Tagore’s literary life extended over sixty years, and he reminds one of Victor Hugo in the copiousness and variety of his work: over one thousand poems; nearly two dozen plays and play-lets; eight novels; eight or more volumes of short stories; more than two thousands songs, of which he wrote both the words and the music; and a mass of prose on literary, social, religious, political, and other topics. Add to these his English translations; his paintings; his travels and lecture-tours in Asia, America, and Europe; and his activities as educationist, as social and religious reformer, and as politician- and there you have, judged by quantity alone, the life-work of a Titan. This is not to say that his genius was no more than the capacity for taking infinite pains; but to note the element of steel and concrete that went to his making, and thus to dispose of the legend, that has grown in some quarters in recent years, of Tagore the pale-lily poet of ladies’ table.
Not that the legend is entirely baseless. Tagore’s almost continuous iteration, in his English translations, of the softer side of his poetry and his wistful-mystical message, is partly responsible for it. After having won world-fame with the mystical-devotional poetry of the English Gitanjali, he dug overmuch along that particular seam, producing a monotonously one-sided impression of his work. It is true that The Gardener and the subsequent volumes of translations gave some of his best lyrics, but they also gave many poems which were very thin and had nothing beyond a delicate fancy or a pretty sensibility to show for their author.The Tagores were a cultured and wealthy family, and Rabindranath’s father, Devendranath, was one of the leaders of the Brahma Samaj,. The poet’s early life was spent in an atmosphere of religion and arts, principally literature, music and painting. In religion his inspiration was derived from the Vedas and the Upanishads, but with him as with many Hindus the Upanisadic monism was diversified by the Vaisnava dualism. In music Tagore’s training was classical Indian, though as a composer he rebelled against the tyranny of classical orthodoxy, and introduced many variations of form and phrase, notably from Bengali folk-music of the Baul and Bhatiyali type. he had some training in European music during his first visit to England, and some of his early songs were composed to the tunes of the Border Ballads and Moore’s Irish Melodies. In later life he made some experiments on harmonaization in the European manner. As a writer the course of his life was early set. He was brought up on three languages- Sanskrit, Bengali and English- and the most formitive influences were those of the Sanskrit classics, the Vaisnava poets of Bengal, and the English romantics and post-romantics, most notably Shelley.
In 1901 he founded his school, the Santiniketan, at Bolpur as a protest against the existing bad system of education. The school was a great success and gave birth to Viswabharati. On revisiting England in 1911 he brought with him the English Gitanjali, and it’s publication in 1912 and the award of the Nobel Prize for literature the following year made him world-famous. This was the first award of that prize to an Asiatic. The rest of Tagore’s life was spent at Santiniketan, except for several travels and lecture-tours in which he carried his message of human unity to all the important countries of Asia, America and Europe.
As a novelist Tagore gave good pictures of upper middle-class life in Bengal in Naukadubi, Chokher-Bali, and later, in Gora and Ghare Baire. The last two , perhaps the best novels written by an Indian, are interesting studies of the impact of Western ideas on Indian life. His plays represent a large variety of types: social comedies in prose, such as Chirakumar Sabha, Goray Galad and Vaikunther Katha; symbolical plays in prose, such as Raja, Phalguni and Rakta Karabi; and short romantic playlets such as Malini, Chandalika, and Natir Puja. The Post Office is generally regarded as a symbolical play, but is more aptly described as a fable. All these plays have songs, but Tagore wrote several plays, such as Valmiki-Pratibha and Mayar Khela, in which music predominates as in the European opera. Mention should also be made of the dramatic dialogues in verse, such as Karna o Kunti and Viday-abhishap.
In My Reminiscences (Jivan-smriti) Tagore has recorded the inner history of his early poetry. It is the history of his emergence from the unreal and self centered world of adolescence into the adult and super-personal world of man and nature. The emergence found expression in many early works: in the poem “Awakening of the Fountain” where the poet’s soul was likened to a fountain imprisoned in a dark cave until one day the morning sun pierced the cave with its rays and set the fountain free. His gift of lyricism and song was fully in evidence in Kari o Kamal and Manishi and attained ripeness in Chitra. The Ode to Urbasi which appeared in Chitra is the highest watermark of his aestheticism. Mysticism first appeared on a considerable scale in Sonar tari, and Tagore’s philosophical and devotional-mystical poetry attained maturity in Naivedya, Kheya and Gitanjali. His stories in verse in Katha o kahini, Palataka, Punascha and other volumes and his epigrams in Kanika and in Lekhan. In addition he wrote many patriotic poems and songs and many poems having a social and political contents. His best reflective poems are to be found in Balaka and some of his later books. He is happiest in the bondage of rhyme, but has also written some beautiful blank verse and free verse.
There never was a poet more of the earth, more earthy, than Tagore. The beauty and splendour of the earth he has proudly and lovingly sung in many a poem. But he also loves the earth, perhaps all the more, for her poverty and imperfection. ‘Infinite wealth is not yours, my patient and dusky mother dust…. I have seen your tender face and i love your mournful dust, Mother earth.’ In some poems he suggests that his love of the earth is older than his life.
Courtesy Arghya Chatterjee