Rabindranath Tagore’s eldest daughter Madhurilata was born on the 25th of October 1886, in Jorasanko. Tagore was twenty six years old while her mother Mrinalini was thirteen.
The young parents with Bela Tagore with Mrinalini
His niece Indira Devi described Madhurilata whose nickname was Bela as a wax doll, a ‘momer putul’, writing, ‘Among Ravikaka’s children Bela alone has inherited his complexion.’
His sister-in-law Jnanadanandini, Satyendranath Tagore’s wife took them to her own residence in Park Street so that mother and baby could be given the latest in care.
Tagore described his daughter with much tenderness. He helped to bathe her himself while in the Park Street house. Later on while they were in Darjeeling, he wrote about waking her up for her night feeds of warmed up milk. ‘She would seize upon children of her own age with cries of delight.’
Tagore with Bela and Rathi Tagore with Bela
He published ‘Kori o Kamal’ when she was about a month old.
Tagore wrote to his friend Srishchandra Majumdar, ‘My daughter has been given a name the day before yesterday. Her name is Madhurilata.’ There was some fanfare at the Rice ceremony on 25th July 1887, which cost about Rs 371 at the time. He wrote for her the following song:
ওহে নবীন অতিথি, তুমি নূতন কি তুমি চিরন্তন।
যুগে যুগে কোথা তুমি ছিলে সঙ্গোপন॥
যতনে কত-কী আনি বেঁধেছিনু গৃহখানি,
হেথা কে তোমারে বলো করেছিল নিমন্ত্রণ॥
কত আশা ভালোবাসা গভীর হৃদয়তলে
ঢেকে রেখেছিনু বুকে কত হাসি-অশ্রুজলে।
একটি না কহি বাণী তুমি এলে মহারানী,
কেমনে গোপনে মনে করিলে হে পদার্পণ॥
Youthful guest of mine, are you new or are you eternal?
Where were you hidden through the ages?
I have gathered much with care to make this a home
Tell me who was the one who invited you here?
In the deepest recesses of my heart with much hope and love
I shelter you with tears and laughter.
You came without a word, Queen of mine,
How did you enter my heart without me knowing?
A portrait in pastels was commissioned by the artist J. Archer for the sum of Rs 400 which was slightly more than 400,000 rupees at today’s value.
Much later, Tagore would write to his wife from onboard a ship headed for Aden on his way to England of an astonishing experience he had had; ‘On Sunday night I felt just as though my soul had left my body and gone to Jorasanko. You were lying on one side of a large bed and Beli and Rathi(Khoka) lay beside you. I kissed them both and came back.’
It is worth remembering here that the poem ‘Jetey nahi dibo’, ‘I will not let you go’, which has been described as the shortest epic poem in Indian literature was full of reminiscences of the six year old Bela. He observed that she would be a very affectionate and unassuming girl when she grew older.
I will not let you go
‘I look at the clock, and then turn to
Look at her, saying softly,
‘And now I leave.’ Suddenly she turns
Head inclined as the end of her sari hides
The tears that threaten bad luck.
Outside by the door pensive in thought
My daughter aged four. By now
On any other day she would have been bathed
She falls asleep as soon as she is fed.
Today her mother has not given her a thought
She has been my shadow, silent and constant.
She was watching wordless and unblinking
The preparations for departure. Who knows
What she thought as she sat quietly at the door.
When I said, “Now I go, Little Mother’
She said sad eyed, dully, ‘I will not let you go.’
She stayed where she was, seated,
She did not hold my arm, nor bar the door,
She just stated the rights of love and said,
‘I will not let you go.’ But still that time came
To an end and, still alas
You had to let go.
Oh unknowing child of mine
Who are you? Where from have you
Gathered the power to say such words,
With such spirit –
‘I will not let you go.’ In all the worlds
Who will you hold back with your tiny arms
What pride, as you protest from your seat
By the door, your tired little frame
All your strength in that heart beating with love.
From that pain, with much fear and shame
The stating of a wish is all that one can do
‘I do not feel like letting go.’ Who can say?.
‘I will not let you go.’ Hearing this from your lips
Proud declaration of love, Life
Draws me away with an amused smile.
You just look on, defeated eyes brimming
Sitting at the door like a picture,
I came away wiping my tears.’
The letter of 28th February 1897 indicates that Tagore was not in Calcutta at the time. Madhurilata wrote, ‘When will you come to Kolkata? Miss Lincoln does not tutor us now, she says that the doctor has told her she is very weak and must not teach anymore.’
We see a delightful image of sisterly affection from a letter of 29th May, 1899. Bela writes,
‘You have told me that I must feed Rathi and help him put on weight. I fed him kheer and the pureed Bombai mangoes today. But he does not listen to me, not even as an older sister. He must be made to call me Big sister from now. I will try hard to do all the things you have written about. I will believe in God. Believe me Father I will try very hard to be good. I will not be able to be as clever and good as Didiya but I will try as much as I can.’
In May 1900, Tagore heard about the marriage of a friend’s daughter and wrote to Srishchandra M, ‘Mainu is Bela’s age. She is growing up too.’
Priyanath Sen brought news of a good prospective groom. Tagore had met Sen shortly after Sandhyasangeet was published and held him in high regard. Priyanath was a scholar who was described as a ‘sailor of the seven seas’ because of his knowledge of Bengali, English, French and Italian. He lived at 8 Mathur Sen Garden Lane.
The groom was Sarat Kumar Chakravarti. The family was not unfamiliar to Tagore as the groom’s father was the poet Biharilal Chakravarti. Sarat was the third son of the family. He was sixteen years older than Bela. He was a great scholar. After being schooled at Hindu School, he came first in both English and Philosophy at Presidency College for which he received the Ishan scholarship, the Hemantakumar medal and the Keshabchandra Sen medal. He was first in his MA class in 1895 and after gaining a B.L the following year, began practicing as a lawyer in Mujaffarpore in Bihar.
Initially Priyanath spoke to Sarat’s mother Kadambari Devi and his eldest brother Avinash Chakravarti. In July 1900, Tagore wrote to Sen, ‘Now do all you can to take the negotiations towards fruition. He was prepared to go to Kolkata if it was required.
Another letter gives us a look at the financial situation the poet found himself in.
‘I have debts of Rs 5000 after building my house. There are some other small debts as well. Would it be possible to find a buyer who would pay Rs 6000 for my books and the copyrights to the poetry written so far?’
Reminder after reminder followed. Priyanath Sen indicated that he was not having any luck with the eldest brother Avinash.
‘Yesterday he was meant to see me again, but he did not do so…’
Tagore was understandably impatient as is evident from letter after letter addressed to Priyanath.
In August: ‘I am urging myself to be patient.’
And again: ‘Any hope of Sarat (marrying Bela) seems to be clouded with despair just like the sunshine of the season.’
17th August, 1900: ‘Do you still harbor hopes about Sarat? I have given up on that quarter for quite some time now .’
On the 19th of August, Priyanath Sen wrote:
‘I have not forsaken our hopes for Sarat completely. He dearly wishes that this marriage takes place. He will take part only when he receives his mother’s consent. He does not wish to secure his own happiness at the expense of that of his mother. Let us see what happens.’
There is an undated letter where Tagore expressed his doubts about Sarat being able to convince his own mother to agree to the marriage since he himself had never seen Bela.
The following year talks resumed between Tagore and the groom’s elder brothers, Avinash and Rishibor.
To be continued: