I need not look far in search of greatness and people who epitomize it. As a culturally involved Bengali growing up in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi - for those who do not know, the locality is a mini-Bengal away from Bengal; - and as a student of Indian Classical Ballet for eight plus years; Rabindranath Tagore, 1861-1941, was the towering influence on my life. For the benefit of my international audience, as a native language of 3.05% of the world’s population, Bengali with its millennium-old literature is the seventh most spoken language in the world - after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese in the same order. And if 202 million Bengalis have to recall a name, it would be that of Tagore - the spinner of elegant prose and magical poetry; the “myriad-minded man” who was all of poet, short-story writer, song composer, novelist, playwright, essayist, painter and educationist (Dutta and Robinson).
What better moment to remember him than the twin occasions of centenary year of Nobel Prize awarded to him, and his birth month; - 7th May being his birthday, celebrated with great gusto by Bengalis every year. In 1896, he wrote a poem in Chitra titled “The Bengali Year 1400”, a date corresponding to 1993 AD; which begins with: “Who are you, reader, reading my poems a hundred years hence?” To my pleasant surprise, as I found out last year, in an event hosted by The Kenyan Bengalee Association on the bard’s birthday - an annual feature actually, his works are read to this day even in far flung Nairobi!
The legacy that Tagore left behind is staggering by its sheer volume – a cornucopia of poems reaching out to all ages; thousands of songs – a form of its own, popularly known as Rabindra Sangeet or Tagore music; 13 novels and novellas; 4 collections of short stories – a genre that he originated in Bengali; numerous plays, essays, memoirs and travelogues; about 2000 paintings and sketches; and last but not the least Visva-Bharati University. The immensity is certainly not without its substance. His poems show “astonishing technical control” – “the unerring use of metre, rhyme and verse structure”; and the “energy and vitality of language” with “vastness of [its] vocabulary” (Radice, “A lecture”). His music, “a breath taking fusion of his musicianship and poetic genius”, is a “symphony of words, moods and beats”; etching every shade of human emotion and sentiment (Sengupta). His short stories give life and spirit to not only his characters, but also to their houses, the surroundings and atmosphere (K V). His sketches and paintings, “filled with bold lines and vivid colours”, are slowly receiving the acclaim that they have long deserved (“The last harvest”).
Audacious as it may sound, I set out to unearth the raison d’être behind this greatness. Can the phenomenon be explained through Colvin’s argument of the ten-year rule – to become world-class, most accomplished people need minimum of ten years of continued deliberate practice? In other words a decade of ceaseless gruelling hard work specifically aimed at bettering oneself, driven by results-based feedback. As I read more and more about Tagore, I realize his life can be regarded as the beau ideal of deliberate practice. He started writing poetry at the age of eight and released his first substantial poems when he was sixteen. A dropout from the conventional system of education, he prepared himself instead through a life-long intense study of languages, literature, art and music – spanning across poetry of Kalidasa in Sanskrit to Shakespeare on one end; and across Bengali semi-classical music to Irish folk melodies on the other. “His respect for scientific laws and his exploration of biology, physics, and astronomy informed his poetry, which exhibited extensive naturalism and verisimilitude” (“Biography”). A “peripatetic litterateur”, he drew his ideas from understanding of places and people - from rural Bengal to Dalhousie in India, to that of the thirty plus countries that he visited during his life time (“Biography”). He was not afraid to take up a new challenge in the form of painting at the ripe age of sixty. I would think there would have been ample channels for feedback for him with an artistically gifted extended family close at hand. And throughout his more than six decades long illustrious career, he constantly went on “modernising and refashioning himself” in all spheres of his work (Radice, “Gazing”).
Master craftsman though he was, Tagore’s works transcend the beauty of the visual imagery in his compositions. It is not simply how the message was conveyed, but his appeal lies more in the message itself. “For Tagore, the feeling behind a work, what he liked to call its rupa-bheda or ‘emotional idea’, was central and primary. No feeling, no art” (Radice, “A lecture”).
As a poet and writer who was “prepared to tackle the deepest, most cosmic” themes; the ideas of life, death, riddle of existence and God can be found in many of his writings (Radice, “A lecture”). Not restricted to the spiritual domain alone; his works portray human psychology through its hopes and aspirations, disappointments and frustrations, joys and sorrows, humour and wit; and there lies their universal allure. Child-marriage and dowry-system; bigoted orthodoxy; the political frustrations of a rising educated class; the growing gulf between town and country; man’s intimate relation with nature; dehumanizing poverty; cruel and corrupt officialdom – he has written about them all (K V). “His essays range over literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs, philosophical analysis, international relations, and much else” (Sen). As an exponent of Bengal Renaissance, which contributed significantly to the Indian freedom movement; Tagore opposed imperialism. But over and above that, he “spent his life rebelling against the hemming in of human life, the blinkering of human vision, and the curtailing of human freedom and aspiration” (Hatcher). A manifestation of his values was the university of Visva-Bharati – created as a synthesis of local and international elements, with an emphasis on self-motivation and intellectual curiosity rather than on discipline and competitive excellence; – which later went on to foster many great minds including Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics and Satyajit Ray, Oscar winning filmmaker (Sen).
Artistry can possibly be mastered though training. But can we say the same about profound thinking of such depth and expanse - the fruits of which still draw audience in such numbers, after 150 years of his birth, across religious and geographical boundaries of India, Bangladesh and elsewhere (Radice, “Gazing”)? For me, nothing expresses better the beliefs that he stood for, than a poem from Gitanjali - a verse whose recitation in both Bengali and English, as part of assembly prayers started my day for twelve years while at school. An ever relevant living testament to this great man’s greatness of thought.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
“Biography of Rabindranath Tagore”. poemhunter.com. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.poemhunter.com/rabindranath-tagore/biography/>.
“The last harvest of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings”. FirstPost. 23 Apr 2013. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.firstpost.com/living/the-last-harvest-of-rabindranath-tagores-paintings-722059.html>.
Colvin, Geoffrey. “What It Takes to be Great.” Fortune. 19 October 2006. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391794/index.htm>.
Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. Print.
Hatcher, Brian A. “Aji hote satabarsha pare: What Tagore Says to us a Century Later”. parabaas.com. 9 Oct 1999. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pBrian1.html>.
K V, Dominic. “Tagore’s Short Stories”. Muse India. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.museindia.com/focuscontent.asp?issid=33&id=2152>.
Radice, William. “A lecture delivered by invitation of Rabindra Bhavan”. parabaas.com. 24 February 2003. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pRadice.html>.
Radice, William. “Gazing at the Sun: Bangladeshi Poets and Rabindranath Tagore”. parabaas.com. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pRadice_Gazing.html>.
Sen, Amartya. “Tagore and His India”. Nobelprize.org. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-article.html>.
Sengupta, Malabi. “Rabindra Sangeet. The Sweet Sound of Music”. Down Melody Lane. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.downmelodylane.com/article_rabindrasangeet.html>.
The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore. Web. 20 May 2013. <http://www.tagoreweb.in/>.