One of the most perceptive comments about the poet we Bengalis know either as “Bishwa Kobi” (the poet of the universe) or as “Kobiguru” (the guru of all poets) I have encountered is Sisir Kumar Das’s: “The true Rabindranath Tagore is a constantly emerging and enlarging self”. Just in his early fifties, and after having been first exposed to the excesses of nationalism in the latter years of the “Bongo Bhongo” (the partition of Bengal) movement in the first decade of the twentieth century, and then to international modernism in his years in the west in the second, during and immediately after the publication of the English Gitanjali in 1912, we see him emerging steadily to be a new kind of poet. Rabindranath would henceforth be negotiating constantly with Indian traditions and western modernity. It was as if to mark this decisive change in his poetics that he penned a refrain in the 1916 poem titled “Balaka”, which to me is almost a poetic manifesto: “Not here, but somewhere else, somewhere far away” (from my translation of the poem in the Essential Tagore).
The poem “Balaka” was inspired by a flight of geese he saw on a visit to Kashmir. The instinct of the birds to the poet appeared to be constantly in motion and not to be stuck in a spot; to wander and wonder and not to be moribund; to transcend their immediate space and not to wallow in the familiar. These were lessons the poet had imbibed instinctively from childhood, but now his poetry and fiction would take a distinct swerve into territories that went beyond the traditional forms he had stuck to till then. His poetics clearly manifests a unique turn during this time, the mid-point of his literary career. The immediate result would be the verse volume titled Balaka and the novels Chaturanga (Quartet in Kaiser Haq’s translation) and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World in Surendranath Tagore’s translation).
The poems of the Balaka embody formally and thematically a kind of expressiveness not hitherto evident in previous volumes of Rabindranath’s poetry. The titular poem seems to capture the movement of the flock of geese he had marveled at in Kashmir in the very movement of its verse. Here, for example, are some lines from the penultimate stanza in my translation—
I see today
The mountain range, the deodar forests
Unfold their wings
To range over oceans and cross unknown lands.
The stars themselves quivering their wings
As darkness is being startled by the cries of light.
(from the Essential Tagore)
Rabindranath was clearly bent here on creating a new kind of poem embodying the motion of the birds based on expressive formal features. Clearly, too, he was bent on leaving behind conventional notions of prosody and diction he had been governed by till then and unfolding his poetic wings, so to speak. In a 1921 lecture given in Shantiniketan published in the avant garde literary magazine Sabuj Patra (Green Leaves), Pramatha Choudhury’s literary magazine that was spearheading literary experimentation in Bengal at that time, he had indicated that he had already begun experimenting with poems written in a vein not unlike that in western poetry carried out from the turn of the century in movements such as verse libre (free verse).
What must be said also about the poems Rabindranath had started to write at this time was that they marked a turn in his poetry not only in the figure they made on the page, but also in the diction he used in them. He had made an additional point in his Shantiniketan lecture about reforming the poetic diction he had been shaped by, and using more and more the language of everyday speech in poetry. Expressive form is thus complemented by a colloquial tone in the Balaka poems. Indeed, by 1922, Rabindranath would be experimenting with prose-poems as well. And in the 1932 volume Parishesh (“The End”), especially in a poem like “Banshi” (“Wind Instrument” in Haq’s translation), he would also be striving to capture urban dreariness in the modernist vein.
Rabindranath, it should be stressed though, had no intention of embracing western modernity uncritically; he also continued to write in traditional verse forms. He was too much of a romantic to have transformed himself wholesale into a modern poet. As he puts it in the concluding lines of his late poem “Romantic” in a debate with a shadowy interlocutor “When you query, “’Can this be called realistic?’”/I reply, ‘Never, I’m Romantic’” (my translation). And he was too much of a believer as well!
The point being made in this essay is that it was a kind of distinctive modernity Rabindranath was bent on fashioning from the middle years of the second decade of the twentieth century in his writings. Take the novels Chaturanga and Ghare Baire as further instances. Significantly, both these novels were published in Sabuj Patra where Rabindranath’s regular inputs had made the magazine widely noticed in Bengal.
It must be said here though that it was in the 1910 novel Gora that he had already been thinking of an alternative modernity. This would be distinct from the western one, as well unhindered by the prejudices of the Hindu Bengali nationalist movement that had become so worrying to Rabindranath after the British bid to partition Bengal. The titular hero of the novel embarks on a course where he embraces tradition too closely at one point but then opts for flexibility, exercising the freedom to choose his own path out of the cross-currents of the era and opting for modern values without forfeiting tradition entirely.
But Gora was limited in its modernity and reads like a traditional novel. It was only in Chaturanga and Ghare Baire that Rabindranath would experiment with the novel in form as well as content. Chaturanga is indeed quite radical in many ways and represents what is for Rabindranath an unprecedented experiment with form. The language of the work can be terse, its transitions abrupt, and there is an attempt in it to present the narrative perspective more complexly as well than in his previous fiction. One could definitely say that this was Rabindranath trying to show and not tell, narrate and not describe, and to make the reader a much more active agent in unraveling the thematic strands of the novel than was the novelistic practice then. The novel is daring too in the depiction of female sexuality and exploration of subterranean feelings linked with love and desire. As in the novels being published in the west at that time, the novelist seems to be bent on projecting interior landscapes as well as depicting the external aspects of life.
Ghare Baire marks another advance in Rabindranath’s novelistic career. Many decades ago, Buddhadev Bose had pointed out in his book, Rabindranath: Kotha Sahitya (1955), that in this work Rabindranath had opted decisively for narration based on colloquial language. Bose felt that seen thus the novel marked a decisive moment in the language question preoccupying Bengali writers of the period—from now on the language of speech would become the medium of literary language for the overwhelming majority of them. And thematically, of course, as readers of the work who have seen Satayjit Ray’s unforgettable ending of the film version of the novel will have noticed, the work depicts a woman going beyond the confines of the home and entering the outer world after experiencing facile adoption of western ways as well as problematic nationalistic takes on tradition and modernity. In other words, here too Rabindranath seems bent on depicting an alternative modernity through a heroine ultimately avoiding the traps not only set by nationalism but also by rigid adherence to forms of western modernity embraced uncritically by some Bengalis of the time. The narrative technique of adopting diary entries of the three major characters that readers have to deal with to reach such a conclusion is another example of the experimental vein of the novel.
To sum up then, faced with the alternatives of the kind of traditional Brahmanic Bengali values and forms that seemed to dominate the upper segments of Calcutta society and the attractions of western modernity that had lured a younger generation of intellectuals into radical experiments in style, at the mid-point of his career, Rabindranath Tagore started negotiating his way through these two paths. In the end, he took neither. Instead the road taken by him was his own distinct one, built on what he felt he could take from tradition as well as modernism, suited to a world he felt that it was for him and like-minded contemporaries to build.
“Not here, but somewhere else, somewhere far away” continued to be Rabindranath’s approach to life and writings, particularly after the second decade of the twentieth century. He felt that Bengal in particular and India as a whole had to change and shake off moribund ways of seeing and doing things in the modern era. But he felt that importing western values uncritically and imbibing the ideology of nationalism or the philosophical values underpinning western literary modernism would not do for him. Restless, probing, full of wanderlust, and with an open mind in most things, he continued to travel across the globe, trying to forge a modernity that would make him transcend the limitations he faced in his South Asian milieu but not the kind of modernity that he felt was dragging the western world into self-destructive world wars and was fuelling imperial follies. He would continue to broaden his horizon to take in more and more of the outside world to forge an alternative modernity till his last works, refusing till the end to be hemmed in—whether in art or life.
Fakrul Alam is a Senator of the University of Dhaka, from whose English department he has retired, and is now Pro-Vice Chancellor of East West University. His numerous publications include Daniel Defoe: Colonial Propagandist (Dhaka University, 1989) and Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (Writers.ink, 2007). He has also translated Jibanananda Das’s Selected Poems (UPL, 1999) and Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s Ocean of Sorrow (Bangla Academy, 2016). He has co-edited The Essential Tagore (HUP, 2014).