Rabindranath Tagore, one of greatest Indian poets, novelists, philosophers and myriad-minded men, was born at No. 6 Dwarkanath Tagore’s Lane, Jorasanko, Calcutta (now called Kolkata) on 7 May 1861 (25 Baishakh 1268 BS) as the thirteenth child of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and mother Sharada Devi. Rabindranath’s twelve siblings – seven brothers and five sisters – were all bright and brilliant people. Some of the elder brothers and sisters were old enough to have wives and husbands and they all were living in the same extensive house. The house itself, more like a palace, was large enough to accommodate all of the siblings with facilities such as courtyard, roof garden, prayer hall and so forth. This day of 7 May is celebrated by all Bengali and Indian cultural organisations round the world as the 25th Baishakh (২৫শে বৈশাখ).
Rabindranath’s early childhood was rather a lonely, solitary and affection-deprived childhood. In a big house like the Jorasanko, there were surprisingly only a few children and most of the adults were all engaged in all sorts of cultural, literary and intellectual activities. Little Rabi used to hang around in the wide veranda alongside the rooms where piano was practised in one room, tunes of classical Hindustani music were emanating from another room and in yet another room Shakespeare’s Hamlet was rehearsed. The acutely sensitive boy was longing to be part of the artistic activities in the house, but was left out as too young to participate and had to satisfy himself to be in the veranda of the house.
That is how Rabi described his childhood in My Reminiscences. Indeed, Satyajit Ray depicted Rabi’s childhood in a documentary film, Rabindranath, on Tagore’s birth centenary in 1961. A beautiful dreamy-eyed child clutching a flute aimlessly strolling along the veranda overlooking hive of artistic activities longing to connect with them, but with no success. But, probably, the air of this cultural atmosphere might have percolated to his inner sense so much so that he became in his own time the icon of cultural activities not only of Bengal but also of the whole of India and, dare I say, of the whole world.
Rabi grew up in an impersonal non-affectionate regime under the supervision of servants, away from close loving relationship of the parents. His father was constantly away from the house, travelling in northern India and elsewhere. His mother was busy managing the large household. So, servants were assigned to look after the children. In My Reminiscences he termed this early period a ‘servocracy’ that ‘In the history of India the regime of Slave Dynasty was not a happy one’. When Rabi and other children sat down to eat, a wooden tray would be placed in front of them with a quantity of luchis on them and a few luchis would be dropped on the platter of the children. Then they would be asked whether anyone would like more. The children knew which reply would be welcome to the servants!
His father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, would occasionally come to Jorasanko, but to Rabi, it was as if he was not there in the house at all. Rabi used to watch his father perform his morning prayer on the roof of the house from a hiding place on the roof. Close personal relationships between parents and children were not encouraged by the Tagore family at that time. Maharshi Debendranath Tagore desired to inculcate British upper-class mentality. In Britain children of top government officials, dukes and duchess’, lords and ladies all went to public schools where strict disciplinary rules were imposed and certain games and sports, warfare techniques etc were taught. Rabi had to endure such impersonal upbringing at home. At the very early stage, Tagore children were given home-based physical and mental training. Wrestling was part of the home-based education. Rabi was not allowed to go outside the walls of Tagore house except for the school.
Subsequently, Rabi’s elder brother Hemendranath Tagore took the responsibility of Rabi’s early education alongside school education. Very early in the morning, Rabi clad in a loincloth used to be given a lesson in wrestling. Then dressed in kurta, he would take lessons in literature, mathematics, geography and history. Then he would go to school. On his return, lessons in drawing and gymnastics and finally in the evening, in a kerosene lamplight, lessons in English were given.
Rabi showed literary and poetic skills at a very early age. It is said that at the age of eight, Rabi wrote the poem, ‘jol pore, pata nore’ (“জল পড়ে, পাতা নড়ে”) (water drops, leaf shivers). However, Rabi himself said that at that time, like a deer with its newly sprouted antlers, he and his budding poetry made a nuisance of themselves. Rabi’s elder brothers recognised his talent to write and recite poems and encouraged him to do so.
Rabi was probably longing for friendship with others as he was growing up. When Kadambari, a mere girl of nine years old (only about a year older than Rabi) got married to Rabi’s elder brother Jyotirindranath in 1868 and came to Jorasanko, Rabi found a good companion and eventually a close friend, within the confines of Tagore house. Kadambari had a high literary sense and genuine appreciation. When she came to the Tagore family, initially she discouraged Rabi to come close to her and pretended that she did not like his poems and even his looks. Kadambari even chided Rabi by saying that “Rabi, don’t you have a male friend of your own?”. Long after the event, Rabi wrote in a poem in 1939, clearly autobiographical:
Hesitatingly I tried to come a little close
To her in a striped sari, my mind in a whirl;
But there was no doubting her frown – I was a child,
I was not a girl, I was a different breed.
However, during the 1870s, a highly affectionate and somewhat loving relationship grew up between Rabi and Kadambari. They were both children, not even teen agers. After the death of Rabi’s mother, Sharada Devi in 1875, Kadambari was the deepest female companion on Rabi’s youth. When Kadambari poisoned herself on 19 April 1884 and died on 21 April 1884, aged about twenty-five, Rabi at that time, only twenty-three, was deeply shocked and distraught to the core. Death was Rabi’s constant companion since then. He wrote so many poems and songs on death and mental suffering of death that Elisabeth Kūbler-Ross on her classic study On Death and Dying mentioned that nobody had thought more deeply about death than Rabindranath Tagore and every chapter of her book was headed by a quote from Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore made Bengali one of the richest and poetic languages of the world. He received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. His songs are sung as national anthems in two sovereign states – India and Bangladesh – and Sri Lanka drew inspiration from his song in their national anthem. Rabindranath Tagore is the epitome of Bengali identity. In the book ‘Keeping up with Time’ by Anisur Rahman it is stated that “If there is one person who embodies Bengal, Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore”
- A Rahman is an author and a columnist