Chander M. Bhat 
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Rabindranath Tagore

Shining Star of Indian Horizon

by Chander M. Bhat

Rabindranath Tagore is considered as India’s Rabindranath Tagoregreatest modern poet and the most creative genius of the Indian Renaissance. His life span was roughly coeval with that of British imperial rule in India. He was born on 7th May 1861 at the Tagore family home in Jorasanko, Calcutta, in a rich and talented family that had already begun to make its mark on contemporary society. For the elite of undivided, Bengal it was an exciting time, despite the British presence, and indeed partly because of the new things that were happening because of that very presence. The name Tagore is an anglicized version of Thakur, cerebral and aspirated, and is actually a surname that was acquired by the family only accidentally, the real family surname having been Kushari. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, Rabindranath’s ancestor Panchanan Kushari settled in Gobindapur, one of the three villages which went into the making of Calcutta, and earned his living by supplying provisions to the foreign ships which sailed up the Ganges. Being a Brahman, he was respectfully addressed by the locals as ‘Panchanan Thakur’. The family acquired special prestige under the dynamic leadership of Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarakanath Tagore, who acquired large landed estates, built up a substantial business empire, fraternized with the European community, and was generous in his public charities. He was a close friend of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, one of the front-rank thinders and activists of the Bengal Renaissance. Dwarakanath’s eldest son, Debendranath, at first enjoyed the luxury in which he had been reared, but then came a raaction. He was devoted to his grandmother.

Records left of Debendranath’s wife, Sarda Devi, portrays her as a pious woman devoted to her husband and an astute matron in charge of her vast household. She cultivated the habit of reading religious works in Bengali, Rabindranath was her fourteenth child. So Rabindranath was effectively his parent’s youngest offspring.

Fortunately, Rabindranath Tagore was one of those who go on educating themselves throughout their lives. He read widely. His enlightened and sympathetic brothers encouraged him to learn at his own pace and discover things for himself. His father taught him to love the Upanishads, aroused in him an interest in astronomy that was to last all his life, and allowed him to combine a literary career, which did not require degrees, with the management of the family estates. Rabindranath was well grounded in the Sanskrit classics, in Bengali literature and in Engligh literature, and also familiar with a range of Continental European literature in translation. He could read some French, translated Engligh and French lyrics in his youth, and made enough progress in German to read Heine and go through Goethe’s Faust. In the end his own extended family and the state of cultural ferment all around him gave him the environment of a university and an arts centre rolled into one. It was in a cultural hothouse that his talents ripened. A man emerged, who had his father’s spiritual direction and moral earnestness, his grandfather’s spirit of enterprise and joie de vivre, and an exquisite artistic sensibility all his own.

Rabindranath wrote poetry throughout his life, but he did an amazing number of other things as well. Those who read his poetry should have at least a rough idea of the fuller identity of the man. His long life is as densely packed with growth, activity, and self-renewal as a tropical rainforest, and his achievements are outstanding by any criterion. As a writer he was a restless experimenter and innovator, and enriched every genre. Besides poetry, he wrote songs , short stories, novels, plays, essays on a wide range of topics including literary criticism,polemical writings, travelogues, memoirs, personal letters which were effectively belles letters, and books for children. Apart from a few books containing lectures given abroad and personal letters to friends who did not read Bengali, the bulk of his voluminous literary output is in Bengali, and it is a monumental heritage for those who speak the language. Like the other languages of northern India, Bengali belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. A cousin to most modern European languages and sharing with them certain basic linguistic patterns and numerous cognate words, it is spoken by an estimated 180 million people in India and Bangladesh. When Tagore began his literary career, Bengali literature and the language in which it was written had together begun a joint leap into modernity, the most illustrious among his immediate predessors being Micheal Madhusudan Datta in verse and Bakimchandra Chatterjee in prose. By the time of Tagore’s death in 1941 Bengali had become a supple modern language with a rich body of literature. Tagore’s personal contribution to his development was immense. The Bengali that is written today owes him an enormous debt. Throughout his life Tagore maintained a strong connection with the performance arts. He created his very own genre of dance drama, a unique mixture of dance, drama, and song. He not only wrote plays, but also directed and produced them, even acted in them. He not only composed some two thousand songs, but was also a fine tenor singer. He was not only a prolific poet, but could also read his poetry out to large audiences very effectively. Many of his contemporaries have attested that to hear him recite his own verses was akin to a musical experience.

In the seventh decade of his life Tagore started to draw and paint seriously. Tagore was a notable pioneer in education. A rebel against formal education in his youth, he tried to give shape to some of his own educational ideas in the school he founded in 1901 at Santiniketan. The importance he gave to creative self-expression in the development of young minds will be familiar to progressive schools everywhere nowadays, but it was a new and radical idea when he introduced it in his school. The welfare of children remained close to his heart to the end of days. To his school he added a university, Visvabharati, formally instituted in 1921. He wanted this university, to become an international meeting place of minds, ‘where east and west to come and enrich its life. Under his patronage, the Santikiketan campus became a significant centre of Buddhist studies and a heaven for artists and musicians.

Through his work in the family estates Tagore became familiar with the deep-rooted problems of the rural poor and initiated projects for community development at Shilaidaha and Potisar, the headquarter of the estates. At Potisar he started an agricultural bank, in which he later invested the money from his Nobel Prize, so that his school could have an annual income, while the peasants could have loans at low rates of interest. Tagore does not belong to Bengalis or Indians only. But the poetry of Tagore has attracted the whole literary world. In 1913 Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Tagore for 'Gitanjali'.

Yet the Nobel Prize was definitely a landmark in Tagore’s life. It made him internationally famous. He reached a worldwide audience, received invitations from any countries, traveled and lectured widely, acquired foreign friends, and thanks to his fame, met many other distinguished personalities of his time.

After a life of incessant creative activity, Tagore died, at the age of eighty years and three months, on 7th August 1941, in the family house in Calcutta where he had been born. The quality and quantity of his achievements seem all the more astonishing when placed against the amount of grief he had to cope with in his personal life. Much of his poetry is necessarily about love and suffering, about how one copes with loss, and can be called passional affirmative and celebrative poets of all times.

    

 

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