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“Aami chonchol he, aami shudurer piyashi…Mor dana nai, achhi ek thnyai, shey katha je jai pashori…”
(I am restless, I am athirst for far-away things… I forget, I ever forget, that I have no wings to fly, that I am bound in this spot evermore…)
- ‘Aami Chonchol He’ (‘I am restless’), Rabindranath Tagore
If any man in the contemporary history of India has been able to understand and has been able to put across the understanding of the ephemeral nature of life, the man would undisputedly be Rabindranath Tagore. With thousands of songs, numerous poems, many dance dramas, short stories, novels, etc, the Poet Laureate has time and again simultaneously emphasised the timelessness and temporality of human life.
Born to the Tagore family towards the end of the nineteenth century, Rabindranath Tagore today enjoys a reputation that no other Indian poet does – and at the same time, is the one poet who is the most mistranslated, the most misinterpreted and the most mistaken. While on the one hand Rabindranath Tagore himself is a subject for an immensely deep research, on the other his vast treasury of works of art are hardly understood. Tagore’s mentalscape still leaves scholars grappling with mere streaks of light in the dark, and the density of his themes still leave people agape – even a century and a half later.
Tagore’s overarching presence in every Bengali household is an influence even William Shakespeare would have envied. There is no house in Bengal or no Bengali mother-tongued person who doesn’t know at least one song created by Tagore or one poem penned by him. Rabindranath is ubiquitous in Bengal with a power that hardly any other can overshadow.
The mass acceptance and influence of the works of Tagore lie in the fact that his domain stretches from the most ordinary to the most complicated. So while he has a ‘Jana Gana Mana’ which every Indian citizen knows by heart, he also has a ‘Sonar Tari’ (The Golden Boat) which is so replete with layers that it has left even the best of researchers embedded into it for years without coming up with any adequate explanation. While, on the one hand Tagore’s usage of colloquial language in his poems and songs have rendered them accessible to many, on the other his baroque ‘Bhanusinher Padavali’ has been instrumental in greying many hairs.
Over a course of eighty years, Rabindranath Tagore went around visiting places, reading philosophies, and shirking a structured form of education. No school or college, in the country or abroad, has been able to shackle the poet’s creativity within the walls of its mundane realities; Tagore was a bird who soared all above his restrictions. He never let his “clear stream of reason… lose its way into the dreary desert sand of habit.”
A personal life fraught with discord and grief, semi-orphaned and raised in the care of servants since childhood – with each blow that the polymath received in his life, he churned out even better works. It was as if he was in an incessant hide-and-seek game with fate. One of the tragedies that tore Rabindranath apart was undoubtedly the suicide of Kadambari Devi, his elder brother’s wife and his companion, playmate and so on. Tagore’s relation with Kadambari Devi is still shrouded in mystery, and controversies have many-a-time ripped the peaceful façade of his personal life apart. After her demise, Tagore’s works grew increasingly resonant of her memories and many of his poems and songs composed during that time are filled with strong reverberations from his relation with Kadambari Devi.
Rabindranath Tagore is a lesson in extremes. The phenomenal range of his works is one that travels through time and space and then presents itself in the form that it is, while silently pulsating within each work is the seed of a new interpretation. Fresh explanations germinate each day, and like a chameleon, his works change hues with every passing moment. One of his works might have received the highest recognition in the world in the form of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature; many others are such that no laurel would be enough to justify their grandeur.
Literary stalwarts of the modern world have both appreciated and criticised Tagore. Names like W.B Yeats, Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, H.G. Wells, etc, have all been influenced by and have influenced Tagore. Many of his works have been translated into many major languages of the world, and his territory stretches way beyond the realm of literature or philosophy. Tagore’s lengthy dialogues with Albert Einstein are all indicators of the indomitable genius of the man. Within the country, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore have had many sessions on politics and independence. The sobriquet ‘Mahatma’ that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is more known by than his original name, is a gift from Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore – the man – himself is nothing short of a work of art. A masterpiece that was crafted to perfection, embellished with ornaments which impart a Midas touch, chiselled to reflect the imperfections of the world, and infused with a soul that reached out to people in times of strife. He remains immortalised in memory, in his works, in every breath that anybody who knows him takes in. Even at the age of 151, he rouses so many myriads of inarticulate emotions in people that anyone else can never transcend them.
Like his Bimala says in ‘Ghore Baire’ (‘The Home and The World’), “I have passed through fire. What was inflammable has been burnt to ashes; what is left is deathless.”
Rabindranath Tagore has been through many fires, of intimidating statures. He still survives. Unscathed, untainted. And he will continue doing so.