The Genius of Rabindranath Tagore
In stature, stride and sweep Rabindranath Tagore is an all-round creative genius the likes of which is seldom encountered in the contemporary world of literature, aesthetics, philosophy and social statement.
Over time, he evolved into a multi-faceted creative genius deeply rooted in the soil of his land. He drew deeply from the native and grand mysticism of the Upanishads, Kalidasa and the emotional music of the Vaishnava poets. Yet, he also drew generously from English poetry to Bengali nursery rhyme, from the most elaborate classical symphony to the simplest folk tune.
He internalized all this and then created his own genre of poetry, prose, fiction, drama, song and music. The many facets of his personality were complementary and contradictory at the same time. These come through his perceptions and attitudes towards women, their problems and their resolutions through the female characters that mark his writings.
One interesting contradiction is that Tagore paid dowry for the marriages of all his three daughters Madhurilata, Renuka and Atashilata and got them married much before they had reached adolescence. He did not give his children formal education in schools but educated them at home through teachers who taught them basic subjects like Sanskrit, English and Bengali other than crafts with stress on Sanskrit.
He married his wife Mrinalini when she was nine years and nine months old and he was around 12 years older than she was. She passed away in 1902 and Tagore perhaps tried to cope with her loss with a bunch of poems in her memory together titled Smaran (Memoriam).
In 1876, at the age of fourteen, Tagore for the first time experienced the finality of death when his mother died. He lost his close friend and collaborator Kadambari, married to his brother Jyotindranath Tagore soon after he got married to Mrinalini. Kadambari committed suicide and it took Tagore a long time to move on after the shock of her death.
She was just two years older than him. Since Kadambari Devi’s death, between 1902 and 1907, Tagore had to face multiple deaths of his closest ones – Mrinalini Devi, daughter Renuka, father Debendranath Tagore, the youngest son, Samindranath, and then Bela or Madhurilata in 1918.
After Madhurilata passed away on 13th May, 1918, Tagore wrote another bunch of poems called Palataka (1918) which begins with his personal grief over losing his daughter and also a son Samindranath, to cholera and daughter Renuka who died after chronic ailments.
Grief placed milestones in the journey of Tagore’s life. Madhurilata did not bear any children and Renuka was too small and ill to conceive apart from the fact that she hardly spent any time with her husband.
Sanjukta Dasgupta, former Professor and former Head, Dept. of English and former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University is a poet, critic and translator,has lectured, taught and read her poems and short stories in India, Europe, USA and Australia.
Her published books include Tagore: At Home in the World (coeditor, SAGE 2013), Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films (co-author, Orient Blackswan, 2013), Swades Tagore’s Patriotic Songs (translation, Visva Bharati Publication Division, 2013), Towards Tagore A collection of Essays (Edited with introduction - Visva Bharati Publications, 2014), and many others. Dasgupta's translation of the lyrics included in the Swadesh category of the Geetbitan had already established her fondness for Tagore.
Dasgupta is lucid in translating even the innermost feelings of grief, emptiness and emotional inner pain felt by Tagore. She points out that Tagore’s philosophical perspective on Death is not riddled with any confusion about the ‘transference’ of “texts from one culture to another” because Death is universal.
It is a physical reality but it is also a state of mind that lives on in the life thought and philosophy of the one the dying leaves behind to grieve over, to miss and never ever to reunite with, either in real terms or in philosophical terms or both.
Smaran (Memoriam) comprised of 27 poems and published the same year Mrinalini passed away, is filled with Tagore’s pain on losing a wife after 19 years and five children who, he probably did not pay much attention to when she was alive. Each small poem spells out how much he misses her and feels both her presence and absence around him, around the home, around the nooks and corners of familiar places in the home. This stands in complete contrast to his very optimistic and philosophical feelings on and around Death when it applied to him or, to a larger universe where, in his poetry, he considered Life and Death as lying along the same continuum of human existence.
Moronore Tuhu Momo Shyamo shomaan is one of his creations turned into song. It means, “Oh Death, to Me, You are equal to my Shyam (Krishna).”
Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, believed that no one had thought more deeply on death than Rabindranath Tagore and printed his quotations at the head of each chapter of her book. In the song “Achhe Dukkho Achhe Mrityu,” (Pain Exists, Death Exists), Tagore reminds us that death and sorrow are an essential part of life. Even when clouds of sorrow hang over us amidst death, there is still peace, completeness and joy in this world. Death can never steal the beauty and the natural flow and rhythm of human life.
Since death is inevitable, Tagore treats death as a guest, letting him into his home with folded hands. But in the poems in Smaran, his deep sense of loss, of vacillating between remembrances and nothingness, comes across where he misses his wife every minute such as in poem 23:
Please, please do light the evening lamp –
In the corner of the heart just this little ray of light
Keep it aflame with your own hands. Behind it
Do sit there as evening falls
Plait your hair with care and dress in a blood-red garment
To capture my wayward from the mesh of life
I have realized all work, fame and ceremonies
Are just dreary burden, they are all false
Unless behind the piles of endeavour
That one smile is absent-from all sides
All boasts all ventures in the light of the evening
Returning to the one abode if there can be
No surrender of my tired head held low
On the feet of the one and only love.
In her 15-page erudite Introduction, Sanjukta Dasgupta states:
Many of the poems in Palataka are in remarkable contrast to the poems in Smaran which are overwhelmingly about lament, often dirge like, replete with sadness and an agonising sense of reaching out towards the one who had been taken for granted while being an integral part of the domestic space. In a letter to her father Madhurilata perhaps points out unambiguously how the children missed their peripatetic father and longed for his company.
Gitanjali (1912) was regarded as ‘a miracle of translation’ and fetched Tagore the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 translated by Tagore himself, making him overnight the literary ‘superstar’ of the time. But when he began to discuss his own translations, there was no such discipline either in the East or in the West known as Translation Studies.
According to Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies explores “the process whereby texts are transferred from one culture to another” (Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. London:Routledge. 1980,1991 print) and Lefevere (Lefevere, Andre. ‘Translation Studies Today’, in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English. ed. by Olive Classe. 2000 print) goes one step further to define translation as ‘a process of negotiation between cultures’ (Classe, O. ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English.London, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. 2000 print).
Palataka has 15 long poems that throw up completely subjective interpretations understood by different people at different times in different ways, reflecting on the universalisation of culture. They spill over with pain, like the rushing waves of the sea flooding through the open window of an empty classroom, wetting the feet of the unsuspecting children, telling stories about little girls being married off to men five times older, or, a father bringing home his new bride only to find that his daughter has flown with the young man she had fallen in love with.
The last one reads beautifully:
The Final Foundation (Pratistha)
I hear these words all the time –
He has “gone away, gone away”
Yet let me say
Don’t ever say “he is not there”
That’s a lie, so
It can’t be withstood
It hurts the very soul.
For all human beings
Departures and arrivals divide all
So these words
Convey just half a hope
I want to blend my soul
In that sea
Where being and not-being
Existing as equals.
“The question of loss and gain in translation is one of the fundamental issues in translation studies.” (Subhash Chandra Dasgupta: Rabindranath Tagore and Translation Studies, Translation Journal,, October 2018).
Unlike many Tagore translations which are more scattered and therefore, can confuse the reader with multiple readings, ambivalence and understandings, Dasgupta is extremely focussed on just one single concept. And that is the impact of Death on Tagore and his personal impressions on this through these poems. One laments the untimely demise of his wife Mrinalini, and the other, though dedicated to the memory of Madhurilata, whose death remained a deep shock for him throughout his life, widens this to encompass his lament for other young girls like Manorama, Biju, Nandarani. And many other young girls whose lives were destroyed systematically simply because they were born female in a predominantly patriarchal society of which, as he confesses through these poems, he was also a part.
Palataka in some strange way, offers a glimpse into the deeply feminist perspective Tagore evolved within himself over time.
This book has a beautiful cover which is a reproduction of Tagore’s own artistic work.
In Memoriam: Smaran and Palataka by Rabindranath Tagore, (Translated by Sanjukta Dasgupta),
Sahitya Akademi, 2020, Price: Rs 120.