Rabindranath Tagore: An enigma


Muhammad Mahmood | 6 June 2019

Tagore has been an inescapable reality for all 250 million Bengali speaking people around the world. He is widely revered all over Bangladesh and in India. He commands a towering presence in the Bengali speaking world. His literary achievements overshadow anything that happened before him and anything that happened after him in the Bengali literary world. Tagore, in fact, is embedded in the collective psyche of educated Bengalis.

He is variously addressed as “Gurudev” (great teacher), “Kabi Guru” (Poet teacher), and “Viswa Kabi” (World Poet). I have read books where he was even addressed as “Kavi Samrat” (Poet Emperor) and “Shishu Shahitya Samrat” (Children’s literature Emperor). That is how he is seen by the Bengali speaking people and one may be led to think whether Tagore, a literary genius, has almost been elevated to become a cult figure now. Tagore always wanted to have an engaged critique, but if he were alive today, he would have been deeply disappointed to see how his admirers completely shun any such engaged critique especially in Bangladesh.

Tagore acolytes see him as an embodiment of human perfection. In fact, most Bengali litterateurs and his other admirers even do not utter his name to show their deep reverence and veneration for their beloved poet. He is mostly addressed as Gurudev, Kabi Guru or Viswa Kabi. I am told that the Bengali literary establishment in Bangladesh would black ball anyone who dares to be critical of Tagore or his literary works. Such an adulation of Tagore may be difficult to comprehend from the Western critical scholarship perspective, but can be easily understood from the Bengali cultural point of view.

In many ways the veneration of Tagore has taken an almost comical dimension. Tagore veneration bears all the hallmarks of Tagore fetishism and there is always a danger that such fetishism can degenerate into obscenity. His espousal of engagement in open-minded and fearless reasoning does not seem to have cut ice with his acolytes in Bangladesh, if not in India and beyond. No wonder one gets a feeling that these very people in Bangladesh are trying to shove Tagore down the gullet. Worse even Tagore has effectively been commoditised by these Tagore acolytes. But to me for a variety of reasons Tagore remains an enigmatic person. As the Bengali speaking world celebrated Tagore’s 158th birth day this year (2019), it is time for me to reflect on Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was born into a high caste Brahmin family but with a somewhat problematic background as his family belonged to a sub-caste within the caste known as Pirali Brahmins. This, some argue, might have caused the Tagore family to move away from orthodox Brahminism. His family had long connection with the East India Company dating back to the mid-18th century as the Company’s middle men. It was the company people that gave the name Tagore which was easier for them to pronounce than Thakur. That role enabled the family to accumulate vast wealth making them one of the most affluent and influential families of Calcutta.

The Tagore family also acquired huge landed property in what is now Bangladesh. His family was an integral part of the Bengali Bhadralok elite, a creation of Macaulay’s education policy. To pursue finer things of life like high culture, art, music and literature needs quite a lot of money and Tagore did not have any problem with that. There were a lot of inherited money lying around for him, he did not have to work for it. It was done for him by his forebearers, especially his grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore who died and buried in England. Tagore was a very lucky man indeed in a country of extreme poverty and squalor, more so during his life time.

Tagore was born on May 7, 1861 (corresponding to 25 Baisakh of the Bengali Calendar which may not always correspond to May 7) in Calcutta, now in India. He died on August 7, 1941 in the same city. His birthday is celebrated according to the Bengali calendar on the25th of Baisakh. During his life time, he published about 30 collections of poetry, eight novels, four novellas, ten books of essays and several collections of critical writings delving into literature, history, politics and religion. He composed more than two thousand songs. He is the only author to have written two national anthems- one for Bangladesh and the other for India. He made hundreds of paintings. He edited journals.

He was also a political activist-a strong supporter of the Indian independence movement and a leading figure opposing the partition of Bengal in 1905. All Bengali Bhadralok like Tagore also opposed the 1905 partition of Bengal. But surprisingly they became the most vocal supporters of the partition of Bengal in 1947. What would have been Tagore’s role in it if he were alive in 1947 is anybody’s guess now. He was a gentle critic of Gandhi, challenging Gandhi’s intermingling of religion and politics. He also bestowed the title Mahatma (Great soul) to Gandhi.

He founded an experimental school and university at Shantiniketan (abode of peace). This place was also his home and Ashram for most of his life. Tagore was very proud of his university-Viswa Bharati (universal India), but not Viswa Bangla or something along that line at Shantiniketan. The alumni of his university include the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. But now nowhere his university is taken seriously nor included in the list of leading universities in the world. Also, in the English-speaking world Tagore evokes a very vague recognition but his stock remains very high in the Bengali speaking world,

Tagore won Nobel prize for literature in 1913, the first Asian person to receive the honour; just a year before the World War I broke out. Tagore received rapturous response to his literary work from great literary figures like William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound who became principal sponsors of Tagore in England and also to the West. They also introduced him to the London literary circle of the time. To the Europeans, he exuded the aura of saintliness, a mystic sage who brought a real message of peace and reasoning from the East to the materialistic Europe which was then in the throes of a catastrophic war.

The way both Yeats and Pound promoted Tagore, turned him into an oriental sage. With his long flowing hair, beard and moustache with matching sweeping robe he wore combined with a benevolent expression further added to his saintliness – an Oriental Guru. Tagore was everything that the West wanted to see in an oriental mystic or a Fakir- in essence he was ‘orientalised’. Even an oriental person, Yusunari Kawabata who became the second Asian to receive Nobel Prize for literature (1968) saw Tagore in his home country, Japan, when he was 16 and said Tagore gave the impression of an oriental wizard.

But within a few years’ time came quite rapid revaluation of Tagore- not all that important after all. His leading admirer and champion Yeats commenting on his later books wrote “sentimental rubbish”, something in the similar vein the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges also said about Tagore’s poems – ‘corny’. Graham Greene said “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr Yeats can still take his poems very seriously”. Bertrand Russel in a letter to an Indian wrote that he did not like Tagore’s mystic air with an inclination to spout vague nonsense. Philip Larkin wrote to a friend “An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum (sic) Tagore, feel like sending him a telegram: “Fuck all. Larkin”. On the occasion of Tagore’s 150th birthday celebration, Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian, “I consulted two dictionaries of quotations, the Oxford and Penguin, to check the most memorable lines of this poet, novelist, essayist, song and short story writer. Not a single entry”.

His award of Nobel Prize also generated scepticism from no less than a person than Yeats himself. The award of Nobel Prize for literature has always been mired in controversies notwithstanding the subjectivity involved in it. On many occasions the Nobel Committee has been blamed for being influenced by political considerations and regional bias. Yeats was deeply aware that if the award were given to Tagore, that would soften the anti-colonial feelings in India. He said that the prize would be a piece of wise imperialism from the English point of view. Sunil Gangpadhay, a noted Bengali writer from Tagore’s home city Calcutta, said that Tagore just rode on the waves of great fascination with oriental mysticism then prevailing in the West and that catapulted him to become a Nobel Laureate. He thought Tagore was the right man at the right time at the right place- just lucky.

For very practical material reasons, the Tagore family always had varied degrees of fondness for England. In 1842 his grandfather Dwarkanath was presented to Queen Victoria and met celebrities of the time like the Duke of Wellington and the famous writer Charles Dickens who found his name very difficult to pronounce. Tagore himself always showed an eagerness for Western appreciation of his work and believed in the inherent British sense of fairness and justice, a belief also shared by all his fellow Bengali Bhadraloks of that time. Harald Hjame, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, introduced Tagore as an Anglo-Indian poet, but there is no record available that shows that Tagore objected to that. A Professor of Bengal literature, now retired, described Tagore to me as a “colonial poet”.

But that did not stop him from returning his Knighthood in the wake of the Jalliwanabagh massacre in 1919, only four years after (1915) he received it. I have read and heard on many occasions the acolytes of Tagore cite this as an example of his strong opposition to colonial oppression. But nowhere I found or heard any question was raised about why he received the Knighthood in the first place. Tagore just could not resist the temptation of Knighthood, which fulfilled his yearning to be accepted and recognised by Imperial Britain. That he was not aware of the implications of receiving such an award would be very hard to sell.

Joseph Conrad (four years older than Tagore), an admired figure in the Edwardian literary establishment, but chose to decline the offer of a Knighthood. Conrad as a sailor saw firsthand what devastation was caused by colonialism in Africa, how colonialism inflicted brutality on the colonised people and in turn how colonisers themselves were psychologically damaged by it. His novella “Heart of Darkness” written between 1898 and 1899, exposed the hypocrisy of colonialism. He depicted colonialism and madness as one in the same. It is ironic that Tagore seems to have not seen colonialism in that way or made any moral judgement on it given that he himself was a colonised man but Conrad was not. Conrad also depicted in his book how the business of empire turned into the empire of business. The Tagore family was an integral part of that business, what the Marxists would call as comprador bourgeoisie.

Tagore in his life time travelled to more than 30 countries. Tagore in one of his essays explained his lifelong sense of restlessness which drove him from home to home and from continent to continent. But his two trips to Italy in the mid-1920s remain till today quite controversial. His second trip to Italy was as the guest of Benito Mussolini and where he had two meetings with the fascist dictator. Those two meetings have been of great interest to Tagore scholars. It was not his meeting with Mussolini per se that caused much controversy, but what he said as recorded by his disciple Prashanta Mahalanobis raised eyebrows. Tagore thought Mussolini was a misunderstood man and the massive vigour of Mussolini’s head reminded him of Michelangelo’s chisel.

It is also very interesting to note that one of his two principal promoters in London, Ezra Pound, also ended up in Italy during the WW II as a defender of fascism with his radio broadcasts which resulted in him being charged for treason by the USA and he was stripped of his US citizenship. He also served a13-year prison term but in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. for his role during the WW II. On his release from the hospital he returned to Italy in 1958 and died there in 1972. Gandhi also met Mussolini and spoke favourably of some of Mussolini’s policies. Another Tagore’s fellow Bengali Subhas Bose also met Mussolini but there was not any ambiguity about that, he was ideologically sympathetic to Mussolini and was quite ready to use violence to achieve his political objectives.

There are other incongruities in Tagore’s character apart from his fascination with fascism. He was strongly opposed to child marriage yet he married off his daughter at the age of 13. He strongly spoke against the Hindu caste system but he himself was very caste conscious, especially when it came down to arranging his children’s marriage. These inconsistencies may be reflective of him being a very lonely person not being able to communicate his ideas, views and feelings or even any emotional distress with someone whom he could claim as his friend. Another Professor of Bengali literature, also now retired, told me that in Bangladesh and India Tagore did not have any friends, but only disciples. Such a friendless life must have heavily weighed on his psyche.

Tagore’s literary achievements till today remain monumental to the Bengali speaking people. His collected works in Bengali contain some 18,000 pages and that alone tells us the breadth of his literary works. There was hardly any literary genre that he did not touch on. He delved into political, cultural, social and women’s issues and many others. He has completely transformed Bengali language by abandoning high Bengali (sadhu Bangla) making it accessible to all Bengali speaking people by using the way Bengali is spoken (Chalita Bangla) in his writings. This was a revolutionary step in modernising Bengali language. For all his genius and literary contributions, Tagore has now essentially become a local phenomenon.

Muhammad Mahmood <muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

The article was published in the Financial Express on 11 May 2019.