The memoirs and the biographies | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 07, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 07, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore

The memoirs and the biographies

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Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, created much enthrallment among the European and American communities after the publication of the Gitanjali (Song Offerings), in November 1912 from the India Society of London. A novelist, short story writer, playwright, composer and essayist, Rabindranath was an educationist, actor and organiser as well. And all these made this myriad-minded literary personality well known across the western zone of the globe. The sharpness of his philosophical height demanded many documents on him which resulted in many biographies of the poet being published, not to mention the memoirs of the bard.
In 2011, as the world prepares to observe the 150th birth anniversary of the internationally acclaimed poet, it is noticed that many of the events of his life were not properly sketched even in the voluminous and most resourceful biographical book by Prashantakumar Paul (1938-2007), a reputed researcher and devotee of Rabindranath. The untimely death of Prashantakumar caused a sudden stop to his initiative, which ended at the ninth volume of his work called Rabijiboni. The most worthy job, comprising thirty three hundred pages, on the biographical study of Rabindranath was stopped in the year 1926 when Rabindranath reached the age of sixty five. It is a well known fact that the remaining fifteen years of the poet's life were more eventful and will demand much more space to be deliberated on. But the more we penetrate the pages of that excellent work, the more we feel that much information was left unnoticed by Prashantakumar himself. It is thus fair to suppose that researchers in the future will dig deeper and bring to the fore information that has remained unknown so far.
If we go back a hundred years, we will note that in 1911, the fiftieth birth anniversary of Rabindranath was observed by the students of his own institution, the Brahmacharya School. Though it was not done in a grand way, it was not to be overlooked. It was a three-day programme and it was at that point in the poet's life that we got the first biography of the poet. The biographer was Ajitkumar Chakravorty (1886-1918), a writer, singer and a devoted teacher of the school. The long essay that Ajitkumar read out at the celebrations was named Rabindranath, which was subsequently published in the literary journal Probashi before appearing in book form in the year 1912.
One may be reminded here that Rabindranath on his own was preparing an autobiographical sketch of his early life during those days. As Ajitkumar was sketching his work, Rabindranath did not publish his right then. But after the publication of Ajitkumar's book, the poet's memoirs were published as Jibonsmriti (Reminiscences).
Many of the episodes that we go through in Jibonsmriti are to be found in Rabindranath as well. The poet's reflections on school, his disinclination to attend classes, his childhood days in the care of servants are among the primary components that constitute the introductory chapter of Ajitkumar's work. What Ajitkumar did was to present a chronological sketch of the development of the poet's literary achievements. From this point of view, Rabindranath is yet a good resource for the Rabindra-readers. Ajitkumar goes all the way up to the composition of the Bangla Gitanjali and shows the various phases in life.
Let us not forget that Jibonsmriti was not the first attempt by Rabindranath to recapitulate his past. Before that, in 1904, he was requested to write, and for the first time, on his personal life. The result was Atmaporichyay. But it was not an autobiography in the true sense as it rather put forth some of Rabindranath's thoughts.
In Jibonsmriti, a picture was drawn of the first twenty five years of the poet's life, till the writing of Kori O Komol. The time frame that he focused on in Chhelebela, rewritten in the year 1940, was the first seventeen years of the poet's life, till his visit to London.
Within a year of the publication of Rabindranath, the poet was honoured with the most prestigious global literary award in November 1913. Everyone knows that before the announcement of the Nobel Prize, Rabindranath was on a tour of America; and in July an article on him was published in the journal Open Court. The writer Basanta Koomar Roy (? 1949), a Bengali academic at Chicago University. Roy, who met the poet several times during the tour, published his book Rabindranath Tagore: The Man and His Poetry in 1915.
It may be interesting to note that almost all American newspapers had to depend on the Open Court article for preparing news items on Rabindranath Tagore's getting the Nobel. Comprising 246 pages, Rabindranath Tagore: The Man and His Poetry, was no doubt a praiseworthy effort, though it failed to draw the attention of the poet. The chapters of Basanta Koomar Roy's book included: Family Early Years Precocious Poet, Romantic Youth Realistic Poems, Transformation Practical Idealism Devotional Poems, At Silaidah, Tagore the Feminist, As Poet of Indian Nationalism Universalism, Tagore and His Model School of Bolpur On Music, Tagore's Philosophical Message, Tagore and the Nobel Prize His Place in Bengali Literature.
But soon after, another biography focusing on the poet's life and works came out in 1916. It was ,i>Rabindranath Tagore: A Biographical Study by Ernest Rhys (1859-1946). Rhys, who first met Rabindranath in April 1913, brought out this book from Macmillan Company. The work contained twelve chapters: The Unknown Poet, Boy and Man, Some Indian Poets, The Gardener, Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories, The Babe's Paradise, The Playwright, 'Gitanjali' and Chaitanya Deva, A Spiritual Commonwealth, A Book of Meditations, Shanti Niketan, and Conclusion. This publication by the founding editor of Everyman's Library Series earned comparative reviews over the next years in Europe and America.
In 1921, E. J. Thompson came forward with Rabindranath Tagore: His Life and Work under the Heritage of India Series from Kolkata. We find Thompson, principal of Wesleyan College, Bankura, West Bengal, expressing his debt to Dr. Brajendranath Seal (1864-1938), Ajitkumar Chakrabarti and Prasanta Mahalanobis (1893-1972), which reminds us of the fact that it was really impossible for a European to write a biography of Rabindranath.
An Asian poet's getting the Nobel as well as delivering countless lectures in European and American cities starting from 1912 onwards encouraged many writers to write biographies of the poet, which again was not unusual. But, truth be told, it was not that easy a job for any writer to prepare a biography of the poet in Bangla, the poet's own language. As a result, the second book on the poet's life sketch in his mother tongue took decades to materialise. A close associate of the poet, Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay (1892-1985), a teacher of Brahmacharya School since 1909, began taking notes from 1910 and eventually produced the four-volume Rabindrajiboni, a biography in the real sense. The first volume of the work appeared in 1933.
The fourth work in English on the poet, Rabindranath Tagore: a Biography was published by Oxford University Press in 1962. Written by Krishna Kripalani (1907-1992), husband of Nandini (1921-1995), the poet's granddaughter, the biography appeared as a rather acceptable edition. It was as a rich source of information on the poet. The last work in this genre is Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson's Rabindranath Tagore; the myriad-minded man, perhaps one of the most celebrated books on the poet.
Today there is access to hundreds of thousands of pages of newspapers published across the world during the poet's lifetime. They are being uploaded gradually, a situation which demands more studies on many facets of the life of this great Bengali literary personality. Obviously the availability of these resources will help researchers discover more of the man who brought Bengalis in touch with internationalism in his times.

Subrata Kumar Das, author of www.bangladeshinovels.com, can be reached at subratakdas@yahoo.com

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