On the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, Amit Chaudhuri discusses the Nobel Laureate’s life and poetry, his embrace of chance in creation, and his meetings with Albert Einstein.
An excerpt from The Essential Tagore, to be published this month by Harvard University Press.
Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh.
—D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse
I began to feel put off by Tagore in my late teens, around the time I discovered Indian classical music, the devotional songs of Meerabai, Tulsidas, and Kabir, not to speak of the work of the modernists. I was also—to place the moment further in context—reading contemporary European poetry in translation, in the tremendous series edited by Al Alvarez, the Penguin Modern European Poets. My father knew of my promiscuous adventurousness when it came to poetry, and, in tender deference to this, he (a corporate man) would buy these books from bookshops in the five-star hotels he frequented, such as the mythic Nalanda at the Taj. Among the poets I discovered through this route of privilege was the Israeli Dan Pagis, of whom the blurb stated: “A survivor of a concentration camp, Dan Pagis possesses a vision which is essentially tragic.” I don’t recall how my seventeen-year-old self responded to Pagis, but I do remember the poem he is most famous for, “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car.” Here it is in its entirety:
here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him i
The resonance of the poem escaped me at the time: This history was not mine. What struck me were the qualities I found most attractive when I was seventeen—metaphysical despair; deliberate irresolution. I mention the poem because I think it figured as a subtext to a difference of opinion I had with my uncle when my parents and I visited him in London in 1979. My uncle, a bachelor and an executive in shipping, was the most shameless propagandist for Tagore I have ever met, and his enthusiasm only furthered my dislike for the Bengali poet. Walking around Belsize Park, he would tell me that Tagore was the greatest poet the world had ever seen, surpassing everybody, including “the poets of the Bhagavad Gita.” (Homer and Shakespeare didn’t even merit a mention.) I countered with the name of my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, flag-bearer of a certain kind of twentieth-century despondency especially attractive to teenagers, and spoke too of Meera’s devotionals, saying I preferred the latter to Tagore’s lyrics. “You somehow feel,” I said, “that there’s a real urgency and immediacy about her songs. They could have been scribbled upon a prison wall.” I was probably invoking Pagis here, and also having a go at Tagore’s premeditated and loving craftsmanship. Many poets—besides, of course, philosophers—have insisted that there are things that are more important than poetry, especially in the face of trauma; for poets, this disavowal is, in fact, a respectable literary strategy. Even an adolescent detractor could tell that, to Tagore, nothing was as important as poetry.
My uncle attempted to indoctrinate me each time I went to London in the 1970s. In his eyes, Tagore was an amazingly contradictory agglomeration of virtues and characteristics. “If Tolstoy was a sage whose heart bled for mankind,” said my uncle, “then Rabi Thakur was a greater sage. No one has felt more pity for man’s sorrows.” He spoke of him in the semi-familiar, affectionate way of the Bengali bhadralok, as if Tagore were a cherished acquaintance—“Rabi Thakur”—and not hieratically, as “Gurudev,” the appellation Gandhi had conferred on him (as, in turn, Tagore had reportedly conferred “Mahatma” on Gandhi). He sometimes hummed Tagore’s more popular and plangent lines (“My days wouldn’t remain in the golden cage / those many-colored days of mine” and “I know, I know that the prayers that went / unanswered in life haven’t been lost”) mainly to express his sadness: for he was a man who loved company, and family, but had oddly chosen to be alone, and an expatriate. Then, the mood would change abruptly. Tagore, according to my uncle, was a “tennis player”—this odd metaphor was deployed to suggest, I think, a series of departures: the breaking away of Tagore’s family, starting with his great-grandfather Nilmoni Tagore, from its conservative Brahminical roots; Tagore’s own breaking out from his “aristocratic,” landed past into modernity, art, individualism, and, of course, glamorous mystique. The latter, presumably, is what Tagore, the celebrity poet, and the tennis player had in common—besides finesse and control.
“All men who repeat one line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare,” said Jorge Luis Borges; all Bengalis of a certain generation were, at one point or another, Tagore.
My uncle was as much in awe of Tagore’s looks as he was of his work—both were, in fact, impossible to disentangle from one another. Despite his immemorial, world-denying air from his forties onward, Tagore and everything associated with him—his handwriting; the interiors he inhabited, with their new “ethnic” design; the habitations he constructed for himself in Santiniketan; the paintings created out of manuscript corrections—had an air of provisionality and experiment. They emanated from a man taking his cue from, or experiencing resonances with, a number of sources and excitements—tribal arts and crafts; the devotional-mystic music of Bengal; the dance traditions of neighboring regions, like Manipur; Shelley; the Upanishads; Paul Klee. All this translated, in the public domain, into the personality and the appearance themselves—the commanding but ineffable, and somehow wholly contemporary, presence of the “world poet.” It was this image that held my uncle in thrall. “’People who compare me with Shakespeare should realize that I had to make a leap of five hundred years to write as I do,’ said Rabindranath,” reported my uncle calmly. There was a remonstrative edge to his words, though, for his identification with Tagore was fierce. “All men who repeat one line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare,” said Jorge Luis Borges; all Bengalis of a certain generation were, at one point or another, Tagore. And, of course, there are many Tagores, as you will discover in this volume. The phrase “Renaissance man” does not capture the restless energy and vitality with which he—a colonial subject—journeyed toward different genres in the manner of one learning, mastering, and finally altering new languages. He undertook each genre as an exploration: the revealing (in all kinds of ways) letter-writing of the young man; the shadowy microcosm contained in the plays; the great novels and stories; the often deeply original but underrated essays; the paintings that emerged almost by accident—from manuscript corrections—when he was a much older man. The act of journeying and the element of chance were (as I discovered later) both crucial to Tagore.
For the versatility I’ve just mentioned, Tagore is occasionally compared to Goethe. I see him as being closer to another German, Josef Beuys, as someone who wants not only to address or to influence the world around him, but to rearrange and reorder it—creatively, radically, sometimes physically. As a consequence, Tagore was interested not only in literature but in book design, apparel, and the decorative and cultural aspects of our drawing rooms. Indeed, Buddhadeva Bose, writing about a visit to the Tagore household, mentions how subtly innovative and experimental (and finely judged) both the food and the decor were. Tagore’s urge to experiment was relentless; and we can’t really pretend that what he did within the covers of a book and what he did outside it emerge from two wholly divergent impulses. Beuys refuses to distinguish between the text and the world that is his immediate material and, in many ways, dissolves the frame around the artwork; Tagore, too, frequently refuses to make the same distinction. This volume’s songs, poems, stories, extracts from his novels, reflections on literature and politics and on his frequent and exhausting travels, and even instances of his sui generis humor shouldn’t be read as his “writings” alone, but seen in conjunction with Tagore’s larger interest—evident in almost all he did—in intervening in and reshaping his surroundings. His school, Santiniketan, served as a hothouse and a laboratory for this creative experiment. In important ways, Santiniketan—indeed, the many-pronged, all-embracing Tagorean project—was a precursor to Beuys’s vision of “total art” and “social sculpture,” and a successor to the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the art performance in which every form of art is incorporated. Yet Tagore’s impulse needs to be distinguished from Wagner’s messianic vision. Tagore was absorbed in the everyday, the domestic, and his modernist love of the momentary.
To recover Tagore today as a poet and writer must entail some sense of the Bengali language becoming a realm of literary possibility.
Naturally, my uncle had a view on Tagore’s metamorphic effect: “Let’s say you were to set a murder mystery in the early twentieth century, and the murder had been committed by someone who grew up before Tagore became famous. Let’s say a manuscript page was the single available clue. You’d catch the murderer just by looking at the handwriting, because Bengali handwriting changed forever after Tagore.” Moreover, “Words like Keatsian and Wordsworthian describe a literary style associated with that particular poet,” he pointed out, for he had read a great deal. “Only Rabindrik” —the Bengali adjective derived from Tagore’s first name — “encompasses an entire generation, an outlook, that came into being with the poet’s work.” For my uncle, this was a matter of intransigent pride. For the very original poets who followed Tagore in the Bengali language, the legacy was a mixed one. “It was impossible to write like Rabindranath, and it was impossible not to write like Rabindranath,” said Buddhadeva Bose. When, in fact, I quoted and cited the great post-Tagorean poets I particularly loved, like Jibanananda Das or Bose, to my uncle, he was completely immune to their music: “I’ve heard it all before. Don’t you see none of this would be possible without Rabindranath?” Thus my uncle, an idiosyncratic but sensitive reader, deliberately echoed a vulgar undertone of a particular form of Bengali romanticism—that Tagore was a historical pinnacle, after which everything was a kind of decline, and every writer a latecomer. This view precluded any further fruitful discussion between my uncle and myself, though that didn’t stop either of us.
There was another dimension to these conversations in London. My uncle knew, as I think I must have, that the dismantling of Tagore’s reputation as a serious poet had started early—soon after the Nobel Prize in 1913—and that, by the seventies, very little survived of that reputation in the West, or, for that matter, anywhere outside the cocoon of Bengal. The rise itself had been at once astonishing and suspect, impossible without the interconnectedness of the world from the nineteenth century onward, and points to the dangers and benefits of the sort of global fame we’ve now become familiar with. In my introduction to the Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, I’d said that Tagore was probably the world’s “first international literary celebrity”; an Indian reviewer, who must have immediately concluded I was celebrating the fact, said my claim was “risible.” An English poet who taught at Oxford said the dubious honor might belong to Byron. People have forgotten how startling Tagore’s incursion was into the various languages of the twentieth century. Martin Kaempchen points out that he was Germany’s first bestseller; Jiménez’s translations made him a cult in the Spanish-speaking world; this is not to invoke his renown in China, Japan, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. This fame was a product, largely, of Tagore’s English-language, Nobel Prize–winning Gitanjali; the English Gitanjali is perhaps one of the earliest examples of how capitalism fetishizes the book. To use the word celebrity, then (rather than terms like “high critical standing”), isn’t inappropriate, as Tagore’s presence was felt so predominantly outside the field of literature, as it still is—except in the forgotten sphere of Bengali literature. And to recover Tagore today as a poet and writer must entail some sense of the Bengali language becoming a realm of literary possibility.
Looking back today to the middle of the nineteenth century, we feel compelled to admit that something exceptional occurred with the emergence of Bengali as a literary language. Disturbingly, we still know very little of this moment, partly because an easeful way of looking at colonial history (according to which modernity comes from elsewhere, bringing with it certain genres and practices) has saved us from engaging too strenuously with the question of how and why things changed when they did. For instance, I don’t think we still have a proper genealogy of the word sahitya, which we’ve been using for more than a century to mean “literature” and “literary tradition” in the modern, secular sense, and not to mean, as it once did in the Indian languages, “literary content” or “literary meaning.” Tagore’s own etymological gloss on the word asks us to look at its root, sahit (“to be with”), thereby turning literature into a social, companionable thing. It is fairly certain, though, that sahitya, as we understand it, is not a timeless Indian verity (for that, we should perhaps look up the word kavya) but a contingent, humanist construct, just as “Indianness” and the modern Bengali language are. It is also certain that the emergence of Bengali encompassed more than nationalism. It became—in lieu of English—a respectable vehicle for cosmopolitan self-expression by the 1860s. It is the latter development that failed in Ireland and Wales with regard to Gaelic and Welsh, and nationalism alone (of which there was no shortage in Ireland) didn’t succeed in turning those languages into viable literatures or prevent them from becoming, essentially, curios. In Ireland, it is the English language that became the medium through which the modern formulated his or her ambivalence and self-division, so giving Irish literature and diction its shifting registers in English. Gaelic, largely associated with identity and nation, became, with a few striking exceptions, an unusable artifact. Something quite different and exceptional happened in Bengali colonial modernity. The Bengali language emerged from not only a conviction about identity but an intimation of distance, from not just the wellspring of race but disjunction and severance. These essentially cosmopolitan tensions always animate Tagore’s language.
I used the word “curio” deliberately, in order to recall Buddhadeva Bose’s unfair but revealing attack on Indian poets writing in English in the 1960s, in which he accused them of producing, by choosing not to write in the mother tongue, not poems but “curios.” In one sense, Bose is right. It is the English language that has risked becoming, over and over, a sort of Gaelic in India: not because, as Bose would have it, it was a foreign or colonial tongue, but because, like Gaelic, it bore too notionally the burden of identity and nationality. The relative and paradoxical freedom from this burden in the emergence of modern Bengali gave it its special air of play and potential. In other, fundamental ways, Bose was wrong. The poets he attacked had based their achievement on a cunning with which they had sabotaged and complicated the possibility of a pan-Indian tradition; they too were writing, in their way, in a vernacular. In fact, it was the long poem that Bose held up as the great exemplary Indian English poem, “Savitri” by Sri Aurobindo, that the shrewd Nissim Ezekiel pointed out as the actual curio for, presumably, its faux high cultural atmosphere of the Orient as well as its emulation of the English canon (it was composed in iambs). It should be pointed out that Tagore’s English translation of Gitanjali would be—for Indian poets writing in English like Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujan, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra—yet another Gaelic artifact to bypass or circumvent. In his brief memoir “Partial Recall,” Mehrotra quotes, with little indulgence toward his youthful self, from the ambitious and sonorous pastiche of that Gitanjali which he produced as a teenager.
The essence of literature does not allow itself to be trapped within a definition. It is like the essence of life: we know what it cannot exist without, but what it is we do not know.
The fact that literature—specifically English literature—was a university discipline first invented for the colonies is fairly well known today. In the 1880s, English literature became an object of study leading to a degree at the University of Calcutta, well before any such development had taken place elsewhere, let alone Oxford or Cambridge. But the incursion of English and European literary texts into Bengal had begun a century earlier. The study of literature cannot be seen simply as an instrument of imperialist pedagogy from 1820s onward (when it first surfaces as a taught discipline in Calcutta). By the early nineteenth century, Bengalis, especially when naming literary and cultural societies, were reflecting on what literature, or, in Bengali, sahitya, might be—great texts of all kinds, or a different way of approaching and valuing texts? A significant historical narrative is contained in the evolution of the word sahitya into its present-day meaning. What seems pretty sure is that it was not a word just lying around, ready to slip into its contemporary, secular role. Nor is it a simple translation of the word literature, though it means much the same thing from the middle of the nineteenth century onward. That is, it is neither a purely Indian (whatever that may be) or colonial term, but one that keeps abreast of these dichotomies until they start to waver. Tagore, in his first essay on the subject in 1889, defines it in negatives: “The essence of literature does not allow itself to be trapped within a definition. It is like the essence of life: we know what it cannot exist without, but what it is we do not know.” These are the words of a poet who has come into his own at a cusp in history. Perhaps the specificity of Tagore’s problem, and the duress of the historical moment he’s speaking in and of, would become clearer if the key word were left untranslated: “The essence of sahitya does not allow itself to be trapped,” and so on. But the translator, Sukanta Chaudhuri, doesn’t do so because he presumes Tagore has already leaped toward the sense in which that word operates today; and, in part, he’s right. By 1889, Tagore’s readers have definitely begun to recognize the literary, in spite of the strangeness of the sentences I have quoted. Yet one must keep in mind the strangeness of the time. Tagore’s complex and difficult position as a modern Indian, a colonial subject, an elite cosmopolitan, an inheritor and inventor of Eastern civilizational values, and a progeny of the Enlightenment allows him to partake of the exclusive secular ethos of literature but also to view it from the outside, as a process. You feel more than once as you gaze back on that crucial period that you are over-familiar with its outlines, and also that you are only on the verge of understanding it.
Tagore has been such a fountainhead of nationalist pride, such a static emblem ever since one can remember that we forget that he was clearly aware, as a writer, of living in a unique and transformative time. There is, in Tagore, a constant acknowledgment of the power of the past, and of the canonical riches of Indian tradition, and constant inquiry about the terms in which these are available to us. In this, he is different from either the Hindu reformers or the Indian nationalists, for whom tradition has an integrity and wholeness, and is a given to be improved upon or invoked in the services of politics and identity. For Tagore, tradition is at once contemporary and immediate, and inaccessible and disjunctive. As a result, contrary emotions permeate his great essay on the fourth-century Kalidasa’s poem on the rainy season, “Meghadutam” (“The Cloud-Messenger”):
“From Ramgiri to the Himalayas ran a long stretch of ancient India over which life used to flow to the slow, measured mandrakanta meter of the “Meghadutam”. We are banished from that India, not just during the rains but for all time. Gone is Dasharna with its groves hedged with ketaki plants where, before the onset of the rains, the birds among the roadside trees fed on household scraps and busily built their nests, while in the jaam copse on the outskirts of the village, the fruit ripened to a color dark as the clouds.”
The intimation of contemporaneity here is astonishingly suburban; it has to do with nature, yes, but nature viewed from the point of view of the town and the ebb and flow of domesticity: the “household scraps” the birds feed on, the ripening jaam that will be collected and brought home to the family. Kalidasa is not a naïve poet; he is a court sophisticate, an urban sensibility, already viewing the natural at one remove. The loss experienced here, then—“We are banished from that India, not just during the rains but for all time”—is a double, even a multiple, one. From which India, exactly, are we banished? This paradox—to do with immediacy, recognizability, and absolute inaccessibility—is also the subject of Tagore’s own poem, “Meghdut.” which records the experience of rereading Kalidasa’s eponymous poem. Tagore’s poem, filled with images of human activity and habitation, describes how the reader comes to inhabit Kalidasa’s world as he reads and becomes an exile from it once the poem is over.
Tagore’s fascination and absorption in heritage could have made him an elegist, or a poet who turned from the physical life of the present to contemplate the ruins of the past. This trajectory was, to a certain extent, T. S. Eliot’s. But, oddly, this is not the case. Tagore’s way of suggesting that he lives in a unique moment in history is to embrace change as a fundamental constituent of existence—indeed, as a crucial constituent of diction, imagination, and craft. “In order to find you anew, I lose you every moment / O beloved treasure.” In this line from a song and others like it, Tagore embraces accident. He weds contingency to the modernist’s love of the moment, the here and now. The latter—as in the Joycean epiphany—heightens the quotidian: Tagore’s welcoming of contingency introduces an element of risk to the epiphany and the image. He introduces the possibility of any imaginable consequence, including an intuition of the divine. Tagore’s apotheosis of his historical moment, his here and now, is not a surreptitious celebration of the colonial history into which he was born, but a recognition of the fact that no historical period can be contained within its canonical definition. Accident and chance ensure that its outcomes are unpredictable and life-transforming.
Tagore writes as if he knows that the self’s infinity or endlessness should be a natural consequence of divine play, while also knowing very well there is absolutely no logical reason for the one to lead to the other.
This embrace of life, of chance, of play, makes Tagore stand out in the intellectual and moral ethos of late romanticism and modernism—an ethos with which Tagore shares several obsessions (time, memory, the moment, the nature of reality, poetic form), but whose metaphysics he constantly refutes. By metaphysics I mean a system whereby value and meaning have their source elsewhere, somewhere beyond the experienced world—whether it is European civilization, antiquity, the Celtic twilight, or some other lost world. The present, severed from its organic resources in that past, becomes degraded and splintered, and yet continues to be haunted, even burnished, by what it has lost. I think Tagore is deeply interested in this metaphysics in the context of Bengal, and it runs through his songs, with their momentary scenes, encounters, and revelations, where any hint of transcendence is qualified by the temporal and the fragmentary. This metaphysics is partly invoked as incantation in the refrain from the poem “Balaka,” or “The Wild Geese”: “Hethha noi, hethha noi, onno konokhane!” (“Not here, not here—elsewhere!”) But there is also—in the same oeuvre, often in the very same songs and poems—the Tagore of whom I have become more and more aware, the near-contemporary of Nietzsche’s, who, like the latter, makes a break with that “elsewhere” and constructs a sustained argument against it in song, and in the terms that life and desire give him: “I’ve become infinite: / such is the consequence of your play. / Pouring me out, you fill me / with new life once again.” This, in many ways, is an astonishing and audacious assertion, all the more striking for being entirely self-aware about its audacity (this is a tonal characteristic Tagore shares with Nietzsche). The oeuvre is full of such assertions, running counter to both romanticism’s backward glance and his own “Not here, not here” refrain. It marks him out, like D. H. Lawrence, as a writer embodying a radical historical break. The lines I have tried to reproduce in English are among the most difficult to translate from the work of this largely untranslatable poet. They (in Tagore’s own English) are also among his most famous, being the opening lines of the first song in the English Gitanjali. In Tagore’s English prose-poem version: “Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.” All sorts of echoes adorn the next two lines in Tagore’s English—“This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again …” and “This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales”—placing the song now in the context of a psalmlike, New Testament sweetness (“this frail vessel”) and now in an English arcadia (“little flute of a reed…hills and dales”). The words are removed, in effect, from the radical moment they inhabit in the Bengali. The original—“Amare tumi ashesh korechho / emoni leela taba”—is remarkable, as I’ve said, on many levels. The word leela can be translated as divine play: Hindu philosophy sees divine play as childlike and solipsistic, and the creation and destruction of the universe, and of man, among its various corollaries. Tagore translates the word as “pleasure,” to denote the primacy of delight and desire, rather than moral design, in divine creation. Among the unintended, almost inadvertent, results of that play, the song has it, is man’s immortality, or “infinity” (my word), or “endlessness” (Tagore’s). And so the centrality of the human is bestowed upon her or him by divinity, certainly, but not by design or according to a legible purpose. In this way, Tagore introduces the notion of chance and coincidence into the story of man’s emergence, and removes the human narrative from its familiar logical movement (an ascent or a decline) from the past to the present, from tradition to modernity.
Radical claims abound in the songs and poems. Also in the Gitanjali is the song beginning (in my translation): “To the festival of creation I have had an invitation: / Blessed, blessed is human life!” In Tagore’s English prose-poem, though, the song’s declaration is more modest: “I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed.” This is almost Christian, a muttering of grace. The Bengali is far more unsettling: it has “human life” (manab jiban) instead of the prayerful “my life.” It is more triumphal. Again, alongside the celebration of the occurrence of life and consciousness is the deliberate celebration of contingency. An invitation is always a bonus and a gift; you can’t really expect it or plan for it or demand it. And, once more, the two lines, with their narrative of cause and effect, are structured at once to invoke logic and to mock it. In the earlier song, Tagore writes as if he knows that the self’s infinity or endlessness should be a natural consequence of divine play, while also knowing very well there is absolutely no logical reason for the one to lead to the other. In the second song, the progression, from discovering the invitation to the festival of existence to the assertion that human life is “blessed” (dhanya), is presented seamlessly, although we know there is actually no good reason why the second should follow from the first. (In the English version, which adds a “thus” that is absent in the Bengali, the progression in the first line is far more acceptable.) But why should divine play lead to the speaker’s belief in his own infinitude? Why should his being invited to earthly existence be a cause of joy for all human life? There’s a logical structure to the way these statements develop, but it is a structure that conceals a deep arbitrariness. The second song strongly implies, in its movement from the first line to the second in Bengali, a “thus” or “therefore” or “tai,” without being able to quite justify or explain that powerful implication. The English translation, by adding a “thus” and substituting “human life” with “my life,” simply dispenses with that mysterious tension and diminishes the audacity of the opening. We, as listeners of the Bengali song, are moved and unsettled, but we ask, in the end, for no justification: it is almost as if we know that, in Tagore’s world, anything is possible.
Much of Tagore’s work, then, is preoccupied with—indeed, mesmerized by—coincidence and possibility. It is a preoccupation that seems to go against the closure and yearning of “Not here, not here, elsewhere,” because one can never predict when or where that moment of possibility will occur. One of the songs I have translated for this volume, “The sky full of the sun and stars, the world full of life, / in the midst of this, I find myself— / so, surprised, my song awakens,” is, again, a paean to coincidence. It is also a refutation of metaphysics, of a higher purpose (whatever that might be), according to whose design existence or consciousness might find its proper meaning and arrangement. I have translated Tagore’s word bismaye as “surprised,” though it could plausibly be rendered as “in wonder.” The role of the naïve or nature poet, or even a certain kind of romantic, is to wonder at the real, at the universe, but the speaker in the song is not just transfixed by the beauty of the universe but by the happenstance that’s brought him to it: “in the midst of this, I find myself.” This is what gives to the poet-mystic’s bismay (his sense of wonder) the element of the unexpected, of surprise—the surprise of the time-traveler (expressed in the poem “Meghdut”) moving between worlds and phases of history. Tagore’s peculiar lyric voice, with its curiously urgent apotheosis of the world, its constant note of arrival, can be partly understood through the trope of science fiction (one of whose recurrent themes is the sudden advent into new universes), or through the notion of rebirth and return, or both. This is an odd but powerful, and revealing, characteristic in the foremost artist to have emerged from a background of Brahmo reformism and the Bengali Enlightenment.
Tagore’s recurrent metaphors of time travel, return, and arrival, and the fact that the great protagonist of his songs and poems is a figure determinedly committed to journeying toward life and birth, were picked up by two great Bengali artists who came after him: the poet Jibanananda Das and the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Das (1899-1954), who, after his untimely death in an accident with a tram, has come to be seen as the outstanding Bengali poet after Tagore, and whose personality—solitary, disturbed—is the antithesis of the older poet’s, sensed that Tagore was the principal writer of his time of the will to, and desire for, life. Without remarking upon this in so many words, he took on this mantle himself, but expressed himself far more equivocally, if no less forcefully. Das’s time traveler, in his poem “Banalata Sen,” moves through epochs and civilizations, arriving at last in a modern drawing room in Bengal, in a journey during which both mythic and ordinary place-names are made strange:
For thousands of years I roamed the paths of this earth,
From waters round Ceylon in dead of night to Malayan seas.
Much have I wandered. I was there in the gray world of Asoka
And Bimbisara, pressed on through darkness to the city of
I am a weary heart surrounded by life’s frothy ocean.
To me she gave a moment’s peace—Banalata Sen from Natore.
(trans. Clinton B. Seely)
The irrepressible Tagorean energy, the irresistible will to arrive—“in the midst of this, I find myself— / so, surprised, my song awakens”—has faded here but not vanished. Das gets his habit of repeating ancient place names from Tagore as one of the ways in which the traveler orders his journey while commemorating past arrivals; here is Tagore in his eponymous essay on Kalidasa’s poem, “The Meghadutam”: “Avanti, Vidisha, Ujjayini, Vindhya, Kailas, Devagiri, the Reva, the Shipra, the Vetravati.” But Das’s speaker experiences a fatigue that the radical Tagorean protagonist didn’t know. Das’s hero, or antihero, must press on, despite his “weary heart”: he has inherited, perplexingly, the same life-urge. Das too is a great poet of the will to live—precisely because his view of it is darker, and far more qualified. His protagonist desires to be born despite being conscious that birth is not an unmixed blessing. This is Das’s troubling modulation upon the Tagorean idea of the “invitation” to earthly existence, as a result of which “human life” is “blessed”:
Drawn to the Earth’s ground, to the house of human birth
I have come, and I feel, better not to have been born—
yet having come all this I see as a deeper gain
when I touch a body of dew in an incandescent dawn.
(“Suchetana,” trans. Joe Winter)
In the first two lines of this famous stanza, Das has a familiar Sophoclean moment; but, in the third and fourth lines, he’s come round to the Tagorean belief that arrival and return create their own article of faith; the body becomes an incarnation of the will (“I touch a body of dew”); in Tagore’s words, “I’ve pressed upon each blade of grass on my way to the forest.” Again and again, Das will be of two minds about this matter, about withdrawing from the cycle of life or, taking his cue from his great precursor, returning to it:
When once I leave this body
Shall I come back to the world?
If only I might return
On a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.
(“Tangerine,” trans. Clinton B. Seely)
For Tagore, withdrawal was out of the question. “In the midst of this, I find myself,” he’d said in the song. In the poem “Liberation” (“Mukti”), he put it elegantly but with directness: “Liberation through enunciation—that’s not for me”; and, later, “To shut / in penance, the senses’ doorway—that’s not for me.” We can connect this to the Buddhist thought that deeply attracted Tagore; but if we place it in the context of his oeuvre, of the modernity he lived in, and the modernism he was always ambivalent about, we must put him in the lineage of Nietzsche, Whitman, Lawrence, and others who made a similar rebuttal of negation. Actually, looking again at the poem “Balaka” (“The Wild Geese”), in which the admonitory refrain “Not here, not here, elsewhere” occurs, I find it lit not so much by a desire for “elsewhere” (the foundational desire of metaphysics) but, again, by the subversive urge for life itself. The poet is standing after sunset before a landscape of hills and deodar trees, near the river Jhelum, when, unexpectedly, the sudden transit of a flock of geese flying transmogrifies the observer and his vision of nature. The Tagorean landscape is often orchestral, participatory, musical, synchronic, but not Wordsworthian, with the “still, sad music of humanity”; it is alive, but not in an anthropomorphic sense. In another, early poem, “Jete nahi dibo” (“I Won’t Let You Go!”), all of nature, as the speaker departs from home and family on a long absence involving work, echoes his daughter’s final words to him in an actively participatory way, in what can only be called an orchestral threnody:
What immense sadness has engulfed
The entire sky and the whole world!
The farther I go the more clearly I hear
Those poignant words, “Won’t let you go!”
From world’s end to the blue dome of the sky
Echoes the eternal cry: “Won’t let you go!”
Everything cries, “I won’t let you go!”
Mother Earth too cries out to the tiny grass
It hugs on its bosom, “I won’t let you go!”
(trans. Fakrul Alam)
This is not anthropomorphism; it is the landscape agitated by the life urge, and making a vocal, direct intervention. In “The Wild Geese,” Tagore revisits and revises his vision:
It seemed that those wings
Bore away tidings
Of stillness thrilled in its innermost being
By the intensity of motion …
… The grass fluttering its wings
On the earth that is its air—
Underneath the darkness of the soil
Millions of seeds sprouting wings
I see today
(trans. Fakrul Alam)
From Tagore, the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) got his sense of the landscape being not just a serene, indifferent, permanent background to human endeavor, as in the Brueghel painting of Icarus’s fall described wryly by W. H. Auden in his “Musée des Beaux Arts,” but as a multivocal, orchestral entity actively involved in the desire for existence. So, at different points of time in Ghatak’s films, the landscape appears to move and listen; it is aware of the protagonist, just as the protagonist is partly conscious of it being conscious of him. Ghatak’s great modulation upon “The Wild Geese” and its cry—as well as the cry “I won’t let you go”—occurs toward the end of “Meghe Dhaka Tara” (The Cloud-Covered Star), his most fraught and painful film. Nita, once the breadwinner of a family of East Bengali refugees displaced by migration, is now terminally ill with tuberculosis. She has been transferred by her brother, Shankar, from their house in Calcutta to a sanatorium in the hill-station, Shillong. Anil, now a successful singer, comes to visit her; the two figures are surrounded by an astonishing panorama. As she listens to him talk about their younger sister’s mischievous child, Nita bursts out without warning, “Dada, I did want to live!” Crushed, attempting to placate and silence her, Anil responds with “Idiot!” (Indeed, there is something comic, even imbecilic, about the life-urge and its insistent simplicity; which is why we, on occasion, shake our heads in consternation at Tagore and Whitman and Lawrence and Ghatak—all very different kinds of artists, admittedly.) In a series of rapid frames, we witness the landscape congregating from various angles and echoing her words, “I so love life, dada! I will live!” This is the primordial Tagorean “message” (“I felt the message of those beating wings”) of a near-heretical faith; ironicized by Ghatak, seen unflinchingly for its heresy, but not made meaningless. This faith contains an acknowledgment of death and “elsewhere,” but also an answer and a refutation.
Tagore’s work is less about universals, absolutes, and unities (though it is also about these) than about the role of chance governing the shape of the universe and of the work itself, taking the form of a sustained meditation.
Death and life share the quality of being contingent, accidental: We don’t know when and how they will happen, or even, really, why they do. (This would have been pretty clear to Tagore, who lost his muse and sister-in-law Kadambari Devi when he was twenty-two—she had died by her own hand—and then, over the years, his wife and two of his children.) Tagore’s work is less about universals, absolutes, and unities (though it is also about these) than about the role of chance governing the shape of the universe and of the work itself, taking the form of a sustained meditation: “In order to find you anew, I lose you every moment / O beloved treasure.” Contingency preoccupied him all his life. In 1930, when he had a couple of meetings with Albert Einstein, he opened the dialogue enthusiastically with, “I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.” Einstein replies with a dampener: “The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say goodbye to causality.” This famous, over-publicized conversation can be read in a number of ways. Einstein clearly sees Tagore as a “poet” in the “high” cultural western sense, but still more as an eastern sage, and is dry and cautious as a result. He—not Tagore—keeps bringing up the word religion in a mildly defensive, mildly accusatory manner. Einstein, responsible for a shatteringly disorienting theory that would forever change philosophy and the humanities, not to speak of the sciences, forecloses, in response to Tagore, that strand of insight, and becomes a conventional scientist-empiricist: for “that,” he says, “is my religion.” Tagore, in the course of the two slightly anxious, circular conversations, appears in various fluid incarnations: as a romantic poet, talking about beauty and truth; as a transcendentalist; a believer in the absolute; a propagandist for universal man. We have dealt with him in these guises in the last one hundred years of discussions about Tagore; no doubt we will again, 150 years after his birth. But Tagore’s secret concern with life, play, and contingency keeps resurfacing in his part of the dialogue; he might well have believed that this powerful undercurrent would provide common ground with the German. Einstein, though, pushes the interaction toward a more conservative dichotomy: that of the romantic, the man of religion, or the metaphysician with his purely subjective response to the universe, on the one hand, and the scientist with his empirical and objective vantage point, on the other.
For me, there are two great lineages in poetry from the upheavals of the nineteenth century onward: the metaphysical, or the poetry of the beautiful (sometimes anguished) fragment made radiant by the light of the vanished old world and of bygone value; and the polemical, sounding the note of constant, occasionally arbitrary, arrival and return, disrupting not just linearity, as the former does, but causality. I think Tagore belongs deeply, if only partially, to the first category, and I have written before of his songs in this light. But, increasingly, I believe his great power derives from being essentially in the second camp, from denying, like Whitman and Lawrence, that there is any need to apologize for life and its accidental provenance. One characteristic of the writers in the first camp is how they practice their art and their criticism in distinct domains, and, in a sense, detach themselves from the “meaning” of their artistic work, like Joyce’s fingernail-paring author-god, or James’s evolving “figure in the carpet,” upon which the narrator will deliberately not elaborate. The polemicists, on the other hand, not only immerse themselves in the thrust of their work with every fiber of their being—“a man in his wholeness wholly attending,” as Lawrence said of poetry—but in every sphere of activity they undertake, as Tagore did. This is why they seem open to deciphering and are more vulnerable to misunderstanding.
I had begun by mentioning my adolescent impatience with Tagore and my enthusiasm for Dan Pagis’s poem about the Holocaust. I still admire that poem—in fact, more than I did when I was seventeen—for its craft, tragic exactness, and its shrinking shape informed by Adorno’s stark dictum that poetry is no longer tenable after Auschwitz. Adorno’s admonition, however, has a history older than the horrors of the twentieth century: it comes from a metaphysical belief that, on many levels, life (and, as a result, its chief expression, language) is too fragile to wholly justify itself. Tagore is still the great poet in our age of life’s inherent and inexhaustible justification—this is what he is actually conveying to Einstein—but his argument is plainest in the songs and poems. Accustomed as we are to the luminosity of elsewhere, to the backward glance, to action and outcome with a cause, and less accustomed to the joy of unforeseen arrival (which, after all, rapidly wanes into alienation), encountering Tagore has to be an unsettling experience—but one through which we also come to recognize our deepest unspoken urges and beliefs incarnated in the most surprising and incomparable language.
**Amit Chaudhuri** is the author of five award-winning novels, the latest of which is The Immortals, a New Yorker, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and Irish Times Book of the Year. He is an acclaimed critic and essayist, a judge of the Man Booker International Prize 2009, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia. He is also a musician and composer of standing, and his latest CD is Found Music.
Excerpt is electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty. Copyright ©2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
Photograph courtesy Rabindra Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan (India)
“Childhood Reasons”: The new translation of Tagore’s childhood memoir tells us much about the man who would later reshape Bengali literature and music (and chastise Mahatma Gandhi), says Nobel Prize–winner Amartya Sen.
“The In-Between Woman”: It is nowhere near impossible for somebody who loves her husband to also love her co-wife.
“I Won’t Let You Go”: It’s the oldest cry resounding from earth to heaven / The solemnest lament, “I won’t let you go!”