Decoding Tagore through letters

Rabindranath Tagore   | Photo Credit: AP

From being a transient spy with the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to a diligent researcher of Rabindranath Tagore, it was a big leap of faith for Gaurchandra Saha in 1968. Fifty years later, Mr. Saha’s rigorous work has yielded a treasure trove revealing little known facets of one of India’s greatest intellectuals.

“Saha has done enormous work of putting together the synopsis of all the 7,500 letters of Tagore. It was done earlier too but never chronologically,” said Amitra Sudan Bhattacharya, the Tagore and Bankim Chandra scholar who taught at Visva Bharati University for several decades. The volume of almost 1,000-page was released on August 8, on Tagore’s 77th death anniversary.

“All the letters are chronologically arranged with the dates, the recipients, places [from where the letter was written] and a synopsis of each letter,” said Dr. Saha, 76. “The first letter was written on September 20, 1878, when Rabindranath was visiting Europe for the first time, from somewhere near the Suez Canal,” he said. Most probably the letter was written to Kadambari Devi, Tagore’s sister-in-law, Mr. Saha says.

Poet and chronicler: Rabindranath Tagore, who visited nearly three dozen countries, gave fascinating insights into their culture and practices through his letters.

Poet and chronicler: Rabindranath Tagore, who visited nearly three dozen countries, gave fascinating insights into their culture and practices through his letters.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


The last letter was written around July 30, a week before Tagore’s death in 1941 to his daughter-in-law Pratima Debi. “He was so unwell that he could not write it himself. It was written by litterateur Rani Chanda, and Tagore signed it,” Dr. Saha said.

Ahead of his times

The content of some of the letters, which Dr. Saha discovered during the course of his work, overwhelmed him. “His letters on women’s role and participation to his many women associates surprised me. The depth of thought and clarity on women’s emancipation was unbelievable,” Dr. Saha said, more so since the letters date to a century ago.

Dr. Saha, who had an MA in Bengali before he took up his job with the IB, went on to complete a Masters in History after he quit the Bureau to join Visva-Bharati. In the early 1970s, he went on to complete a PhD on “whereabouts” of Tagore’s letters.

The project quite like a sleuth’s. “Just that I was chasing a missing letter or its recipient instead of a criminal,” recalled the septuagenarian with a laugh.

It is perhaps fitting that from 1994 to 2003, Dr. Saha was the Curator of Rabindra Bhavana, which houses an archive on Tagore, in the Visva Bharati premises.

Tagore scholars opine that among his works, the most “commercially viable” are his songs, composed and set to tune by the bard himself.

However, “If one needs to understand Tagore, the changes he had undergone as a person and an artist, then his letters map him the best,” said Nityapriya Ghosh, Bengal’s foremost Tagore scholar. The latest volume thus has huge significance, Ms. Ghosh pointed out.

Globe-trotting Gurudev

Tagore, who often advocated the idea of a united world, had travelled to nearly three dozen countries, visiting many repeatedly. On the long voyages on board giant steam-powered vessels, he wrote to a whole range of relatives — children, their spouses, close male or female friends and their children. The letters vividly describe the society and culture of countries he visited, comparing those countries — China, Japan, Iran, United States or Germany — with India.

For instance, on a trip to Bali, he wrote to his son Rathindranath about how girls below 12 are “only allowed” to dance with traditional music with the gamelan, a percussion instrument; the significance of masks in cultures.

According to scholars, many of the letters can be considered major documents of India’s foreign relations at the time. For instance from Surabaya, he writes of his disappointment on how the sugar trade, once controlled by India, had moved to the port city of East Java.

“This place [Surabaya] is a hub of foreign traders...there was a time when Bharat used to distribute sugar to the rest of the world. But now the sugar purchased from this Java market is used to make sandesh [bengali sweetmeat] in Bhimchandra Nag of Bowbazar [in central Kolkata],” he wrote to his daughter-in-law Pratima Devi.

In his letters from Russia, he extensively explored the possibility of the rise of the working class while disapproving of dictatorship.

“The other issue of discussion is dictatorship...there is little doubt that dictatorship or one upmanship has multiple dangers,” he wrote to Ramananda Chattopadhyay, one of the pioneers of Indian journalism.

He even laughed at himself in the letters, describing himself as someone “born lazy” and averse to work.

“I am from a family of Bangladeshi traders who had never heard of Tagore. Since I left the IB job to work in Visva Bharati, it was my professors, especially Amitra Sudan Bhattacharya, who encouraged me to pursue this work,” Dr. Saha said.

Another Tagore tome

Prof. Bhattacharya, who penned a long introduction to Mr. Saha’s book, Rabindra Patra Probaho o Tothyoponji: Kalanukromik, is working on a project to publish all Tagore’s letters in toto.

“The difference between Saha’s project and mine is vast. While he has compiled a synopsis of all the 7,500 letters in one volume, I am publishing the letters in their entirety covering 10,000 print matters in 10 or so volumes. But both are done chronologically,” said Prof. Bhattacharya, who is the Project Director of Rabindra Patra Prakash Prakalpa.

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