Science and art—A family of geniuses—Youth of Rabindranath—His poetry—His politics—His school
Meanwhile, despite oppression, bitterness and poverty, India continued to create science, literature and art. Professor Jagadis Chandra Bose has won world-renown by his researches in electricity and the physiology of plants; and the work of Professor Chandrasekhara Raman in the physics of light has been crowned with the Nobel prize. In our own century a new school of painting has arisen in Bengal, which merges the richness of color in the Ajanta frescoes with the delicacy of line in the Rajput miniatures. The paintings of Abanindranath Tagore share modestly in the voluptuous mysticism and the delicate artistry that brought the poetry of his uncle to international fame.
The Tagores are one of the great families of history. Davendranath Tagore (Bengali Thakur) was one of the organizers, and later the head, of the Brahma-Somaj; a man of wealth, culture and sanctity, he became in his old age a heretic patriarch of Bengal. From him have descended the artists Abanindranath and Gogonendranath, the philosopher Dwijendranath, and the poet Rabindranath, Tagore—the last two being his sons.
Rabindranath was brought up in an atmosphere of comfort and refinement, in which music, poetry and high discourse were the very air that he breathed. He was a gentle spirit from birth, a Shelley who refused to die young or to grow old; so affectionate that squirrels climbed upon his knees, and birds perched upon his hands.24 He was observant and receptive, and felt the eddying overtones of experience with a mystic sensitivity. Sometimes he would stand for hours on a balcony, noting with literary instinct the figure and features, the mannerisms and gait of each passer-by in the street; sometimes, on a sofa in an inner room, he would spend half a day silent with his memories and his dreams. He began to compose verses on a slate, happy in the thought that errors could be so easily wiped away.* Soon he was writing songs full of tenderness for India—for the beauty of her scenery, the loveliness of her women, and the sufferings of her people; and he composed the music for these songs himself. All India sang them, and the young poet thrilled to hear them on the lips of rough peasants as he traveled, unknown, through distant villages.25 Here is one of them, translated from the Bengali by the author himself; who else has ever expressed with such sympathetic scepticism the divine nonsense of romantic love?
Tell me if this be all true, my lover, tell me if this be true.
When these eyes flash their lightning the dark clouds in your breast make stormy answer.
Is it true that my lips are sweet like the opening bud of the first conscious love?
Do the memories of vanished months of May linger in my limbs?
Does the earth, like a harp, shiver into songs with the touch of my feet?
Is it then true that the dewdrops fall from the eyes of night when I am seen, and the morning light is glad when it wraps my body round?
Is it true, is it true, that your love traveled alone through ages and worlds in search of me?
That when you found me at last, your age-long desire found utter peace in my gentle speech and my eyes and lips and flowing hair?
Is it then true that the mystery of the Infinite is written on this little forehead of mine?
Tell me, my lover, if all this be true?26
There are many virtues in these poems*—an intense and yet sober patriotism; a femininely subtle understanding of love and woman, nature and man; a passionate penetration into the insight of India’s philosophers; and a Tennysonian delicacy of sentiment and phrase. If there is any fault in them it is that they are too consistently beautiful, too monotonously idealistic and tender. Every woman in them is lovely, and every man in them is infatuated with woman, or death, or God; nature, though sometimes terrible, is always sublime, never bleak, or barren, or hideous,† Perhaps the story of Chitra is Tagore’s story: her lover Arjuna tires of her in a year because she is completely and uninterruptedly beautiful; only when she loses her beauty and, becoming strong, takes up the natural labors of life, does the god love her again—a profound symbol of the contented marriage.28 Tagore confesses his limitations with captivating grace:
My love, once upon a time your poet launched a great epic in his mind.
Alas, I was not careful, and it struck your ringing anklets and came to grief.
It broke up into scraps of songs, and lay scattered at your feet.29
Therefore he has sung lyrics to the end, and all the world except the critics has heard him gladly. India was a little surprised when her poet received the Nobel prize (1913); the Bengal reviewers had seen only his faults, and the Calcutta professors had used his poems as examples of bad Bengali.30 The young Nationalists disliked him because his condemnation of the abuses in India’s moral life was stronger than his cry for political freedom; and when he was knighted it seemed to them a betrayal of India. He did not hold the honor long; for when, by a tragic misunderstanding, British soldiers fired into a religious gathering at Amritsar (1919), Tagore returned his decorations to the Viceroy with a stinging letter of renunciation. Today he is a solitary figure, perhaps the most impressive of all men now on the earth: a reformer who has had the courage to denounce the most basic of India’s institutions—the caste system—and the dearest of her beliefs—transmigration;31 a Nationalist who longs for India’s liberty, but has dared to protest against the chauvinism and self-seeking that play a part in the Nationalist movement; an educator who has tired of oratory and politics, and has retreated to his ashram and hermitage at Shantiniketan, to teach some of the new generation his gospel of moral self-liberation; a poet broken-hearted by the premature death of his wife, and by the humiliation of his country; a philosopher steeped in the Vedanta,32 a mystic hesitating, like Chandi Das, between woman and God, and yet shorn of the ancestral faith by the extent of his learning; a lover of Nature facing her messengers of death with no other consolation than his unaging gift of song.
“Ah, poet, the evening draws near; your hair is turning grey.
Do you in your lonely musing hear the message of the hereafter?”
“It is evening,” the poet said, “and I am listening because some one may call from the village, late though it be.
I watch if young straying hearts meet together, and two pairs of eager eyes beg for music to break their silence and speak for them.
Who is there to weave their passionate songs, if I sit on the shore of life and contemplate death and the beyond? . . .
It is a trifle that my hair is turning grey.
I am ever as young or as old as the youngest and the oldest of this village. . . .
They all have need for me, and I have no time to brood over the after-life.
I am of an age with each; what matter if my hair turns grey?”33