Six years back India and Bangladesh jointly observed the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore with respect, love and gratitude. The two countries had joint state-level birthday celebrations for the greatest poet of the Bangla language.
Rabindranath had expected his readers to read his poetry a century later: “Aji hotey shotobarsha porey …” His readers haven’t disappointed him. They remembered him for one and a half centuries with great love and respect. We expect them to read him in the coming centuries too. One hundred and fifty six years after his birth, he remains the most influential writer of his language.
Rabindranath Thakur to Bangla is what William Shakespeare is to English. As stated earlier he is the best poet of the Bangla language. Add to it the fact that he is the best writer of Bangla short stories. In fact, as a storyteller, he is second to none. Only Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant can be bracketed with him. His brilliantly lucid, lyrical prose and his grasp of human psychology are unique. It is said that he dealt with every human emotion in his stories and his songs. Tagore is the best lyricist of his language and one of its best composers. His songs and his short stories will keep him immortal for at least a few more centuries.
Rabindranath Thakur will be remembered not only in Bangladesh and India on his 156th birth anniversary but in Europe, the USA and Latin America as well. He belonged to the world when he lived and belongs to the world even now
What about his novels? They are also some of the very best in Bangla. He wrote lovely plays. The allegorical Raktakorobi is simply brilliant. He was also a painter of note. Like Shakespeare, he also acted in his plays. He was a creative man almost all his life – from his 16th to his 80th year. He composed rhymes even as a child. The first rhyme was written at the age of eight. To use a cricketing term, he is the greatest all-rounder among Bengali writers. He was the first non-European to get the Nobel Prize in literature. The year was 1913 and he was only fifty two.
Rabindranath has no equal from many angles. Take the case of the national anthems of South Asia’s three important countries – India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India and Bangladesh proudly selected his songs as their anthems immediately after becoming independent. In April 2011 we learned that Sri Lanka’s national anthem was also penned by Tagore. ‘Apa Sri Lanka, Nama Nama Nama Nama Mata, Sundar Sri Boroni’ was originally ‘Nama Nama Sri Lanka Mata’ in Bangla, written and set to tune by Rabindranath. He did so at the request of his favourite Sri Lankan student at Shantiniketan, Ananda Samarkun, in 1938. In 1940 Ananda returned to his native land and in 1946 he translated the song into Sinhalese and recorded it in Tagore’s tune. Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. A couple of years later The National Anthem Committee was formed and they chose Ananda’s song, after a lot of discussion, on November 22, 1951. No other poet has written the national anthem of two countries, let alone three. Rabindranath is also the best literary genius of not only Bengal but the whole of South Asia. Or perhaps the whole of Asia. Yasunari Kawabata, Asia’s other Nobel Prize winner in literature (1968), admired Tagore and was influenced by him.
The largest anthology of Tagore’s works available in English is The Essential Tagore, edited by Professor Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarthy, and published by The Harvard University Press and The Vishwa-Bharati University jointly in 2011. It marked the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth
It can be claimed that Rabindranath reshaped Bangla literature and music. He modernised Bangla art by refusing to follow rigid classical forms. The Nobel Prize Committee as well as most westerners found his poetry deeply sensitive, fresh and beautiful. They considered his verse spiritual, found his personality mesmerising and gave him a prophet-like status. His countrymen found his poetry magical and his prose elegant. They admired him when he denounced the British Raj and supported Indian independence. He was knighted in 1915 but he renounced his title in 1919 after the British army’s killing of innocent civilians in Jalianwalabag.
Rabindranath Thakur was the youngest of thirteen surviving children of his parents and was born in the Jorasanko mansion in Kolkata. His father Debendranath Thakur (1817-1905) was the son of Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. His mother was Sarada Devi (1830-1875). He was raised mainly by servants since his mother died early and his father travelled a lot. He remembered his mother very touchingly in his early poems. He didn’t have much of schooling and studied literature, biographies, history, modern science and Sanskrit at home. He very seriously read the poetry of Kalidasa. At seventeen he went to England and attended the public school at Brighton, East Sussex. He wanted to become a Barrister but returned home without a degree.
He married Mrinalini Devi (1873-1902) on December 09, 1883. They had five children, two of whom died before adulthood. He died on August 07, 1941 (Shraban 22, 1348). Between 1878 and 1932 he visited more than thirty countries of five continents.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote eight novels and four novellas. Gora
, Chokher Bali
and Shesher Kobita
are very good in quality. Shesher Kobita
is very lyrical and has elements of satire and post-modernism. Satyajit Ray has turned some of his fiction into excellent films. He wrote a lot of non-fiction, ranging from Indian history to linguistics. He wrote autobiographies, travelogues, essays and lectures. He loved to travel and is the sub-continent’s best travel writer. He wrote about the West more than once and also wrote about Russia, Persia, Japan, and certainly about his native Bengal, where he travelled in a houseboat. ‘Jibonsmriti’ and ‘Chhelebela’ are brilliant stuff. Travel writing he did in the form of a diary or letters. Europe Jatrir Patra
(Letters from Europe) and Manusher Dharma
(The Religion of Man), a collection of his 1930 Oxford lectures, were admired a lot at home and abroad.
Rabindranath wrote more than twenty two hundred songs, widely considered his best creation. His songs are an integral part of Bangla culture. He started to paint at sixty and was a prolific painter. He even had an exhibition in Paris. His plays are also world class. They have been staged around the world.
Between 1891 and 1895 Rabindranath wrote more than half of his stories. They are the best, not only in Bangla but also in world literature. Like his songs, they are also his finest work. They will keep him alive for many centuries. Many of his characters are simply unforgettable. Kabuliwallah, the Afghan fruit-seller, and little Mini, the postmaster and young Ratan, Shubha, the speechless village girl, Mrinal of Strir Patra, the lonely Charulata, Bolai the lover of nature, Tarapada the tramp and Neela, the elegant and dignified but deprived heroine of "Poyla Nombor." He dealt with every human emotion and did so with deep insight and matchless compassion. His first story was written in 1877 when he was sixteen. We can say that Tagore invented the Bangla short story genre. He considered his earlier stories spontaneous, tender and fresh, and his latter stories technically richer. He felt that a person was born again and again in this very life. So a writer had literary incarnations. As a young man he was fascinated by the simple modes of life of the village people. The beautiful atmosphere of the villages he loved. Born and brought up in Kolkata, he found a universal appeal in the rural milieu.
Rabindranath is ultimately a poet. A mystic and a humanist, his poetry is primarily romantic. He loved to read Shelley and Keats and also taught their poems at Shantiniketan. His poems are varied in style, from the classical formalism down to the comic, visionary, ecstatic. The Vaishnava poets influenced him a lot at the beginning. Also the Upanishads and saint Kabir. The Bauls influenced and enriched him. Later modernism influenced him too. He even translated a few TS Eliot poems and was interested in what the Bangla modernists of the 1930s (Jibanananda Das, Sudhin Dutta, Buddhadev Bose, Amiyo Chakravarthy and Bishnu Dey) were writing. Great European composers have set Tagore’s poetry to music.
In Tagore’s case it was sixty four years of endless creativity. ‘Apni afuranto’ (‘You are inexhaustible’), wrote Buddhadev Bose in a letter to him. As Bengalees our debt to him is boundless. The largest anthology of Tagore’s works available in English is The Essential Tagore
, edited by Professor Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarthy, and published by The Harvard University Press and The Vishwa-Bharati University jointly in 2011. It marked the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth.
Rabindranath Thakur will be remembered not only in Bangladesh and India on his 156th birth anniversary but in Europe, the USA and Latin America as well. He belonged to the world when he lived and belongs to the world even now. As a thinker he was well ahead of his time. He will perhaps be remembered even a thousand years later.
Junaidul Haque is a bilingual writer of fiction and essays. Born in 1955, he did his MA in English Literature from the University of Dhaka. He writes since childhood. He has published two novels ('Asambhaber Paye' and 'Bishader Tarunya'), four volumes of stories and two volumes of short essays. Pathak Samabesh is the publisher of his 'Nirbachito Galpa'.