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Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet Prophet

May 9, 2016 | By

The sheer magnitude of his work speaks of the immense versatility of Tagore. Thousands of poems and songs for which he composed music, his plays, dance dramas, novels, short stories, essays, and even the letters that he wrote are considered gems of literature. A tribute on his birthday.

Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861 - August 7, 1941)

Rabindranath Tagore
(May 7, 1861 – August 7, 1941)

It is at times difficult to describe a man who was at once a poet, songwriter, painter, novelist, singer-actor-director, music composer, short story writer, playwright and dance drama-writer, other than label him as Renaissance Man. But even that sobriquet falls short of describing such a multi-faceted genius as Rabindranath Tagore.

Perhaps this was what prompted Gandhiji to confer on him the epithet of ‘Gurudev’ and Tagore returned the honor by calling him ‘Mahatma.’

Tagore (May 7, 1861 – August 6, 1941) was born at a time when the nation was in turmoil with the independence struggle beginning to strike roots. The imposition of colonial culture on India had led to a mismatch of the neo-westernized culture of the feudal landed bourgeoisie of the newly developed cities with that of starved restive peasantry, a foreign army and a rising industrial proletariat.

Belonging to a rich aristocratic Brahmo family (the monotheistic faith started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy to liberate the rigid orthodoxy of Hinduism), Tagore was brought up in an environment that attempted to synthesize the rich heritage of India with the influences of the west.

Rabindranath Tagore Words of The Master - set of 12 books translated by the master himself

Rabindranath Tagore translated many of his works himself. MacMillan, New York originally published these works during the first and third decades of the twentieth century. A set of 12 such books.

Thus myriad influences ranging from Sanskrit and Bengali literature – Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Ban Bhatta, Jayadeva and Vidyapati, the Vedas, Upanishads, Vaishnava philosophy, Buddhist literature, right up to western romantic and ‘nature’ poets such as Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and languorous ballads of the poets of the Celtic Twilight, shaped his thoughts.

Tagore started writing from the age of ten. But the lionization he received after winning the Noble Prize 42 years later in 1913 pitch-forked him into the international limelight. Faced with an ocean of surging heads at Howrah to felicitate him for being the first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore composed a song on the spot and the cried out” “Ei Monihar Aamay Naahi Shaaje” (This bejeweled garland does not befit me).

The sheer magnitude of his work speaks of the immense versatility of Tagore.  Thousands of poems and songs for which he composed music, his plays, dance dramas (in which he himself acted and directed), novels, short stories, essays, and even the letters that he wrote are considered gems of literature.

Besides, he was a politician, educationist, a social and religious reformer and an innovator in stagecraft and stage direction and translated some of his own works into English. Never the one to stop learning, he took up painting at the age of 70.

Of Tagore’s works Gitanjali (1910) is perhaps best known and most translated. In a sense it is unfortunate that the poems in English Gitanjali (1913) for which he won the Nobel often pass off as his best work.

Tagore's Gitanjali is available on Flipkart

Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 for his book of poems Gitanjali

However, the poems are actually songs rooted in the Vaishnavik tradition of Bengal, which reaffirm Tagore’s position as one of the greatest songwriters and music composers but lose half their charm if read as poetry.

Tagore’s deeper and richer poetry is found in his mystical-devotional poems such as Sonar Tori (The Golden Boat) 1894, Manasi 1890, the song offerings – Naivedya, Kheya and the passionate freshness of life attempting to burst forth out of its confines in Nirjharer Swapna-Bhanga (Awakening of the Fountain). His verbal and metrical felicity is beyond comparison – embracing and experimenting with all ranges of meters, rhymes and works of prosody.

Tagore’s mammoth body of lyrical verse – comprising poems, songs and dance dramas gave birth to a unique genre of music, known as Rabindra Sangeet. This school of music bred an entire class of music exponents, known as Rabindra Sangeet singers who became household names for their brilliance in expressing Tagore’s words with remarkable proficiency, perfect diction and pure dedication. Singers such as Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay (singer-composer Hemant Kumar), Debabrata Biswas took Tagore’s songs to the masses, making them hummable by all those who love music.Bipode more raksha koro (quote)

Imagery and diction reign supreme whether in the realm of nature (where he is often called more Wordsworthian than Wordsworth himself) or the kingdom of man, in his philosophical or metaphysical flights – Tagore’s wizardry with words is nonpareil.

Notice the imagery in these lines:

Mone ki dwidha rekhe gele chole
Shedin bhora shaanjhe
Jete jete duaar hote
Ki bhebe phiraale mukhokhani
Ki kotha chhilo je mone mone

Translated it means:

In the darkening dusk, the other day
What hesitation was in your mind
When you paused at the doorstep
And turned your face
What had you wondered before departing
What had you wanted to say.

Mone ki dwidha rekhe gele chole
Singer: Hemanta Mukherjee

One of the best reflective poems which show a perfection of abstract thinking in verse is ‘Balaka’ – where the flight of a flock of wild ducks over the sky becomes the symbol of the motion that is latent in all motionless objects, of the eternal journey of the human soul from the unknown to the unknown.

Charulata (1964)

Satyajit Ray’s classic film Charulata (1964) is based on the short story Nashtanir, written by Tagore.
(Pic: Movie still from Internet)

Tagore’s works have not only inspired generations of writers but their beautiful imagery and depth of thought have made subject matter for numerous films.

India’s best known filmmaker Satyajit Ray himself has been the most prolific in putting Tagore’s works on celluloid, be – it ‘Charulata’ – based on Tagore’s short story ‘Nashtanir’ (The Broken Nest) or the novel  Ghare Baire (The Home And The World) or Teen Kanya (Three Daughters) – a trilogy of three short stories linked by having a female character in their center.

Tagore’s influence on Ray was such that the latter ended up making a full-length documentary-feature on Tagore which to this day is considered one of the path-breaking films of its genre.

Tagore’s poems, songs have been widely used in cinema, especially in films by Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Rituparno Ghosh among others. His novels and short stories have inspired various adaptations in cinema. Tapan Sinha made two films on Tagore’s literary works – Kshudito Pashan (Hungry Stones) and Atithi. Gulzar‘s Hindi film Lekin is based on Kshudito Pashan.

Ami chini go chini tomare ogo bideshini (Charulata, 1964)
Singer: Kishore Kumar

Naukadubi (2011)

Tagore’s novel Naukadubi has had several adaptations in cinema, the latest one being Naukadubi (2011) directed by Rituparno Ghosh

In fact, Tagore was a pioneer of short stories in any Indian language. However, compared to the success of his short-stories his novels failed to achieve acclaim although two of them Gora and Nauka-dubi (The Wreck) remain the most popular and widely translated. Nauka-dubi has also inspired a several adaptations in cinema, starting with Ghungat (1960) and the recent Naukadubi  (2011) by filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.

Ezra Pound has said, “Tagore has sung Bengal into a nation.” But despite strong political leanings, Tagore refused to place nationalism over humanity. Though he relinquished the Knighthood conferred on him by the British government in protest against the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, his vision was to inspire a quiet and united endeavor for national regeneration rather than purely political movement.

This obviously did not cut ice with many of the national leaders of the time. But today, when we assess his contribution to contemporary thought on the future of man, we find that his vision of a world society rising out of a spiritual renaissance, or his concept of universal culture that creatively responds to western influences despite being rooted  in the east, was way ahead of its times.

“The West is necessary to the East. We are complementary to each other because of our different outlooks upon life which have given us different aspects of truth”, Tagore wrote in his book called “Nationalism”. Tagore’s dream of imparting education in the harmonious lap of nature was realized when he set up the Vishwabharati University in the idyllic environs of Shantiniketan.

It is unfortunate that a severe cash-crunch faced by Vishwabharati forced government of India to take over its management. For he was a prophet who dreamt of a world:
“Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth”.

Tagores Gitanjali

Bipade more raksha karo e nahe mor prarthana
Film: Aalo Aamaar Aalo (1971)
Lyric: Rabindranath Tagore
Music: Rabindranath Tagore
Singer: Sumitra Sen

Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine. A former business journalist, Antara writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema. Her articles aim to provide well-researched information on the legends of cinema for the movie and music enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house. She edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. She has co-authored a chapter on Hemant Kumar's Bengali music in the acclaimed book The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar, written by Manek Premchand. Her articles have also been published in and Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
All Posts of Antara Nanda Mondal

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2 thoughts on “Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet Prophet

  • Kunal Desai

    Outstanding Work Antara. The research, the granular details of Gurudev’s work and the explanation is a literary tour for people like me who dont know so much about him. This article is worthy for a personal collection. Thanks so much.

  • Antara

    Thanks so very much Kunal! Its an impossible task to encapsulate such a Himalayan repertoire in a few words so no one would try that or succeed. My attempt was to try and provide a glimpse into the universality of his work that connects with every human being, irrespective of language, race or creed.
    So very glad you liked it. Feeling enriched and humbled with your feedback.

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