29. I’ve fallen in love…….

…… with the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Sorry to disappoint those expecting a different story! I’m referring instead to a dusty, hardback collection of poetry and plays published in 1967 (by then in its 9th edition), that I had the good fortune to stumble upon in the library of the NILG where I work. (See post 25.)

A quintessential Renaissance man, Rabindranath Tagore  (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, philosopher, correspondent, educator, social reformer, musician and painter. (Phew!) The breadth and complexity of his work is astonishing. He travelled extensively, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 – the first Asian to do so – and was awarded a knighthood by the British, which he returned in protest at the 1919 massacre in Amritsar. His work provided the inspiration for the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, and partly for Sri Lanka’s. Before I found this book at work, I had been trying to track down some of his works in bookshops in Dhaka, but it’s very difficult to know what you are buying, especially in translation. I bought a copy of Gitanjali only to discover that certain pages are repeated, others are blank and yet others are missing. Gitanjali (Song Offerings) is a slim volume of 103 poems translated into English by Tagore himself. It was published in 1913, with an enthusiastic introduction by Irish poet and Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats. You can read Yeats’ introduction, together with works by Tagore,  online – thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Tagore was born into a prominent, affluent, Hindu Bengali family in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal in colonial India. When I visited Kolkata (see post 62), I spent a morning at the Jorasanko Thakurbari.  In Bangla/Bengali, ‘Thakurbari’ translates as ‘House of the Thakurs’ (anglicised to Tagores). (Jorasanko is the name of the area in Kolkata where the ancestral home is located.) Here, Tagore had a rich, exciting and creative upbringing with his 13 siblings and many cousins, with family members involved in theatre, art, science, literature, journalism and mathematics. Jorasanko was also a meeting place for intellectuals and artists from around the world. Today, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place: enriched by imaginings of ghosts from times past.

It is said that Tagore’s paternal ancestors came from a village near Jessore in the Khulna division of what is today Bangladesh, the same area that his wife came from. (See post 35 for more in relation to Tagore’s wife.) He also spent a productive period of time living in a home owned by the family in Shilaidaha near Kushtia, on the banks of the River Padma, also in the Khulna division. I had the pleasure of spending a memorable afternoon in this house too, while visiting the surrounding area (see post 55). In Kushtia town there is another impressive building from which the Tagores carried out business as zamindars in the district. This is still known as the Tagore Lodge today.

Tagore is inspirational on so many levels. As well as his interesting and challenging ideas, and his international recognition as a remarkable poet and writer, he produced over two thousand paintings and drawings. He didn’t take up painting until he was sixty-eight years of age. (Very inspiring and encouraging for those of us a tad anxious about middle-age!) Therefore, all of his artwork was completed in the last twelve years of his life. The first exhibition of his paintings was in Paris in 1930, with an exhibition in Kolkata the following year. He is best known for his mood-images of heads and figures: I haven’t seen the originals, but even the pictures of these paintings are emotionally engaging.

As somebody who is passionate about education, I was interested in Tagore’s educational philosophy and his role as an educator. He thought deeply about what education should be and was influenced by his own enlightened upbringing in an open, creative and culturally rich environment. He hated formal schooling and eventually refused to attend school, holding no degrees apart from those honorary degrees conferred upon him in later life. He founded a school and later a university in Santiniketan, a small town north of Kolkata in West Bengal, to which he dedicated almost forty years of his life.  He advocated that education should be more holistic, leading to a rounded development of both mind and body. It should take into account the particular socio-economic environment of the learner, while at the same time facilitating global cultural exchange. He did not believe in an authoritarian system: in the school at Santiniketan, the students mixed and participated freely with teachers. A lot of their learning was subconscious and undertaken in the outdoors in nature. Aesthetic development, through creativity and the arts, played an important role, equal to that of intellectual development.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen was born on that campus in Santiniketan, where his maternal grandmother taught, and so he, like his mother before him, attended Tagore’s school, of which he says in his autobiography:

….. it was mainly in Tagore’s school that my educational attitudes were formed. This was a co-educational school, with many progressive features. The emphasis was on fostering curiosity rather than competitive excellence, and any kind of interest in examination performance and grades was severely discouraged. (“She is quite a serious thinker,” I remember one of my teachers telling me about a fellow student, “even though her grades are very good.”) Since I was, I have to confess, a reasonably good student, I had to do my best to efface that stigma.

It would be impossible for me to sum up a prolific life such as that of Rabindranath Tagore in a blog post. I am pleased to have been introduced to his writing, albeit, unfortunately, in English translation – though he did write some work directly in English, and was the translator of some of his own work too. I have been told though by a Rabindranath devotee, who I met in a café in Kolkata and who reads Bengali, that a lot of the richness and flowing rhythms are not adequately communicated in translation. Tagore is one of the few Bengali writers whose work is internationally well-known, because it was translated. However, much of the voluminous translation was of poor quality and often resulted in misrepresentation, with many seeing Tagore as merely a mystic. For reputable translations, see the work of William Radice, a renowned Bengali scholar and translator of Tagore and other Bengali writers. It saddens me to think that I won’t experience the original work, but then what I have read so far is beautiful and captivating. During those early difficult weeks in work (see post 25) when all I seemed to be doing was waiting – waiting for a work space, waiting to meet somebody (anybody), waiting for the tiniest flicker of interest – Rabindra was my valued companion. He mesmerised me with his poetry and storytelling and the lyrical and philosophical quality of his writing. I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of his creative output, but I very much look forward to uncovering more.

For now, the following poem from ‘Gitanjali’ [Song offerings] attests to what I have been reading of Tagore’s noble aspirations for education, nation and mankind.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

I’ve put some photographs together below. The first few relate to the Tagore houses that I visited. Some of his works follow – including some of his paintings. Then there are some representations of Tagore by other artists and finally some old photographs. I’ve tried to give them some kind of chronological order but many are undated. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (188 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1920 --- A portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and philosopher. --- Image by © E.O. Hoppé/CORBIS

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2 responses to “29. I’ve fallen in love…….

  1. I really liked your blog about Bangladesh and specially the fact that you discovered the beauty of the literature of Tagore. You are right. Tagore’s poetry in Bengali is a treasure of incomparable beauty. It is a source of sheer joy. Gives us solace in the toughest moments in life. Glad to know you got a taste of it even in English.

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