Rabindranath Tagore with Mahatma Gandhi

Reviewed by Ammara Khan

Anyone with a little interest in Indian literature has heard of Rabindranath Tagore, the poetic genius who won the first Asian Nobel Prize for literature for his brilliant collection of poems, Gitanjali. Although he survives as a national icon, people remain unfamiliar with a lot of his work as well as his life. Who was the man behind the saint-like persona we have come to associate him with? Does his contribution comprise a handful of translations, a few impressive plays? As the man credited with having two of his compositions selected as national anthems — of India and Bangladesh — did he guide the flow of the political changes of his time?

Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya is an attempt at an interpretative biography of Tagore. Instead of giving the mundane details of his day-to-day life, the writer weaves a fascinating account of Tagore’s struggle with the changing world around him. Bhattacharya’s basic motive is to unveil the life of the legendary figure while focusing on the intellectual evolution of his work. He tries to frame his work in the genres of biography and literary criticism — calling the result an intellectual biography. He admits that “to look at the interrelationship of the inner and outer life of Rabindranath Tagore is not easy for a biographer”.

Remembered as a poet and lyricist today, Tagore was also a thinker who greatly influenced his contemporaries and successors alike. The political and social atmosphere of his time helped form his philosophy of life. Empire and nation are two inseparable discourses that emerged out of the close contact between European imperialism and Third World nationalism.

A believer in the multi-faceted nature of humanity, Tagore was equally suspicious of imperialism and modern nation states and considered them as hindrances in cultural interaction. Although an eminent supporter of the Swadeshi movement, he never restrained from criticising the emerging discourse of nationalism in India for being guilty of chauvinism and parochialism. He believed in a balanced development of the individual, and by extension, the whole nation.

Moreover, his allegiance to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) was central to his philosophy of humanity. He believed that spiritual as well as worldly harmony can only be attained by complete eradication of the self (ego). Based upon the principle of non-duality, Tagore’s philosophy seeks to sacrifice the dichotomy of self/other for a peaceful existence as part of the world as a whole.

Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation offers an enlightening glimpse into the creative evolution of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. How far the writer succeeds in delivering what he promises can be determined by a careful analysis of the basic structure and message of this book.

Bhattacharya is aware of the fact that when we look at things from a distance of many years, there is always a possibility of different — and sometimes conflicting — perspectives. So he draws heavily from Tagore’s own works and statements to validate his interpretations.

Divided into six chapters, the book focuses on various stages of Tagore’s intellectual evolution covering a period of 80 years.

The chapter, “The Enchanted Garden”, is an account of his early family life. Being born into a privileged and intellectually rich family was undoubtedly a chief factor in the kindling of creativity in young Rabindranath. However, his golden memories of childhood, argues Bhattacharya, could be “slightly gilded”.

Despite Tagore’s fond reminiscences of his childhood, his home wasn’t quite ideal. Firstly, there was a clear distinction between the roles of the two genders — if men were sent abroad for studies, “the women of the Tagore family remained in an enclave of home-education with no contact with the external world and the institution of formal education”. Secondly, there was the element of “domestic dominance”, as young Tagore liked to call it, the asymmetrical relationship between the elders and the young in the family. This conflict between the traditional and modern ideas, says Bhattacharya, “produced a complex discourse of modernity within indigenous parameters” and shaped Tagore’s philosophy.

In “The Sage of Santiniketan”, Bhattacharya talks about Tgaore’s disillusionment with the contemporary politics of his time. The school he established — Santiniketan or The Abode of Peace — was modeled after the forest hermitages. It was the changing political scene and his personal existential crisis that forced him to seek refuge in his school and work. Like his political ideology, his model of education was at once radical and traditional.

As opposed to the leading nationalist thinkers of his time, Tagore believed in the alternative path of “rural reconstruction of nation building”. Bhattacharya argues that Tagore’s “approach stemmed from his understanding of Bengal’s society, the problems facing the peasantry, the need to develop atma-saski or inner capability of the people as he perceived it”. He was of the opinion that middle class is “isolated from the life and mind of the common people”.

The book ends with an analysis of Tagore’s philosophy of humanity. A holistic thinker, he believed in a harmonious, casteless world where cultural intercourse and friendship among nations could freely flourish.

Bhattacharya carefully examines the evolution of Tagore’s quest for true identity that lasted till his death. On his seventieth birthday in 1931 Tagore said, “I realise that I have only one identity and that is that I am only a poet”. Bhattacharya is of the view that this anxiety for his role as a political and social thinker is part of his angst of surviving as writer after his death.

“Intellectual solitude is very often the destiny of great minds,” Bhattacharya writes and Tagore, like many other writers, was troubled by the question of immortality of his work. We are told about how he considered himself a “literary outlaw”. Even when he became centre of attention in his country after the award of Nobel Prize in 1913, he was weary of the attention and considered it “temporary excitement”.

The writer complains that we have reduced Tagore to “a saintly person who belonged to an ashram, not to the contemporary world”. He also questions Tagore’s decision to translate only his spiritual poetry into English that is largely responsible for creating his reputation as a spiritual poet.Most importantly, Bhattacharya is honest in his efforts to bring home to his readers the vivid world of Tagore, aware of the many challenges of writing a posthumous biography. He succeeds in capturing Tagore’s extraordinary mind as reflected in his writings and art.

The Tagore that emerges out of these pages is not merely an epitome of sagaciousness but a critical thinker, acutely aware of the questions of loneliness, depression, fear of rejection, and death — a man of many conflicts and contradictions.

However, these very contradictions make the saint a thinking and perceptive human being who is emotionally accessible to his readers. It is Tagore the critical thinker that eventually wins over the overbearing persona of Tagore the poet, providing unprecedented access to his thought and works.

Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation


By Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

Penguin India

ISBN 0670084557

320pp. Indian Rs499