The legacy of Rabindranath Tagore will never really die. His life, thoughts and action retain the power to enthral even seven decades after his death. Any number of publications on him fails to satiate a litterateur’s mind and the readers’ curiosity.
In the past there may have been many weighty biographies of the Nobel Laureate. But this new addition to the canon published this year has two commendable features. It is compact and concise – in just 140 pages it explores the genesis of Tagore from the creative artist and thinker to the quintessential Renaissance man.
And Uma Das Gupta to her credit has made the book titled “Rabindranath Tagore – An illustrated life” an immensely readable portrait with lots of facts and less novelistic flourishes. Also, the 60-odd illustrations – including some rare ones – accentuate the narrative.
The book is dedicated to her grandson “little Mohan”. The inference is perhaps clear that today’s generation knows little about this legend, though he has so much to offer. Uma’s easy and elegant style of writing has a resonance in all the dozen chapters and that makes the reading manageable across all age groups.
The first part of the book deals with Tagore’s early life and education in the family house at Jorasanko, which was a world in itself with a 100 people living at any given time. The sprawling courtyard provided a relic of rural world and an ancient palanquin became an island in the midst of the ocean and turned him into Robinson Crusoe during holidays when he sat with its closed doors, completely lost to view and delightfully safe from prying eyes.
Visit to Himalayas
Uma provides interesting snippets from Tagore’s life when he travelled with his father to the Himalayas at the age of 11 and visited Santiniketan and the Golden Temple on the same trip. Or when he lost his mother at the age of 13 and didn’t understand the gulf between life and its absence. Later when he sailed to London at the age of 17 and returned after three years, he slipped into the poetic groove and realised the meeting of the East and the West in his own way. But the time he spent in rural East Bengal in 1890 helped him to “find himself”. He came into intimate contact with the common man’s struggle for survival and it became one of the most productive literary periods of his life. Tagore, says Uma, wrote graphic and ebullient accounts of several things and acknowledged their influence on his mind as ‘beyond measure’. This was also the time when he became a keen observer of life and wrote 50 short stories and penned down powerful essays for the country’s social reforms. The plays he wrote and set to music and dance were second only to his songs in popularity.
What made Tagore’s creative writings so timeless and universal, says the author, was that it reflected his personal experience of the human condition and how he came to terms with it. Personal experience became a touchstone for him.
At the emotional heart of the book are the pivotal events in Tagore’s life – the deaths of his sister-in-law, wife, second daughter, father, youngest son, eldest daughter and his only grandson. His verse became increasingly an offering to God. They were so full of innocent delight that nobody would guess how anxious and grief-stricken he must have been at that time, writes Uma.
Tagore’s love and compassion for human beings and his free thinking and unconventional religious beliefs brought a focus to his humanism. His deepening experience of relating with man and nature gave him his two most persistent drives in life, bringing education and joy to the children and to the lowly. This led to the creation of Santiniketan (the abode of peace) School, where students attained a synthesis of knowledge and feeling and the Viswa Bharati international university that passed from moments of angst into an inspiring environment with idealists and specialists from all over the world joining hands to bring hope and action into the lives of the local people.
The biography explores Tagore’s views and writings on the historical and political issues of the age, especially his thoughts and ideas on nationalism and internationalism, religion, humanism, self-esteem. Though famed for his literary, artistic and intellectual capabilities, Tagore was also known to lead a very lonely life, says the author. In her brief biography, Uma alludes to Tagore’s predicament with appreciative recognition. She provides an insightful exploration of the turbulence beneath the talent and helps to understand the complex inner workings of the mind of the savant, who yearned for fame and yet lived in constant fear of it ruining his life.
The author succeeds in presenting Tagore as a conscious artisan. She points out the steps he took to enlarge his palette. For instance, he remained the restless indefatigable traveller. His endless voyages, writes Uma, were in search of diverse cultural experiences and another expression of embracing the wider world. Though he and Gandhi shared a mutual admiration, they differed on many counts, for Tagore did not endorse the Non-Cooperation Movement and placed humanism above nationalism. Many did not understand his ambivalence about East-West relations. Though he opposed British imperialism, he remained a great admirer of English literature and art.
It is a triumph to capture the detail of the experience and suffering of Tagore, who was born at the confluence of three important movements – the wave of social and religious reform, the literary renaissance in Bengal and the nationalist struggle. Even though multiple questions still remain unanswered about the ‘poet-novelist-playwright-musician-essayist-educationist-painter’, the book is an uplifting work.
(Soma Basu is a feature writer with The Hindu in Madurai)