Revisiting Tagore

The focus of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's biography is not on one of Tagore's numerous roles but on the evolution of his intellectual life.

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

AT last, a balanced, sensitive, objective, impeccably written short biography of Rabindranath Tagore. It is too early to say which publications, of the many that have been prompted by the 150th anniversary of Tagore's birth, will command attention in the future, but it is safe to bet that Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's book is one that students, scholars and general readers alike will read and reread. Bringing together his experience as a professor of history, his tenure as Vice Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, and the detailed command of archival sources gained from editing (in The Mahatma and the Poet) the Tagore-Gandhi correspondence, his book is the fruit of a long gestation period and is all the better as a result. Its endnotes, chapter-by-chapter chronology of Tagore's life alongside contemporary historical events, and Bibliographic Note provide a solid basis for further research, but the text itself is graceful and clean. The reader feels supported by scholarship never bombarded by it.

Bhattacharya's focus throughout is not on any one of Tagore's numerous roles but on the evolution of his intellectual life. This is not an extraction from the whole, but a way of bringing out the whole. Writing on page 107 of the background to Gandhi's beloved Ekla chalo, of how the song stemmed from the isolation Tagore felt when his call for constructive swadeshi during the 1905 anti-partition boycott campaign fell on deaf ears, he stresses the interconnectedness between Tagore's socio-political thoughts and his creative writings. Too often these have been separately treated in terms of specialisations of literary critics, political historians, biographers, and the like, to the detriment of the evolution of his mind.

When people talk in general about Tagore's ideas and ideals, they often leave the complexity and many-sidedness of his artistic creations behind, lending credence to Bertrand Russell's sardonic remark in 1967: His talk of the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians, unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all. Admired by many westerners too, one hastens to add, whose obsession with limiting Tagore's image to that of the sage of Santiniketan robbed him of much of the intellectual credibility that Bhattacharya sets out to restore.

He does this by his careful periodisation of Tagore's development: by showing that whether as a thinker about nation and history, as an activist in the public sphere, as an educationist, or as a poet, novelist, dramatist, song-writer or painter he perpetually changed, reconsidered, started afresh. He also shows how conflicted Tagore was, how torn he felt by his many roles, and especially between his solitary vocation as a poet and his internationally public profile as a man with a mission. One's admiration for Tagore is strengthened, not undermined, by letters such as the one quoted by Bhattacharya on page 45: I wish that I could be released from this mission. For such missions are like a mist that envelops our soul. I rouse myself, strain my mind, raise my voice for prophetic utterances and to my utter dismay, discover that I am not a leader, not a teacher, and furthest of all from being a prophet. Such admissions invite one to attend ever more closely to Tagore's ideas, born as they were from intense inner struggle.

The letter just quoted was to C.F. Andrews, and Bhattacharya's frequent use of the correspondence with Andrews is an aspect of his book all Tagore scholars can take note. From his moving section headed Spells of Depression (pages 48-53) we learn that Andrews was someone to whom Tagore could speak more candidly about his inner life than to anyone else. It is tempting sometimes to dismiss Andrews as a sycophant, but it must have been deeply helpful to both Gandhi and Tagore to have among their friends a man whose Christian religion was rooted in suffering. In May 1914, only six months after the triumph of the Nobel Prize, it was Christian imagery that Tagore reached for when he wrote to Andrews: I am struggling on my way through the wilderness. The light from across the summit is clear; but the shadows are slanting and deep on the slope of the dark valley. My feet are bleeding and I am toiling with panting breath (page 49).

As a historian, Bhattacharya is modest about his literary qualifications, but his insight is certainly not restricted to Tagore's thought. Because he understands so well that Tagore's thought was inseparable from its literary and artistic expression, he has many things to say not just about the novels (whose intellectuality is congenial to his approach) but about poems, songs, plays, dance-dramas, even paintings. All the genres are needed to explain what he regards as the driving force behind Tagore's entire life and work his bid for universalism, and his espousal of the Religion of Man. This is the mighty river, so to speak, into which all Tagore's creations and activities flow, but the sea into which it pours is a mystery, too vast for comprehension not only by readers of Tagore but by Tagore himself. Bhattacharya is candid about unclarities in Tagore's attempts to define his philosophy, rightly saying of The Religion of Man, This book was not one of his best.

But he also shows, especially through his appraisal of the encounter between Tagore and Albert Einstein, that his ideas deserve to be considered seriously at an intellectual level. When Tagore met Einstein, it was not just a meeting between a man of science and a man of faith. Indeed, Bhattacharya argues that Tagore's conception of unity between the individual mind and the Universal Mind (a conception not a million miles from the anthropic principle in contemporary cosmology) was not a religious idea at all. Of an essay written in 1905, he writes (page 24), he repeatedly used the notion of an idea, devoid of any religious or spiritual association. Thus it is possible to look upon Tagore's statements about some unknown power guiding his life and work without ascribing to him the absurd and egoistic belief in his destiny being divinely ordained.

Bhattacharya ends his book with an Epilogue on Tagore's influence on the other literatures of India, giving detailed pointers that are a valuable corrective to those who see Tagore's significance either in Bengali or in international terms. Tagore lived and wrote at a time when a new Indian identity in literature was struggling to be born. Tagore was a catalytic agent in that process, and Bhattacharya concludes: That did not make Indian literature' a reality but it made it thinkable.

There are so many aspects of modern India or of modern India's relationship with the rest of the world that Tagore helped to make thinkable. Try thinking of Indian nationhood, Indian modernity, Indian education and development, the translation of modern Indian literature, even the Sahitya Akademi or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations without him! Impossible. Why it is impossible, and why, anniversaries or not, we shall have to keep on returning to Tagore, Sabyashachi Bhattacharya's admirable, lucid, non-hagiographical book does a lot to explain.

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