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Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali Literature

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam

Rabindranath Tagore is the greatest in Bengali literature as a poet, novelist, and educator. He has touched the soul of the people he met. He is ubiquitous in Bengali literature. He is considered Bishwakavi, the poet of the world. His contributions enriched Bengali as well as world literature. His poetry and music are comparable only to those of Nazrul, another guiding luminary of Bengali literature. Reading Tagore is a great delight for his devotees.

Tagore's creative output tells us a lot about this renaissance man. His variety, quality and quantity are unbelievable. As a writer, Tagore primarily worked in Bengali, but after his success with Gitanjali he translated many of his other works into English. He wrote over one thousand poems, eight volumes of short stories, almost two dozen plays and play-lets, eight novels, and many books and essays on philosophy, religion, education and social topics.

Aside from drama, his other great love was music. He composed more than two thousand songs, both music and lyrics.

Two of them became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. In 1929 he even began painting. Many of his paintings can be found in museums today, especially in India, where he is considered the greatest Indian literary figure of all times.

Tagore's 'Amar Sonar Bangla' became the national anthem of Bangladesh. Only hours before he died on August 7, 1941, Tagore dictated his last poem. His written production, still not completely collected, fill nearly 30 substantial volumes. Tagore remained a well-known and popular author in the West until the end of the 1920s.

Tagore was an accomplished musician and painter, writing around 2,230 songs. Rabindrasangit (Tagore Song) is now an integral part of Bengali culture. Tagore's music is inseparable from his literature, parts of novels, stories, or plays alike became lyrics for his songs, the entire gamut of human emotion.

Tagore (nicknamed 'Rabi') was born the youngest of fourteen children in the Jorasanko mansion of parents Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi on 7 May 1861 in Calcutta, India. After a brief stay in England (1878) in an attempt to study law, he returned to India, and instead pursued a career as a writer, playwright, songwriter, poet, philosopher and educator. During the first 51 years of his life he achieved some success in Calcutta, where he was born and raised with his many stories, songs and plays. His short stories were published in a friend's magazine and he even played the lead role in a few of the public performances of his plays.

In 1883, Tagore married Mrinalini Devi Raichaudhuri, with whom he had two sons and three daughters. In 1890 Tagore moved to East Bengal (now Bangladesh), where he collected local legends and folklore. Between 1893 and 1900 he wrote seven volumes of poetry, including Sonar Tari and Khanika. This was a highly productive period in Tagore's life. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He preferred common people, common subject matter, and the common language. This was something that his critics and some scholars found hard to accept.

All of that suddenly changed in 1912. He returned to England for the first time since his failed attempt at law school as a teenager. A man of 51, he was accompanied by his son. On the way over to England he began translating, for the first time, his latest selections of poems, Gitanjali, into English. Almost all of his work prior to that time had been written in his native language Bengali. He decided to do this just to have something to do, with no expectation at all that his first efforts at translation would be any good. He made the handwritten translations in a little notebook he carried around with him and worked on during the long sea voyage from India.

Upon arrival, his son left his father's brief case with this notebook in the London subway. Fortunately, an honest person turned in the briefcase and it was recovered the next day. Tagore's one friend in England, a famous artist he had met in India, Rothenstein, learned of the translation, and asked to see it. Reluctantly, Tagore let him have the notebook. The painter could not believe his eyes. The poems were incredible. He called his friend, W.B. Yeats, and talkedYeats into looking at the notebook.

The rest, as they say, is history. Yeats was enthralled. He later wrote the introduction to Gitanjali when it was published in September 1912 in a limited edition by the India Society in London. Both the poetry and the man were an instant sensation, first in London literary circles, and soon thereafter in the entire world. His spiritual presence was awesome. His words evoked great beauty. Nobody had ever read anything like it. A glimpse of the mysticism and sentimental beauty of Indian culture were revealed to the West for the first time. Less than a year later, in 1913, Rabindranath received the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the first non-westerner to be honored thus. Overnight he was famous and began world tours promoting inter-cultural harmony and understanding. In 1915 he was knighted by the British King George V. When not traveling, he remained at his family home outside of Calcutta, where he remained very active as a literary, spiritual and social-political force.

In 1919, following the Amritsar massacre, Tagore renounced his Knighthood. Although he was a good friend of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, mostly Tagore stayed out of politics. He was opposed to nationalism and militarism as a matter of principle, and instead promoted spiritual values and the creation of a new world culture founded in multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance. He served as a spiritual and creative beacon to his countrymen and indeed the whole world.

He used the funds from his writing and lecturing to expand upon the school he had founded in 1901, now known as Bishwa Bharati. The alternative to the poor system of education imposed by the British combined the best of traditional Hindu education with Western ideals.

Tagore was not only a creative genius; he was also a great man and friend to many. He was educated and quite knowledgeable of Western culture, especially Western poetry and science. This made him a remarkable person, one of the first to combine East and West, and ancient and modern knowledge. His meetings and conversations with his contemporaries, such as Albert Einstein and H.G. Wells, stand as cultural landmarks and show the brilliance of this great man. Tagore is a superb representative of Bengali literature. The man who wrote the national anthem of his own country is outstanding and his life and works go far beyond his country. He is truly a man of the whole world.

Tagore was the first Indian to bring an element of psychological realism to his novels. His reputation as a writer was established in the United States and England after the publication of Gitanjali: Song Offerings about divine and human love. In the introduction from 1912 William Butler Yeats wrote: “These lyrics, which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of color, of metrical invention, display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long”. Tagore's poems were also praised by Ezra Pound, and drew the attention of the Nobel Prize committee. “There is in him the stillness of nature. The poems do not seem to have been produced by storm or by ignition, but seem to show the normal habit of his mind. He is at one with nature, and finds no contradictions.This is in sharp contrast with the Western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have “great drama”. However, Tagore also experimented with poetic forms, and these works have lost much in translations to other languages.

Tagore wrote his most important works in Bengali, but he often translated his poems into English. At the age of 70, Tagore took up painting. He was also a composer, setting hundreds of poems to music. Many of his poems are actually songs, and are inseparable from their music.

Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of his own culture to the West and vice versa, and is generally regarded as the most marvelous creative artist of Bengali literature.

Lecturer, Department of English
Metropolitan University, Sylhet
E-mail: msijewel@gmail.com


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