150th Anniversary > Rabindranath Tagore


Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Musician, Artist, Nobel Laureate, founder of ‘Vishwa Bharti’. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. Born in 1861, Tagore turned artist at the age of 67 experimenting with various mediums. Tagore said of his art, “People often ask me about the meaning of my pictures. I remain silent even as my pictures are. It is for them to express and not to explain.” On June 15th, Sothebys is set to auction 12 of his paintings. And it has caused much furore in the sub-continent. Presenting a few of his pieces.

Self-portrait by Tagore

<Read more about Ranbindranath Tagore here. Pictures courtesy Calcutta Web.>

5 Responses to “150th Anniversary > Rabindranath Tagore”

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  2. Tagore: Seeking God in Pursuit of Self
    By Ujjwal Bhattacharya

    “To realize his cosmic manifestation and thus free our soul from its bondage of the limitedness of the immediate,” as Tagore wrote in his letter to William Rothenstein. The above statement played a central role in his works, and particularly in his three collections of devotional poems, Geetanjali, Geetimalya and Geetali. (The English collection Geetanjali is not identical with the Bengali one. 52 poems out of 103 in the English text were selected from the Bengali volume; others were taken from earlier works. For the sake of convenience, poems quoted here have been taken from his English text of Geetanjali and other collections, though they differ radically from the original poems very often.)

    In a song Tagore wrote:

    My heart sings at the wonder of my place
    in this world of light and life;
    at the feel in my pulse of the rhythm of creation
    cadenced by the swing of endless time.

    Let us compare it with the definition of Language in Japanese, as it was presented in a discourse between the German philosopher Heidegger and the Japanese professor Tezuka Tomio:

    Heidegger: What is the Japanese word for “language”?

    Tomio: (after further hesitation) It is “Koto ba.”

    Heidegger: And what does that say?

    Tomio: ba means leaves, including and especially the leaves of a blossom-petals. Think of cherry-blossoms or plum blossoms.

    Heidegger: And what does Koto say?

    Tomio: This is the question most difficult to answer. But it is easier now to attempt an answer because we have ventured to explain Iki: the pure delight of the beckoning stillness. The breath of stillness that makes this beckoning delight come into its own is the reign under which that delight is made to come. But Koto always also names that which in the event gives delight, itself, that which uniquely in each unrepeatable moment comes to radiance in the fullness of its grace.

    Expression of the pure delight of the beckoning stillness – we find a similar explanation in Bhartrihari’s (450-510 A.D.) Vakyapadiya, where he distinguishes three levels of language or Shabda: Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari. Vaikhari is the manifested form of the language, Madhyama is the intermediate stage, and below that is the innermost stage of Pashyanti, which is the level of direct intuition. The manifested language is in Metaphor, is in the framework of Space and Time, whereas the level of ultimate intuition is beyond all that. Prof. Ranajit Guha, in his recent treatise in Bengali Kabir Nam O Sarbanam, observes that Nietzsche has also points out that Language is the illusion of metaphors, hence, unable to express the Truth. The bondage of the limitedness of the immediate is the reason of Tagore’s yearning for the ultimate truth; poetry becomes the evidence of the dilemma of his pursuit.

    In one of his last poems (27 July, 1941), Tagore writes:

    The sun of the first day
    Put the question
    To the new manifestation of life-
    Who are you?
    There was no answer.
    Years passed by.

    The last sun of the last day
    Uttered the question
    on the shore of the western sea
    In the hush of evening-
    Who are you?
    No answer came again.

    The poet tries to create a framework of discourse with the god to realize and overcome this dilemma. It is a gradual process that goes through Geetanjali, over Geetimalya, and ultimately to Geetali. In the second poem of Geetanjali he says:
    My desires are many and my cry is pitiful, but ever didst thou save me by hard refusals; and this strong mercy has been wrought into my life through and through.

    And two poems later:

    Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it. Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength. Let me not cave in.

    The poet is not sure of him. In a letter to his son Rathindranath, he complains of severe pain, and a creeping depression. He feels that he has not been able to fulfil the promises he made, also to himself. In the poem 39 of Geetanjali he says:

    The song that I came to sing remains unsung to this day.

    I have spent my days in stringing and in unstringing my instrument. The time has not come true, the words have not been rightly set; only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.

    Already in the poems of Geetanjali, we see that the frustration starts making place for realization. Poem 18 is an example:

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

    Oh my only friend, my best beloved,
    the gates are open in my house-
    do not pass by like a dream.

    This was the period during which there was a Tagore-mania in countries like Germany, and yet the poet was suffering from melancholy. But the recovery came and found its expression in poems. Geetimalya was published in 1914, four years after Geetanjali. On 7 October, 1914, he wrote in a letter:

    My period of darkness is over once again. It has been a time of great trial to me, and I believe it was absolutely necessary for my emancipation. I am that I am being lifted from the sphere where I was before…
    (Letters to a Friend, ed. C. F. Andrews, London, 1928, pp 47)

    And this new realization finds its expression in the poems of Geetimalya:

    This is my delight, thus to wait and watch at the wayside where shadow chases light and the rain comes in the wake of the summer.

    From dawn till dusk I sit here before my door, and I know that of a sudden the happy moment will arrive when I shall see.
    (Geetimalya 7)

    The Union with Über-Ich is present here:

    He it is, the innermost one, who awakens my being with his deep hidden touches.
    (Geetimalya 12)

    The life is a process, and there is sense of astonishment in the voice of the poet:
    Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
    (Geetimalya 23)

    In the last book of his Song-Trilogy, Geetali, we see the sublimation of this idea. The God is in his heart, but he has not found him yet. He has to be awakened:

    The night is dark and your slumber is deep in the hush of my being.

    Wake, O Pain of Love, for I know not how to open the door, and I stand outside.
    (Geetali 50)

    The poet is aware of the process, which leads to the dilution of his ego:

    The Cloud said to me, “I vanish”; the Night said, “I plunge into the fiery dawn.”
    The Pain said, “I remain in deep silence as his footprint.”
    “I die into the fulness,” said my life to me.
    (Geetali 65)

    And ultimately he realizes that the source of the light is hidden in the darkness:
    YOURS is the light that breaks forth from the dark, and the good that sprouts from the cleft heart of strife.
    Yours is the house that opens upon the world, and the love that calls to the battlefield.
    (Geetali 99)

    A process that started in his early youth comes to an end. Though Tagore still wrote devotional songs, he never published a book of devotional poems again.
    (Painting of Tagore by Shubnum Gill)

  3. The Poet Misunderstood
    By Ujjwal Bhattacharya

    FOR A LONG TIME the evaluation of Tagore was centred on one question, that is, whether and to which extent his work and ideas can be called progressive. This was, and sometimes is, the imperative of the left in particular. With a zeal to appropriate the greatest Indian literary figure of our time, Tagore’s appreciation of the Soviet Union was cited in abundance. It was claimed that in his later works he showed an increased awareness of the social problems and the downtrodden masses, and as the last and most important evidence, his lines from the poem Oikatan were presented:

    My verse, I know,

    Has travelled diverse ways, but not everywhere.

    And I strain to hear, that poet’s voice,

    Who shares the peasant’s life,

    And has earned true kinship,

    Who touches the earth…

    Yes, the notion of progress is a linear one, it is a sequence of getting ever better, and Tagore was ever better in this sense. On the other hand, we have the perception of his western admirers, who – in an utter confusion of the years between the two world wars – believed to have found the mystic voice of deliverance in the works of this divine, sage-look poet Gurudev. In 1912, we saw such an ecstatic phase in Britain, in the early twenties in Germany. It did not last long. Thank god, or whatever, that it didn’t.

    And then, we have the perception of the Nobel committee, which said in its laudatory remarks:

    He has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.

    Was it the reason to decorate him with Nobel prize? A sheer misunderstanding? In any case, looking at the list of Nobel Laureates in literature till 1913, one can safely say that Rabindranath was the first stalwart, with the exception of Kipling perhaps, whose works are still admired in his language, as well as, in translation.

    Universal is the word that comes to mind when one thinks about Tagore. And yet, Universalism is a concept which is deeply rooted in western historicism, based on the Enlightenment. Was Tagore’s Universalism embedded in the Enlightenment? Among his western admirers, Edward Thompson made perhaps the most serious effort to make a critical appraisal of the poet’s work. And Tagore thoroughly disapproved Thompson’s interpretation. Without going into the merits of Thompson’s work, let us have a look at Tagore’s arguments. In a private letter to William Rothenstein, he wrote about Thompson:

    …being a Christian Missionary, his training makes him incapable of understanding some of the ideas that run all through my writings – like that of Jeevan-Devata, the limited aspect of divinity which has its unique place in the individual life, in contrast to that which belongs to the universe. The God of Christianity has his special recognition as the God of humanity – in Hinduism in our everyday meditation we try to realize his cosmic manifestation and thus free our soul from its bondage of the limitedness of the immediate…

    There is a sense of disappointment in Tagore’s words. Does it not make clear that he is not of the opinion that never the twain shall meet. But he puts his fingers on difference, and even celebrates it perhaps.

    And this was in 1926. Tagore had already made a long political journey, which was amply reflected in his literary works. Perhaps the earliest important political statement was made in a sonnet written on the last day of the 19th century. It begins with the lines:

    The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred.

    The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.

    The morning waits behind the patient dark of the East,

    Meek and silent

    Keep watch, India.

    Bring your offerings of worship for that sacred sunrise.

    Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.

    Then came 1905 – for the first, and the last time in his life Tagore took to the streets to join the movement against the partition of Bengal, there was even a short phase of flirtation with extremist and revivalist trends, but things changed after the religious riots broke out. Sumit Sarkar writes, “,,,the riots led Rabindranath to pose the most general problem before India in a new way. The ideal is no longer a return to the glorious Hindu past, to the self sustaining samaj unifying diversities by giving each community its particular niche in the functional specialisation of the caste system. What is demanded now is a wholesale breaking down of walls, a decisive rejection of sectarian barriers and the building of a Mahajati in India on the basis of a broad humanism.” (The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, p.p. 85)

    The Political found its expression in his immortal novel Gora, in the tireless wandering of the protagonist devoted to the Discovery of India, acknowledging and yet negating himself, till the crisis unfolds in the last pages in the true form of an anticlimax. Who am I? Gora doesn’t know, and he is relieved!

    Rabindranath has found his question in Gora, all he needs is the answer. And for that, he has to come clear with his God. He does it in the poems of Geetimalya, Geetanjali and Geetali. In between he had to receive the Nobel prize, start his ambitious project Viswa Bharati, care for national and international recognition and utterly detest it.

  4. I never tire of reading Tagore’s ‘Fireflies’…
    “April, like a child,
    writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
    wipes them away and forgets.”

  5. 5 KG

    i own some of his ‘animal ‘ prints and love them. Picked them this time from Kolkata and am yet to frame them. This one was a lovely post, Kav. Dfferent, refreshing and sooo Indian for a soul sitting Down Under.

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