Rabindranath Tagore: Portrait of a torn soul


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The 25th day of the month of ‘Baishakh’ according to the Bengali calendar, (9 May) marks the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali author, musician and educator. He was born in 1861 and died on 7 August 1941.

As usual, there will be many tributes to the great man, focusing generally on his momentous body of work- of over 2230 songs (including musical compositions), more than 1000 poems, two dozen plays, eight novels and eight volumes of short stories, over 2500 paintings and many essays on diverse topics - created during a 60-year span of literary life. Tagore’s other major contribution of establishing ‘Santiniketan’ (Abode of Peace), the educational institute modelled on the forest hermitages of ancient India is also likely to be mentioned.

Tagore’s links to Sri Lanka through many who received full training at Santiniketan, (Devar Suryasena, Surya Shankar Molligoda, Lionel Edirisinghe, W. B. Makuloluwa, L.T.P. Manjusri, Premakumara Epitawela, Shesha Palihakkara, Chitrasena and Pani Bharatha) and others who received partial-training there (Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Shantha and Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra) who pioneered the creation of truly local music, dance and drama genres based on folk art will also get a mention. The identities of numerous other unknown Sri Lankans whose life-changing musical education at Santiniketan led to the discovery of new vistas will remain buried. Tagore also visited Sri Lanka three times in the 1920s and 1930s, at the invitation of Dr Arthur de Silva, D. R. Wijewardene and Wilmot A. Perera at different times. His month-long 1934 tour of Sri Lanka for the performance of the musical Shapmochan (not Shap Mochan as its Hindi film version was erroneously titled) at the Regal Theatre, and in Jaffna, was the longest.

It is commonly known that Tagore wrote the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. It needs to be emphasised however, that evidence does not support the suggestion that Tagore wrote the Sri Lankan national anthem or composed music for it, as suggested by a Bangladeshi columnist named Habib Haroon in an article on The Hindu of 17 May 2011. Haroon’s assertion that Sri Lanka’s anthem is based on a Bengali song written by Tagore, and wast translated into Sinhala by his pupil Ananda Samarakoon is unsubstantiated. A careful search of the complete works of Tagore in original Bengali - the 30 volume Rabindra Rachanavali - has failed to show any poem by Tagore that vaguely resembles the possible original words of Namo Namo Matha. Tagore’s only association with the creation of a national anthem for Sri Lanka has involved the attempt of his disciple Dr. Kalidas Nag (who briefly filled in as principal of Mahinda College, Galle in 1919 upon the retirement of F. L. Woodward) to introduce the Indian national anthem Jana-Gana, inserting the word ‘Sinhala’ in the first stanza.

Unknowingly perhaps, Habib Haroon has added to the local insults that tragically shortened Samarakoon’s life, without corroboration: there is no evidence to support Haroon’s insinuation and the fact that Ananda Samarakoon wrote the anthem and composed music for it during his time at Mahinda College from 1938-1942 is as certain as it could ever be. It is quite possible that he was inspired and influenced by many Bengali Bhajans and devotional songs that begin with the words ‘Namo Namo’, including ‘Shri Durga Chalisa’ and the Saraswati Bhajan ‘Namo Sharada/// Matha’, not amounting to a translation of a Bengali lyric.

Tagore, warts and all

Temptation to present an adulatory account of the life of Rabindranath Tagore however, needs to be resisted in order to convey an image of his inner world as revealed by the content and meaning of the more than 2300 songs he wrote and the views expressed in his political writings.

Tagore’s poetry is unique in that it presents a subtle blend of spiritual and romantic notions that thinly veils a craving for understanding the mystery of human consciousness and its relationship to the divine he firmly believed in. This search for a greater meaning in the human condition, expressed consistently in his lyrics, probably originates from the series of personal tragedies he suffered in early life: he lost his mother at the tender age of seven and lost his wife, two of his five children, and his father in quick succession between 1902 and 1907. His wife was only 29, daughter 12, and son just 11 years old when they died. Another daughter died in 1918 at the age of 31. He later wrote:"I viewed life through the prism of death". By the time he died he had outlived even his only grandson.

The master film maker Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata (The Lonely Wife) - considered his best work - based on Tagore’s novella Nashtanir (Broken Nest) that is considered to be autobiographical provides other clues to key drivers of his creativity, also based on melancholy arising from love humbled by social prohibitions. Throughout his life Tagore has refused to speak about his complex (probably illicit) relationship with his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi who came into the Tagore family as the child bride of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath. Being close to him in age, they became playmates and companions and the relationship grew stronger due to Jyotirindranath’s frequent business trips away. Just four months after his wedding Kadambari Devi committed suicide. His lyrics suggest that this particular relationship and event was the wellspring of his creative writings on the subject of love. Ray’s use of the camera angles and movement in particular to depict the psychological drama involved is considered to make Charulata a masterpiece in film making.

Feelings of deep spirituality he expressed through his poetry seem to have been Tagore’s strategy of coping with tragedy. This response of Tagore contrasts with that of other prominent historical figures to similar circumstances: William Shakespeare, who suffered similar loss of siblings and his only son Hamnet, also at 11 years of age, was probably driven away from the concept of God and spirituality, as evidenced by his portrayal of prophesy, witchcraft, astrology, magic and ghosts in his plays; Charles Darwin never got over the passing of the eldest of his ten children, Annie, at the age of 10,the second daughter after just 23 days and the last son, afflicted with Down syndrome, at 18 months. Darwin adopted the view that there was no divine purpose behind the death of his children, or hope of a celestial reunion,professing a brand of atheism that was particularly diffident. (In his rage, the naturalist totally failed to evaluate the possible genetic consequences of his marriage to a first cousin). Tragedy however, drew Tagore closer to the Hindu creator God Brahman.

Tagore’s most enduring legacy amongst Bengalis all over the world is ‘Rabindra Sangeet’, the music genre he createdby combining the elementary features of raga with folk-music including the music of the Bauls (the wandering minstrels of Bengal) and Bhatiyali (songs of the boatmen of Bengal), and elements of western music. The emotions associated with change of seasons, spiritual devotion and the full spectrum of human emotions find their voice in Tagore songs. Internalising the poetry of Bengali words in Tagore’s original lyrics,‘properly’intoned - by artists such as Punkaj Mallick, K.L. Saigal, HemantaMukhapadhyay, Subinoy Roy, Suchitra Mitra and Kanika Bandyopadhye - can lead to a subtle and profoundly personalexperience. Sadly, the inevitable loss of original nuances and the emotions in translationdue to the Sanskrit-based structure of the Bengali language confinesthe true appreciation of Rabindra Sangeet to the Bengalispeaker.

Tagore’s work apart from his music however, is feted more in foreign lands than in his native India. The works of his contemporary Sarat Chandra Chattophadhyay (1876-1938) in particular, were far more popular among the ordinary Bengalis. (Our own Professor Sarachchandra, who bore a striking physical resemblance to this great writer, may have been influenced by him during his stay at Santiniketan). Some critics explain Chattophadhyay’s popularity, in addition to the superiority of his work, on the basis of his humble origins compared to the widespread perception in India that Tagore’s family origins are ‘tainted’ with Indian blood, with some justification.

The family history of the Tagore clan in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital of the state of West Bengal, and its surroundings go back several centuries, to the time the region was ruled in the 17th century by the East India Company (EIC) under a grant by the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, son of Shah Jahan. The Jewish EIC agent Job Charnockwho had first come to India in 1655 and settled in Patna with a native wife,established a ‘factory’ (a warehouse)in Kolkata against strong local resistance, and by 1690,had settled there permanently. One of Rabindranath’s early ancestors is supposed to have been Charnock’s ‘translator’ when he first landed in Kolkata off the Hooghley River. The British eventually completed the territorial conquest of the entire sub-continent from this base, culminating in the Battle of Plassey(1757), withWarren Hastings declaring Calcutta the capital of British Indiain 1772.

The many branches of the Tagore clan had become immensely wealthy due to their collaboration over several centuries, first with the Mughals, and then with the Raj. Rabindranath’s grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846) raised money-making to another level by assuming a major role in the flourishing opium trade to Chinathe EIC established in the city. The memories of tens of millions of Indian deaths through famine - including the Great Bengal famine of 1770 - caused by theEIC’s forcible cultivation of opium,replacing food crops -still haunt the Bengali psyche. The sinister trade was eventually stopped by the Qing dynasty, after the First Opium War (1839–1842). (Next part will appear on Saturday (14)

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