Nation on the March

Nation on the March
Nation on the March

Dec 24, 2009

A British painter + An Irish Poet + A Lost & Found Luggage Office + a Bengali Poet tormented by grief = India's first Nobel Prize

Last month, our niece visited us from Kolkata. She brought one gift that was chosen for us by her mother. It was a music album of Tagore songs, translated in Hindi. 

Each song was introduced in the baritone voice of Amitabh Bachchan. His   sonorous  narration, the poetry and music , all together had a mesmerizing effect. I was carried in to the old world charm when Tagore lived in flesh and blood, moved majestically in his flowing silk robes and flowing beard, a rare polymath, our home-grown Leonardo da Vinci, with superior intelligence and whose expertise spanned a significant number of subject areas like literature ( plays, poetry & prose, music, painting. He was also an artist, philosopher, singer, social reformer and educationist. He was as much versatile as was profound.

Listening to his creations was also so  profound that one  is carried  back in history to witness the unfolding of  an epoch-making event . 

The clock must be turned backwards for about a century. .....................

 The place is the Port of Mumbai.

The date is 22-5-1912. 

Tagore  carries in his luggage today the translations of his selected poems in a note book  as he embarks upon his journey to the west with his son, daughter-in-law and the royal family of Tripura.  He sails from Mumbai for London.

He had earlier planned and abandoned this voyage on 19th March, just two months ago. He was to sail from Kolkata , his luggage had been loaded on to the ship but he suddenly became ill and unconscious. The next port of call was Chennai. On doctor's advice, he disembarked here and returned with his  luggage, dejected .

But his translation work was picking momentum, which helped him overcome his gloom. The pages of the note book  were fast filling up. 

16-6-1912. he reaches London. Obviously, there is only one copy of the note book containing  Gitanjali translations. He took a train from Charing Cross to Bloomsbury, where his hotel was booked. The family was not accustomed to tube railway. 

When they eventually reached the hotel and were settled, Tagore realized on the next day that his bag containing the translations was left  in the train.

 Fortunately, it was recovered from Lost Luggage Office, safely!

Sir William Rothenstein, (January 29, 1872 – February 14, 1945), was an English painter, draughtsman and writer on art,  who became known for his portrait drawings of famous individuals and was an official war artist in both World War I and World War II.  

Tagore had met the British painter  Rothenstein earlier in India at his 
ancestral home (where Tagore  was born) . 
He had done Tagore's sketches earlier and was impressed with his writings also.

Tagore was feeling very lonely in London  and he soon contacted Rothenstein. he moved to reside near Rothenstein's residence.

When he went through Tagore's translations, he was so impressed that he & his friend arranged a meeting with WB Yeats on 27-6-1912. 

It was followed by a reading session on 7th July , followed by a dinner in a hotel on 10th July. On each occasion the attendance was growing larger. Very eminent and yet to be eminent literary figures were present and felt overjoyed with delight and emotions!

The subsequent events  were to happen in quick succession :

[] In a week's time, Yeats completed his pencil corrections in Tagore's note book. 

[] A limited edition with 750 copies was prined on 1-11-1912.

[] It was dedicated by Tagore to William Rothenstein ( whom he had described in his subsequent  letter  of 20-12-1913 from India  very lovingly : ".... Of all the friends I have in the West, I think of you as the one who ought to have been born as my brother in this country"

[] Yeats,  who  eleven years later, in December 1923, himself  received  the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote an exhilarating Introduction where he said: ..." these verses will not lie in little well-printed books on ladies' tables, ... or be carried about students at the universities..... but, as the generations pass, travellers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon rivers..." ( Any Bengali speaking bhadra lok will agree today,  90 years later). 

I am thrilled to imagine that  Tagore was 51 years old, 
and both Yeats
and Rothenstein were 4 and 11 years 
younger to Tagore

when these great things were happening !

[]  During the eight months  of 1913, Macmillan & Co Ltd of London, brought out ten reprints, well before the Nobel Prize was announced. 

[] Tagore became the 13th winner for the prize for literature but the  first  non-westerner to win it. If we do not count Ronald Ross and Rudyard Kipling      ( who were two India-born British Nobel prize winners before Tagore), he was the first Indian to be awarded a nobel prize.
Was he very happy ?

  In  Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore by Krishna Dutta, Andrew Robinson , the authors mention that 

" ....In Bengal there was rejoicing, even by Tagore's distractors. 
About  a week after the announcement ( of the prize), 
some five hundred Kolkata citizens went 
by a special train to Shanti Nikentan 
to felicitate Tagore. 
He (Tagore) delivered a stinging rebuke 
to this deputation. He was unable to accept praise 
from the people who did not appreciate his work 
and the fact that the prize was offered 
simply because a foreign readership had shown appreciation, 
struck him as doubly insincere!"

Read more about his disgust!

Harriet Moody was Tagore's closest American friend and a generous hostess to him in USA and England where she invited to stay in her building. 

Ms Moody writes on 19-11-1913 to congratulate Tagore on being honoured with the Nobel prize and again on 27-12-1913, saying 

"..... everyone in Chicago was buying Tagore's books  as gifts and 
the parsiomonius ( excessively miserly) book sellers of Chicago 
could not get enough of them.."

Tagore wrote back to her on 22-1-1914 - ( in what I consider a very  wonderful expression!):

My dear friend,
I am still suffering from the Nobel prize notoriety 
and I do not know what nursing home there is  where 
I can go and get rid of my latest and greatest trouble.
To deprive me of my seclusion is like shelling an oyster - 
the rude touch of the curious world is all over me -.
I am pining for the shade of obscurity.

I hope you have already tired of my name being 
discussed in every newspaper 
and you do not despise me,  who has been 
dragged from  his nest of dreams
into the most crowded market of public applause.

Why do I not have a word of sympathy 
from you in my time of distress?

Your affectionate friend,
Rabindranath Tagore"

Distressed he was most certainly. 

Was not  Gitanjali ( or `song offerings' 
 inspired by successive deaths 
of his near and dear ones ?  

The mystery of death always haunted Tagore. . 
His mother, his lonely symbol of love and freedom 
too left him when he was 14.His brother’s wife  
was his first inspiration to start writing dies when he was 23.

If we glance at the ups and downs 
in his life, it is easy to feel his pain.  

 Essential Tagore chronology: 

[] 1861, born as 14th child in a family of landlords

[] 1869, wrote his first poem

[] 1873, wrote first play

[] 1874, his poem Abhilasha ( a keen desire, ambition 

published - without his name - with just a mention that 

it is penned by a 12-year old one.

[] 1883, Tagore  marries 10-year old Mrinalini Devi

[] 1886, a daughter is born

[] 1888, a son is born

[] 1891, second daughter is born

[] 1894, third daughter is born

[] 1896, youngest child, a son is born

[] 1901, death of eldest daughter

[]1902, death of wife ( age 29) and second daughter ( age 11)

[] 1905, death of father

[] 1906, writes Amar Shonar Bangla  ( the national anthem of Bangladesh)

[] 1907, death of the youngest child ( age 11) -

describes it as " the crowning tragedy" of  his life"

[] 1910, Gitanjali published in Bengali 

( It contains  157  poems written between 1906 to 1910 

whereas the Nobel prize winning Gitanjali is a  slender version 

containing   103 poems selected and translated by Tagore himself)

[] 1911, The National Anthem of India Jana Gana Man is  written by Rabindranath Tagore

( The only person credited with national anthems for two countries)

[] 1912, travels abroad   from 22nd May 1912 to  4th September, 1913

[] 1913, on 13th November, the Nobel prize is announced. 

No telephone at Shantiniketan , so the telegram from Kolkata 

travels  213 kms distance and reaches him on 14th! 

[] 1915, Knighthood from British Govt on 3rd June

[] 1919, returns knighthood on 30th May 

( immediately  after the Jalianwala Baugh massacre of 13th April)

 To end the post, here is my favourite poem  by Tagore ( not from Gitanjali, I presume ) , which tells the  listener to continue his or her journey, irrespective of support or encouragement from others.  It is presented here  in three languages for the readers to savour the same as much as they like it:

Original - In Bengali( romanised script)

Jodi tor đak shune keu na ashe tôbe êkla chôlo re,
Êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo, êkla chôlo re.

Jodi keu kôtha na kôe, ore ore o ôbhaga,
Jodi shôbai thake mukh firaee shôbai kôre bhôe---
Tôbe pôran khule
O tui mukh fuţe tor moner kôtha êkla bôlo re.

Jodi shôbai fire jae, ore ore o ôbhaga,
Jodi gôhon pôthe jabar kale keu fire na chae---
Tôbe pôther kãţa
O tui rôktomakha chôrontôle êkla dôlo re.

Jodi alo na dhôre, ore ore o ôbhaga,
Jodi jhôŗ-badole ãdhar rate duar dêe ghôre---
Tôbe bojranôle
Apon buker pãjor jalie nie êkla jôlo re.

Tagore's English translation

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart
and let it burn alone.

Gujarati translation by Mahadev Desai 

This delicate book Gitanjali is 
thinner ( just 108 pages ) and 
smaller than your copy of 
The Reader's Digest magazine 
and priced at Rs. 60/= !!

It is a steal, one would say &
also very good for uplifiting our spirits !

And, finally,

a sample of Tagore's  delicate expression - in his own hand-writing  !

Last but not the least.....
can we forget to say:

" Thank You, Sir Rothenstein, 
Mr. Yeats 

& a very very special thank you 
to the Lost & Found Luggage Office !!!"