Rabindranath Tagore is our National Poet, just like the peacock is our national bird. He wrote our National Anthem, the ‘Jana Gana Mana’, and we sing the first stanza only because it’s too long for anyone else to remember. He also wrote ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, the Naitonal Anthem for Bangladesh. He opposed the Partition of Bengal. He was the first Indian to win a Nobel Prize. This happened because he translated ‘Gitanjali’ (a really fat volume of poems) so they could read him in English. Basically, the translation (which isn’t very good), got him that prize. The British made him a Knight (so grown-up people could also call him ‘Sir’ and not just his students), but he renounced it to protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by writing a nice but rude letter to the Viceroy. He wrote it at night because he was an insomniac anyway.
He had one wife (who died), fell in love with his sister-in-law (who committed suicide), and he had five kids, two of whom died as kids. He had a few lovers on and off. He established the Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan. It was a more open university than IGNOU because students actually sit under trees and study. He continued writing songs, poems, dance dramas, plays, short stories, novels, essays, and letters to everyone he knew, and they became important because they had these letters. He painted too.
Their family held some lands in Shelaidaha (currently in Bangladesh), so he was also a zamindar. He loved boating about on the Padma, he often waived taxes, and picked up lots of songs from the bauls and fakirs.
He always wore a long robe, and had white, flowing beard and hair. When he died at 80 and they took him to the crematorium, the procession got mobbed mid-way, and folks walked away with handfuls of his beard that they’d managed to grab ….
And all this started on May 7, 1861. It’s been 152 years since then, 100 years since he won the Nobel Prize. In a nutshell, everything is so l-o-n-g ago that we can safely bracket Tagore. He was a saint, a playboy, a poet. Malicious rumors and British endorsed news reports made him a loyalist, he turned up in rallies and demonstrations as an ardent rebel. Most importantly, his work is now, finally, finally, copyright free and available all over the internet.
He started painting around sixty, though he must’ve doodled before. None of these supposed self-portraits look like the calendar image or the face on the postal stamp. But these are his faces too, and wouldn’t he know better?
Rabindranath Tagore has shared the fate of all semi-mythical humans. Bereft of humanity, he’s either raised on a pedestal where crows can shit on him, or decried as a villain where editors can sell a few copies by lambasting him.
What happened to the curly-haired boy whose dreamy eyes wove poetry out of summer showers?
What made him choose complicated characters for his dance-drama productions – the bandit-author of Ramayan, Arjun’s Manipuri lover-Queen, a courtesan who saves a businessman, a Buddhist priest desired by a vivacious Dalit girl, an ugly king who comes to his queen only at night? His short stories are stranger still. Spookier than Roald Dahl, more twisted than O’Henry, more sarcastic than Bernard Shaw. The desire and anger and surpirsing political practicality of his novels don’t conform to the saintly calendar image either.
He learned Japanese martial arts and brought it back to Shantiniketan long before the current karate craze. He was deeply influenced by Indonesian dance forms, as well as Kathakali. At 14, he wrote a whole body of poems in Maithili under the pseudonym ‘Bhanusimha’. He had to reveal himself when things started getting too serious and someone apparently proposed to research on this ancient master who had been hitherto unknown …
But he fought lawsuits against many of his dear relatives. He never took the beautiful, accomplished foreign women who loved him so much to be his life-time companions. He was morbidly copyright conscious and lionized anthologies of Indian poetry that international publishers entrusted him with.
As an activist, he was at the forefront of the movement against the Partition of Bengal. Yet he was in two minds on whether to support Gandhi or the more violent movements of the time. He wrote and sang patriotic songs (including the ‘Jana Gana Mana’) on several conventions of the Congress. But he also derided the frivolity of Congress leaders pretty tersely.
His protest to Jallianwala Bagh had not stopped with one spur-of-the-moment letter. He made a whole song out of it. If you don’t know the context, it sounds like a typical love-song.
Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali Brahmin, his actual surname being Banerjee (Bandopadhyay), Rahriya Sandilya Brahmins from far-away Kanauj. One of his ancestors got the village Kushari (in present Burdwan, West Bengal) as a gift from a wealthy landlord. So they started calling themselves 'Kushari', and part of them settled in Jessore, Bangladesh. Only after one of his ancestors settled into Gobindapur (fated to be Kolkata) did they become the ‘Thakur saabs’ we celebrate now. The Thakurs expanded the zamindari, traded, built on their store of wealth, were noted scholars, and raided villages .... Then the family, led by Rabindranath's father, Debndranath, turned Brahmo in the wake of Rammohan Roy’s reforms.
So little Tagore got his holy thread ceremony done, but was taught to worship a single unseen, inconceivable god, unattainable through rituals, not quantified by humans. The complex DNA of landlord-priest-bandit-reformist must have raged in his veins again and again.
Given his infamy as an insomniac, the students of Shantiniketan once took turns peeping in on what he actually does at night (well, boys would be boys). Right through the long dark hours he continued pacing the room, like a caged, perhaps a bit crazed, tiger. They couldn’t catch him dropping off, ever.
Is that how Tagore was really? A lonely man, too sharply aware of his personality splits to be called schizophrenic, aching to create more, and terribly tired of creation?
We would never know. It’s safer to gilt, bind and mount him in the customary photo frame. Perhaps little Rabi with his cherubic ringlets would’ve been more fascinated with the flicking tail of a lizard behind the photo, instead of the man in it.