It is not for nothing that they tell you not to judge a book by its cover. When I first held in my hands Rabindranath Tagore — A Pictorial Biography, a coffee-table book, I was telling myself: So, one more tribute to the poet on his 150th birth anniversary. What else can it be, if not a collection of pictures of the bearded bard and some nice things said about him!
Sensitive to criticism
How wrong I was! The book contains plenty of pictures of Tagore all right, many of them rare; but the biography, although written by a Bengali, is anything but a sugary song of praise. This, however, is not at all to suggest that it is a book of criticism: that would be the ultimate blasphemy for a Bengali. But, in prose that shows remarkable restraint and objectivity, Nityapriya Ghosh presents Tagore the way he was, a human being rather than a flawless god.
It's not that Ghosh spells out the poet's human traits in so many words, but he tells you enough to draw your own conclusions. For example, Tagore, like most writers, comes across as a man who was extremely sensitive to criticism — to the extent of refusing to forgive the critic. Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, the novelist who happened to ridicule Tagore's story Yogayog, was shown no sympathy by the poet when his book Pather Dabi was proscribed by the British in 1927. Instead of extending moral support to his fellow-writer, Tagore wrote to Saratchandra saying that he should not expect mercy at the hands of the government, if he had written a seditious novel.
Even Subhas Chandra Bose found himself at the receiving end of Tagore's unforgiving nature on occasions more than one. In 1928, a dispute arose in the City College of Calcutta after seven Hindu students were penalised for conducting Saraswati Puja in the hostel. They were accused of defying the hostel superintendent's fiat that idol worship was not allowed in a Brahmo institution. When Bose took up the cause of the Hindu students, Tagore, an ardent Brahmo Samajist, did not take it kindly.
Shortly thereafter, when Bose wrote to Tagore from jail requesting an introductory letter to some eminent people in Europe — where he planned to go for medical treatment — the poet obliged him with just two bland sentences: “My friend Subhas Chandra Bose is going for his treatment. I earnestly hope my friends will be kind to him and help him.” And Bose tore up the letter.
Like most artists, Tagore was self-absorbed; he rarely said no to being photographed and, during one of his many tours of the United States, this is what an interviewer has noted: “For a man so old as he is and so ill, he has been making too many farewell appearances like an attention-loving prima donna who cannot tear herself away from the limelight.”
And again, like most artists, he had set tongues wagging for his supposed relationships with women (two in his case). This biography neither denies nor confirms those relationships. Instead, it chooses to keep the question marks hanging over each relationship, giving the reader enough room to draw his or her own conclusions.
Well-read households in Bengal may not be strangers to the personal life of Tagore and the speculations surrounding it, but this is perhaps the first time the non-Bengali reader has access to a rather comprehensive and frank account of the life of the poet who composed the country's national anthem and who remains its tallest literary figure even 70 years after his death.
The biography even tells you that Tagore was a chronic sufferer from piles and, in spite of dreading the scalpel, he reluctantly submitted himself to surgery during a visit to London, spending one whole painful month in recuperation.
Since the portrait Nityapriya Ghosh paints of Tagore is free from the syrupy coat of excessive praise, you see a grandfatherly figure who was not sent from heaven to earth but was born amongst us and went on to achieve greatness and earned a permanent place in heaven.