RABINDRANATH TAGORE â€“ PRINCE, PHILOSOPHER, PATRIOT, POET.
BY GOVIND BHARATHAN
A Talk Delivered at the Kerala Fine Arts Hall on 8.7.84.
Art is the Crystalisation of human emotion captured for all time in song or stone, in paint or prose. But rarely is there a perfect blend of art and life. The more sublime the art, the greater it oftenseems, is the misery of the artist. Whether it be a Leanardo-da-Vinchi or Michaelangelo or Shakespeare or Francis BaconKeats or Byron there often seemed to be an unbridgeable gulf between the personal life of the artist and the work through which the world knows him. This is perhaps essentially because great emotion drains one mentally and physically and art demands its price in desolation and despair.
But there are a few towering giants whose lives themselves are great art. For them, art is a natural expression of their lives. They are like the Yogis described in the Gita into whom all emotions flow like rivers into the ocean but which does not overflow. Such art is perennial. It represents the best aspects of fulfillment and enlightenment. Such art is never dated since it is timeless and since the artist is not merely a product of the times and its passing phases of trends in creativity, but is himself the living symbol of a great culture and thus its most expressive exponent. Rabindranath Tagore, the Poet was one such magnificent example of the perfect and harmonious blend of art and life each complementing itself to near perfection.
There are too many facets to Tagores genius and this makes it impossible to encompass his life and work in one canvas. His genius sought fulfillment in all avenues that art provided â€“ music, poetry, painting and prose. Perhaps it will be easier to piece together his life times and impact on Indian Culture and art under 4 broad headings â€“ prince, Philosopher, Patriot and Poet.
Prince: Culturally and socially he was born a Prince, being the youngest son in the princely family of Mahirshi Devendranath Tagore. The Tagore family had the cultural refinement of aristocracy with firm roots in the heart of rural India. The great literature of the Vedas and the pleasant lilt of the peasant song were soon to find their common exponent in the poet Prince Rabindranath Tagore. Indeed the Tagores were the princes of art in 19th century India. Rabindranathâ€™s brothers were scholars, poets and paiters of national acclaim . They ruled over Indian art and culture like princes and to this day art in India cannot wholly shake itself free of the Tagore influence.
Philosopher: Tagore was a mystic whose roots drew sustenance from the ancient sources of Vedic India. His entire poetry is tinged with shades of mysticism. As in Sufi poetry, the perfect blend of the profane and the profound found its refection in the songs of Tagore. In Sufi poetry, the lover asks his beloved whom he holds in his close embrace what the difference was between them but a breath, and casts the same query in the mould of eternity by implying that this is what the creation asks the creator after having been created by a breath. Tagore strikes the same note when he describes the princes rising from her lovers bed and finding him gone leaving behind his sword.
"Thus I waited for the morning when Thou didst depart to find a few fragments on the bed ----. What token left of thy love? It is no flower no spices no Vase of perfumed water -----the yound light of the morning comes through the window and spreads itself upon thy bed. The morning bird twitters and asks â€œwoman what has than gotâ€. No it is no flower nor spices nor vase of perfumed water â€“ It is thy dreadful sword". (stanza 52. Geethanjali).
The subtle and elusive relationship of the Jiva to the Atma is echoed throughout the Gitanjali. In its throbbing music lies the heart beat of peasant India. In its heady idiom lies the mysticism of the Sufi and in its rich trasure lies the jewels of wisdom of Vedic India.
Patriot: Tagore started out as a great admirer of the British people. He was moved by the generosity of the English and the noble traditions on which rested the greatness of ancient England. These perhaps appealed to his inborn aristocratic inclination. But then, when imperialist pride bared its fangs, he was appalled. He attacked the Imperialists with their own weapon â€“ the English language. He wrote:
"The demon of barbarity has given up all pretence and has emerged with unconcealed fangs and teeth ready to tear up the world and spread devastation ---. This plague of persecution which lay dormant in the civilization of the west has at last roused itself to create havoc and desecrate the spirit of man.
Tagore was appalled by the callous disregard of the British rulers in the face of the stark and dire poverty of the Indian masses. The despicable British habit of dividing to rule shocked his conscience. In his writings he berated the sedulous encouragement of communalism and provincialism which seemed to be the hall mark of British rule. His most biting words were reserved for the imposed system of education by the British. Tagore wrote in reply to an open letter written by one Miss. Rathbone whose antecedents and qualifications must necessarily remain consigned to obscurity:
"It is sheer insolent self complacence on the part of our so called English friends to assume that had they not taught us, we would still have remained in the dark ages. Through the official British channels of education in India have flowed to our children in schools, not the best of English thought but its refuse which has only deprived them of a whole some repast at the table of their own culture."
His beautiful eyes would often flash in anger at the ignominy of serfdom to the British. He fought them with his pen. It is said of Churchil that he galvanized the English language and sent it to battle. Tagore lead the brigade of poets and writers whose songs and poems stung human conscience throughout the world and gave our patriots and freedom fighters their marching music. He wrote:
"This is my prayer to thee my Lord.
Strike strike at the root of
penury in my heart-------give me
the strength never to disown the
poorer bend my knees before insolent
might." (Stanza 36 Geethanjali).
Again in one of the most beautiful and powerful poem songs in the Gitanjali the poet wrote:
"Whether mind is without fear and the head
head high. Where knowledge is free. Where
the world has not been broken up into frag-
ments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth.
where tireless striving stretches its arms
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost
its way into the dreary desert sands of
Where the mind is lead forward by thee into
ever widening thought and action.
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let
my country awake." (stanza 35 Geethanjali)
Though Tagore rarely participated in active political controversy, his intense love for his country burned through ever line of his writings.
Poet: Of all the muses, Tagore selected poetry as his vehicle in his search for perfection. Born in a nest of singing birds, his poetry was sheer music. In the beginning, the orthodox where aghast at his sheer non-conformism and irreverence for the traditional. But youth found in Tagore their Shelly of Bengal. His song poems were devotional, patriotic and some of them where breath-takingly about the ecstasy and agony of love. The boatmen sang his songs as they floated down the Ganga. The peasants in the fields chanted his poems as they tended their green gold. Students and workers whistled his melodies on busy streets and freedom fighters carried aloft their torches stridently marching to his music.
His output was phenomenal. He wrote poems songs short stories philosophic pieces and short novels. Mere elegance in writing and command of language are doomed to failure in a country like ours where exists â€“ a 5000 year old tradition of great literature. Tagore touched the heart of the common man and found a deep response, evolving from our ancient culture adapted to modern needs. His drama blazed new trails after Kalidasa and his devotional poems will rank along with Kabir and Meera Bai. He was fortunate since the whole world became aware of his greatness during his life time. It could even be said that with our glorious knack of institutionalizing our great men without truly experiencing or understanding their greatness, we made Tagore a symbol without flavouring the essential sweetness of his work and life.
Naturally there has been criticism against Tagore mainly that he was over rated. Recently a Bengali writer Nithyapriya Ghosh, a Marxist researcher and essayist has published an article in the Ananda Bazaar Pathrika castigating the Tagore cult in Bengal and alleging that the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature awarded to him was more due to Royal Patronage of the Swedish Royal family than due to his merit and that the Swedes bestowed the prize on Tagore to spite the British. But then Bengalis like Keralites are iconoclasts. What has been forgotten is that the mystic poetry of Tagore was so fearlessly difference from existent European and contemporary verse that the Western world was taken by storm. The Noble prize has often been a burden to the recipient. In Tagoreâ€™s case also this appears to be proving belatedly true. The current criticism against Tagore does not take into account his literal and cultural conquest of the West. Y.B.Yeats whose English translation introduced the Gitanjali to the Western world describes the Gitangali poems as displaying in their thoughts a world he has dreamt of all his life.
"The work of the supreme culture they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes ------- these verses will not lie in little well printed books upon ladies tables who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning-------but as the generations pass, travellors will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers. Lovers while they await one another shall find in murmuring them this lover of God â€“ a magic gulf wherein their own more bitter passion may baths and renew its youth."
To me, one of the most beautiful of Tagores poems is the one that reflects one of my innermost inexplicable experiences. The poet writes:
"I Boasted among men that I had known you. They see your pictures in all works of mine. They come and ask me, "Who is he?" I know not how to answer them. I say, "Indeed, I cannot tell." They blame me and they go away in scorn. And you sit there smiling.
I put my tales of you into lasting songs. The secret gushes out from my heart. They come and ask me, "Tell me all your meanings." I know not how to answer them. I say, â€œAh, who knows what they mean!" They smile and go away in utter scorn. And you sit there smiling."
Prince, Philosopher, Patriot, Poet. He was the heart of cultural India. His homage to the land of his birth through his poetry will triumph over petty criticism and the carping voice of cynics. Perhaps his true greatness is that through his mystic songs, patriots, philosophers, poets and princes could find echoes of eternity relevant to their personal individual worlds.