This anthology of 25 papers, aptly titled ‘Celebrating Tagore’, is an outcome of a seminar and conference held in 2000 and 2004, both organised by Rama Datta, in Kolkata and in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Contributed by a few Tagore scholars and by many Tagore admirers in other fields of academic discipline, these articles project Tagore as a littérateur, philosopher, educationalist, humanist, and a citizen of the world.
It is surprising to know that, in his literary career spanning six decades and more, Tagore wrote only 100-plus short stories and that some of them got published posthumously in 1961, when his birth centenary was celebrated. He also gave plots for short stories for others to write such as, ‘Devi’ by Prabhat Mukhopadhyay, which became famous, after Satyajit Ray filmed it in 1960. Analysing the short stories written by Tagore, Sumitra Mitra Reddy says that the poet once appeared to have quipped to one of his literary friends, “You people were born too late. Twenty years earlier I would have given you many more plots. I used to think I could distribute them like candies.”
Tagore is known the world over as one of the greatest poets of his period through his immortal work ‘Gitanjali’ (1910) that fetched him the Nobel Prize in 1913. One interesting aspect of the English version of ‘Gitanjali’ was that it had only 103 songs, whereas the Bengali original contained 157 and, out of the 103 in English, only 53 came from the earlier Bengali work. The rest of them were from his other books of poetry.
Tagore on Bhakti
Samir Kumar Gupta, while bringing out this interesting detail, perhaps, wants to establish Tagore’s total comprehension of the taste of the Western reader, to whom the English rendering was addressed. In his article, ‘Spirituality in Tagore’s Gitanjali’, he argues that his concept of bhakti was “somewhat different from the Vaishnava cult,” inasmuch as Tagore laid stress on “service to mankind.” The author may not be altogether right in this regard, as the bottom line of the Vaishnava philosophy preached and practised by Ramanuja (1017-1137) and his predecessors was ‘Kainkarya’ (service to the fellow human beings) and as such one can say that Tagore had imbibed what was the best in Vaishnavism, besides the deep understanding he had of the other religions and philosophies.
Tagore had a complete grasp of the philosophies of the West and the East that helped him evolve his own individual approach to religion, as spelt out in his Hibbert speech ‘The Religion of Man’, delivered at Oxford in 1931. Bhabotosh Dutta compares his views with Auguste Comte’s (1797-1858) school of positivism, while Richard Hall, in his paper, traces the meeting ground between Tagore and William James (1842-1010), the American psychologist and philosopher, in their thoughts and ideals.
Gregory P. Rich raises interesting questions about Tagore’s concept of ‘god’ and ‘evil’. True to his Hindu heritage, he did not believe in ‘absolute evil’. According to him, confrontation with evil went a long way in building up a strong character to fight and overcome it ultimately. This also helped one to realise his identity with god. Rich asks “if god is all good, why should he create such a situation at all in which evil should exist that man has to struggle against it, creating misery and unhappiness for him and for others?”
Fred Davis in his article ‘Two Griefs Observed’, compares Tagore’s sadness over the death of his sister-in-law (elder brother’s wife) Kadambari — his childhood playmate, soul-mate and admirer — with Lewis’s grief over the death of his wife Joy, whom he married after she was found to have cancer. In both cases, it was pure love, Platonic at its best.
Most of the essays provide a good reading and some of them bring out the little known facts in Tagore’s life.
CELEBRATING TAGORE — A Collection of Essays: Edited by Rama Datta and Clinton Seely; Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd.,15, JN Heredia Marg, Ballard Estate, Mumbai-400001. Rs. 350.