Who's Who

Death of Rabindranath Tagore

The poet Rabindranath Tagore died on August 7th, 1941. Hugh Tinker charts the life of the man who 'was, perhaps, India's greatest son in modern times'.

We have discovered by now that the stereotype of 'the Unchanging East' obscures more than it explains. Yet, equally unhelpful in the Asian context is the Victorian concept of Progress or in our own day Development (they are much the same) envisaging an onward evolution towards an 'advanced' material culture. This error was perceived long ago by an Indian thinker when he wrote:

You have to judge progress according to its aim. A railway train makes its progress towards the terminus station – it is a movement. But a full grown tree has no definite movement of that kind. Its progress is the inward progress of life. It lives, with its aspiration towards light tingling in its leaves and creeping in its silent sap.

The writer was, perhaps, India's greatest son in modern times: Rabindranath Tagore. Yet he never saw himself as belonging exclusively to India. He identified most with his native Bengal, and ultimately with all mankind. His family background seems at first to demonstrate just that adaptability to change which we associate with modernisation. The poet, like his father, moved beyond such an induced response to the environment, searching for universal answers to the problems of an India stirring and restless under the grip of British Imperialism.

The poet's ancestors from the most ancient times belonged to Bengal, the land of rivers and rice fields. They were Brahmans, and, like clerics in medieval Europe, they possessed a near-monopoly of the learning and literary skills which were necessary to unlettered princes. When the Muslim invaders occupied Bengal in the twelfth century these learned Brahmans were taken into their employ. According to tradition some, in attending the Muslim Governor, inadvertently inhaled the odour of the Muslims' food, including the aroma of meat. Thereby they forfeited their exclusive position at the apex of the Hindu caste hierarchy. Perhaps this made them less rigid, less restricted in their ways, for certainly when the English first settled in Bengal the descendents of these displaced Brahmans moved to the foreign trading station on the Hughli which was to become Calcutta.

Most of the local inhabitants were of low caste and they showed their veneration for the Brahman newcomers by addressing them as Thakur, deity (from the Sanskrit thakkura). The newcomers adapted their skills to commerce and became agents and later partners with the English merchants who – unable to pronounce any Indian word without mangling it – called them Tagore. For a hundred years the Tagores contributed to the growth of the commercial metropolis. The English had their mansions in south Calcutta, Chowringhee, while the Indians were segregated in the 'Black Town' to the north. Here the Tagores built their family mansion, Jorasanko, where the clan multiplied. As in the homes of almost all wealthy Bengalis there was a spacious central courtyard, surrounded by galleries, with at one end an elevated platform. The whole closely resembled an Elizabethan theatre, and its purpose was in a sense theatrical, for the various seasonal festivals were celebrated here in music, dance and recitation upon the stage.

The family fortunes reached a peak with Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846). Handsome, gifted, enterprising he came to the fore when British administration was reaching out across the land from the creeks of Burma to the hills of Afghanistan, at the same time as the British-led industrial revolution was making its first impact upon India. In this age of opportunity, Dwarkanath invested in a whole series of manufactures: sugar, tea, indigo, and the first coal mine in India. He owned a fleet of cargo boats and founded the first modern bank incorporating Indian capital. Like most leading entrepreneurs he took risks and he made sensational losses as well as profits, but he treated misfortune with disdain. His style of living was lavish. He entertained Europeans with a sophistication few of them could emulate. Among his guests was Emily Eden, the literary sister of the Governor-General. He subscribed generously to good causes, he supported the arts. His contemporaries called him 'Prince' Dwarkanath. His greatest friend was Ram Mohan Ray, the originator of the Bengali renaissance. Ram Mohan was a religious reformer, the pioneer of the search for synthesis between spiritual enlightenment and social reconstruction which had its culmination m Gandhi in the twentieth century. Ram Mohan sought to breathe new life into the corpse of Hinduism as it was then: a meaningless cult of caste rituals, the mechanical recitation of sacred books. Supreme Truth, he believed, was variously realised in the Islamic doctrine of One Invisible and Omnipotent God, in the Christian faith in a loving, understanding Saviour, and in Hindu philosophy, the Upanisads . The Protestant missionaries hoped that Ram Mohan and his followers would embrace Christianity, and indeed they did adopt forms of congregational worship and a creed akin to Unitarianism. In the field of social action Ram Mohan condemned the perversion of Hinduism in such practices as sati (the widow's immolation on her husband's funeral pyre) and the multiple marriages prevalent among the highest-ranking Brahmans. But he also sought to revive other features of his traditional culture, notably to encourage the Bengali language as a vehicle for literature, religion and social action. Bengali had been neglected during the centuries of Muslim rule in favour of Persian and Arabic and was now threatened by the enthusiasm of Bengali youth for English, which they saw as the way into the modern world, Ram Mohan promoted the application of Bengali to journalism, polemical writing and popular literature.

In all this Prince Dwarkanath was active, assisting his friend with his money and influence. Together they set up the Calcutta Unitarian Committee and the Hindu College (later Presidency College) a non-sectarian institution offering a university education on the Western model. Ram Mohan Ray wanted to persuade the East India Company, India's governing body, to liberalise its regime. A new Charter of Government was due to be granted by Parliament and he decided to go to England to make representations to the Parliamentary Committee of the House of Commons. At this time it was utterly forbidden to any high-caste Hindu to cross the 'Black Waters'; loss of caste was inevitable. Ram Mohan had made the forbidden journey and met important people in England, but he died and was buried at Bristol in 1833.

Dwarkanath determined to make the forbidden voyage also. He selected three young Bengalis, members of his congregation, to accompany him with the object of placing them in British medical schools (the first Indians to receive European medical training). He was received by Queen Victoria and the leading men of Britain. He returned triumphant, and then decided to make a second visit to Europe, along with his nephew and youngest son. They stayed almost two years, then quite suddenly Dwarkanath became ill and died in London in August 1846 at the early age of fifty-one.

His heir was his eldest son Devendranath (1818-1905), who had inherited none of his father's commercial acumen; indeed he turned his back on the world of business. However, Dwarkanath had acquired vast landed estate in east and west Bengal and his heir was able to follow the life he wanted, which was a combination of country gentleman and mystic. In 1843 Devendranath re-established Ram Mohan Ray's 'church' as the Brahmo Samaj – Society of Worshippers of the One God. The Brahmos were virtually all upper-middle class Bengalis. Though they abjured caste and rejected idol worship they still preserved the sacred thread of the Hindus and followed other Hindu practices. In many ways Devendranath was a moderniser. He established a high school to counter the prestigious missionary schools, with Bengali as the teaching medium. He founded a newspaper, Tatvabodhi Patrika which vigorously replied to missionary propaganda and fostered the Bengali consciousness. From among the ranks of the Brahmos (never more than a few thousand in number) were to come the great majority of the Victorian Indian élite – civil servants, judges, professors, newspaper editors, doctors, scientists – the men who laid the foundations of a new India. Yet the Devendranath Tagore who had organisational flair, travelled widely by railway and steamship, made speeches, wrote articles, was also a man who desired to renounce these worldly pursuits and seek God in the silence. Among his estates he owned some barren land in the extreme west of Bengal, at Bholpur in Birbhum district. Here, two miles down a dusty track he built himself a country house, planted a grove of mango trees, and contemplated the bare, broken landscape called the kwai , He named the place Santiniketan – Abode of Peace. He built a little mandir or prayer hall whose architectural inspiration might have been the Crystal Palace for it was of finely cast iron with walls of faintly coloured glass. All were invited to worship who accepted no idols; hence Christians or Muslims might attend.

Devendranath's saintliness was recognised by the title he received, Maharishi or Great Sage. He thought of renouncing the world utterly, becoming a sadhu or hermit in a cave in the Himalayas, but he remained a householder, paterfamilias, with his fifteen children. Last but one was Rabindranath, born in May 1861. His name reflected the glory of the sun. Rabi's childhood was spent among the rambling corridors and courts of Jorasanko and his disjointed education was in his native Bengali. However, Devendranath's second son, Satyendranath, had succeeded in winning a place by examination in the government corps d'elite , the Indian Civil Service. He was the first Indian to be admitted to this all-British service (in 1864) which attracted the cream of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge. In 1878 Satyendranath decided to take his family to England. Rabindra went with them. The purpose was to provide him with an English education and after having private tuition he entered University College London. If the intention was to equip him to compete for the Indian Civil Service or the Bar this did not succeed. Rabi already possessed the striking looks which were his into old age: a tall upright figure with flowing locks and piercing eyes, he was immensely attractive to women and perhaps his attractiveness put too many demands on his energies, for he returned home after eighteen months having acquired no academic award. He had acquired a lasting love of English literature – Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Dickens – and a deep familiarity with the New Testament (as his well-worn copy of the Bible still testifies). From England he brought back the manuscript of a long lyrical drama, Bhagna Hriday, the Broken Heart.

Rabindra had been writing poems and plays since his childhood. Now, they began to achieve recognition. All the Tagore family were artistic, and it was the most natural thing for them to perform Rabi's works on the stage at Jorsanko. Increasingly, the Calcutta intelligentsia came to applaud. It was an era when Bengali literature was recognised as outstanding among the Indian regional languages and was even competing in Calcutta with English as the preferred literary medium. The leading writers included Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-73) a convert to Christianity and a pioneer in Bengali blank verse drama and Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-94) whose main vehicle was the novel. His best-known book was Ananda Math (The Abode of Bliss) set in the period when Muslim rule in Bengal was overthrown by the British (then viewed as liberators by Bengali Hindus). It included a patriotic song, Vande Mataram , Hail to the Motherland, which was to become an unofficial national anthem. In the last decade of his life Bankim Chandra hailed Rabindra as the future voice of Bengal.

He did not succumb to the life of a Calcutta celebrity. His father, increasingly remote, entrusted to him the management of the family estates in East Bengal (now Bangladesh). This experience of rural life was a formative influence. He gained a deeper feeling for Bengali folk culture, listening to the Bauls, the traditional minstrel-bards. He absorbed the Bengali landscape, spending 1ong days drifting by boat down the River Padma which symbolised for him the still beauty and solemnity of Golden Bengal.

As was customary, Rabindra's bride was chosen for him by his father and his choice fell on the eleven-year-old daughter of one of the employees on the East Bengal estate, an uneducated girl of no great beauty. The wedding took place in 1883. Out of this unpromising beginning a love was to be born, but before this came about Rabi suffered a grievous emotional loss. During their time in England he had become ardently attached to Satyendranath's wife, whose age was near his own. Five months after his marriage she committed suicide. This was the first of the personal tragedies which marked his long life. He reacted by abandoning convention, discarding the elegant robes in which he appeared so beautiful – almost Christ-like – for unkempt . He was in despair, until his work drew him back, and he resumed the astonishing output of poems, plays and novels which he maintained almost to the end.

Bela, his eldest daughter, was born in 1886; he was a loving father to his four children but his life was never bounded by his family. He visited England again in 1890, but returned abruptly. The account of the visit which he published, in Bengali, was critical of the urban, industrial society of the West:

Huge buildings, huge factories, all kinds of entertainment places, people coming and going, to and fro, as in a great fair. No matter how dazzling and wonderful this may be it tires the onlooker.

Increasingly, his writings returned to India's past for inspiration, though the subjects he explored were as relevant to the present as to the past and his work is full of social comment and often humour. The influence of his aged father seems to have impelled him to accept much of traditional custom in these middle years, for he arranged the marriages of his daughters at the ages of eleven and fourteen though earlier he had written against child marriage. Increasingly, he contrasted the pristine vigour of the countryside with the decadence of the city and in 1901 he started a school at Santiniketan, at first with only five pupils including his son, Rathindranath. There were to be no examinations and no preparation for entry into the Indian universities, modelled as they were on London University. Emphasis was given to music, dance, drama and painting. The intention was to bring out the potential of the human personality, not to produce candidates for government jobs.

This pastoral life was interrupted when the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, decreed that the province of Bengal would be divided. The province had increased in territory and population until it included eighty million people (more than the population of the United States). Partition solved administrative problems but it infuriated the politicised Bengalis. It was now that Vande Mataram became a hymn of resistance. Rabindra was also inspired to write patriotic songs invoking the motherland, and to sing them to emotional audiences. 'The British now began to regard him as a subversive nationalist, though in fact his national- ism was purely cultural. He played no part in the Indian National Congress with its demands for an increased share in the legislatures and the higher civil service. To Rabindra all that was as alien and meaningless as the British administration, His idea of politics was effort directed to the reconstruction of Bengali village life. Characteristically, when he later visited Cornell University in New York State as a celebrity, and had to sign the distinguished visitor's book, in the space for the visitor's nationality he inscribed not 'Indian' but 'Bengali'.

Having aroused the suspicion of the British rulers of India., Rabindra was about to arouse the admiration of the public in Britain. A young painter, Will Rothenstein, was touring India. He met the poet and made a great impression on him. Will encouraged Rabi to translate some of his poems into English. The friendship also stimulated him to make another visit to England. The English translations, called Gitanjali , Song Offerings, were published – first in a limited edition by the India Society of London and subsequently by Macmillan. Their acceptance owed much to the enthusiasm of W.B. Yeats, but there seems little substance in the claim Yeats made after Gitanjali became a best- seller that he contributed substantially to the English text. This is presented like prose, ignoring the convention of printing blank verse in separate lines, and is quite unlike Yeats's own poetry. He certainly helped to introduce the poems to the English public. For example, he gave a reading at Will Rothenstein's Hampstead home where several literary celebrities were present – Ezra Pound, Alice Meynell, Ernest Rhys. The poet ignored them all to greet an unknown missionary from Delhi, Charlie Andrews.

Like many who suddenly find themselves famous, Tagore was both gratified and dismayed by the publicity. After being the sensation of the London season he was glad to take refuge with the Rothensteins in their country retreat and with Andrews in a Staffordshire vicarage. When he returned to India it was to be told that he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1913. The prize was instituted in 1901: Rudyard Kipling had been the recipient in 1907, and Yeats, the second recipient from the British Isles, had to wait until 1923 for the award.

Tagore (he was now Tagore to the world, no longer the Bengali Rabindra) had caught the contemporary mood in the West for the exotic, the colourful: almost at the same moment the Russian Ballet captured Britain and America. Gitanjali went through more than twenty editions before 1915. The British establishment in India could not remain impervious. It was left to the missionary Charlie Andrews to introduce Tagore to the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and Hardinge recommended him for a knight-hood. The accolade was bestowed in 1915.

In wartime, Tagore was restless. He set out on another voyage, this time to Japan where he was welcomed as a symbol of the Asia accorded honour by the West. The Japanese did not understand his message of Asian brotherhood and internationalism. Tagore denounced nationalism, and this seemed to the Japanese a retreat into submissiveness. He was equally unsympathetic to the rising spirit of nationalism in his own country. As he wrote to Andrews: 'We, the famished, ragged ragamuffins of the East are to win freedom for all humanity! We have no word for "Nation" in our language.' His ideas were crystallised in a book, Nationalism , published in 1917. He warned his countrymen: 'The advent of another people into the arena of nationality makes another evil which contradicts all that is highest in Man.' Tagore was writing this at the very moment when Woodrow Wilson was preaching the virtues of national self-determination to the world.

Tagore's most splendid gesture was made in 1919. Gandhi launched a campaign against repressive legislation imposed by the Government of India. The agitation got out of hand and Gandhi called a halt, admitting to a 'Himalayan Blunder'. Only gradually did it become known that in suppressing the violence the Government (or its agent, General Dyer) were guilty of a murderous act of retaliation at Amritsar.

Gandhi was humbled. Other politicians were afraid to speak. Only Tagore was ready to step forward. He addressed the Viceroy thus:

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab fop quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India.

Tagore was ashamed of 'badges of honour... in the incongruous context of humiliation'. He asked the Viceroy to relieve him of the knighthood he had accepted from Hardinge.

It was not in his nature to harbour bitterness and two years later when Gandhi's campaign against British rule included the burning of foreign cloth he protested against this 'moral violence'. Gandhi saluted him contritely as 'the Great Sentinel', 'warning us against the approach of enemies called bigotry, lethargy, intolerance, ignorance, inertia, and other members of that brood'. Tagore was again planning to promote international understanding and he resolved to add to the educational work at Santiniketan a university Visva Bharati , which was to be both truly Indian and also truly international, and which Tagore called 'the Nest of the World'. Here, as in the school, the arts were cultivated. Scholars were invited from Europe, like Sylvain Levy, the French Sinologist, and Guiseppe Tucci, the Italian Buddhologist. Another innovation was the creation of an agricultural college at Sriniketan (Abode of Plenty) nearby, for Tagore wanted university teaching to be integrated into rural life. It didn't all work out as he wished. Middle-class Indians, however idealistic, were irresistibly lured by city life and government service. Even if they did not remain in the countryside, most absorbed something of the Santiniketan ideal; among them, Satyajit Ray, the poetic film writer and director, Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, statistical expert and scientific planner, and Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister.

An inordinate amount of time in later years was devoted to foreign travel, usually to raise money for Visva Bharati. Tagore toured Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Latin America, as well as China and the Soviet Union. He was not unaware that there was something incongruous about delivering his 'other-worldly' message while busily trying to raise funds. He was no longer quite such a cult-figure; and though his books still sold in the West the 'Message of the East' was less in demand. He still had a message, as in his Oxford lectures on The Religion of Man (published in 1930). He was still prepared to make his own personal gesture. When American immigration officials made difficulties about his entry, he cancelled his American tour and returned home rather than concede that Asians must accept second-class status in the West.

In old age, Tagore still rose long before dawn to witness the birth of each new day, and he still wrote fluently in his own hand. He liked to make extensive corrections; he also liked his manuscripts to be elegant; hence he began turning his erasures into decorations, forming intricate patterns and pictures of serpents and birds of his own imagination. From this odd beginning came his last artistic adventure, as a painter. His paintings and sketches cannot be com- pared to those of any other artist or school. They possess some of the stark crudity of folk art with the imagery and symbolism which he saw in his visions. Tagore was eighty years old when he died in 1941. He had endured the deaths of wife, children, and his only grandson. Still restless, he built new dwellings for himself at Santiniketan, though his travels now were limited to a few hundred yards. He died in the midst of a world war which seemed the negation of all he had loved (he appealed to President Roosevelt to intervene when the Germans marched into Paris, to avert its destruction). If he looked forward to India's independence it was not because he wanted to see a new nation but because he believed that only in freedom could Indians be true to their inheritance. Like all great men his memory was to be manipulated after death by time-servers. His poems were chosen to be the national anthems of two new nations – India and Bangladesh. He would have made a pithy short story out of the irony of this well-meant tribute.

Hugh Tinker, author of fifteen books on South and South-East Asia, was professor of politics at Lancaster University.

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