Once in a century a man is born with a genius that seems to be godlike and fortunate indeed is the country where such salt of the earth are born, for it becomes deathless for all time. Such a man was Tagore poet, philosopher and patriot! For sixty long years did the magic wand of this great Maestro create poems and dramas, songs and novels, stories and essays and paintings. It may perhaps be too much to claim that he never wrote anything commonplace; but even the commonplace in him was touched with the light of genius. That indeed is something memorable. And memorable also was his amazing versatility, his many-sidedness. He was an educationist with unique ideas, a poet with incomparable vision, a painter who won international recognition, a seer who would look beyond the limitations of time and place, a complete and all-round man such as the ancient Greeks would have loved to behold and honour.
Each and every Bangla-speaking person loves and admires the exquisite and inimitable works of the great genius. But unfortunately very few know how he came to be known as Tagore. His ancestors were not known as Thakurs or Tagores. The transition from Thakur to Tagore, which took many centuries, is really more picturesque and interesting than history!
In the middle of the eighth century AD, after a long period of political unrest and religious and social chaos, Bengal was consolidated as a powerful Hindu kingdom. To restore the purity of the then Hindu society corrupted by Buddhist anarchy and to rehabilitate it on the ancient foundations of caste hierarchy, five Brahmins were imported from the Western Kingdom of Kanauj, which was a stronghold of Brahminic culture. The progeny of these five Brahmins whose names are remembered to this day made up the new racial aristocracy of Bengal which has continued since then. History has little to say of the interesting and colossal eugenic experiment which has made Bengal what it is. However, the breed must have prospered, for in Bengal the number of Brahmins is legion and they all trace their descent from one or the other of these five Brahmins sacred stud bulls in human form, if ever there were any. One of them was named Daksha and is reputed to be the ancestor of the Tagores.
“The Hindus”, claims Krishna Kripalani in her work on Tagore, “so proud of their social organization and caste hierarchy that they gloried in destroying the democratic legacy of the greatest of their race, the Buddha, were soon to suffer the abject humiliation at the hands of an alien race with an alien religion. At the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century Bengal was overrun by Turko-Afghans from the west and in course of time came to be ruled as a province of the Muslim Emperor in Delhi. Many Hindus were converted to Islam, some by persuasion, some by force, some lured by greed to share the power of the new masters. A Brahmin adventurer in love with a Muslim girl was clever enough to kill two birds with one stone. By voluntarily adopting the new religion (Islam) he got the woman he loved and rose to be an influential dignitary, the Dewan or right-hand man of the Muslim Governor of Jessore, a district in South Bengal. His name was Pir Ali Khan. Two of his trusted officers were the Brahmin brothers Kamadev and Jayadev, descendants in direct line, after many generations of vicissitudes unrecorded by history, of the legendary ancestor Daksha.” (Krishna Kripalani, Tagore,
Oxford University Press, London, 1962, p.15).
One day, during the festival of Ramadan, when every devout Muslim fasts during the day, Kamadev found Pir Ali Khan smelling a lemon and jestingly remarked, “According to our religious code smelling is half-eating. You have therefore violated your fast.”
Pir Ali Khan said nothing, but having been born a Hindu, the words rankled in his mind. Some days later he invited the Brahmin brothers, along with several other Hindus, to a music concert in the Governor's palace. In a room adjoining the hall where the audience was listening to the music, a feast of choice Muslim dishes which included beef was laid on the table. When the smell penetrated the concert hall the Hindus began to feel uneasy.
Pir Ali Khan smilingly remarked, “If smelling is half-eating, as your religious code enjoins, you have all tasted of the forbidden food and have lost your caste.”
A panic ensued and the Hindus fled, covering their noses. But the stigma remained. Since then the Tagore family is said to have fallen in the hierarchy of caste and is looked down upon by the orthodox Brahmins who refer to them derogatively as Pirali or Pirili Brahmins.
“The Brahmin's position in Hindu society”, says Krishna Kripalani in Tagore , “depends almost entirely on the assumed purity and holiness of his caste. Having lost that 'purity' the family must have found it difficult to live in a community which judged it harshly and gave it little quarter. The predicament must have been particularly galling when it came to finding suitable husbands for the daughters. And so the family, hounded from their ancestral home, must have wandered from place to place, each member seeking fortune for himself and husbands for the daughters. He would be a bold Brahmin who accepted the daughter of such a family. Such a bold fellow was one Jagannath Kushari, who married a niece of the ill-fated brothers Kamadev and Jayadev, whose indiscreet jest had caused the family all the trouble. Jagannath Kushari had to pay a heavy price for his boldness, for he too was obliged to leave his home and settled down in a village called Uttarpara in what is today known as Khulna district in South-East Pakistan. It was a descendant, named Panchanan Kushari, in the male line of this bold and rash man who may be said to have founded what is today known as the Tagore family.”
Exile, misfortune and social persecution had made the descendants of the family defiant and adventurous. Having lost the pride of caste they lost their fear too, for not much else was left to lose. Adventure was in the air. White men from across the seas had opened a factory and trading centre on the banks of the holy river Ganges and, though 'unclean barbarians', such was their power and prestige that even the Muslim rulers thought it prudent to keep on good terms with them. So Panchanan and his uncle Sukhdev left home in the last decade of the seventeenth century, as their forefathers had done earlier, and settled down in a village called Govindpur on the bank of the Ganges not far from the British settlement. Govindpur (now part of the teeming city of Kolkata) was at that time a small fishing village whose inhabitants were all of the so-called low caste. Seeing a Brahmin family settle in their midst they felt elated and gave the uncle and his nephew all the honour due to their caste as Brahmins. Panchanan was always referred to or addressed by them as Panchanan Thakur - Thakur meaning Holy Lord, as the Brahmins are often addressed even to this day. Panchanan had found a lucrative occupation in supplying provisions to the foreign ships that sailed up the river. The British and other foreigners had thus ample opportunities of dealing with Panchanan and naturally assumed, as most foreigners would still do, that Thakur was Panchanan's surname or family name. So they referred to him as Mr. Thakur and unable to articulate the unfamiliar name pronounced it as Tagore or Tagoure. This is how the Tagores came to be known as such and are still known even in other parts of India beyond undivided Bengal.
“The Muslims”, claims Krishna Kripalani in Tagore, “polluted the family's holy caste, the Christians its no less holy name. The change was more than nominal, it was symbolic, for the Tagores were soon to represent in their new destiny a fine fusion of the three great strands of culture Hindu, Muslim, and Christian which have made modern India what it is.”
Edward Thompson also testifies to this fact but in a slightly different way. In his excellent treatise entitled Rabindranath Tagore, he opines: “A few remarks on the relationship between orthodox Hindu society and the Tagores will be in place here. The family are Pirili [((Persian) pir + ali. A pir is a saint] Brahmans; that is, outcastes, as having supposedly eaten with Musalmans in a former day. No strictly orthodox Brahman would either eat or inter-marry with them. Thus, they have no real place in the orthodox Brahman organization. 'Apart from their great position as zemindars and leaders of culture (chief saint)', a friend writes, 'from a strictly social point of view the Tagores would be looked down upon with a certain contempt as pirilis. The irony of the situation is their outstanding influence despite this, in everything that matters. The family name is Banerji (Bandopadhyaya). But Thakur ('Lord') is a common mode of addressing Brahmans, and was used by the early British officials for any Brahman in their service. Anglicized as Tagore, it was taken over by this great family in their surname.” (Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore, Delhi, 1991, Pp. 12-13).
Syed Ashraf Ali, scholar and Islamic thinker, is a former senior radio official and former director general, Islamic Foundation Bangladesh.