Tagore: Looking Beyond the Mirage of Appearances

On November 2, 2013 by admin


Rajdeep Konar

[Rajdeep Konar is pursuing his doctoral studies in Center for Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he is investigating Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas on aesthetics, especially in the domain of performance.]




“No man loves life like him that’s growing old.”

-Sophocles, Acrisius [fragment]

It is a fact that in the life of Rabindranath Tagore there has indeed been numerous instances of de-constructing and creating anew. But equating all that with his act of beginning painting at the age of sixty with the others, I think, would not be justified. It is one thing to re-write a play nine times, to change one’s views on matters of political or social concern even if one has believed in it for the greater part of his life and it’s yet another for a sexagenarian poet in Rabindranath Tagore’s position, to say that words no longer fascinate him and it is in a completely different artistic language: painting that he finds his calling. It definitely indicates towards an intense commotion underneath- a storm, which shakes the world of the poet, shakes his faith in the words which once in Budhadeb Bosu’s terms seemed his owned loyal subjects. I would like to direct my investigation, in this essay, towards this sudden loss of interest in words. Therefore, I would be trying to find out exactly what sort of circumstances would oblige Tagore, a compulsive writer by the sheer volume of his works, form an utter revulsion towards the vocation of writing, in the final phase of his life. This as we shall see, will lay bare an interesting negotiation that the old poet was going through with himself, at the time and also enlighten us regarding how he was reacting to the arrival of modernity in Bengali literature.

“People grow older with every passing year; but the first half is what can be named growing while the second is withering away.”[i]These are the exact words with which writer and critic and Tagore enthusiast Budhadeb Bosu (1908-1974) begins his book “Shongo: Nishongota / Rabindranath” (1963). Budhadeb, when he was writing these words was already in his fifties and thus we can rest assured that he was speaking from more than intuition. He goes on to speak in the rather longish paragraph that follows about the perils old age has brought to his life:  the fast diminishing physical and mental strength, blurring eyesight, deteriorating memory, the doubts and anxieties plaguing the mind faced with the smallest of decisions. All of this, as Budhadeb writes, affects him as a writer and makes writing, what was earlier pleasurable for him, an irksome and tiring process. We have also heard writers express similar sentiments under such circumstances. “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick”[ii] is what Yeats felt. American journalist and literary figure H. L. Mencken says “The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”[iii] Thus, age we find weakens the physical constitution and makes oneself vulnerable, especially artists. So does Tagore too was similarly distraught by his diminishing physical and mental abilities? It does not seem likely at the time he begins painting in the early 1920’s. While there indeed were occasional illnesses, recurring problems like the pain he had in his knee, it was not until his mid or late 70’s that we get to hear from Tagore expressions like- “I no longer want to carry on the garland of pains that I am having to carry in this life”. For confirmation we can go to another Tagore enthusiast and philosopher Abu Syed Ayub who identifies Tagore as the possessor of a “poetic health”, stressing that even in his periods of grave illness Tagore’s poetic abilities remained unaffected[iv].

An allegation which Budhadeb Bosu makes in his work Kobi Rabindranath against Tagore and which might come to our aid here is that: the drama which is found developing through Tagore’s poetry beginning from Manasi ends in Gitanjali and after that Tagore only repeats himself and has not been able to write anything worthy of its creation. According to Budhadeb, specimens of whatever Tagore would write in his later poetry, was already available in Gitanjali. Even though Abu Sayeed Ayub in his work Adhunikota O Rabindranath dedicated to Budhadeb presents a surgical analysis of Tagore’s later poetry to dismiss any such notion; Sankha Ghosh shows in his essay Budhadeber Rabindranath how Budhadeb himself has contradicted his own view on a number of occasions. For instance the collection of poems titled Adhunik Bangla Kobita edited by him begins with Tagore’s post Gitanjali poems. There are definitely instances of poets or writers reaching a certain age and feeling that they have nothing new to say:  Sudhnidranath Datta, a poet from the Kollol Jug in Bengali literature, who was also close to Tagore; for one lamented in his poems much before he was old “whatever was there to say, has been said long ago” while Bishnu Dey among the modern Bengali poets became tragically repetitive in his later years. However, whatever he may be called, the Tagore who writes Sesher Kobita, Shyamali or Sisutirtha, can never be called repetitive. So we are yet to find the true nature of the problem.

We might go back from Tagore’s own words on the matter for some light. To Rani Chanda, who by her own admission was the most rigorous witness to Tagore painting, he says-

“The bearer of beauty (rasa) is language. That is why the danger, thus everything changes with the change of language…so it often seems to me that my paintings would never be rejected because even if the specialty of lines and forms change, there would never be any dearth in their beauty.”[v]

So was Tagore anxious that unlike his writings which may lose their popularity and acceptance with the change in linguistic trends his paintings would be acceptable beyond contexts of time and space. But then we hear him saying in a letter to Hemantabala Debi in 1934 –

“I have achieved certain fame in literature and I have a responsibility towards it, I have to work keeping that safe- but if I just take a sheet of paper and begin drawing something- I do not have to worry about creating whatever feel.”[vi]

In the essay Sahityer Dharma we find him explaining:

“Here painting has an advantage. A painter’s brush does not shy from drawing a ‘Kochu Gach’ (colocasia tree). But it is difficult to name ‘Kochu Gach’ in poetry. I am myself not amongst the poets who like to play by the rules; but yet when I have to write on ‘Bansh Bon’, I have to manage by saying ‘Benu Bon’.[vii]

Rabindranath tagore at his painting desk, Government School of Art, Calcutta 1932

Thus Tagore we see loved painting firstly not because it could be received by a wider public but rather he was glad for being not having to think about its reception. Secondly, Tagore found in Painting freedom from a certain aesthetic regimentation of language which he could not hope to forsake in his poetry. These I feel do bring us to the core of the problem. It leads us to the fact that throughout his later life, Tagore was engaged in a difficult yet unavoidable negotiation with own image as the ‘poet’ that existed in the public consciousness.

Tagore’s use of language and concepts were reciprocal to this image and it was not created in his complete ignorance. He himself in numerous occasions played into the hands of this mirage of appearances which Sankha Ghosh in his work Nirman O Srishti would call his “Murtigoto Ami”.  However, by the second decade of the twentieth century he was being severely challenged as to the style of his poetry and his image.

Though Rabindranath Tagore was bestowed the title of “Kabiguru” at the hand of others, it was not without the impartment and repeated reaffirmation of the man himself to himself. Tagore in spite of proving his mantle as a writer in multiple genres and being much more than a writer, desired to be known himself as above all a poet. In fact, he did sign some of his last letters by just mentioning “The Poet”. His extreme consciousness about his being the figure of the poet is revealed in the way he physically carried himself, dressed or spoke. As Budhadeb Bosu observes-“his beard, combined with his meditative habit, had given his face a fixed expression of serenity; it was impossible to imagine it contorted by vexation, grief or laughter.”[viii]  What would perhaps support such a complete absence of exaggerated or intensely emotional expressions are Tagore’s portraits in photographs since his childhood. The initial softness of the smile dissolves into the almost expressionless daze with rare exceptions. He almost always dressed immaculately. As Rani Chanda would recollect, even in unbearably hot summer afternoons Tagore would be seen wearing his long flowing Japanese Kimono type dress at home. Thus, there always was a certain performance of appearance being consciously put forth. Chanda also recollects how his cap was one of its kinds perfected through various experiments to fall around his head forming layers.  All of these would in his foreign travels provide impetus to his growing image of the ‘Mystic Poet’ following his publication of the translation of the poems of Kabir. As proof we can hear to what his friend Rothenstein feared:

“I was concerned only lest Tagore’s saintly looks and the mystical element in his poetry should attract the schwarmerei of the sentimentalists who pursue idealists even more hungrily than ideals”[ix].

Interestingly in his plays too, Tagore created roles tailor-made to be an extension of his real life role of the poet. As writer and critic Sankha Ghosh notes- “A lot of times his audience would not be able to forget his figure as the poet, as apart from his physical appearance more often than not an equation would be there between the acted roles and his own character.”[x]  Such a phenomenon perhaps is best vindicated by a close observation of the characters that Tagore often chose to perform in his plays as “Dhananjay Bairagi”, “Raja”, “Thakurda” or “Sannayasi”.  What would perhaps strike us most about all of those characters is their in-corporeality, their existence almost as if in the realm of ideas. Their euphemistic way of speaking, having the flavor of the mystic philosopher reciprocated with Tagore’s public figure as the mystic philosopher poet. Thus we understand what Budhadeb is referring to when we find him saying-

“Was there, then, you might wonder, a certain oppressive weight about Tagore’s personality, an aura of sanctity which removed him from the everyday world? I am afraid there is a grain of truth in your conjecture”[xi].


Corresponding to his image the language of Tagore’s poetry till he wrote Sesher Kobita was euphemistic, heavy with metaphors, and allegories. As Budhadeb Bosu would say –

“Words like hint, gleam, whisper, gesture- and of these are very many in Bengali, abound in his verse and prose, a haunting refrain running through his poems and songs is the Rousseauean ‘I do not know what’: he is the poet of the fleeting moment, of the dream still remembered at dawn, of memories of past existence, and of perceptions we can scarcely define”.[xii]

Prof. Partha Chatterjee in one of his recent presentation at the Center for Historical Studies, JNU, discussed two things as crucial to the construction of masculinity in early twentieth century Bengal: Football and Swadeshi. I for one would say the poetry should definitely be included in this list. Till the first decade of the twentieth century Tagore was the lone sentinel taking forward Bengali poetry. But in the second decade this situation was to change and there would come a distinct shift of paradigms in the language of poets as well as the way the figure of the poet was being performed or perceived in Bengal. A new band of urban young poets would announce their entry into the Bengali cultural scene by publishing out a number of magazines. This young group of poets fascinated by Communism, French poetry of Rimbaud, Baudleaire and Verlaine and Existentialism, swore by the name of Rabindranath Tagore (pun intended). Not all of them were to go down in posterity as great exponents and but a few like Budhadeb Bosu, Sudhindranth Dutta, Bishnu Dey, Jibanananda Das would change the language and styles of Bengali poetry forever. While in their language they would distinguish themselves by the boldness of expressions, usage of words or thoughts which were so longer considered outcast to Bengali literature their male bonhomie and rebel attitude would revolutionize the concept of the poet in Bengali culture. More interestingly, they would remain in a consistent dialogue with Tagore at the same time their idol and their antithesis. While they would regularly send their writings to Tagore for his assessment of them, their writings would often also contain criticism of Tagore rather directly. Their common points of criticism against Tagore would read almost like this paragraph from one of Budhadeb’s novels titled Sesh Pandulipi:

“I don’t like him due to a few definite reasons. Number one: Rabindranth is too much of a nice gentleman (Bhadralok). Number two: He almost always speaks too euphemistically. Number three: There were plenty of guises in his writings. On various issues he refused to speak the truth and on many other occasions chose to avoid speaking at all for the fear of having to speak it. His writings are languid, liquid and limp, much like the “l” sound. As end rhymes came easily to him he destroyed the poems by mere verbosity…Take any of his poems “Manas Sundari” or “Jete Nahi Dibo”, what was there to speak for so long?…Even “De Dol Dol” which feels nice in the recording only because he chose to skip certain portions… “He Nirupoma- Koriyo Khoma” this rhyme overwhelmed his mind and he finished his poems by just using it in different ways. But we would like to know what did the girl say? Was the proposal of the lover accepted? But no; nothing before or after…only a good read is what we get but not any drama…In his last days he himself understood this weakness but even then could not make Amit Ray write a single un-Tagorian poem.”[xiii]

Tagore had the choice of not reacting to this new development by continuing to write in the style that he did the greater part of his life. But that certainly was not the choice he made. Tagore chose to re-modify his own language to suit the dictums of the modern writers. Thus took birth, his poetic- novel Sesher Kobita, play Banshari and poems in Lipika, Punascha, Patraput, Shyamali. Does that mean he uncritically accepted the new styles of writing? A close reading of the texts above would reveal to us that the common trait in the above mentioned works of Tagore is a certain “self-referentiality” that haunts them. Tagore cannot forget his public ‘poet-self’ in those texts, he cannot let go of who he already is and thus more often than not his experiments with modernity reveal themselves as their own parody. Modernity comes as the quintessentially ‘superficial and fashionable’, always already beaten at the hands of his vast ‘classical’ repertoire in his own writings. Thus we find Amit in Sesher Kobita the symbol of modernity, which Budhadeb has alleged Tagore created as an obnoxious, impotent man and never a poet[xiv], being already labeled a failure by Tagore’s own words that “the fascination for modernity is a temporary fashion and within a short time it will remain defeated at the hands of what is eternal”. When Amit, while speaking of what can possibly be the principles for new literature shifts directly from jute mills and Gothic castle to Idols of Ravana, Sita and Jatayu, we become suspicious, which is only confirmed when Amit says that our mind will again re-embrace old tastes-“Again will happen reconciliation with Tennyson, we will cry holding the neck of Byron, we will ask out pardon from Dickens.” “Rabithakurer Dol” who had threatened to answer in writing had perhaps failed to notice that Amit’s words contained his own destruction, destruction of a modernity which is just a fleeting trend. Amit’s criticism of Tagore is always based on weak grounds which can be read as Tagore own belief that his criticisms were uncalled for. Therefore, all of these arrangements just to remind and reconfirm the fact that Rabindranath Tagore will always be remembered and read. In his play Banshari, Tagore makes it told through the female protagonist Banshari:

“The pain in the pen of your Communist writers is a pain of their stomach. Neither do I fear nor do I criticize that pain- but I say that great literature can never be written on personal pains. It is always written with bigger truths.”[xv]

Rabindranath Tagore in 1925 Part 1

His poems like Banshi which begin with the kind of realism Tagore terms the “curry powder of realism”[xvi] only to turn on its head and re-embrace the Tagorean poetic sentiment.

While his writings would display him haunted by his own image and creation, his criticism of the new generation of poets in private correspondences or essays more often than not come across as prejudiced, conservative and often unwarranted.  In his two essays “Sahityadharma” and “Sahitye Nabatta”, he rebuked the new writers for being too influenced by Western literature and for their dealing with sexuality in a very open manner in their writings, which to Tagore seemed completely unsuitable for Indian readers. What Tagore has to say on the representation of sexuality in art and literature could be Focault’s paradise-

“The coming together of the man and the woman is to be placed on a higher category than eating as it has deep connection with meeting of minds…the meeting of love illuminates the consciousness of our inside and out…however the principal theory of reproduction is not so resplendent. Thus its place is with the science of physiognomy…The true essence of sexual encounter is not in its reproductive functions for there the human beings are animals, the essence is in his love, there he is human…The scientist says that reproductive sentiments run deep inside human psychology, but that is important to science…but in the literature and art which celebrates beauty such truth has no place”[xvii]

nude male and nude female....bmp - Copy

If we go twenty to thirty years back from the point where Tagore is making these criticisms we would find the same allegations being made against Tagore by D L Roy, et al. In his correspondences to contemporary younger poets like Budhadeb, Jibanananda or Bishnu Dey his anxieties regarding the changing face of Bengali poetry are revealed. His responses to their works seem to come more from his notions about the new literature than close and sincere reading of them. To present one instance- when Bishnu Dey sent Tagore his first published book of poems titled “Urvashi o Artemis” for his critical comments, we find him writing in a letter dated 13th July 1933: “You have shown the promise to carve out a new niche for yourself. But in the first tilting the land is bound to be not smooth enough, which perhaps is evident.” 17th of July however he sends another letter saying that the last comments were only based on cursory glances but in a closer reading it has seemed to him that- “this is a writing of a fresh mind, the impatient waves a youth are striking down on the rocky coast- there is a play between the hard and the liquid”; but then comes the warning-“I hope you do not desire to imitate the principles of the new foreign literature to make your work sell in the new market. Because that trade will go bust very soon…”[xviii]

What is indeed a fact to tell is that Tagore was not always making these criticisms at his own interest and neither were they always first hand opinions. If we see his letters we would realize Tagore is more often than not being forcefully instigated into writing these by people close to him. We find them taking advantage of the doubts and anxieties that cloud the poet’s mind regarding his “golden harvest” of poetry. As instance, we find him saying to Amol Hom-

“Your excitement might not be unnatural- but why do you try to pass the heat of it unto me? The pandemonium you created in Delhi regarding principles of writing literature is only increasing. If I want to concentrate in that, I fail to hear the voice that comes from inside.”[xix]

But unfortunately enough in spite of being aware of the perils of participating in the chaos could not refrain from it.

For Tagore therefore, the mask of the modernist was for only to refer back to the man beneath. Neither was it being possible for Tagore to break through the aesthetics of language he had developed and mastered through years to form a new language of poetry. He tries, but the words almost always come to him parodying themselves, almost laughing at themselves and consequently at the modern style. Modernity, as we know was not a mere change of language styles but rather a new kind of consciousness which came under particular historical, social and cultural contexts. But Tagore in his writing could only approach it as a garb, a mask, an external form without its inherent ethical shifts and we all know what a form alienated from its content becomes: a parody. He becomes aware of this in his later years and thus humbly admits to Lokendra Palit-

“You will be impatient with my metaphorical language. That you know is an old weakness of mine. When I am keen to express an idea, my mind dresses it up in metaphors, avoiding wordy expositions. It is like using hieroglyphics instead of letters of alphabet. But this style is sanctioned by very old literary practice- to express ideas indirectly through representative surrogates. At the same time this style hampers the application of the logical methods of reasoning. I admit this failing in me”[xx]

In a letter to Pulin Bihari Sen we find him saying:

“I am feeling afraid to criticize openly but still I will have to do it as I have promised Amiya. I have not been able to reorient myself according to the principles of literature in the new age.”

Thus Tagore too was conscious of the fact the principles of the new literature has eluded him as his own mask of the mystic philosopher poet has come back to haunt him whenever he has tried to reach out.


But how could Tagore, who perhaps had a better knowledge of the historical circumstances, than any of his young Bengali counterparts owing to his innumerous visits abroad, which gave rise to new modernity in literature: the darkness, the breaking away of the façade of rationality and perspectives- not understanding its ethics. Perhaps he finally did and perhaps it is his paintings which would speak as witness. In spite of being painted predominantly for personal satisfaction and in spite of the absence of technical expertise which perhaps made it an obligation to embrace the expressionistic aesthetics, the darkness of his paintings, the grotesque figures, and the geometric forms would in the end have to be considered also as products of his own consciousness or sub-conscious. What I would like to end by is referring to the number of self portraits Tagore drew. They of course strike a person who sees them for the first time as seeing Tagore in a completely different way: in a way which one rarely gets to see and at least never in Tagore’s own literary work. In a rather dystopic backdrop we find the poet in the sheer corporeal vulnerabilities of his old age.  Can one say that in them the poet has finally been able to see himself beyond the mirage of his appearances? Can this moment of holding the mirror to oneself and the shattering away of appearances be claimed also as the moment where Tagore can identify with modernity, where he finds the spirit and the language of modernity which eluded him in his writings? Though being personal were they also not historically contextual at the same time?



[i] Bosu Budhadeb, “Shongo o Nishongota”, Budhadeb Bosur Prabandha Samagra, (Paschimbanga Bangla Akademy: Kolkata, 2010) pg.145.

[ii] Yeats, William Butler. Sailing to Byzantium

[iii] Mencken, H.L. Prejudices, Third Series.

[iv] Ayub, Abu Syed, Adhunikota O Rabindranath, (Dey’s publishing: Kolkata, 1968) page 23

[v] Ed. Ray, Satyendranath, Sahitya-Chinta, Rabindranather Chinta Jogot, (Granthalay Private Limited: Kolkata)

[vi] Ed. Ray, Satyendranath, Silpa-Chinta, Rabindranather Chinta Jogot, (Granthalay Private Limited: Kolkata) Pg 288.

[vii]Tagore,Rabindranath,“SahityerDharma”, Sahityer Pathe, pg3 http://www.rabindrarachanabali.nltr.org/node/8450

[viii] Bosu Budhadeb, “Portrait of a Poet”, Budhadeb Bosur Prabandha Samagra, (Paschimbanga Bangla Akademy: Kolkata, 2010) pg.416.

[ix] Kripalini, Krishana, Rabindranath Tagore: a Biography, pg 250-257.

[x] Ghosh, Sankha, “Abhinay Mukti o Rabindranath”, Kaler Matra O Rabindra Natok,(Deys’ Publishing: Kolkata) pg 136.

[xi] “Bosu Budhadeb, “Portrait of a Poet”, Budhadeb Bosur Prabandha Samagra, (Paschimbanga Bangla Akademy: Kolkata, 2010) pg.419

[xii] Ibid. pg 419

[xiii] Basu Budhadeb, Sesh Pandulipi, Dashti Upanyas, (Dey’s Publishing: Kolakata, 2004) 315.

[xiv] “Bosu Budhadeb, “Portrait of a Poet”, Budhadeb Bosur Prabandha Samagra, (Paschimbanga Bangla Akademy: Kolkata, 2010) page 90.

[xv] Tagore, Raindranth, Banshari http://tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowContent.aspx?ct=Plays&bi=FF66344F-BF40-408F-585B-407E73D94158&ti=FF66344F-BF40-4AFF-D85B-407E73D94158&ch=c

[xvi]Tagore, Rabindranth, “Sahitye Nabotto”, Sahityer Pathe, http://tagoreweb.in/Render/ShowBook.aspx?ct=Essays&bi=72EE92F5-BE50-4087-6E6E-0F7410664DA3

[xvii]Tagore, Rabindranth, Sahityer Dharma, Sahityer Pathe, pg 3http://www.rabindra-rachanabali.nltr.org/node/8450

[xviii] Tagore, Rabindranath, “Letter to Bishnu Dey”, Chithipatra 16 (Visva-Bharati: Santiniketan) Page 217

[xix] Ghosh, Sankha, “Mukhosh”, Nirman O Sristi (Dey’s: Kolkata)

[xx] Letter to Lokendra Palit, 1892, Sahitya, Rabindra Rachanabali, vol. IV, p.807.

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