This is a fairly comprehensive biography on Tagore, starting with a chapter on his grandfather and culminating in his death. After he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 he was an international celebrity, considered one of the two most influential Indians of the time, along with Mahatma Gandhi. The prize was for his slim volume of poetry, “Gitanjali”, which he had taken with him on a trip to England in 1912, translated from Bengali to English by himself. It took the British, and then international literary world by storm; it was an instant success. W.B. Yeats, the British poet, in particular went to bat for it and drew it to the attention of other famous individuals.
The fact is, Tagore was not a one-shot wonder. Besides “Gitanjali” he wrote many volumes of poetry, as well as songs, plays, short stories, and novels. In his later years he turned to the visual arts as well and completed over 2000 paintings which were widely acclaimed. Besides his prolificacy in the arts he was also an educator, founding first a school and then a university a few hours’ train journey northwest of Calcutta in a place called Shantiniketan, or “Abode of Peace”.
Promoting and raising funds for Shantiniketan occupied most of his adult life, causing him to tour the world again and again. Wherever he went he was received as a VIP, and he met many of the world’s most famous people, including literati, politicians, artists, and scientists, including Albert Einstein, who became his friend and who collaborated in some fascinating published discussions, an excerpt of which is included in this book.
I studied Bengali once, at Dhaka University, and I could read, write, and speak it after a fashion, though it has been many years since I practiced and only bits and pieces of the language remain in my memory. I lived for a brief time in Shantiniketan as well, in a small cottage where my friends and I would burn dried cow dung for fuel, though at the time I didn’t understand the significance of the place or know anything about Tagore himself. I would take bicycle rides in the afternoons along the bright red dirt roads, letting the paths take me whithersoever they would. It was a brilliant contrast of colors: the brick-red road, the foliage on either side so green it seemed to glow, and the deep blue sky above. A particular spot caught my interest, the ruins of a many-roomed house that the forest had reclaimed. I would return to it again and again and wander about the outside of it, never having courage to enter, perhaps for fear of snakes, and wonder who had lived there, what they had done, and how they had come to abandon the place and leave it to the forest and the elements. For some reason that is my most vivid memory of Shantiniketan – that old ruin. In all the time I was there I never went to check out the university, or the house where Tagore used to live. In hindsight I wish I had, but isn’t it often true of life’s experiences, that we don’t appreciate the significance until it is too late? One of my dreams is to return to Shantiniketan someday, knowing what I now know, with an ability to appreciate it in all of its subtleties, and even study Bengali there so I would be able to read Tagore’s poems in the original Bengali.
Tagore was also involved in politics off and on; though he never enjoyed it he realized the necessity. It was a volatile period in India’s history. He grew up in the British Raj and died during World War Two, shortly before independence. Gandhi stayed at Shantiniketan from time to time, and though they became friends and Gandhi even called Tagore “The Great Sentinel” he and Tagore didn’t always see eye to eye about how to go about creating the nation of India. For a long time Tagore opposed Gandhi’s most extreme tactics and his renunciation of anything western, and worked for a meeting and union of east and west, a union that never came to fruition in his lifetime. He died before partition and the violence between Hindu and Muslim that accompanied it, but he was aware of the complexity of the situation and the impossibility of a simple, peaceful, all-encompassing solution. In the end he was bitterly opposed to the continuance of the British Raj and he and Gandhi were much closer than they had been, Gandhi even agreeing to support Shantiniketan after Tagore’s death. Tagore died in 1941 in Calcutta, where he had gone for medical treatment, and the immense crowd at his funeral rivaled that at Gandhi’s.
The book explains that Tagore’s literary reputation has declined, at least in the west. In India itself his songs are still sung, his prose is still read. Recently I read a volume of his short stories, which I reviewed elsewhere. Generally I found them of very high quality, fascinating and well-written. I have not read so much of his poetry, but the samples reprinted in English translation in this book are for the most part superlative. “Gitanjali” I have tried to read in the past, and I found it ostentatious, but some of his other poetry is simple and elegant, with sharp-edged imagery and subtle yet profound metaphysics.
The first few chapters of this book I found slow-going; I was not so much interested in all the details of Tagore’s ancestry but in the man himself. Once Tagore arrives on the scene, however, the book is fascinating, a study not only of the life of an enigmatic literary figure but of the history of India and much of the rest of the world at the time as well. It is valuable, I think, to not set one’s eyes too much on the land and culture in which one has been brought up, but to look abroad, to consider other viewpoints and perspectives. That is one of the values of this book for those of the west.
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