban pronounced on him.

In Gandhi's ever-expanding network of familial relations, Subhas had been taken in like a son. But his rebelliousness led to his rejection. Like Gandhi's own sons, he had to feel the "flint" side of Gandhi's love. Shortly thereafter, writing to C. F. Andrews, Gandhi mentioned Tagore's wire asking that the ban on Bose be lifted, and told Andrews,

If you think it proper tell Gurudev (revered teacher- one of several titles bestowed upon Tagore by his admirers- author) that I have never ceased to think of his wire and anxiety about Bengal. I feel that Subhas is behaving like a spoilt child of the family. The only way to make up with him is to open his eyes. And then his politics show sharp differences. They seem to be unbridgeable. I am quite clear the matter is too complicated for Gurudev to handle. Let him trust that no one in the Committee has anything personal against Subhas. For me, he is as my son.

So Subhas remained the son, but he was the spoilt child who had to have his eyes opened by his elders in the Working Committee ..."

Getting back to the literary domain, Tagore's unrivalled arena of creativity , where he produced prodigious volumes of poems, songs, essays, dramas, novels and short stories with seemingly endless energy, we may quote Ezra Pound who declared "Tagore sang Bengal into a nation." Amazingly, this from a non- Indian who was less familiar with Bengali or Indian culture than many Indians; ironically, the import of Tagore's magnificent music is little understood or appreciated outside Bengal even today. Many years later, Hermann Hesse wrote, "I would be happy if I lived to see Tagore's triumphant reemergence after the testing period of temporary oblivion ... "

Let me quote here a little excerpt by translating from Maitreyi Devi's Mongpu-te Rabindranath, pertinent to his Gitanjali, the book of songs which first brought him to the attention of the Western literary circles, and which eventually won him the Nobel Prize.

"... One evening two young Anglo-Indian men came to visit. I said (to Tagore ) "They wish to hear a few words." We all then sat on the floor surrounding him; he began reading from the Crescent Moon. "Imagine that I am going far away to strange lands with my mother," "Mother, if you were to be the sky and I the Champa tree,"- he read the English versions of these. Listening to the sweet sounds, everyone was held spellbound. Watching the expressions on their faces, and perhaps because he was himself thrilled by the sound of his voice in that forest surrounding at twilight, he went on reading. He read practically all of the Gitanjali. "The Miser" sticks to my mind, "Least little grain ...", then finally the poem "In one salutation to Thee."

Ujjal had left a lamp on the shelf directly behind where he was seated. A glimmering white light fell upon his hair white and soft as silk. The beauty of that vision cannot be expressed in any human language; the eyes, beholding it, are never satiated. Then among the shades of the forest outside, the darkness had deepened, inside the room the light was dim; only before our eyes, the countenance of the Great Man effulgent in bright light; a melodious voice rang in our ears. When he was done reading, we sat motionless for a long time, while deep in our hearts silently resonated the words- "In one salutation to Thee- In one salutation to Thee." I can barely recall adequately the immensity of our feelings from that night. Such is the nature of our ungrateful minds. That which is unforgettable, that, remembering which life itself finds salvation, how readily and effortlessly we forget.

A long time later, after they had departed, he recounted the first days of the writing of Gitanjali. He lived then on the second floor of what is now the Guest House in Santiniketan (the Ashrama or hermitage established in rural Bengal by Tagore's father, Maharshi Debendranath- author). Many evenings and dawns were spent there with these songs.

When I first translated them into English, I had not the slightest faith my English would be readable. Many even suspected that Andrews had done the translating.  It embarrassed poor Andrews terribly.  The day Yeats invited all the distinguished personages to Rothenstein's home for a reading of Gitanjali, I cannot describe to you how utterly embarrassed and uneasy I felt.  Repeatedly, I said it was not a good idea.  Yeats could not be dissuaded. He was adamant. So the arrangement was made, many luminaries arrived , Gitanjali was read. No one said a word- quietly they all listened and departed- no criticism, no accolades, not even a single word of encouragement!  In utter shame, I began to wish "Mother Earth, open and take me in" (a reference to words spoken by Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana, when asked by Rama to take a chastity test a second time- author).  Why was I foolish enough to listen to Yeats and get into this?  For me to write in English- did I ever learn the language that I should even try?  I thought like this, and could hardly raise my head out of repentance and regret.  The next day the letters began to arrive, waves of them, each overwhelming in praise; letters came completely unexpectedly from every one of them.  Then I understood, they were all so deeply moved that evening that they had been unable to express themselves.  By nature the English are somewhat reticent, they could not say anything right there and then.  How astonished I was when the letters began to arrive.  This I had neither expected, nor even imagined!  My friend Yeats was particularly pleased."

Let me quote further on the genesis of Gitanjali and its reception in the West from Krishna Kripalani's "Rabindranath Tagore: a biography".

"... Tagore was due to sail from Calcutta on 19 March, but on the night before his departure he was suddenly taken ill and the doctors forbade an immediate voyage. His luggage was on board and had to be sent back from Madras where the ship halted next. He was disappointed at this unforeseen cancellation of his voyage and sought consolation and strength, as of old, by retiring to Shelidah on the banks of his beloved river Padma. It was here that he began to translate, for the first time, some of his Gitanjali songs into English. But let him tell the story in his own words.

"You have alluded to the English translation of Gitanjali. I cannot imagine to this day how people came to like it so much. That I cannot write English is such a patent fact that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it. If anybody wrote an English note asking me to tea, I did not feel equal to answering it. Perhaps you think that by now I have got over that delusion. By no means. That I have written in English seems to be the delusion. On the day I was to board the ship, I fainted due to my frantic efforts at leave-taking and the journey itself was postponed. Then I went to Shelidah to take rest. But unless the brain is fully active, one does not feel strong enough to relax completely; so the only way to keep myself calm was to take up some light work.

It was then the month of Chaitra (March-April), the air was thick with the fragrance of mango-blossoms and all hours of the day were delirious with the song of birds. When a child is full of vigour, he does not think of his mother. It is only when he is tired that he wants to nestle in her lap. That was exactly my position. With all my heart and with all my holiday I seemed to have settled comfortably in the arms of Chaitra, without missing a particle of its light, it air, its scent, and its song. In such a state one cannot remain idle. It is an old habit of mine, as you know, that when the air strikes my bones, they tend to respond in music. Yet I had not the energy to sit down and write anything new. So I took up the poems of Gitanjali and set myself to translate them one by one. You may wonder why such a crazy ambition should possess one in such a weak state of health. But, believe me, I did not undertake this task in a spirit of reckless bravado. I simply felt the urge to recapture through the medium of another language the feelings and sentiments which had created such a feast of joy within me in the days gone by.

The pages of a small exercise-book came to be filled gradually, and with it in my pocket I boarded the ship.  The idea of keeping it in my pocket was that when my mind became restless on the high seas, I would recline on a deck-chair and set myself to translate one or two poems from time to time.  And that is what actually happened.  From one exercise-book I passed on to another.  Rothenstein already had an inkling of my reputation as a poet from another Indian friend.  Therefore, when in the course of conversation he expressed a desire to see some of my poems, I handed him my manuscript with some diffidence.  I could hardly believe the opinion he expressed after going through it.  He then made over the manuscript to Yeats.  The story of what followed is known to you.  From this explanation of mine you will see that I was not responsible for the offence, which was due mainly to the force of circumstances."

This authentic account of how the English Gitanjali came to be written needs only one minor correction.  It would not be correct to say that he wrote nothing new during the period of convalescence.  In fact, he wrote several songs which were later published as Gitimalya (Garland of Songs) and of which seventeen were included in translation in the English Gitanjali.  In some of these songs, untranslated, the poet's disappointment at the abortive voyage and his restlessness find vivid expression.

... At last the convalescence was over and Rabindranath was well enough to risk a voyage. After spending a few days in Santiniketan he sailed for London from Bombay on 27 May 1912 accompanied by his son Rathindranath and the latter's wife, Pratima.  Fortunately the sea was calm and he had enough rest and leisure to continue his translations of the Gitanjali songs.  In London the party put up in a Bloomsbury hotel.  A minor mishap, recalled by his son, might have changed the course of events.  He was carrying his father's brief-case, which contained among other papers the manuscript of the English Gitanjali.  While travelling in the Underground from Charing Cross to Russell Square, he left behind the brief-case in the compartment and realized his mistake on the following morning when his father asked for it. Fortunately, the brief-case was recovered at the Lost Property Office.

It was the English painter Sir William Rothenstein who served as midwife to the birth of Tagore's fame in Europe. Rothenstein had visited India in 1910 and had come to know well the artist-brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath during his stay in Calcutta.  He had already heard of them in Banaras from Sir John Woodroffe and Sir Henry Stephen.  The fact that neither of these two distinguished Englishmen who knew India well mentioned anything to him about Rabindranath shows how little the poet was known in his own country outside the strictly limited literary circle of Bengal.  "I was attracted, each time I went to Jorasanko," writes Rothenstein, "by their uncle, a strikingly handsome figure, dressed in a white dhoti and chadar, who sat silently listening as we talked.  I felt an immediate attraction, and asked if I might draw him, for I discovered an inner charm as well as great physical beauty, which I tried to set down with my pencil.  That this uncle was one of the remarkable men of his time no one gave me a hint."

A little later, on his return to London, Rothenstein came across, in the pages of the Modern Review, the English translation of one of Tagore's short stories which impressed him. He wrote to his friends in Calcutta inquiring if any more such translations were available. In response he received a few translations of poems done by Ajit Chakravarty, a colleague of Tagore's on the staff of the Santiniketan school. "The poems, of a highly mystical character, struck me as being still more remarkable than the story, though but through rough translations. Meanwhile, I met one of the Cooch Behar family, Promotto Loll Sen, a saintly man and a Brahmo of course. He brought to our house Dr. Brajendranath Seal, then on a visit to London, a philosopher with a brilliant mind and a childlike character. They both wrote to Tagore, urging him to come to London; he would meet, they said, at our house and elsewhere, men after his heart."

And so when Tagore came to London where he hardly knew anyone else, almost the first thing he did was to call upon Rothenstein and, knowing his interest in his poems, gave him the note-book in which he had scribbled his translations. "That evening," writes Rothenstein, "I read the poems. Here was poetry of a new order which seemed to me on a level with that of the great mystics. Andrew Bradley, to whom I showed them, agreed: "It looks as though we have at last a great poet amongst us again," he wrote. I sent word to Yeats, who failed to reply; but when I wrote again he asked me to send him the poems, and when he had read them his enthusiasm equaled mine. He came to London and went carefully through the poems, making here and there a suggestion, but leaving the original little changed."

What Yeats felt about these poems he has himself recorded in the beautiful Introduction he wrote for the first limited edition of Gitanjali published by the India Society of London on 1st November of the same year. "I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days," he wrote, "reading it in railway trains, or on top of the omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics - which are in the original, my Indian friends tell me, full of subtlety and rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention- display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes."

Yeats' appreciation of these poems encouraged Rothenstein to call a few friends at his Hampstead house on the evening of 30 June when Yeats read out the poems in "his musical ecstatic voice" to a choice gathering which included Ezra Pound, May Sinclair, Ernest Rhys, Alice Meynell, Henry Nevinson, Charles Trevelyan, Fox-Strangways and others. It was at this gathering that Tagore first met Charles Freer Andrews, who was at that time a missionary attached to the Cambridge Brotherhood, and has left his own account of that memorable evening:

"I walked back along the side of Hampstead Heath with H.W. Nevinson, but spoke very little. I wanted to be alone and think in silence of the wonder and glory of it all. When I had left Nevinson, I went across the Heath. The night was cloudless and there was something of the purple of the Indian atmosphere about the sky. There all alone I could think of the wonder of it:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet
On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.

It was the haunting, haunting melody of the English, so simple, like all the beautiful sounds of my childhood, that carried me completely away. I remained out under the sky far into the night, almost until dawn was breaking.

The room where we were seated looked out upon the myriad evening lights of the great city of London which lay below ... I sat at the window in the dusk of the long summer evening as Rabindranath's poems were read slowly one by one ... I remember how immeasurably happy I was that night as I went away. The new wine of Rabindranath's poetry had intoxicated me. I had only seen tiny extracts before; but the recital which I had heard that evening was the full measure, pure and undiluted. It was an experience not unlike that of Keats', when he came for the first time upon Chapman's translation of Homer -

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken."

May Sinclair wrote in a letter to Rabindranath: "May I say now that as long as I live, even if I were never to hear them again, I shall never forget the impression that they made. It is not only that they have an absolute beauty, a perfection as poetry, but that they have made present for me forever the divine thing that I can only find by flashes and with an agonizing uncertainty ... You have put into English which is absolutely transparent in its perfection things it is despaired of ever seeing written in English at all or in any Western language."

An excerpt from Ezra Pound's assessment of these poems is worth quoting as evidence of what one of the most sensitive, vital and creative of Tagore's Western contemporaries thought of him. if today, the Tagore vogue having faded, no Western critic would perhaps endorse this assessment, it only shows how fashions change in literary as in other values.

It is little over a month when I went to Mr. Yeats' room and found him much excited over the advent of a great poet, someone "greater than any of us."
It is hard to tell where to begin ...
The hundred poems in the present selection are all songs to sing.
The tunes and the words are knit together, and Oriental music would seem to fit this purpose better than our own...
The next easiest things to note are the occasional brilliant phrases, now like some pure Hellenic, in "Morning with the golden basket in her right hand," now like the last sophistication of De Gourmont and Baudelaire.
But beneath and above it all is this spirit of curious quiet. We have found our new Greece, suddenly. As the sense of balance came back upon Europe in the days before the Renaissance, so it seems to me does this sense of a saner stillness come now to us in the midst of our clangour of mechanisms ...
I am not saying this hastily, nor in an emotional flurry, nor from a love of brandishing statement. I have had a month to think it over....
There is in him the stillness of nature. The poems do not seem to have been produced by storm or by ignition, but seem to show the normal habit of his mind.
He is at one with nature, and finds no contradictions. And this is in sharp contrast with the Western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have "great drama." It is in contrast to the Hellenic representation of man, the sport of the gods, and both in the grip of destiny...

"In the deep shadows of the rainy July, with secret steps, thou walkest, silent as night, eluding all watchers..."

This is one lyric of the hundred as you may have it in English; remember also what is gone, the form, delicate as a rondel, the music, tenuous, restive.
Remember the feet of the scansion, the first note struck with an accent and three or four trailing after it, in a measure more than trochaic.
As fast as I select one poem for quotation, I am convinced, in reading the next one, that I have chosen wrongly, and that this next one would have helped to convince you.
Perhaps simple confession is the best criticism after all. I do not want to confuse Mr. Tagore's personality with his work, and yet the relation between the two is so close that perhaps I may not offend by two statements, which I shall not attempt to explain.
When I leave Mr. Tagore, I feel exactly as if I were a barbarian clothed in skins, and carrying a stone war-club, the kind, that is, where the stone is bound into a crotcheted stick with thongs ...
Briefly, I find in these poems a sort of ultimate common sense, a reminder of one thing and of forty things of which we are ever likely to lose sight of in the confusion of our Western life, in the racket of our cities, in the jabber of manufactured literature, in the vortex of advertisement ...
If these poems have a flaw - I do not admit that they have - but if they have a quality that will put them at a disadvantage with the "general reader", it is that they are too pious.
Yet I have nothing but pity for the reader who is unable to see that their piety is the poetic piety of Dante, and that it is very beautiful.

Not all the criticism was favorable, however; some were in fact downright hostile, often becoming embroiled in racial overtones and biases. Let me illustrate this by once again quoting from Kripalani's biography:

"Indeed, critics were not wanting who refused to "fall under the spell of this Indian poet". One of them wrote in the New Age, London, "any of us could write such stuff ad libitum; but nobody should be deceived into thinking it good English, good poetry, good sense, or good ethics". Some critics patted themselves on the back that the British had civilized the Indians so well that the latter could write such good stuff. "The chief significance of Mr. Tagore's triumph," wrote a critic in the Birmingham Post, "is that it marks the culmination of the development of an offshoot of English literature, the importance of which has not been sufficiently recognized." The general reception of Gitanjali in the British press was, however, overwhelmingly favorable and the author was naturally pleased about it.

...for when the Prize did come, there were rumblings of protest in many quarters of the West that an Asian had received it. "The awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature," wrote an American paper, "to a Hindu has occasioned much chagrin and no little surprise among writers of the Caucasian race. They cannot understand why this distinction was bestowed upon one who is not white." The Globe of Toronto, Canada, wrote: "It is the first time that the Nobel Prize has gone to anyone who is not what we call "white". It will take time, of course, for us to accommodate ourselves to the idea that anyone called Rabindranath Tagore should receive a world prize for literature. (Have we not been told that the East and West shall never meet?) The name has a curious sound. The first time we saw it in print it did not seem real. The Times , Los Angeles, complained that young modern writers in Europe and America had been discouraged by the award of the Prize "to a Hindu poet whose name few people can pronounce, with whose work fewer in America are familiar, and whose claim for that high distinction still fewer will recognize"."

Leaving for the moment the arena of the Nobel Prize, let me mention briefly one significant incident from within Bengal that Tagore himself would recount as his first true honor in the letters. Years earlier, when Tagore was a rather young literary upstart in his early twenties, he was present at a wedding reception in the home of Romesh Chunder Dutt, in which was present, among others, the unquestioned emperor of the Bengali novel, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.  As the evening's most distinguished guest, presently Bankim was feted and a garland was placed around his neck.  It turns out that Bankim immediately removed the garland from his own neck, and placed it around Tagore's.  Thereafter, before the startled gathering, he turned to an acquaintance nearby and said, "This garland is truly deserved by him.  Ramesh, have you read Sandhya Sangeet?"  This incident illustrates to me rather remarkably how indeed great minds and talents are often first perceived by other great ones, just as it happened years later in Europe.  What makes this uncanny recognition and premonition from Bankim even more astonishing is that at the time it was made, Bankim was at the very pinnacle of Indian literature (and in age approaching fifty), and that Sandhya Sangeet (Evening Songs), by Tagore's own admission, was not one of his best creations. It is also interesting to note that as much as Tagore admired Bankim (his accounts of waiting to read the newest editions of Bankim's journal Bangadarshan in order to devour the installments of his novels are illuminating), he actually had a bit of a feud with the Sahitya Samrat early in his career over some difference of opinion on some social/religious issue. The veteran Bankim, it turns out, gently chided the young upstart, and in fact eventually forgave him his somewhat imprudent journalistic attacks.

Another relationship of Tagore with an intellectual luminary which borders on the level of "meeting of minds", was his lifelong friendship with the renowned Indian physicist and bio-physiologist, Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937).  Bose was a pioneer of modern Indian science as much as Tagore was in the letters.  He was an experimental physicist of the highest order, and his sterling accomplishments are even more astounding when one considers the lack of any tangible scientific infrastructure which was available to anyone in British India.  Bose was as much a scientist as he was a deeply committed humanitarian and patriot. Between him and Tagore, science met the arts on a par with, in my opinion, the famous meeting of Milton and Galileo (only that this friendship lasted throughout their lives, through myriads of events too numerous to recount here).  In this context, I would like to quote here, via my own translation, a portion of Anil Chandra Ghosh's biography of Bose ("Acharya Jagadish", Presidency Library, Calcutta).

"Between Bengal's greatest poet and greatest scientist there was a deep and loving bond of friendship. In times of fortune and victory, as well as in times of pain and sorrow, the two souls clung to one another inseparably. The story of their meeting has been best described by Tagore himself:

"I was young then. the life before me was misty like the morning cloud yet bright with many colors.
Then one day I met Jagadish for the first time. He, too, had not climbed any heights then. He had only begun to climb up the steep and shady slope of the rising sun, the dazzling sunlight of achievement had not illuminated his efforts yet. Many yet were his obstacles, numerous his own misgivings. But the joy that accompanies the first experience of one's own spontaneity is perhaps fiery like the thrill of youth - the trials of obstacles, the burning of sorrow only deepens that joy. When such manthan (churning ) of the youthful Jagadish's power by the devas and the asuras (here referring to a mythical tale of the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons in search of the ambrosia of eternal life - author) via great happiness and sorrow was in progress, I happened to come very close to him.
The timing for a friendship is seldom better than it was for us. After all, when the blazing afternoon sun arrives, the demands of life grip humans in a powerful grasp .... Then one may receive flowers or felicitations depending on one's fate; but the priceless touch of a friend's hand which comes unexpectedly to the first traveler is without measure ...
The tales of our friendship, like pictures from long ago, are scattered from his home in Dharmatala (in Calcutta) to our desolate home by the shore of the Padma.
I was lonely since my childhood, my days were spent in the obscure corners of the barriers of family rules. The first friendship of my life was with Jagadish.
He had drawn me out of my habitual corner much as the dewy and soothing sunrise of autumn always pulled me out of my bedroom."

When Tagore lived in Shelidah by the Padma, Jagadish Chandra, too, would spend several days with him- of course, Tagore had to write a new story every day to tell Jagadish.  Rathindranath Tagore (Tagore's eldest son) has described some of the events from those times as follows:

"At this time, my father was placed in charge of the management of the zamindari (estate). He had to travel to Shelidah frequently. In winter, he would spend time in his boat moored by the sandy bank of the Padma. He was then editing Bharati, following a stint with Sadhana (both literary journals - author) ... people had little access to him those days.  He wrote stories after stories in that environment.  Jagadish Chandra would encourage him to write short stories. He would visit every Saturday.  After spending the weekend in Shelidah, he would return back to Calcutta for his college work every Monday.  Each time he met my father, he would demand a story.  He must read the story to his friend before it was published.  There was no way for him to ignore this demand of friendship.
When my Father would go to spend a few days in his boat in Shelidah, he would often take me with him.  I used to be as eager for Jagadish Chandra's arrival then as my Father.  He (Bose) would talk to me, teach me games; he never neglected me because I was a child.
After the rains, when the river water would recede, turtles would climb to the river bank and lay eggs.  Jagadish Chandra loved to eat turtle eggs.  He showed me how to look for them and find them ...
Jagadish Chandra would entertain my Father by telling him stories or discussing his research experiments.  The days would usually pass in this manner.  At nightfall, however, he would insist that my Father read to him from his writings. Poems, essays, nothing could be excluded; however, he liked the short stories most.  After supper, the songs would begin."

This was when Tagore recognized Jagadish Chandra's genius.  He wrote, "I had seen the light in my friend.  It is my pride that my intuition was true even before the proof came along.  My reverence for him was not of the kind that takes accounts by evidence."

...When his daughter (Bela) was seriously ill in 1903, Tagore wrote to Jagadish Chandra Bose from Santiniketan: "I have no limit to my worries over the school ... What more could I tell you, please take the help of Mohit Babu and Ramani and make the school take its roots. Consider these your own." Jagadish was as anxious over the well-being of Santiniketan as Tagore. Jagadish Chandra contributed to the planning which went into the inception of Visva Bharati (Tagore's University). In 1903 itself he wrote, "I think about your school all the time. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it will turn into a national university." The ideas that led to the creation of Visva Bharati were also the ideas behind the establishment of the famous Bose Institute."

Tagore wrote several poems felicitating and addressing J.C. Bose, as he did for many other luminaries around the world who were his contemporaries.  It is nothing short of staggering to realize the extent and depth of friendships he had with the creative men and women of his time.  His writings celebrating these friendships, as well as his tributes and eulogies are as famous in Bengali literature as his major literary work.  It needs to be mentioned that Tagore wrote a famous song, Matrimandira Punya Angana (Brighten the courtyard of the Temple of your Motherland) to commemorate the inauguration of J.C. Bose's famed research institution, the Bose Institute, the first of its kind in Asia.  At the reception for Bose's seventieth birthday (1928), Tagore read a poem which reads in part (my own translation) :

When the field of your action was desolate, unnoticed
Your toils suffered in the coils of hindrance, in that evening of doubt
Holding a garland of victory, friend, a poet had embraced you;
Wait he did not for the applause of the masses,
Lit a lamp upon your empty offering tray in days of despair.
Today with a thousand others he joins in the pronouncement :
Blessed you, Blessed those you called friend, Blessed your hallowed Motherland.  ©Monish R. Chatterjee (1991)

In the section titled "Hinduism as Promoter of Noble Lives," in his The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man, Troy Wilson Organ writes, "Many Western visitors whose experiences of Hinduism are limited to sights such as the burning ghats of Banaras, goat sacrifices at Kalighat in Calcutta, linga shrines, and pilgrims at Puri are repelled by Hinduism. The early Christian missionaries, not penetrating the outer covering that had grown around Hinduism, sometimes brought back stories of the type found in Katherine Mayo's Mother IndiaWilliam Carey was an exception ... Still there is justice in accusing Hinduism of failing to develop a uniform high level of social life. Hunger, disease, illiteracy, and poverty are facts in India which cannot be ignored ... The Hindu culture of the few- the philosophers, artists, rishis (seers), and poets- is a culture much to be admired.  But for every Sankara, or Kalidasa, or Buddha, or Tagore there are thousands living in squalor, filth and ignorance ... But this should not blind critics to one of the great strengths of this culture- the fact that it has produced some of the noblest specimens of the human race."

Displaying an uncanny understanding of and sensitivity towards the social and philosophical culture of India, Organ goes on to write, "If asked to select but one man to represent the highest Hinduism has produced, many would select Rabindranath Tagore ... He was a genius in many fields- poetry, short stories, music, choreography, painting, architecture, science, education, social service and statesmanship. Three months before his death, though troubled by the war in Europe, he wrote an essay Crisis in Civilization (Sabhyatar Sankat - author) in which he said, "I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man."  He closed the essay with a poem by Tagore (Oyi Mahamanava Aashe):

The Great One comes,
sending shivers across the dust of the earth.
In the heavens sound the trumpter,
in the world of man drums of victory are heard,
the hour has arrived of the Great Birth.
The gates of Night's fortress
crumble into the dust-
on the crest of awakening dawn
assurance of a new life
proclaims "Fear Not."
The great sky resounds with hallelujahs of victory
to the Coming of Man."

About Tagore's paintings, I would like to mention that he began to paint as a hobby at a rather advanced age, probably more because of the encouragement he received from his Argentinean admirer, friend and patron Victoria Ocampo (1890-1979). It began as doodles on his poetry books where he would join rejected portions of his poems and other writings by means of curious lines and shades from which strange, ethereal creatures would emerge. It turns out that by the time his paintings were displayed in various international galleries, and in most cases admired, he had done as many as two thousand, perhaps more. Tagore's boundless curiosity also carried him into the realm of physical sciences, and his interest in scientific inquiry has already been mentioned in connection with his friendship with J.C. Bose. In addition, his meetings and conversations with Albert Einstein are quite well known, and have now become part of the Tagore lore. He wrote a delightful account of the joys of scientific knowledge and discoveries in a book meant for general readers, and children in particular; a book he called Visva Parichay (The Nature of the Universe). Tagore was truly an ardent advocate of an integrated approach to science and humanities in education. Tagore was not all metaphysics and mysticism, even though his inner culture was supreme in matters of mystical and spiritual beauty, and through varied artistic outlets, he explored the ecstatic bliss of the Universal Soul in the human soul. Yet, he felt at all times the beauty in life is to be found in all pursuits of knowledge, and knowledge or development in isolation is never complete. Hence, his emphasis on cultural, scientific and social exchange between all peoples in all places. In the song Bharat Tirtha (The Indian Pilgrimage), he envisioned an India imbued with the noblest of her national ideals: that of tolerance, acceptance, exchange and the striving for human perfection through a loving and reverential appreciation of nature and identification of the infinite within the finite, the form within the formless- two themes common in his writings. What follows is a prose translation by me of a portion of Bharat Tirtha:

Awaken, my heart, gently upon this blessed pilgrimage
By the shore of the sea of Bharata's Great Humanity!
Standing here, stretching my arms, I salute the Divine in Man
In a rhythm all-embracing, with joy unbounded I sing His Glory.
Mountains mute in meditation deep, vales strewn with woods and streams,
Timeless, behold here spread, the hallowed earth
By the shore of the sea of Bharata's Great Humanity!

None can tell, at whose beckoning, vast waves of humanity
In currents unstoppable, from the unknown here arrived,
To merge into the Great Sea!
Here Aryans, non-Aryans, Dravidians, Chinese
Sakas, Hunas, Pathans, Moguls in one body, lo, were united.
The doors today have opened in the West, bearing gifts, behold, they arrive-
All shall give and take, mingle and be mingled in, none shall depart dejected
From the shore of the sea of Bharata's Great Humanity!

Come, O Aryans, come, non-Aryans, Hindus and Mussulmans-
Come today, O Englishmen, come, oh come, Christians!
Come, O Brahmin, cleansing your mind
Join hands with all-
Come, O Downtrodden, let the burden
Of every insult be forever dispelled.
Make haste and come to Mother's coronation, the vessel auspicious
Is yet to be filled
With the sacred water sanctified by the touch of all
By the shore of the sea of Bharata's Great Humanity!        ©Monish R. Chatterjee (1991)

Tagore was also a skilled and innovative playwright; one of his earliest literary efforts, in fact, was the play Valmiki Pratibha mentioned earlier. In many of his plays, he combines his own exquisite style of music and songs, structured in places after classical Indian ragas as well as some Western compositions. To quote from Troy Organ's book, once again, " Indian music is far more than disciplined sound; it is a revealing of the pluralities within oneness. Rabindranath Tagore expressed this in his early play Nature's Revenge (Prakritir Pratishodh- author), and it became the keynote of his life: "the great is to be found in the small, the infinite within the bound of the form, and the eternal freedom of the soul in love." (this was alluded to earlier - author) ... Indian music and Tagore's poetry may be described as the manifold manifesting of the Cosmic Oneness ... The significant manifestation of a fundamental unity is to be found in the manifoldness of phenomena. The opulence of detail on the roof of a Dravidian temple or gopuram (gateway) reveals the Real as the totality of all forms. Tagore says in his novel Gora, "The limitless One manifests itself in the limitless Many."

It is interesting to note that the classical Hindu concept of Yoga as a means of attaining higher knowledge, may usually be traced to the center of the lives of most of India's intellectual, spiritual and cultural giants. In this vein, for example, Troy Organ suggests that the Yogic margas (paths) of the great Hindus of this century may be classified as Tagore's bhakti (devotion), Gandhi's karma (action), Radhakrishnan's jnana (knowledge), and Sri Aurobindo's yoga (here implying meditation). The connection between Tagore and the devotional path is often made because of the intensely mystical nature of some aspects of his works; in this respect, he has sometimes been labelled as a Baul (mystical wandering singers of Bengal) because of the apparent link of his devotional inspiration to the Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu; a pacifist sect of Bengal and other parts of India) lyrical poetry. We will return to this point shortly.

In matters of education, Tagore was a lifelong believer in freedom in nature, within and without. In his own life, he shunned structured school-education entirely; he believed that a mind which is not truly free of knowledge bound in the pages of books or confined within four walls, is a mind which is uninspired. As an educator, he therefore chose the marga of freedom whereby young students could be closer to their own nature as well as nature outside. To quote Troy Organ, ... "Remembering his own unhappy experience thirty years earlier in a schoolroom where the world vanished, "giving place to wooden benches and straight walls staring at me with the blank stare of the blind," he established in 1901 (actually in association with his father, Maharshi Debendranath - author) a boy's school near Bolpur in (West) Bengal where his pupils might learn that the life of man is in harmony with all existence. Tagore held that "where the eagerness to teach others is too strong, especially in the matter of spiritual life, the result becomes meager and mixed with untruth." ... To illustrate his theory of education, Tagore enjoyed recounting the following incident:

I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that "childhood is the only period of life when a civilized man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown up man, am barred from it?" What is surprising to notice is the same headmaster's approbation of the boys' studying botany. He believes in an impersonal knowledge of the tree because that is science, but not in a personal experience of it."

Returning now to that matter of the mystic Baul in Tagore, it needs to be mentioned that in certain sources Tagore has been labeled "the Greatest of the Bauls of Bengal," (see, for instance, S. Dasgupta's Obscure Religious Cults).  Troy Organ rightly contends that the above label does justice to only one side of his many talents.  Organ does, however, admit the Baul-like quality in such poems of Tagore as:

My song has put off her adornments.  She has no pride of dress and decoration.  Ornaments would mar our union: they would have come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.  My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight.  O 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.

Organ hails Vaishnava lyricism, as manifested in our modern times in the devotional works of Tagore, as "one of the most lyrical forms that Hinduism has taken.  It is the poetic religion of India."  Elsewhere, Edward Dimock Jr. states in his The Place of the Hidden Moon (U. of Chicago Press, 1966), "Rabindranath Tagore put the Bauls on a higher-than-respectable level by his praise of the beauty of their songs and spirit, and by his frank and proud acknowledgement of his own poetic debt to them ... The nightingale singing in the Shirazi Garden of the great Sufi poet Hafiz becomes the elusive bird of the heart of the Baul, trapped within the rib cage of his body, yet unknown. And it becomes again the bird of God of Rabindranath Tagore (this is part of the poem Duhsamay - author) :

Even though slow and sluggish
evening comes,
and stops as with a gesture
your song;
even though you are alone
in the infinite sky,
and your body weary,
and in terror you utter
a silent mantra
to horizons hidden by the veil-
bird, O my bird,
though it is darkening,
do not fold your wings.

In attempting to illustrate the Hindu perception of the necessity for individuals to choose their own separate margas to perfection, synthesized from the essence of the ingredients stated in the Gita, Troy Organ uses a quotation from Tagore's The Religion of Man which has an uncanny relevance for our times:

We in India are unfortunate in not having the chance to give expression to the best in us in creating intimate relations with the powerful nations, whose preparations are all leading to an enormous waste of resources in a competition of brow-beating and bluff.  Some great voice is waiting to be heard which will usher in the sacred light of truth in the dark hours of the nightmare of politics, the voice which will proclaim that "God is over all," and exhort us never to covet, to be great in renunciation that gives us the wealth of spirit, strength of truth, leads us from the illusion of power to the fullness of perfection, to the Santam, who is peace eternal, to the Advaitam, who is the infinite One in the heart of the manifold.  But we in India have not yet had the chance.

Sadly, perhaps due to the very state of an imperfect world, and perhaps due to her failure to recognize her own greatest strengths and aspirations, India, which achieved Tagore's long-sought freedom six years after he died, is yet far removed from the fulfillment of Tagore's prophecy.  Yet, the signs of the wasteful and deluded "political brow-beating and bluff" are here  with us around the world in a deafening din today, in these waning years of our century and millennium.

Even though Tagore's writings have the spontaneous, childlike joy and ecstasy of a mystical experience, in his own personal life, he was haunted by tragedies so overwhelming that it is quite extraordinary that a psyche as delicate and sensitive as his could manifest itself through such an all-engulfing force of life, in such varieties of colorful expressions.  His life resonates sympathetically with his own words, "How small is Man; how infinite his capacity for suffering!"  A vital discussion of Tagore's resilience and triumph amid the most heart-rending personal losses appears in (the noted Bengali scholar and author, and one-time student of Tagore) Syed Mujtaba Ali's Gurudev O Shantiniketan. Let me quote, via my own translation, a portion of that discussion.

"...Our greatest poet is Rabindranath. Along with many other types of literary creations, he has also given us humor. Yet, how often does anyone stop to think the extent of painful events that filled his life?  I am entirely convinced that any other ordinary person could never lead a normal and healthy life if subjected to such unrelenting heartbreaks and tragedies.  Yet, observing Rabindranath one could never guess the vastness of the grief he carried in his heart.  He not only did not allow himself to suffer a breakdown, but, moreover, he never acted against his Dharma under the most excruciating blasts of personal sorrow - i.e., he never deviated from his Dharma, which was poetic creativity.  Speaking about him, his Rishi-like eldest brother would say, "We all have slipped and fallen. Rabi never did."

Rabindranath never received the love of his mother (his mother died when he was quite young - author).  But when he was about seven or eight, his brother (fifth eldest, Jyotirindranath- author) was married and brought home Kadambari Devi.  Tagore and Kadambari were about the same age.  But perhaps because the mother's instinct comes early to women, Kadambari filled for Tagore the void left by the death of his mother.  To this young brother- in-law of her own age, she had extended great affection and love.  Readers may find details of this in Prabhat Mukhopadhyay's Rabindra-Jivani.

This dearly beloved sister-in-law committed suicide when Tagore was twenty-two.  The depth of his overwhelming grief at this event has found expression again and again in his poetry (Tumi Ki Kebali Chhabi- Are you only a portrait?- is one such poem/song- author).  When Professor Amiya Chakravarty's brother committed suicide, an aging poet consoled him in a letter- this letter, too, is mentioned in the Rabindra-Jivani. I  invite readers to read it.  What astounding strength of character enables a man to find the tranquility of imperturbable meditation despite such overwhelming tragedy, and then express himself in such manifold rhythms of songs and poetry with which to fill the hearts of readers and listeners with indescribable gladness mixed with sorrow and joy? The poet's personal losses metamorphosed into timeless and priceless treasures of Bengal's poetry.

Then he lost his elder brother and his inspiring Father- I mention this almost in passing, and not for the sake of keeping accounts!

Since then, not even twenty years had elapsed- when there came bereavement after devastating bereavement. First to depart was his wife. She had not quite completed thirty. She died within months after his eldest daughter Madhurilata (nicknamed Bela- author) was married; she left behind three daughters and two sons. The eldest was fifteen, the youngest seven. Except for Madhurilata, the upbringing of the remaining children fell in Rabindranath's hands. Rabindranath's disciple Ajit Chakravarty's (author of Kavya-Parikrama) mother told me twenty years after the death of the poet's wife that the kind of unstinting love and nursing that Mrinalini Devi (Tagore's wife- author) received from her husband when she was confined to her sickbed was unlike anything she had known a woman could get from her husband. She said that despite repeated requests from his wife for him to get his rest, he waved a hand-fan over her night after night.

Anyone familiar with Rabindranath's poetry should know how intimately this death revealed the mysteries of life to the extraordinarily sensitive poet. Rabindranath was about forty or forty-one then- he looked thiry or thirty-one, such was his robust health. Yet, he never married again.

Months after this, his second daughter Renuka became gravely ill. When her ailment was diagnosed as tuberculosis, I have not the ability to describe how desperately the poet tried to save her life. Rabindranath has himself described it a little- he did not know then that this girl would leave him shortly. Despite her illness, this girl was full of life and restlessness. The few happy moments father and daughter had inside a train on their way to a health resort may be gleaned from the poem Phanki (Deception) in Palataka (The Fugitive):

(When treatment for a year and a half wore out her bones
Then they said, "Needs a change of air".

Readers, note the word "Then" in these lines. Not when the disease was in its early stages- only when death was very near. This painful experience is common to the relatives of many tuberculosis patients.)

Two untimely deaths in less than two years- completely meaningless, entirely without any correlation, as though God decided to inflict pain merely for the sake of pain. Four years after this, his youngest son, Shamindranath, then thirteen, had gone to Munger (also known as Monghyr) on a trip with a friend. "There Shamindranath came down with cholera; receiving a telegram the poet left Calcutta for Munger. Rabindranath himself wrote in a letter at this time, "What you have heard is not incorrect. Bhola had gone to Munger to his maternal uncle's; Shami, too, went with him; he never returned."

I have heard many say, Shamindra was the most favorite of his father's children . Prabhat Mukhopadhyay says that, "In appearance and nature, he was much like his Father."

"Shamindra's mother had passed away exactly five years ago the same day"- Prabhat Mukhopadhyay.

Some years later Rabindranath wrote a poem in memory of this son which had the lines,

"When Biju went away to that world beyond death,
Cutting away the many bonds of his Father-
It felt as though the dawn in my room had died from a bursting heart.

Again, untimely death. Maybe God alone knows "In his scheme of things"- why is this ever necessary? Shami is not our son, yet what human out there does not feel his heart burst upon reading this poem? In my life I have read this poem only once. I couldn't read it a second time.

After this, not even a decade had passed. His eldest child, daughter Madhurilata, contracted tuberculosis as well. Prabhat Mukhopadhyay has written, "I have heard too, that Madhuri's husband was not on good terms with the Tagores."... Rabindranath would travel at midday to visit his daughter in a covered coach. His son-in-law would then be in Court. All afternoon, he would tell his daughter stories. Or perhaps read her poems. Perhaps one or two of these have found their way into his Palataka (The Fugitive- author ) collection, even though the name came much later.

One afternoon, no sooner had his coach arrived in front of the house than he heard the sound of great weeping from within. The poet immediately ordered the coachman to turn the coach around. He did not enter the house. I am told, this daughter would wait eagerly for her Father's writings. In Bhagalpur, in Calcutta.

A great many years later, a friend of this daughter, the novelist Anurupa Devi (whose in-laws were also from Bhagalpur) wrote, "A few drops of tear fell from the poet's eyes in remembering his daughter." I believe we can find reference to this daughter in Palataka's Mukti (Freedom).

I have said before, the poet would tell Madhurilata stories by her sickbed. Perhaps near the end he had realized with much sorrow that this daughter, too, would not survive. At this time, he understood that his wife, son, daughters- they are all escaping much before their time- they are all "Fugitives". Hence, months after Madhurilata's death, the collection The Fugitives came out. In this book, we find the indelible mark of Madhuri, Renuka and Shami. Perhaps there are others too, but maybe because they are not relatives, it is difficult to identify them. In Palataka's last poem, Shesh Pratishtha (Last Foundation), we find:

I hear this often, "Is gone, Is gone"
Yet say I this
Do not say "Is not".
There I wish to immerse my Life
In the ocean where "Is" and "Is Not" fulfilled remain equal."

This poem is for all fugitives. Yet, the question remains, how can "Is" and "Is Not" find equality? The poet answered this at the time of the last tragedy of his life, an answer which I do not know will satisfy all.

After almost all the "Fugitives" had escaped, the poet was left with only his son Rathindranath and daughter Mira. This Mira-di had a son and a daughter. How much affection Rabindranath poured upon this grandson is well known to all the ashramites from then. Let me state on the personal side - even though Nitu was about nine years younger than me, he would often come to my room in the hostel. He was very handsome. Often, if he would come dressed in a fine dhoti and kurta, he would look fabulous- we would ask, "Who helped you with your dress, little one?"

He would not answer, only smile a little. Jiten Hore of Chittagong would say, "Must be Dadamoshai (Grandfather, implying Tagore- author).  I would say "Maybe Mother" ... This Nitu went to Europe.  Died there of tuberculosis at nineteen or twenty.  No one would have the heart to describe this last tragedy.  The poet was then seventy-one.  First his own grief, and to top that, his daughter's- the son-bereaved mother's grief.

... (Quoted from Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis' Baishey Sravan): ... He (Tagore) received a letter from Andrews that Nitu was a little better.

"The next morning we read in the newspaper a telegram from Reuter, six days before, on 7th August, Nitu died in Germany. So how were we to break this news to Rabindranath? Finally, it was decided that we call Rathindranath and Pratima Devi from Khardah by telephone, and all four of us go the poet to tell him about it. After Pratima-di and Rathi-da arrived, we all went to the poet's room (at the Mahalanobis home- author) and sat down. The poet asked Rathindranath, "Have you heard the news about Nitu, he is better now, isn't it?" Rathibabu replied, "No, the news isn't good." At first the poet did not quite follow. He said, "Better? Yesterday, Andrews, too has written to me that Nitu is much better. Perhaps in a few days we can bring him home." At this, Rathibabu raised his voice with an effort and said, "No, the news is not good. It's in today's paper." Immediately, the poet sort of froze; he stared at Rathibabu's face. A few tears fell from his eyes. A few moments later, in a calm and steady voice, he said, "Let Bouma (a word used to address his daughter-in-law- author) go to Shantiniketan today; Buri (his grand-daughter, Nitu's sister- author) is alone there. I shall go tomorrow, you (Rathindranath) must go with me"."

Nitu's mother had gone to Germany upon hearing of his illness. A few days before she returned to Bombay, Rabindranath wrote her a letter to the Bombay address. In it, there is the answer to the question about "Is" and "Is Not". Therein, he wrote, "The night Shami left, I had prayed with all my heart that may he find his movement at will in the Universal Consciousness, may my grieving not pull him back the least bit. Likewise, when I heard of Nitu's departure, I said many times for days after, I have no duties left, all I can do is wish that in the Immeasurable Absolute where he finds his place, may he be blessed there. Our caring does not reach there, but maybe our love does- why else does love survive till this very moment?"

This is the substantive word. He "Is Not", yet in my love, he "Is". I salute my Guru, my Gurudev, again and again. Time after time, fighting cruel fate, he has been tormented, yet he never admitted defeat. (This statement by Mujtaba Ali is particularly relevant because he wrote this essay in memory of his own cruel loss some time before- author).

If I may, I would now advise my readers: if they should lose their loved ones, or be separated from them, may they read the above letter. This letter is not by a renunciate soul! Because, in the Gita it is said, the renunciate is "In sorrow unperturbed".  Rabindranath would suffer from tragedy just like us- perhaps even more.  After all, the compassion of his heart, the sensitivity of his soul, were a million times greater than ours'- yet he would never yield.  We are easily vanquished.  If this letter delivers even one among us from admitting defeat to the torment of Fate, Rabindranath would be pleased in the other world."   ©Monish R. Chatterjee (1991)

Tagore's treatment of time and death has been interpreted as "gentle, ordered, even humorous" by Edward Dimock, Jr. in his The Sound of the Silent Guns (Oxford U. Press, 1989). Arguing that in this respect, Tagore is conceptually at a variance with Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), a member of the "Kallol" group of modern Bengali poets who strove to set themselves up in opposition to the influence of Tagore, Dimock uses the following poems by Tagore as an illustration:

Ah, my queen, is this how you listen to my goodbye?
I see the smile tremble in the corner of your eye.
I've taken false leave of you before,
So you think to yourself:
This man will never go.
He gets to the door and turns;
he'll come back again.

Then if you ask me
I'll tell you the truth-
the doubt is there with me too.
I shall come back.
The days of Spring come back again,
the night of the full moon smiles again,
vakula flowers bloom again on bare branches-
these do not go away.
A thousand times they take their leaves
and return again.

But doubt a little;
do not give immediate answer to the lie.
For a moment of illusion
bring tears to your eye
when I say, sobbing,
"It is time for me to go."
You can laugh when I return.

To quote from Dimock, Jr., "Tagore wrote this poem when he was about thirty- nine... He questions a little, it is true. But he sees a cycle of natural things, and himself as a natural thing, and that he too will return. It is not that he welcomes death. But death is nature, and nature is order, and he is prepared for the cycle of rebirth. He never lost this sense of the order of things, even in his last poems, though the humor of the confident young may no longer be there. In one of his last collections, Arogya, he writes like this:

Evening comes gently; one by one the many knots have slipped
in action's net, in the watch of the day. The day gives
offerings of dew,
unlocking the lion-gate of the west,
its majesty golden
in confluence of light and darkness,
bowed in silent obeisance toward distant morning.
Eyes closed like flowers, the time has come
to immerse
beneath deep meditation,
external self.
Peaceful fluid of constellations, where infinite sky
keeps hidden the unformed essence of the day;
there truth, to find itself, embarks
toward the other shore of night.

The key word of the poem is, I think, santiksetra, "the field of peace," as opposed to the field of war of the Mahabharata: the divine Bhishma will not die but by his own wish, and he dies at the twilight of the year. The place where light and darkness flow together is the sagarsangama, where the river meets the sea, where the individual, the particular, meets the whole, the place where pilgrims go. And when one reaches the other shore of night, beyond the pull of the current of life's river, then there is peace.

To Tagore, time moves in slow, majestic waves, rising up and sinking down again into the sea. Once in a while a passion is crystallized and placed beyond time. The first stanza of his Shah Jahan (fifth of the Grand Moghuls, builder of the Taj Mahal- author) goes like this:

This you used to know, lord of India, Shah Jahan:
life and youth, wealth and honor, floating in the current of time.
Only then inner pain
lives long- let it be. Was this the path along which empire led ?
Power of a king, harsh thunderbolt
like evening's bloody passion; let it be absorbed at the feet of lassitude.
Only a deep sigh
swells eternally; let the sky be merciful:
this was the hope in your heart.
Built of gems, diamonds and pearls
like the magic shimmering of rainbows in empty horizons
let it be hidden.
Only let this one tear-drop
glisten pure upon the cheek of time,
this Taj Mahal.

Shortly after Tagore's death, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to Krishna Kripalani, expressed in moving and eloquent words the feelings of utter amazement and inexpressible wonder which accompany any informed and sincere assessment of his phenomenal and exquisitely beautiful life. Written from a jail cell on August 27, 1941, the letter went in part as follows:

... How long ago it all seems! People must die some time or other and Gurudev could not have lived much longer. And yet his death came as a grievous shock to me and the thought that I would never see his beautiful face and hear his gentle voice again oppressed me terribly. Ever since I came to prison this thought had haunted me. I wanted to see him once again so much. Not that I had anything special to say to him, and certainly I had no desire to trouble him in any way. Perhaps the premonition that I was not fated to see him again itself added to this yearning. However, all that is over and instead of sorrow, let us rather congratulate ourselves that we were privileged to come in contact with this great and magnificent person. Perhaps it is as well that he died when he was still pouring out song and poem and poetry- what amazing creative vitality he had! I would have hated to see him fade away gradually. He died, as he should, in the fullness of his glory.

I have met many big people in various parts of the world. But I have no doubt that in my mind the two biggest I have had the privilege of meeting have been Gandhi and Tagore. I think they have been the two outstanding personalities in the world during the last quarter of a century. As time goes by, I think this will be recognized, when all the generals and field marshals and dictators and shouting politicians are long dead and largely forgotten.

It amazes me that India in spite of her present condition (or is it because of it?) should produce these two mighty men in the course of one generation. And that also convinces me of the deep vitality of India and I am filled with hope, and the petty troubles and conflicts of the day seem trivial and unimportant before this astonishing fact- the continuity of the idea that is India from long ages past to the present day. China affects me in the same way. India and China; how can they perish?

There is another aspect which continually surprises me. Both Gurudev and Gandhiji took much from the West and from other countries, especially Gurudev. Neither was narrowly national. Their message was for the world. And yet both were one hundred percent India's children, and the inheritors, representatives and expositors of her age-old culture. How intensely Indian both have been, in spite of their wide knowledge and culture! The surprising thing is that both of these men with so much in common and drawing inspiration from the same wells of wisdom and thought and culture, should differ from each other so greatly! No two persons could probably differ so much as Gandhi and Tagore! Again, I think of the richness of India's age-long cultural genius which can throw up in the same generation two such master-types, typical of her in every way, yet representing different aspects of her many-sided personality....

In the concluding paragraph of his On the Edges of Time, Tagore's eldest son Rathindranath wrote, "No biography, however laboriously written, could ever give an adequate picture of such a complex personality as his. The subtle nuances of a life so delicately lived could only be expressed by a pen as delicate as his own. As a matter of fact, his writings constitute the best commentary on his life. These reveal him as nothing else does. "You cannot find the poet in his biography," he says in one of his poems. Yes, the poet is to be found in his poems. His poems are his best life-story and may I conclude by saying that his greatest poem is the life he has lived."

Tagore was a creative epoch in whose wake great legions of inspired writers, poets, singers, musicians, linguists, historians, artists and philosophers emerged in India. The extent of his influence on Bengali culture in particular is so enormous that no meaningful account is possible in the space of an article. The enormity of his talent has sometimes had the effect of virtually overshadowing new creative impulses which otherwise have been highly meritorious by most standards. In this respect, in my view, Tagore is at a level comparable to a combination of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Voltaire, or in some intangible ways, perhaps unlike even them- a kind of single-handed renaissance-builder who is simply in a rarest class by himself- the impact of whose genius is far from being fully understood world-wide. The prohibitive (and virtually impossible) task of presenting Tagore's supreme mastery in any other medium outside of Bengali remains one major stumbling block. Yet, I remain hopeful that, perhaps just as it took centuries before a Tulsidas brought the treasures of the Ramayana for the edification of the general and the non-elite in Hindi; a Kashiram Das did the same with the Mahabharata for readers of Bengali; and other great interpreters and exponents of the jewels of Sanskrit literature carried their finds admirably into other media, there will someday emerge the Bhagirathas of the future who will bring the Joy of Reading Tagore (title of an essay by Victoria Ocampo) before people around the world. To accomplish this, I feel, access to the translations and interpretations of Tagore's works should be broadened and not narrowly sheltered, and Tagore's genius, as well as his human limitations in areas of his life and works, must be critically evaluated and not stashed away in a forgotten iron safe of presumed perfection.

Rabindranath Tagore's profuse legacy of creativity, freedom, relentless striving towards perfection, harmony amongst people and harmony of people with nature, the unbounded joy of life which has discovered its own rich resources- these are a priceless gift to Bengal, India, and indeed, the world. Here, I have merely attempted to bring together glimpses and perspectives of that broadest and most magnificent of lives which embraced human life and Man's very existence on earth with such exuberant ecstasy that he once wrote "I do not want to die in this beautiful world, but live in the hearts of men, and find a niche in the sun-sprinkled, flowered forest ... I want to build on this earth my eternal home." Time, alas, takes away even the best among us; yet as humans, our pride can truly know no bounds that one such as this, so full of life and a universal bonding with the best aspirations of humans everywhere, lived among our not-too-distant predecessors, and left for us as everlasting gifts the infinite treasures of his heart. May great inspirations arise in generations yet to come from bathing in that inexhaustible, celestial fount.


  1. Leonard A. Gordon, Brothers Against the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists, Columbia University Press, New York (1990).
  2. Maitreyi Devi, Mongpu-te Rabindranath (in Bengali), Prima Publications, Calcutta, Eleventh Edition (1989).
  3. Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore : A Biography, Visva-Bharati, Calcutta (1980).
  4. Anil Chandra Ghosh, Acharya Jagadish (in Bengali), Presidency Library, Calcutta, Fifth Edition (1958).
  5. Troy Wilson Organ, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio (1970).
  6. Syed Mujtaba Ali, Gurudev O Santiniketan (in Bengali), Mitra and Ghosh Publishers, Calcutta, Sixth Edition (1989).
  7. Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Place of the Hidden Moon, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago (1966).
  8. Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Sound of Silent Guns, Oxford Univ. Press, New Delhi (1989).
  9. Rathindranath Tagore, On the Edges of Time, Visva-Bharati, Calcutta, Second Edition (1981).

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