The rulers of the ancient State of Tripura were not mere patrons of art and culture but also accomplished in different creative fields. Even the reputed journals of the West mentioned their works of art, photography, literature and music. Tripura’s modern era began with Maharaja Birchandra (1862-96) who was a superb painter, an excellent photographer, a great composer of music, a profound scholar of Vaishnav literature and a connoisseur of all creative activities.
He created a stir in the literary world by conferring the honour of the ‘best poet” in 1882 upon the young Rabindranath Tagore. The poet was hardly 21 years old then and he had to his credit only one book of verses – Bhagna Hriday – (The Broken Heart). Birchandra was so moved that he immediately sent a minister all the way to Jorasanko to convey the message that he could see the promise of a great future in the young poet. Tagore was taken by surprise to say the least.
Tagore mentioned the event in his autobiography Jiban Smriti and paid tribute to Birchandra on a number of occasions during his journeys to Tripura.
This was the beginning of what were to be lasting ties between the grand ruling house of a princely state and a great poet who dominated the literary world. This historic bond lasted for over sixty years till the end of Tagore’s life. He became friend and guide to four generations of Tripura rulers.
The elderly Birchandra was quick to befriend the young poet. Tagore went to Kurseong twice, during 1894 and 1896. On both the occasions the Raja invited Tagore to be a guest of honour. Those meetings provided a rare opportunity to both of them to know each other more intimately. Tagore was then hardly thirty-three years old and Birchandra almost double his age. The young poet felt shy about expressing his thoughts but in all literary discussions he was treated as an equal. Tagore often recalled the sweet memories of those golden days that he spent together with Birchandra at Kurseong.
Birchandra was pained at the ruthless criticism that Tagore’s early literary works drew from critics at the time. He even wanted to buy a printing press and invest one lakh rupees, a princely sum in those days, so that editions of Tagore’s works could be published. But as luck would have it, while returning from Kurseong Birchandra died in Calcutta in 1896.
Bir Chandra Debmanikya
Birchandra’s worthy son, Radhakishore, lost no time in extending an invitation to Tagore. Radhakishore ascended the throne in 1897 and died in 1909. During these twelve years, Tagore visited Tripura five times. On many occasions, Radhakishore sought Tagore’s help in dealing with complicated problems of statecraft. Tagore’s advice was sought in all matters right from the appointment of ministers, drafting of state budget, framing of code of conduct for the officers of the royal court and general approach towards dealing with erring officials. Tagore showed hitherto unknown skills in all these areas of statecraft. The erstwhile Tripura royal family still preserves the rare historic documents written in Tagore’s own handwriting where he has shown his remarkable ingenuity in matters of public finance, state policy and principles of education. Radhakishore became dependent on Tagore in all the areas of day-to-day administration.
Tagore with Radha Kishore Debmanikya
This association of Tagore with Radhakishore had a lasting impact on Tripura’s ties with greater Bengal. The benevolent Maharaja contributed liberally in various literary, cultural and scientific endeavors of Bengal. Tagore once approached Radhakishore for financial help for scientific research undertaken by Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose who was in England and in a dire financial state at that time. Radhakishore himself was in a very precarious condition financially as the palace at Agartala was being re-built after being damaged by a severe earthquake. The marriage of prince Birendrakishore was also approaching. But the ever-generous Radhakishore did not fail to rise to the occasion. He wrote to Tagore that he was prepared to deprive his would-be daughter-in-law from a piece or two of jewellery for he was sure that in return, Jagadish Babu would decorate mother India in a much more befitting manner. He granted a sum of rupees fifty thousand, a vast amount of money in those days with the only stipulation that his name was not to be made public.
Radhakishore also sanctioned an annual grant of Rs. one thousand for Tagore’s Viswa Bharati which was continued for nearly fifty years till the death of the last ruler, Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore.
Radhakishore’s son, Birendra Kishore, also inherited the rare artistic acumen of his grandfather, Birchandra. He was a great painter as well as a musician. Like his forefathers, he extended liberal financial grants to Viswa Bharati. It was during his time that Tripura’s relationship with Tagore acquired a cultural role. In 1939, Birchandra’s great-grandson – Maharaj Bir Bikram Kishore, visited Shantiniketan.He deputed Rajkumar Buddhimanta Singh from Tripura as a Manipuri dance teacher at Shantiniketan. Buddhimanta was followed by a number of other talented experts in Manipuri dance from Tripura. They made remarkable contributions in providing the floral foundation of effusive softness, style and grace to Rabindra Nritya.
Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Tripura’s last ruler, Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore greatly respected Rabindranath Tagore. It was his privilege to confer on Tagore the honorific “Bharat Bhaskar” just three months before the death of the great poet. Tagore’s 80th birth anniversary was celebrated at the royal Durbar of Tripura. An emissary was sent to Shantiniketan to formally confer on Tagore this last tribute of Tripura. The ailing poet was so moved by this generous royal gesture that he made no secret of his feelings,”Such a free and disinterested bond of friendship between an immature poet whose fame was yet uncertain and one enjoying royal distinction is unprecedented in the history of any literature. The distinction that this royal family has conferred on me today illumines the final horizons of my life”.
Bir Bikram Kishore Debmanikya
During his last visit to Agartala in 1926, while addressing a public meeting Tagore had another occasion to pay tribute to Tripura. In response to the love showered on him by the Kishore Sahitya Samaj of Agartala, Tagore said, “…it has been my privilege to receive honour even from the hand of kings in the West. But the tribute I received from a prince of my own country is to me, personally speaking, of much greater value. That is why my relationship with the State of Tripura is not just that of a guest for a day. This relationship is wedded to the memories of the father and the grandfather of the present king”.
Tagore with Bir Bikram Kishore Debmanikya