A BIOGRAPHY OF RABINDRANATH *
MASTI VENKATESA IYENGAR
Rabindranath Tagore has been a great deal in our minds for more than a year now on account of the celebrations connected with the centenary of his birth. There has been much talking and writing about him in the same connection, and a good part of it by people who had some personal knowledge of the poet, and therfore of value as helping to understand the man and his work. Of great value in this sense is the book on the poet’s life written by Sri K. R. Kripalani.
Kripalani writes well. The
English of the book is very good. The writer was in an
introduction describes the atmosphere of the life of
Kripalani’s picture of resurgence in the national life would have been complete if there had been a fuller description of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement in religion, the Vidyasagar and Bankimchandra achievements in literary endeavour, Dayananda Saraswathi and Ranadey’s work for purifying religion and reforming society. Rabindranath Tagore was a great phenomenon but he was a great phenomenon out of many of the same or almost the same magnitude raised by the nation’s life as a result of a new upsurge.
Kripalani’s description of
Rabindranath’s boyhood follows the line familiar to
lovers of Tagore from his books of reminiscence and the published letters. The
description of the days of adolescence gives some new material. Tagore’s friendship with Nalini and with his
sister-in-law Kadambari Devi,
and one of the Scott girls in
Last year in
Regarding the poem addressed to a picture, Mr. Kripalani is certain that the picture was that of Kadambari Devi and not the poet’s wife. Having read all that he says on this subject, I am still not sure that this was the case. The memory of Hecate might have started the poem but that of the wife seems to have mingled with it as the poem grew.
Sri Kripalani is somewhat amused at the thought of the poet having married an unlettered little girl from the country, with so old-fashioned a name as Bhavatarani. The writing in this context is like that of some fully westernised person unaware of the meaning of the name and of the thousands of marriages that take place in this manner in this country and are nevertheless in a large number of cases happy. I am afraid that in his desire to be thoroughly modern our author has accepted western notions a little his too fully. By his own account, Rabindranath’s married life was quite happy: the husband absent on a journey felt one night that he left the body and went back to his home to kiss his wife and wrote to her of this; the wife grew to be mistress of affairs in her home and could, after death, ask her husband through a planchet, “Are you still as foolish as before”, referring to his unreasonable objections to her carrying utensils and provisions on journeys. Is such intense feeling or ease in relationship realised by husbands and wives in many cases in marriages based on love at first or later sight?
Similarly, when he talks of the hurry in which the poet married off his daughters, Sri Kripalani is thinking too much of what he would have approved and too little of the anxiety of a father who had to find for his two motherless daughters places where he could feel they would be looked after.
Sri Kripalani’s ideas on the development of Rabindranath as writer are on the whole sound. If there is any defect in them it is that of seeming to accept all the work as right. “Nature’s Revenge” as a play must appear as not sufficiently high class work to any unbiassed view. The poem on fanatic Hindus having killed a Salvation Army preacher must appear unnecessarily ferocious in forgetting that most Hindus would have been on the poet’s side and not on the side of the murderous gang. Leaving aside such cases, one agrees with the author in his appreciation of several sections of the work of the poet. The study of Chitrangada (the play published with the name ‘Chitra’ in English) and of the short stories are instances.
Our author has devoted some attention to what the poet called ‘Jeevana Devata’. Here too, though aware of Indian thought, Sri Kripalani tends to accept the western line. The universal spirit, or God (whatever term is employed to embody the concept of the ultimate) is after all a pure abstraction, he says, adding in the same context that even ordinary men have at times been aware of two selves within them. Ordinary men aware of two selves within them would in all probability cease to come under that category. And is the universal spirit more an abstraction than the selves within? Tagore could feel the one abstraction working on the other abstraction and could speak of the two as concrete experience. This in truth is what gives value and significance to all his work both in literature and in other fields. As he said in the Hibbert Lectures, the ultimate may be impersonal but on that account to deny the validity of the experience of it as person is unsound.
The thing to remember in following Tagore in such poetry or discussion is that he inherited ways of thought and feeling and expression which had been current since the Vedas took shape. “You have no form, no shape, no weapons, no locale and yet for the sake of your devotees you wear a personal form,” so said the Agama. God is impersonal but equally he is personal. Equally, again, he is many other things that we do not know. So said Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Brahmo by birth, Rabindranath avoided the use of the orthodox phraseology but the experience or the substance of the expression was not different.
Similar remarks apply with reference to Tagore’s belief in God. Young people who think that to be modern they should be septic, asked him if he was certain that God existed. He said he felt so when he had expressed himself well in some poetry. What is God? Is he a highly magnified human personality, dwelling in a place called heaven and ruling the world from there? If so, no living person can see him as he sees another living person. But if God is conceived as the soul of our soul and the mind of our mind as Tagore realised Him and described Him, God is constantly present. Tagore spoke in his reminiscences of the young people of the days of his youth, affecting atheism, in imitation of their teachers from the West. Atheism is not new in Indian thought. It seems new to many of us because we are out of touch with that thought. There is much that is unsound in Indian thought, but much in it is sound. Indians who know the thought of the West do well to make use of it, but they can make the best use of it only if they become aware of their Indian heritage in all these dimensions. That is not to say that all of us should have a full knowledge of all that India has said on these subjects. The suggestion is only that we should accept the guidance of competent people and get some knowledge of what our forbears thought in these matters.
Sri Kripalani seems to make too much of what he calls Tagore’s unpopularity with our people. There are and were, of course, sections of people who did not think much of his work, but there was no lack, either, of people who noted the work and praised the poet. His song in praise of India won applause when he was still young and work of years not much later so pleased the great Bankim Chandra Chatterji that he resigned in the young poet’s favour, at a festivity, a garland brought for him by Romesh Chandra Dutt. What is popularity? Praise by the many? Judgment of one competent person, Shakespeare suggested, is more important in such matters than the opinion of a houseful of people not so competent. Tagore was a social critic even as he was a poet or story-teller and as a social critic he hurt the self-love of men of another view or those who thought that they should defend what he criticised. That does not imply that he was not popular. Such opposition as there was to his ideas was due partly to his stand in politics. But taken all in all, his writing always commanded the respect and attention of sufficiently large sections of the population in his Province. An influential journal like the Modern Review, representing enlightened opinion, gave the poet in the country a place almost comparable to that won for him in the world by the award of the Nobel Prize.
There is much interesting information in the book about the reaction of English and other Western writers to the work of Tagore. Tagore, as the only poet in Asia to whom the Nobel Prize has been awarded, must, of course, be accepted as a writer of special significance; but in accepting this fact, we should not forget an award of this kind does not make a poet one single inch taller than he is. If by some chance the award had not been made, the poet’s altitude would not have been a single inch less. The prize spotlighted the height, but the height would be there even if spotlighted. Many circumstances conspired to bring the award this Indian poet. It was good that they did so; for the world had to accept his eminence as a writer, if it was to attend to the message he proceeded to give it. To the poet himself the award was a happy incident in a life quite eventful even without it. As a crown, not made of thorns, which said, “this is the man,” it was required in the interests of the world’s welfare.
Sri Kripalani gives a fairly good account of all that Tagore did in furthering the feeling that the world is one. The poet in this matter was indeed much in advance of his time. A poet is poet precisely because he senses many things that are not obvious to the non-poet. His soul is sensitive and he quivers at things which do not disturb the peace of other men. Goethe, we are told, sensed the great disaster of the Lisbon earthquake the day before it occurred. Tagore sensed the first world war years before it came. He died, in the middle of the second world war, crying himself hoarse about the crisis in civilization, and his undying hope that the East would find the way of life that the West, in pursuit of modern civilization seemed to have forgotten. Being sensitive, a poet tends to be individualist. He is prepared to lead men, but when they do not follow him, he stands aside and lets them pass. The world is too much with us and neither the Western countries, in their struggle for dominance or self-preservation, nor India, in her strife with England for recovering independence, could strictly follow the guidance offered by the poet. But large numbers of people in all the countries of the world realised that Tagore was a messenger of world unity and peace and that his words should be attended to by the nations both of the East and the West.
A number of incidents brought together by Sri Kripalani are great interest as showing that the great poet was also a very human person. His letter to the Governor’s Secretary regarding Jyotishchandra Ghosh (page 261-2), his outburst in a meeting of the Poetry Society (page 282) in an American City and his reaction to the courtesy and attention of Dictator Mussolini (page 327) are instances. Sri Kripalani refers to the difference that arose between poet and Mahatmaji in regard to the idea of universal spinning under the programme of non-co-operation. Most people feel puzzled to think that two such men should have had differences. Both loved the country; both were men with high ideas. Why should they have differed? But they had to, when one was thinking of action and the other was thinking of the ideal. To the man of action something is better than nothing. The man of ideals will have the whole or nothing. The man of action will make the best of the material he has. The man of ideals will wait to change the material. We, who hold both Gandhiji and Tagore in reverence, are sorry that they did not agree. If we remember that the difference was not about principles or final results but about procedure, we shall feel definitely less sorry. We shall feel even less sorry if we remember that whereas Gandhiji proposed non-co-operation with evil, the programme came to be called non-co-operation for short, and this was expanded to mean non-co-operation with the West, and the poet was unhappy about this non-co-operation. Non-co-operation with evil was something that Tagore himself practised and had dreamt of and preached all his life. A similar unnecessary difference arose when it was thought, quite wrongly, that Gandhiji made light of Ram Mohan Roy.
Sri Kripalani’s book reminds us that there are people who attached great importance to Tagore’s physical appearance. It’s good that he had that appearance and that it attracted people to him and gave them aesthetic satisfaction. But this again is, for the poet or prophet, adventitious. Another man of equally lofty conceptions might have a less attractive face. That would not lower the value of the conceptions. Gandhiji did not attract by his physical appearance, but he had a smile that charmed, and eyes through which his soul shone on people. Men who met the Mahatma thought the first moment what a contrast there was between the great soul and the puny body but on further thought the puniness of the body seemed to make the greatness of the soul all the greater. Told that his looks were not as good as his wisdom, Socrates in effect said: “the looks show my natural tendency; my wisdom is from considered judgment.”
Sri Kripalani says in one place that Gandhiji was not a Poet. He, of course, means that the Mahatma did not write poetry as Tagore did, but would, no doubt, concede that a person may be a poet without writing a lot by way of poetry. The man who said that a cow is a poem of pity proved that he was a poet. If he had not taken to action which was poetry, he might have indulged in words that were poetry. Much the same reflection covers Sri Kripalani’s observation that in Tagore’s later life the prophet overshadowed the poet. A prophet cannot be much of a prophet if he is not a poet. It is poetry that gives content to prophecy. He who wrote the poetry of the earlier years brought out the prophecy from the same self in later years. It is almost correct to say that the poetry grew into the prophecy.
It is sad to think that in his old age the poet had to earn money for his educational work by training troops of actors and presenting shows in big cities. We were a dependent nation then and Government would not think of helping this man who had set himself up definitely as a critic of their ways. But why did not our people help him? By people, I do not mean the average person in the street and the village, but the educated and the well-to-do who knew the importance of the work he was doing and the sacrifice which he had made for the nation. The year of the centenary has been full of eulogy of the man and his work. The programmes organised in a hundred places must have cost lakhs of rupees. One wishes that a small part of this praise and money had been placed at the disposal of the poet when he was alive.
Sri Kripalani says occasionally that Tagore was not Gandhi, that he was not Tolstoy or Balzac or Swift. I must admit that I do not quite follow his meaning. This idiom in English is, I believe, employed to indicate some defect, but the quality which made Tagore different from these other great men was a good quality of his own. It is not good even for the average person to be somebody else. How then can it be good for a great man to be like another great man? Even common men are not repeated in creation. As Goethe said of the way in which lives are lived, if God had had another plan he would have made another man. They err who say that the poet never wrote poor stuff, never said a wrong word, never did a wrong thing; but they err too who think that his height is less because he was not a perfect being. Their age threw up Tagore as he was and Gandhi as he was, Tolstoy as he was and Balzac as he was, and the world has to be grateful that it was granted these men such as they were.
Sri Kripalani makes in the course of the book some general observations and statements in passing which seem to require re-examination. One of such statements is that in the first half of the last century the Upanishads were unknown to the Hindus in general. If Hindus in general means Hindus who had received English education, it may be true to some extent, but to Hindus in general who know Sanskrit, the Upanishads have always been familiar texts and to those who did not know Sanskrit their meaning has been made familiar by corresponding wisdom in their mother tongue. Another such statement is that we Indians have a lopsided view of life. A detail that requires verification is the statement that Ahalya, turned to stone, remained in that form for centuries beore Rama released her. About Tagore’s faith in transmigration, Kripalani says that he believed that the human consciousness has evolved out of several sub-layers of consciousness and that their memory survives in highly sensitive minds. One should like to know the authority for this statement. In another place he says that Tagore knew of Tolstoy and Tolstoy was perhaps not even aware of Tagore, and adds that if Tagore and Gandhi could understand each other, despite their great differences, the Russian and the Indian would no doubt have done the same and even better. The suggestion that the Russian would have understood the Indian better than the Indian did the Indian, is difficult to follow. Fortunately, says Sri Kripalani, in one place, Tagore was not a philosopher. Is that statement correct? The essays in Sadhana and the Hibbert Lectures issued in the form of a book with the title “The Religion of Man” are, in all the senses of the word, philosophy. What is more, they are philosophy spoken from experience and realisation. How can any man live, let alone be a poet, without a philosophy, and if he states the basis of his life and poetry in words as Tagore did, how can he escape being a philosopher as well as a poet? And in any case why is it fortunate to be no philosopher? ‘Tagore loved his country and his people,’ says Sri Kripalani, “but made no secret of the fact that he admired the British character more than the Indian. This his compatriots never forgave him; for this history will honour him.” With great respect to the author, I submit that the authority for the statement that Tagore admired the British character, more than the Indian, should have been cited and that the lumping of all Tagore’s compatriots into one, and the anticipation of the verdict of history for something not established are both unsound. Sri Kripalani’s statement that Tagore’s renunciation of his knighthood, to voice his people’s anguish which fear had hushed in every other breast, is equally unsound. For there certainly were many voices raised against the inhumanity of Jallianwala massacre. Gandhi’s was a one-track mind, says Sri Kripalani. This seems to be a favourite phrase these days, but what does the phrase mean? Is it more true of Gandhiji than of Tagore? The music of Western adulation, says our author, had become sweeter than the music of rain to Tagore. We, of a later generation, with our eyes still on the West, for the a appreciation which will give us prestige, should be able to understand why Tagore gave value to the words of praise which were showered on him in his tours in the West. Adulation seems hardly the word for the context.
Sri Kripalani dismisses as gossip something said to have been given currency to in regard to the manner of Dwarakanath Tagore’s death in the West. The caution is wise. One wishes that he had used the same caution in accepting the story about the reason for the Birili section of the Brahmin caste being treated as socially lower, the story about Mr. Montague having joined a group of people in a forest and heard a song which he heard again later and recognised and learnt to be Tagore’s work, and the further statement that Pandits of the old style, set passages from Tagore’s writing for correction, in their question papers. All these things may be true but more trouble must be taken, to gather the evidence if it can be gathered, and, make certain that it supports the conclusions.
Sri Kripalani takes note of two Western students of Tagore as following the poet in the original and especially competent: Professors E. J. Thompson, and V. Lesney. Did these students of Tagore really understand Tagore in the original very well, as, for example, Sri Kripalani follows Shakespeare in the original? I remember reading in the Modern Review years ago that Thompson translated Panchasika as five tufts, taking it to be Pancha Sikha. Of Prof. Lesney’s knowledge no information is available. Why, however, is the appreciation of these doubtless able students of the West so important and why, except for a stray reference or two, is there no mention in the book of Indian students of Tagore who have written about the poet?
Does that sound like a complaint? Yet I must make another. Why are these good books by competent Indians on Indian subjects published from England? Good work done in India was not recognised in the old days unless it bore the stamp of approval from the West. Political dependence seemed to imply intellectual dependence. Now that we are politically free, we should, I submit, learn to be free in other fields too. In literary enterprise, in particular, we should try to work as an independent unit. Sri Kripalani published a smaller book on Tagore about two years ago in India. I wish that this book also had been issued in India and not by an English publisher.
I have been talking of a number of things suggested by Sri Kripalani’s study of Tagore, rather than indicted either appreciation or criticism. That merely means that the book is stimulating. The author speaks his mind freely and frankly. That shows that the mind is healthy. Men of another temperament will, of course, feel that they cannot agree with a thing here and a thing there that he says, but that does not take away from the value of the book. Lovers of Tagore should welcome the publication. One will appreciate both the personality and the writing of the poet all the better after reading this excellent book.
* “Tagore” by K. R. Kripalani. Published by the Oxford University Press. Demy 8vo size. Pp. 418. Cloth Bound. Price Rs. 28