Tagore's Total Vision - II

by Kenneth Champeon, May 9, 2005 | Destinations: India / West Bengal


Tagore was poet, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, songster, translator, musician, painter, actor, director, schoolteacher, headmaster...husband, father, landlord, occasional activist. In the introduction to the poem collection Gitanjali, which won Tagore the Nobel, Yeats quotes an Indian's paean to this Bengali Renaissance man: "He is as great in music as in poetry, and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burmah wherever Bengali is spoken." The Indian national anthem, another Tagore creation, is sung all over India wherever Sanskrit can be mugged. "He was already famous at nineteen when he wrote his first novel; and plays, written when he was but little older, are still played in Calcutta." This was 1912. Of theatre productions in Calcutta, Tagore scholar Ananda Lal notes in 1987 that the authors occurring most frequently are "Shakespeare and Brecht, closely followed by Tagore and (curiously enough) Neil Simon" - author of enduring Hindu classics like Brighton Beach Memoirs. Curiously enough indeed.

Why, then, is Tagore so obscure? While writing this essay, I happened to be asked many times what I was working on. Usually I get blank stares when I reply honestly. If I were writing a sequel to "Friends" people would perk right up. But in reference to Tagore I would mumble, "a poet" or "an Indian poet." A Bengali (and Bangladeshi) friend of mine happened to be within earshot, and she immediately corrected me. Not Indian, she implied: "Bengali, Bengali." A brief exchange followed as to what, exactly, India is. Bengal was partitioned by the British, with West Bengal and Calcutta (Tagore's hometown) ending up in India, East Bengal eventually becoming Bangladesh, capital Dhaka. So both of us were right. An English citizen, she had to explain to present, mostly English company that Tagore "is very well known." More blank stares, silence, a new topic. Earlier she had confided, "My parents love him."

Tagore's vogue in the West was brief. Orientalists Forster, Pound, and Yeats praised him. Forster also panned him, as did Tagore's first and most ardent popularizer, Edward Thompson, who summarily dismissed Tagore's novels and novellas. Apparently weary of Indian mumbo-jumbo, another reviewer snarled, "Even nothing, said by Tagore, is sure to be said smoothly." One theatre historian said that some of Tagore's plays were "just plain boring", and even Tagore's loyal Bengali audiences were finicky, preferring his comedies to his rather "metaphysical" dramas. More recently, a poet has said that Tagore's failures were more valuable than the successes of a lesser poet.

Hemingway once said that an author is judged by the sum and average of his life's work. Tagore's collected works run to twenty-nine volumes, quite a sum indeed. The average is more difficult to judge. But Gitanjali is easily his masterpiece. A collection 103 brief, Psalm-like devotional poems, Gitanjali is unlike anything in literature in their purity of spirit and formulation except, well, the Psalms. Yeats mentions that he often had to hide his face while reading the book, lest bystanders see its effect on him. Consider the moving 36th poem:

"This my prayer to thee, my lord - strike, strike at the root of penury in my heart. Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows. Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service. Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might. Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles. And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love."

Bear in mind that this is Tagore's own English translation. While he was never as comfortable with English as he was with his native tongue, obviously he was more fluent in English than some of our so-called poets, who may live in penury but not know the word. Gitanjali is not just a book of poems. It is a holy book to be consulted, dwelled upon, memorized, converted into mantras, sold with free rosary beads.

Having read three of Tagore's plays, I can agree that they are rather boring to a modern Westerner, accustomed to behind-the-arras conniving and a good sword fight. Certainly Shakespeare and Tagore make odd bedfellows, though some of Tagore's early plays were modeled on the works of the Bard. Tagore's later plays are more reminiscent of Goethe's Faust with their odd cast of characters, mystical themes, and rather tepid conflicts. Arguably Tagore should be compared to no Western author, but rather to his own models. His favorite was Kalidasa, whose play Sakuntala is a cheerful celebration of love and life in verdant and vibrant ancient India, not a dour portrayal of enmity and death in rocky and gloomy old Elsinore. But it is always easier to dismiss the foreign than to judge it on its own terms.

No artist survives very long who cannot surmount criticism. But Tagore did not take the lazy view of some artists that criticism was necessarily inferior to art. Art, he said, was a kind of criticism of nature or man. But he felt that criticism should express more than a critic's likes and dislikes, that it should rely on some impersonal notions of good or bad. He distrusted the common practice of finding a poem's "meaning": a poem should be treated as a fact, beautiful like a sunset or ugly like an aeroplane.

Every writer is tempted to treat public indifference as evidence of greatness, rather than as proof of failure. Tagore, justifiably, succumbed. In his play Red Oleander a character remarks, "I am fortunate to have the supreme honor of public censure"; and in a letter Tagore calls the public an "ungrateful animal." This contempt is hardly extraordinary, nor does it confirm Tagore's elitism. All writers, said Orwell, are vain. If they were not, they would believe the public and the critics; stop writing; kill literature. Tagore himself chuckles over the writer stereotype in his short story "Taraprasanna's Fame":

"Like most writers, Taraprasanna was rather shy and retiring in nature. To go out amongst other people was an ordeal for him. Sitting at home and writing all the time had weakened his eyesight, bent his back, and given him little experience of the world. Social pleasantries did not come easily to him, so he did not feel very safe outside his home. Others thought him a bit stupid, and they could not be blamed for this.... Nothing that he had written had ever been published."

When Taraprasanna finally publishes, "reviewers throughout the land, unable to understand a single word of the book, were mightily impressed by it." Though Tagore was still a young man when he wrote this, obviously the fatigue of idiotic critics had already set in.

Even saints grow tired. Tagore exalts Shah Jahan's efforts to make love permanent by building the Taj Mahal, but acknowledges that "if I were to tear out [my] pages today / I would merely be advancing the ultimate creation awaiting them anyway." Boo-hoo indeed: entropy greedily awaits the consummation of human endeavor in the heat-death of the universe. (Tagore was lucky not to have lived into the nuclear age.) Meanwhile, on planet Earth:

"...such sadness, such torment, / So many wars, so many deaths: / No end! The darkness gradually thickens / As it falls; silence deepens; the world's / Consciousness sleeps. From the lonely / Earth's huge heart arises a solemn / Painful question, an agonized weary / Melody flung at the empty sky / 'Where now? How much further?'"

Though Tagore thought that suffering brought clarity, he also wondered why those who suffer the most seem to live the longest. He wasn't just moaning. His mother died in 1875, his wife in 1902, a daughter in 1903, his father in 1905. Tagore was also acutely aware of the suffering going on around him: his stories cover all walks of life and not many end happily. In Red Oleander, he says of a beleaguered man that "the day God has pity on him, that day he will die."

I can still vaguely remember Satyajit Ray's typically lurid film version of the Tagore story "The Postmaster," in which a Calcutta man briefly handles the correspondence of a Bengali village. "An orphaned village-girl did housework for him for a little food," explains Tagore. "Her name was Ratan, and she was about twelve or thirteen" - nubile in India then, and some parts of India even now. Well, the postmaster is extra nice to Ratan: Ray's film shows the postmaster teaching her how to read and her ministering to his ailing body. An attachment develops. One might even call it love.

In the film, Ratan cries heart-wrenching tears when the postmaster's dire health compels him to leave his post, and when we learn that the love was mostly Ratan's. Because India is so poor and so populous, to shower the least bit of hope or attention on its people can lead to awfully lachrymose separations. But Tagore knows that we can no more bear solitude and hopelessness than separation and hope betrayed. "The Postmaster" ends like a Buddhist sutra: "We cling with both arms to false hope, refusing to believe the weightiest proofs against it, embracing it with all our strength. In the end it escapes, ripping our veins and draining our heart's blood; until, regaining consciousness, we rush to fall into snares of delusion all over again." This is life as Tagore saw it. Few have seen it better.

- The End -

Books by Rabindranath Tagore referred to in this article:

The Home and the World, Penguin, 1985.
Selected Poems, Penguin, 1994.
Selected Short Stories, Penguin, 1994.
Three Plays, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gitanjali, Scribner, 1997.

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