By Madhusree Chatterjee
The grand monarch of modern Indian literature, Rabindranath Tagore, has been one of the most oft-visited muse for scholars, who have deliberated on his writing and art in somber treatises and cerebral commentaries.
But very few have tried to probe the mind of the icon behind the pen —which earned India its first Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for the poetry-lyrics anthology, “Gitanjali”. A new and unique psycho-biography of the Nobel Laureate, “Young Tagore : Making of a Genius”, describes Tagore as a sensitive wordsmith, who could hammer feelings into wreaths of verbiage and a pragmatist with a modern outlook of the world that was ahead of time.
His world view combined an astute farsightedness and a profound spirituality that — unlike those who branded him as elitist — took the common in its stride. A romantic, he loved the world and all things beautiful, creative and new.
But the child “Rabi” that the poet was before he became the icon — was a conflicting mystery. He was lonely but a creative child in love with the natural bounty around him. His estrangement from his mother early in life — being the youngest in a brood of 14 — bred in him a longing for maternal care and a melancholy that honed his sensitivities. He was brought up by a posse of domestic help, far away from the women of the household who lived in the “andarmhal”- inner quarters.
Tagore, as a boy, spent time by himself – reflecting upon the world through the trivial events in his cloistered world. But his mother’s sudden demise at the age of 14 cast an indelible shadow on his life tempering his creative experiences with fine etchings of “pain”, “loss” and bewilderment that seeped into his fragile consciousness in misty details.
He describes Sarada Devi (his mother)’s passing away like a six-year-old— crushed and desolate. It heightened the strain of mysticism around young Rabi, weaning him away from worldly realities for a while.
“Tagore was a man of many dualities — he was sensuous, spiritual and material at the same time. Exploring this duality makes his work so interesting. He was a milestone in the ongoing encounter between the east and the west. However, as a young man, he was unhappy who was hurting a lot,” says noted writer Sudhir Kakar, one of the country’s foremost psycho-analysts and social thinker.
In his new psycho-biography (Kakar is known the world over for dissecting the minds of cross-sections of society including the greater Indian psyche in non-fictional accounts like the “Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India”, “Shamans, Mystics and Doctors”, “The Indian Psyche”) , the author has reconstructed the Nobel Laureate’s childhood and youth — and has tried to tap into the secret pools of Tagore’s creative energy.
Two decisive experiences influenced the minds of young Rabi — the death of his mother and his infatuation for his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, the wife of his elder sibling Jyotorindranath Tagore. However, who was two years older than Rabi committed suicide after battling against chronic melancholia and depression.
The young poet’s journey to England at 17 was an intellectual and sensory watershed as well— bringing out the amiable extrovert in the lonely young man. ‘Tagore suddenly realized that he was good looking and was admired by the English ladies,” Kakar analyses. Tagore was taken up with the west inspired by its literature- especially poetry — and progressive ideas.
But as he grew up, Rabi retreated into a world of solitude rather than isolation and alienation. Kakar describes this solitude as a state of being when the mind is peopled by beloved characters even away cut off from their company. This solitude bred introspection — in a rather Wordsworthian tradition encouraging creativity from sources of happy recollections. As a result, bulk of his poetry is replete with deep philosophy, ruminations and sublime comments on the world and its cosmic connections at large.
Kakar’s pre-occupation with Tagore began two years ago when the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) asked Kakar if he could comment on his paintings (a vocation that the poet began to pursue at the age of 60).
“That was when I began to know Tagore. I was mesmerized by his art and I began to read him,” Kakar said. As he delved deeper into Tagore, Kakar began to plumb his “unexpected fathoms and probe the delicate nuances of his literary philosophy”. “I began to read his essays and realised that they could make a wonderful psychobiography,” the writer divulged, answering a query on how the seeds of “Tagore’s psychobiography” were sown.
Kakar says Tagore’s sister-in-law fuelled his art. The long ovoid faces — sad and dark— with their wide-set eyes and straight black hair framing the visage like an Indian Madonna were those of Kadambari Devi. “But behind those eyes were the eyes of his mother,” Kakar observed.
He hated school because “his wild imagination bothered him”. The imagination was the well-spring of his poetic activity as well — which the poet identified at the age of eight. When he came closer to his sister-in-law after the demise of his mother, Rabi (Tagore) matured as a poet.
In a chapter, “Kadambari and the Smell of Buttered Toast”, (the chapter cues its name from the small of buttered toast in the Tagore household kitchen in Jorasanko every morning) Kakar says the “main actor in the inner theatre of Rabi’s adolescence and early youth — playing a crucial role in the remembered happiness of those years and the consolidation of his identity as a poet and writer — was his sister in-law Kadambari Devi. His first memory of Kadambari Devi is of a 10-year-old girl with thin gold bangles on her slender dark wrists. He circled her from afar – afraid to come close.
Four years later, she emerged from her childhood sheltered in the women’s quarters – as a young woman — opening up closed dams of emotions in the poet’s young (12 year old) heart.
Tagore describes his love-struck heart “like a breed of a grasshopper that blends its hue with colour of the dry leaves” that had for so many years worn “ a faded tint’….
Kadambari Devi, an illiterate woman born to poor Pirali Brahmin (Pirali – a village in present-day Bangladesh) parents employed in the Tagore home, educated herself in the refined intellectual environs of Jorasanko and even learnt to ride a horse— on which she cantered everyday to the “Maidan(the modern day Eden Gardens ground) ” in Kolkata.
Tagore’s friendship with Kadambari Devi flourished in the afternoons, when Jyotirindranth was away from home. Young Rabi read out to Kadambari — thus opening a tentative intellectual exchange that carried Tagore far in life as a liberal humanist in approach to literature and in life.
But by the time, Tagore married Mrinalini Devi — an arranged bride — he had drifted from Kadambari that was rumoured to have caused her considerable distress. Four months after Rabi’s marriage, Kadambari swallowed an overdose of opium.
Kakar ends his book at the point where the young Rabi is ready to take on filial responsibilities as a young man- and spread his wings in the world as a landlord and writer. But grief remained the underpinning of his musings.
“Kadambari’s early death cast an indelible shadow on Rabindranath’s psyche that would endure through the rest of his life. The mourning of Kadamabri’s absence snd the summoning of her presence keep recurring in Rabindranath’s poems, song , fictions and later in old age, also in his paintings,” Kakar said.
This emptiness lent Tagore the emotional edge — that suffering suffuses creative endeavours with to rise out of the droll and the trivial to scale realms of godly excellence.