বুঝি না, বুঝতে পারি না, চাইও না/We do not understand, we are incapable of comprehending and we do not wish to either:

Regardless of whether Bengalis read Rabindranath Tagore’s work with attention or not, lately curiosity in Rabindranath as a person has flared up. This eagerness has recently found a new focus. This is what might be described as Tagore’s ‘love life.’ One notices a lot of discussion, writing, serialized accounts and films that deal with this. There is no point rueing this eagerness. Rabindranath never labelled himself an ascetic of any sort. But one must look into the recent phenomenon affecting Bengalis, namely their overwhelming interest in Tagore’s ‘love life.’ It is worth considering what Tagore has been reduced to in this cyclical waxing and waning.

One might describe this current uproar over Tagore’s loves as an ‘opposing reaction.’ He was the founder of the school at Santiniketan and his robed and bearded appearance as Gurudev is the image most Bengalis think of. Many adore him, almost as an otherworldly presence. They feel that it is utter sacrilege to even think about his love life. They keep their Tagore safe by judging his love poems through abstract comparisons and in the guise of philosophical discussions of the infinite. Perhaps this hysteria regarding the purity of Tagore was once so great in Bengali society that we are now seeing an opposing reaction to it. Marketability plays a big role here. The personal life of the poet is now a top billed item in the market. During his life he was not bereft of female company. Many people from near and far were keen to be in the company of the talented, good humoured and handsome poet and there were women among this devoted following. Neither was he averse to life. The life of a man who once wished to experience life in all its diversity has today become a subject of stories of mere physical attraction at the hands of contemporary purveyors of Bengali culture; this is hardly surprising seeing that today’s Bengali culture has blossomed as a opposing reaction to the past. The names of Kadambari, Ocampo and Ranu are heard again and again. Especially that of Kadambari owing to her suicide. Bengalis do not have the mental fortitude to take part in a great tragedy but on the whole they have a great inclination and interest in light melodrama. That need has been fulfilled by the relationship between Tagore and Kadambari. This is a sign of two complementary traits seen in Bengalis. Firstly, Bengalis are not aware of appropriateness and hence secondly, they have no empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel the same feelings as someone else. One must have empathy to understand and know another person and this is helped by having some idea about the person we need to understand. One has to study deeply and learn much for that. In the West a lot of work has been done on the personal lives of famous thinkers but at present Bengal lacks even the smallest part of the effort, intelligence and imagination that is at work in those ventures. Tagore had wished to make imagination a partner to empathy. This imagination is characterised by the ability to be as another or the desire to do so. One must first understand the other. If one studies Tagore’s life and reads his work with attention to detail, one can see how he attempted all through his life to especially honour the equation between men and women. Tagore never denied that physical attraction is ever present in the relationships between men and women and within the human heart. He singled out his predecessor Vidyasagar for special praise because Vidyasagar recognised that a widow’s body did not turn to stone simply because her husband passed away. Tagore was thus different from the ‘path of selfless sacrifice’ adherents of the nineteenth and twentieth century who declared that this natural desire for physical love was to be suppressed for the sake of society and country. Bankim Chandra decreed in ‘Mrinalini’ and later in ‘Anandamath’ that personal feelings of love were to be locked away so that one might serve the country. But Tagore did not sacrifice Ela and Antu’s love for the sake of the country in his novel ‘Char Adhyay’.

He believed that a woman’s self esteem played a very important role in marital relations and that this self esteem was not found only in educated women living in cities but in all self aware women, no matter what their economic background. In his story ‘Shasti’ or Punishment, it is this self respect that gives the wrongfully blamed Chandara the strength to refuse a meeting with her accuser and husband Chidam before she is hanged. It was self respect again that gave the rural woman Mrinal the courage to leave her husband’s home (Streer Potro).

Tagore did not merely wish to define and construct a new language for femininity; he created a new definition for masculinity as well. His ideal male does not occupy a woman but rather attempts to understand women through his own pliant humanity. Nikhilesh of ‘Ghawrey Bairey’ and Madhusudan of ‘Jogajog’ are noteworthy in this respect.

It is only natural that he who placed such importance on the mutually sympathetic understanding in relationships between men and women would himself become a person trusted by women in his personal life at a time when not understanding the female mind was the rule. He had relationships with various people such as Ranu, Kadambari and Ocampo. Those relationships differed in both importance and significance. Kadambari’s death made Tagore grow as a writer and the memories surrounding her death have returned again and again in many of his writings. And yet he is seen as a loving and dutiful husband to Mrinalini. Various women who were spellbound by his qualities came into his life after Mrinalini’s death. These human interactions all enriched his life. Our minds seek varied experiences. It is as though he enjoyed that variety of experience through his varied relationships. He never insulted anyone’s self respect.

The average Bengali is happy enough with their success in reducing the great to their own stature. But the act of reducing everyone to one’s own measurements without attempting to understand them is in fact a form of terrorism. If we persist in the terrorist act of pulling everyone down to our level, the stature of the Bengali people will keep lessening till we are able one day to sit on the kerb and still find our feet swinging in the air.

(Translation, mine)

‘Tagore and Iqbal: Views’ by Aamir Butt

Iqbal and Tagore

A friend complained that I have written Tagore was the greatest poet India has produced, he was unhappy as he thinks this title belongs to Iqbal. Well actually I never wrote this in the first place, what I had written is that Tagore is acknowledged as the greatest poet India (and here I meant Indian Sub-Continent) has produced in the last 200 years. Well there is little doubt about this, is there? Tagore was the first non-White to win a Nobel prize, his poems form the national anthem of two countries and if there is a poll across the Sub-Continent asking the question who is the greater poet among them I have no doubt Tagore will win. So the fact remains that Tagore is acknowledged as the greatest poet India has produced in the last 200 years, but is he the greatest poet India has produced in the last 200 years? This is an entirely different question as here we are asking a personal opinion and everyone will have their own opinion, some I am sure will think that neither of them deserve this title. We will therefore leave this for now though at some stage it would be interesting to compare their works and ideas.

As such there is a lot of overlap between their philosophy and poetry. Both seem to be heavily influenced by Rumi and Shirazi and though Iqbal at times writes in terms of Islamic specific poetry Tagore remained by an large a pantheistic/mystic poet throughout his life.
 I was curious if they ever met each other or exchanged letters for they both lived in the same country at the same time, Tagore was 16 years older than Iqbal but outlived him by 3 years.
To my astonishment I found out that the two never ever met, not only that, they never exchanged any letters and curiously Iqbal never even acknowledged Tagore in any way!
As for Tagore the story is slightly different. Tagore admired Iqbal and this is apparent from the message he sent to  Inter-collegiate Muslim Brotherhood of Lahore which celebrated Iqbal Day in January 1937, in this message he openly acknowledged Iqbal’s greatness and  the universal quality of his poetry. 
I have been unable to find the dates but it has been recorded that once when Tagore was in Lahore he went to see Iqbal at his Mayo Road residence. Iqbal at that time had gone to Bhawalpur so no meeting took place. When Iqbal came back he was informed of Tagore’s visit and his desire to meet him, he never tried to contact Tagore, never wrote to him or anything, how strange! Why?! No one knows for sure though many have often wondered why. A few years ago one of Pakistan’s leading Iqbal scholar M Ikram Chughtai who was Director of the Urdu Science Board published a research based article on this subject. Mr Chughtai claims that the reason Iqbal gave a cold shoulder to Tagore was envy, or perhaps even jealousy. Chughtai calls it ‘The Award Complex’ and claims that the reason was Iqbal’s resentment on Tagore being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1912 and the fact that Iqbal was never considered for this prize (another anti-Muslim conspiracy perhaps). Chughtai says “Tagore’s award had been hovering on Iqbal’s mind throughout his life and he, directly or indirectly, could not free himself from this ‘award complex’.

 Soon another development was to take place which was to further sadden Iqbal: King Raza Shah Pahlavi of Iran extended an invitation to Tagore to visit his country. He went there in 1932. As a royal guest, he was given tremendous welcome in many cities of Iran. While in Tehran, he received a similar invitation from the King of Iraq. In Baghdad, Tagore was received by King Faisal himself. Tagore had also been invited by Einstein to his Berlin home in January 1930.

Chughtai assures us that Iqbal was greatly ‘shocked’ by these invitations and warm welcomes extended to a poet who he considered to be his rival, especially by fellow Muslim leaders as in one of his recently discovered letters, he wrote to Ghulam Abbas Akram, the then foreign minister of Iran, that Tagore was a non-Muslim and that “Tagore did an injustice to the Indian Muslims. He told the Muslims of Mesopotamia to persuade the Indian Muslims to cooperate with the Hindus for the freedom of India.”
Chughtai has also made a detailed mention of the abortive efforts made by Iqbal and his well-wishers to get a Nobel for him. Even to this day the fact that Iqbal was not given a Nobel prize and perhaps for some of greater irk Tagore was is not forgotten, as an article I came across from a 2012 addition of the Millie Gazette shows, titled, ”Why wasn’t Iqbal awarded a Nobel? The writer tells us,” It’s one of the biggest mysteries that Dr Muhammad Iqbal didn’t get Nobel despite his profound poetry and the corpus of literary work of the highest calibre. Iqbal and Tagore were simultaneously writing poetry in the sub-continent and if the level of poetry of both the masters is assessed dispassionately, Iqbal has an edge over Tagore. Both were mystics and they were heavily influenced by Persian mysticism of Attar, Jami, Hafiz, Sanai, Khaqani and the most sublime of all, the redoubtable Jalaluddin Rumi. Iqbal called Rumi, his ‘ruhani ustaad’ (spiritual master), whereas Tagore was influenced by Hafiz Shirazi. While Tagore almost plagiarized Hafiz in his 103 poems in Gitanjali, that won him 1913’s Nobel, Iqbal’s inspiration was devoid of pilfering.”

I found it interesting and a bit ironic that the Millie Gazette claims to be the leading newspaper of Indian Muslims while as I mentioned above Chughtai sahib is from Pakistan and one would expect things to be the other way around! Also as far as I can tell Shirazi’s influence on Iqbal’s poetry is well known and has been acknowledged by Javed Iqbal.

So there we are, these two great men, philosophers and poets,  the best that India produced in the last 200 years never met and never put their heads together to produce any work and mankind is all the poorer for this.

So while I am not saying who is the greater poet among the two but one thing can be said, if (and please before anyone gets upset please note the IF), if what Mr Chughtai has claimed is true, then there can be little doubt who was the greater man.

Tagore and Einstein

In July 1930, two of the world’s greatest minds – Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein – met for the first time at Einstein’s Berlin abode to have one of the most riveting conversations of all time, exploring the dichotomy between religion and science.
In almost all arenas including cultural backgrounds and occupations, the two intellectual heavyweights were diametrically different. But their mutual love for music, inquisitiveness, and passion for the truth united them, and resulted in their stimulating philosophical discourse.
Fortunately, Dimitri Marianoff and Amiya Chakravarty were present during their meetings, and recorded the conversations. Marianoff, the husband of Einstein’s stepdaughter, promptly published the story in August 1930. The conversation was transcribed courtesy of David Gosling’s Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein met Tagore, and the January 1931 issue of Modern Review.
An excerpt from the historic conversation:
TAGORE: You have been busy, hunting down with mathematics, the two ancient entities, time and space, while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of man, the universe of reality.
EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the divine isolated from the world?
TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of man comprehends the universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the universe is human truth.
EINSTEIN: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: The world as a unity dependent on humanity, and the world as a reality independent of the human factor.
TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty.
EINSTEIN: This is a purely human conception of the universe.
TAGORE: The world is a human world – the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it truth, the standard of the eternal man whose experiences are made possible through our experiences.
EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.
TAGORE: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realize the supreme man, who has no individual limitations, through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of truths. Religion realizes these truths and links them up with our deeper needs. Our individual consciousness of truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to truth, and we know truth as good through its own harmony with it.
EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or beauty, is not independent of man?
TAGORE: No, I do not say so.
EINSTEIN: If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?
EINSTEIN: I agree with this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.
TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through men.
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion.
TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony, which is in the universal being; truth is the perfect comprehension of the universal mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experience, through our illumined consciousness. How otherwise can we know truth?
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings. It is the problem of the logic of continuity.
TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the universal being, must be essentially human; otherwise, whatever we individuals realize as true, never can be called truth. At least, the truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic—in other words, by an organ of thought which is human. According to the Indian philosophy there is  Brahman, the absolute truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words, but can be realized only by merging the individual in its infinity. But such a truth cannot belong to science. The nature of truth, which we are discussing, is an appearance; that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind, and therefore is human, and may be called maya, or illusion.
EINSTEIN: It is no illusion of the individual, but of the species.
TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes truth; the Indian and the European mind meet in a common realization.
EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings; as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it. The problem is whether truth is independent of our consciousness.
TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the superpersonal man.
EINSTEIN: We do things with our mind, even in our everyday life, for which we are not responsible. The mind acknowledges realities outside of it, independent of it. For instance, nobody may be in this house, yet that table remains where it is.
TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table is that which is perceptible by some kind of consciousness we possess.
EINSTEIN: If nobody were in the house the table would exist all the same, but this is already illegitimate from your point of view, because we cannot explain what it means, that the table is there, independently of us. Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack—not even primitive beings. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity. It is indispensable for us—this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind—though we cannot say what it means.
TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!
TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the super-personal man, the universal spirit, in my own individual being.
In spite of their differences in ideology, Einstein consistently expressed his appreciation for his illustrious guest. And Tagore later wrote in his memoirs about his host: “There was nothing stiff about him – there was no intellectual aloofness. He seemed to me a man who valued human relationships and he showed toward me a real interest and understanding.’’


An essay: The Ocean of Consciousness by Bhaswati Ghosh

This article first appeared here:



I first saw you as a sombre old man dressed in a full-length jellabiya. Your waterfall of a beard helped little to diminish the portentous image you seemed to project from behind it. As you watched the little girl that was I from your framed domain on our wall, I would dodge your grave looks while walking past your unusually tall photo. Then, at five, I learned a poem of yours from my mother.

The day darkens as the sun’s about to set/ Clouds swarm the sky, it’s the moon they want to get/ Cloud overtakes cloud and colour cloaks colour/ The dong-dong of temple bell rings loud and clear/ Rain pours on that side, hazy goes the green/ On this side of the horizon, a million gemstones shine/ On the cloudy breeze, drifts a song of my childhood/ Rain falls pitter-patter, on the river comes a flood. (Rain Falls Pitter-Patter, Rabindranath Tagore)

You obviously knew better and drew my innocent heart with the pitter-patter of rain and the dazzle of a million gemstones. Soon, I would be caught in your snare, captivated by the exploits of little people like me who featured in your poems and stories. The young boy, for instance, who imagines playing hide-and-seek with his mother by becoming a champa flower. For, which five-year-old wouldn’t revel in this boy’s wish—to quietly watch Mother go through her day as she completes her worship ritual, reads the scripture in the afternoon and lights the evening lamp on her way to the cattle shed — even as her mischievous child eludes her sight?

Slowly, your image became one of a wise grandfather’s, and I didn’t avoid eye contact with you as much as before. In junior school, while singing in the chorus for Chandalika, your dance drama, I swung between the boisterous song of a curd-seller and the meditative melody of a Buddhist monk. Your music had me entranced; a spell I wouldn’t be able to break thereafter. I recall the summer afternoons when I would sing your songs to my grandma, her recurring favourite being the one in which you cried for peace with the disenchanted opening line, “Constant skirmishes grip the world fervid with violence.”

And then, years later, I would start translating your words for the small audience of my nascent blog. This would be but another step in my journey with you. The potency of your expressions — sublime and lucid at once — would become both my compass and anchor in my endeavour to render your ideas in a Western language.

In scouring my translation territory, I notice I kept returning to your Lipika. The short pieces that make up this book are written so cleverly that they defy any bibliothecal categorisation. Where would a librarian place this slender book in her library? In the poetry section? The words in its pages do carry the lyricism of poetry. In fiction? True, some of the book’s entries are conventionally rendered tales. Or would she place Lipika in the non-fiction isle? Surely, it does have a few reflective essays. I wouldn’t bother with categorizing it at all — it’s my own collection of gemstones, all housed within the frayed covers of my well-worn copy.

Through Lipika, I burrowed into the secret crevices of alleyways and clouds, walking pathways and internal universes. Your deceptively limpid prose in these short pieces is like light itself, capable of penetrating massive walls through a single crack. The day yawns; sunlight drops from the shoulders of the houses to rest in a corner of the alleyway, just like the slipping away of the anchal of a housewife’s sari. The clock strikes nine; the maidservant walks by, tucking to her waist a basket of vegetables she bought from the market; the smell and smoke of cooking envelopes the alleyway; office goers get busy.

And the alleyway thinks to herself, “All of reality is contained within this concrete road. What I had thought of as something big must be just a dream.” (The Alleyway, Rabindranath Tagore)

You wrote enough to invigorate me to drink from life’s wellspring, but I owe it to you for pulling me out of despair time and again. A few years ago, when I lost a dear brother and nothing seemed to make sense, I turned to you. There you were, my shawmobyathi — an empathetic friend who had himself walked the dark road of grief and had found light in what seems like an endless pit of sorrow to the grieving.

The sad reality that life is not absolutely definite lifted a load off my chest. I felt ecstatic to learn that we aren’t imprisoned within the stone walls of unmoving truth. That which I had been holding on to had to be let go of. When seen from the perspective of loss, this evoked pain, but when I saw it from the angle of freedom, I felt spacious peace. For the first time, a strange truth dawned on me — that this world’s enormous weight balances itself against the give-and-take of life and death and flows in every direction thus. That weight wouldn’t crush anyone with suppression—no one would have to bear the tyranny of a sole master called life. (Death’s Grief, Rabindranath Tagore)

Working with your words isn’t for me about the noble cause of taking you to the non-Bengali speaking world. It is, rather, a self-serving act — the desire of the river flowing inside me to meet the ocean that your oeuvre is. In translating your texts, I find that the universality of your expression allows your thoughts and ideas to be seamlessly transposed to moments and spaces far beyond their original epoch and location. Even as I try to grasp the idea of home in an alien land, I come to you to better understand separation — its spasms and its releases, its emptiness and its fulfilment.

Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness. (Letter dated January 9, 1892, Rabindranath Tagore)

Your songs continue to pull me. In the middle of a chore, on seeing a fresh morning, and without any reason at all. Yet, I dither when it comes to translating them. For, your songs aren’t mere words; their tunes carry the mood and the atmosphere you so magically created. Even if I translated the words, how would I ever transfer the cadence? How will I sing them?

For now, I will find my therapy in translating your prose and poetry.

(The author is a writer and translator. All translations by the author)


Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English–My Days with Ramkinkar Baij–has been published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books in January 2012. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation in 2009. Her stories have appeared in Letters to My Mother and My Teacher is My Hero– anthologies of true stories published by Adams Media.

More about Bhaswati here:


Tagore: by Philip Salom, Australian poet

If the dates are correct, Rabindranath Tagore – whose 150th birthday has just passed – lived a life as brilliantly symmetrical as he was brilliantly talented: born on May 7 in 1861 and dying on August 7, 1941. In the west he is usually considered a great poet (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1913) but throughout his remarkable eighty years he proved himself the most extraordinary person of the ‘Indian Renaissance’, publishing 30 or so collections of poetry, eight novels, four novellas, ten books of essays, several collections of critical writings and speeches on the culturally central subjects of literature, history, politics and religion. He wrote possibly as many as 2000 songs, including the music, and a large number of dramas, many of them also ‘musicals’. Just for variety, towards the end of his life he took up painting and print-making. But there was more…

Tagore (Thakur) was born into a high caste Brahmin family and began writing from an early age. He was educated in Bengal, and later England, where he attended public schools and University but he left greatly disillusioned with an education system based, as he saw it, on military discipline. This was sadly consistent, in his view, with the dynamics of British colonisation in India and Africa. The same obsession with control was behind Britain’s domination of nature through resource-mining world-wide, with industry and over-reaching commerce. This abuse of nature by force and self-interest was something Tagore was deeply against, so he would now look very much the environmentalist in his overall philosophy. He eventually completed his university education in India.

But his travels left him with a passion to see India as a world nation, as a continually growing culture to be understood on equal terms with western culture, not reduced by empirical condescension to being “oriental’, and ‘Eastern’; these paradigms of definition all too often meant exotic, brooding, playful, magical, and superficial, a presence full of colour and surface and brilliantly fascinating – but not to be taken quite seriously compared to Western achievements.  This was what eventually happened to Tagore’s own profile in the West: taken up suddenly with the first translation into English of his poems in Gitanjali, lauded by WB Yeats and Ezra Pound, made famous as a major world poet by major world poets, awarded the Nobel Prize; and then in a few years came a quite rapid re-evaluation of him as not so important after all. England ‘orientalised’ him.


How rare he was. This man used his Nobel Prize money to establish an ‘alternative’ secondary school and an Agricultural Bank. The former was free, and accepted boys and girls studying the same curriculum; and the latter was a banking system devised to allow peasant farmers to pay off their debts to their landlords and become self-reliant. This rural reconstruction work was opposed to Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj, a rejection of the state as epitomised by British rule. Tagore did not want India to become a traditionalist state but one that took the best of the West and applied it, freely, in agriculture as elsewhere. Tagore taught in the school (Santiniketan) and later travelled extensively throughout Bengal to raise funds for its continuation; the students travelled also, performing plays and musical works – often written by Tagore for this purpose. Students studied each morning and balanced intellectual work with afternoon involvement in community activities, music, sport and physical work, making up a diverse and socially-integrated curriculum. It must have been a fascinating school. Later he added a World University (Visva Bharati ) with international lecturers and students and even more travels by himself, internationally, to generate funding and interest.

Tagore was an educationalist, administrator, critic, humanist, lifelong commentator on politics, friend of Gandhi and famous figures like Einstein, a man who lectured throughout the US and Europe and Japan, someone never afraid of being open but also critical of his and these other major cultures. He supported Gandhi’s ideas of Satygraha but was troubled by the divisions he saw Gandhi’s politics were creating between Hindu and Muslim, and Gandhi later admitted Tagore had been prescient in this criticism. Tagore also wished to see the Untouchables integrated into the social system.
When the British massacred up to 1500 unarmed people at a political gathering in Jallianwala Bagh he returned his earlier-awarded Knighthood. During his life he lost his wife early (she was only 29), then his father, his daughter, his mother and two of his sons. Grief underlies many of his poems, regardless of the celebration of nature and humanity found everywhere in them. No champion of the privileged, his poems and fiction works focus on ordinary people, especially women, and trace deep chords of loss and loneliness within their music. He often cast Untouchables as heroes in his writings.
One early influence on his poetic was the ancient Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, a great figure in the tradition of a poetry that is suffused with philosophy and religion, who is said to have lived in the 4th Century, and a later influence came in the works of the Bakhti Sufi poet Kabir. Sufism and poetry have a strong history and Tagore was greatly impressed by this achievement even though he was not a Sufi and really can’t be called a philosopher. He was an accessible poet whose songs were extremely popular and whose poems and stories were familiar nationally. Tagore was himself was a strikingly flexible poet, using strict and loose forms, prose poems, poems of philosophy alongside intense lyrics and broader, descriptive poems. In the 30s he also took on a more Western Modernism and experimented with various of its styles, especially a narrative-based, vernacular and ‘low’ literature approach.
During the 20C he became a towering influence, not only in India, but throughout Asia, all the way down to Indonesia, where the Hindu people of Bali venerated him.


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

Images: Wikipedia

Rabindranath Tagore in the world today

In 1942, the famous Polish children’s author, Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage, chose Rabindranath Tagore’s ডাকঘর, The Post Office as a play to be performed by a group of orphans living within a Warsaw ghetto in Poland. This was weeks before they were sent to their deaths.The story is that of a terminally ill young boy, Amal– excluded from the rest of the world, by his illness, much like those within the ghetto were excluded because of their religious beliefs.Korczak wished to brighten life for the children while they waited for the inevitable.

This is proof of how far his name had travelled within a mere year of his passing – from the sunlight and freedom of his beloved Santiniketan to an orphanage in war ravaged Europe, where children were dying, often more than 10 in a single day.

The 151st birth anniversary of the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature, approaches in less than a week. Thanks to thousands of individuals and organisations as large as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), this will not pass unnoticed..

The celebrations include performances of his plays and songs and conferences. The 150th anniversary was marked by auctions of paintings and memorabilia and the release of commemorative stamps by countries all over the world.

While Tagore visited over 30 countries across five continents, his work by way of translations has travelled much more widely. A group of Chinese Tagore scholars are completing the mammoth task of translating his complete works from Bengali into Chinese.

Jyotirmoy Datta has taught Tagore and other Indian literature at the University of Chicago. He has said that beauty of Tagore’s works is capable of reaching out to people across cultures and that the question of the language or quality of translation becomes superficial.

The reverence offered to Tagore who was the composer of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh is similar to that accorded to a spiritual guide or the leader of a religious order. People quote his poetry, perform his plays, and read and analyse his prose. The major Bengali festival of Durga Puja is marked by the release of albums of his work by a range of artists.

The relevance of Rabindranath Tagore remains as strong as ever in the world that he wished to see as one and “not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”(চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির/ Where The Mind Is Without Fear)

The English translation of Gitanjali, first published in March 1913, had already been reprinted 10 times by November of that year, when the Nobel Prize was announced. Tagore’s handsome figure. bearded and dressed in exotic robes was compared to “a powerful and gentle Christ.”

Unfortunately by the time he revisited Europe in 1920, he was shunned by those who had idolised him in 1913. The reason for this difference was possibly his vocal criticism of imperial rule and his rejection of knighthood after the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. “At that time for a figure of his stature speaking out against the empire was new,” Mr. Datta says, adding that it was as if someone had risen and “shamed the world order.”

Tagore’s first visit to Germany in 1921 on the other hand saw the people welcome him as an icon of resurrection. According to Mr Datta, “It was because he was regarded as a symbol of resurgence, of the indomitable spirit of man.”

Even though it is not possible to expect this love of Tagore to attain him bestselling status outside India, particularly as the readers of serious literature in all times are as rule relatively few, the publishing history of his works show that Tagore is regarded quite seriously. In the 100 years that the copyright was applicable on his translated works in the West, no less than 56 editions have been printed.

Each chapter of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ seminal work, On Death and Dying, which is thought to be a classic of psychiatry begins with a quote from Tagore, which indicates the extent of his influence.

It has been said that Tagore is the second most widely translated foreign author after Shakespeare in China where he is called “Chu Chen Tan,” the thunder and sunlight of India, a literal translation of his name in Bengali.Translating Tagore is almost a 100-year-old tradition in China. Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, published four poems from Gitanjali (An Offering of Songs) in Xin Qing Nian (New Youth) in 1915.
For the first time, Tagore’s complete works are being translated directly from Bengali into Chinese by Dong Youchen and his team. The first five volumes, being published by Renmin Publishing House, were published in May 2011, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, and all 24 volumes are expected to see the light of the day by 2015. (photo and link below)

Recently a FB group that I am a part of hosted a celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s work at an evening of song and poetry in Kolkata. This is one of hundreds of such groups dedicated to spreading awareness and an appreciation of his work.

Another friend has posted about an event happening in the seat of English literature as far as I am concerned, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford. With the help of Shakespeare Aloud actors and Prantik friends, Obhi and Kaberi Chatterjee will be telling the Story of the Gitanjali. This year is the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Tagore’s English Gitanjali, the main collection of poetry for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.(photo and link given below)

একটি দিন/One Day

                                                           একটি দিন

মনে পড়ছে সেই দুপুরবেলাটি। ক্ষণে ক্ষণে বৃষ্টিধারা ক্লান্ত হয়ে আসে, আবার দমকা হাওয়া তাকে মাতিয়ে তোলে।

ঘরে অন্ধকার, কাজে মন যায় না। যন্ত্রটা হাতে নিয়ে বর্ষার গানে মল্লারের সুর লাগালেম।

পাশের ঘর থেকে একবার সে কেবল দুয়ার পর্যন্ত এল। আবার ফিরে গেল। আবার একবার বাইরে এসে দাঁড়াল। তার পরে ধীরে ধীরে ভিতরে এসে বসল। হাতে তার সেলাইয়ের কাজ ছিল, মাথা নিচু করে সেলাই করতে লাগল। তার পরে সেলাই বন্ধ করে জানলার বাইরে ঝাপসা গাছগুলোর দিকে চেয়ে রইল।

বৃষ্টি ধরে এল, আমার গান থামল। সে উঠে চুল বাঁধতে গেল।

এইটুকু ছাড়া আর কিছুই না। বৃষ্টিতে গানেতে অকাজে আঁধারে জড়ানো কেবল সেই একটি দুপুরবেলা।

ইতিহাসে রাজাবাদশার কথা, যুদ্ধবিগ্রহের কাহিনী, সস্তা হয়ে ছড়াছড়ি যায়। কিন্তু একটি দুপুরবেলার ছোটো একটু কথার টুকরো দুর্লভ রত্নের মতো কালের কৌটোর মধ্যে লুকোনো রইল, দুটি লোক তার খবর জানে।

I remember that afternoon. The rain lessened every now and again, until gusts of wind encouraged it back into torrents.

The room grew dark, I could not pay attention to my work.I picked up my instrument and started playing a song about the rain, set to the Mallar raga.

She came from the next room and stood at the door. Then she went back. She returned and stood outside the door; finally, she walked in slowly and sat down. She had some needlework with her which she now concentrated on. Presently, she put down the needlework and gazed at the faint outlines of trees outside the window.

The rain stopped. My music came to an end. She went away to comb her hair.

This is all. Just one afternoon filled with rain, song, idleness and shadows.

In the pages of history, the stories of kings and the wars they fight happen so often, they become commonplace. But our memories of that one afternoon are locked away like a precious gem in the coffers of time, only two people know about that.