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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Tagore inscribed the Orient into the trajectory of humanism

'A nineteenth-century Orientalist was therefore either a scholar...or a gifted enthusiast...or both,' says Said, after pointing out that 'there was a virtual epidemic of Orientalia affecting every major poet, essayist, and philosopher of the period...this is a later transposition eastwards of a similar enthusiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance'. But the resemblance with the Renaissance ends there. The Orient, in Europe, continued to remain the province of arcane scholars and gifted enthusiasts; in the realm of culture, it retained, and still does, the ethos of 'Orientalia'. Unlike Greek and Latin antiquity, which becomes an indispensable resource and even a romantic myth for modernism, the Orient, with a handful of exceptions, such as the final lines of The Waste Land, is never inserted into modernist self-consciousness. Its domain becomes, in Europe, largely the domain of popular culture, of kitsch and the exotic. Even in 19th-century Indian art, the Orient occupies the soft, hazy space of 'Orientalia' in popular artists like Ravi Varma; indeed, the Oriental paintings ' the faux Mughal miniatures ' of Tagore's nephew Abanindranath, often seen to be the father of modern Indian painting, have their life-blood, partly, in the kitschy, the popular. This is not to make a value-judgment about one sort of artist, or art, and another, but to try to map the moment and to be as true as possible to its impetus.

It would have been easy enough for Tagore to turn, as a poet and writer, to the Orient as a magical and occult resource, as Yeats did, in some of his writings, with Ireland. Instead, radically, he inscribed it, in his vast oeuvre, into the trajectory of humanism and the 'high' modern; Easternness, in his work, is no longer incompatible with individualism, with the self-consciousness about the powers and limits of language, or the awareness of the transformative role of the secular artist. In fashioning these paradigms, modes of consciousness, and roles for himself, Tagore seems to be addressing, instructing, and even rebutting not a Brahmin, but a bourgeois orthodoxy in Calcutta; and, unprecedentedly, conflating his identity as an Oriental and his vocation as a secular artist in doing so.

By the time Tagore was born in 1861, the first wave of Orientalist enthusiasm and the most significant phase of Orientalist scholarship were over. In 1813, Byron had advised Thomas Moore, 'Stick to the East ' it [is] the only poetical policy.' The 'policy' had impelled him, Southey, and Moore to write about the gul-e-bulbul (the stock Persian metaphor for the nightingale in the garden), and probably also stimulated Edward Fitzgerald's 'translation' of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam. By the second half of the 19th century, the excitement, despite the appearance of Max Mueller, had largely passed. (T.S. Eliot's misgivings about Fitzgerald's poem, despite his not being immune to its appeal, is representative of modernism's distrust of 'Orientalia'. How Tagore escaped, albeit briefly, this distrust, with the help of Pound, of all people, isn't easy to understand, and I'll return to it later.)

In 1879, 'Oriental' poetry received a final fillip with the publication of 'Light of Asia', Edwin Arnold's life of the Buddha in narrative verse. As early as 1817, Thomas Moore had received the unheard-of sum of 3000 guineas as an advance for his poem 'Lalla Rookh'; now, once more, 'Light of Asia' became an immense success on both sides of the Atlantic, and was reprinted 80 times. When Matthew Arnold visited America, he found he was confused by many with Edwin. Of course, the notion of 'high seriousness' that Matthew Arnold had himself formulated would prevail upon the culture of the time, guaranteeing that his reputation would outlast the frenetic but essentially light efflorescence of the 'Oriental' poem; here, too, in the contrast between the two Arnolds, we're reminded that 'seriousness' in literature remained a European or Anglo-Saxon province, and the 'Oriental' was marked by lightness, colour, and momentary success. The matter of success in the marketplace (one of the first things we associate with a certain kind of Indian writing today) and its relationship to the Orient has a lineage, then, stretching back to the early 19th century.

The example of the Tagore family shows us that, in Calcutta itself, the creation of a space for culture had everything to do with a humanistic embracing of 'high seriousness', and a turning away from commerce and material reward: the same turn that marks the emergence of modernism in the bourgeois cultures of Europe. Tagore's grandfather, 'Prince' Dwarkanath, was a man who made his fortune out of the opportunity the colonial moment presented him with, as a middleman for the Company in Calcutta. He travelled to London and threw lavish parties; he died with his financial affairs in disarray. The disarray ' not to speak of the vast estates ' was inherited by his son Debendranath, who paid off his father's debts and made his family financially secure again.

But the turn away from commerce and entrepreneurship (if not from inherited land) that would come to characterize middle-class or bhadralok Bengali culture already marks Debendranath, who, besides being a man of property, became a philosopher-mystic ' 'maharshi' or 'maha rishi', the 'great sage'. What facilitated Debendranath's increasing philosophical leanings was his discovery of the Upanishads ' a text that his father's friend, the scholar, reformer, and thinker Rammohun Roy had translated into English in the early 19th century, and which Anquetil-Duperron, too, had brought to the world's attention in the 18th century in his French translation. The Upanishads, then, became, for both Roy and Debendranath Tagore, a prism through which they recovered not only their own spiritual inheritance, but the lineage of a humanism to be found outside the Mediterranean basin.

The break with commerce that Debendranath represented was deepened emphatically and with finality in the next generation, especially by two of his fourteen children: Jyotirindranath, his fifth son, and Rabindranath, the youngest. (Tagore's biographers, Andrew Robinson and Krishna Dutta, have noted shrewdly that, although the poet speaks constantly of his father in his memoirs and elsewhere, he elides the subject of his grandfather Dwarkanath.) Jyotirindranath, with his experimentations in theatre, literature, and especially musical composition (in the 1870s and 1880s he was composing Bengali songs on the piano), was a great influence on Rabindranath, as was Jyotirindranath's young wife, with whom he had an ambiguous relationship: part filial, part romantic, the sort of semi-articulate bond that animates many of his fictions and especially his songs, a bond that almost thrives on the permanent impossibility of consummation ' 'I could speak to her on a day like this,/ on a day when it rains as heavily./ You can open your heart on a day like this ' / when you hear the clouds as the rain pours down/ in gloom unbroken by light./'Those words won't be heard by anyone else;/ there's not a soul around./ Just us, face to face, in each other's sorrow/ sorrowing, as water streams without interruption;/ it's as if there's no one else in the world.' (my translation)

These, the first two verses of a song, echo, with their promise of secrecy and revelation, what Tagore wrote to Kadambari in the concluding piece in a collection of jottings and musings published not long before her death: 'I offer something more with these thoughts, which only you will notice. Do you remember that moment by the banks of the Ganga' That silent dark' Those wanderings in imagined worlds' Those deep discussions in low, serious voices' The two of us sitting silently, saying nothing' That breeze at sunrise, that evening shadow! And, once, those rain-bearing clouds, Sravan's downpour, the songs of Vidyapati'...I have concealed a handful of contentment and grief in these thoughts; open these pages once in a while and look upon them with affection, no one but you will be able to see what's in them! The message inscribed into these words is ' there's one writing that you and I shall read. And there's another writing for everyone else.'

These three ' Jyotirindranath, Kadambari, and Rabindranath ' formed, along with certain gifted members of a subsequent generation, the core of what was probably India's first 'artistic' family: 'artistic' in the sense of self-consciously pursuing the arts as a vocation, with a quasi-religious Victorian fervour, while moving away from, as self-consciously, the pre-ordained responsibilities defined by caste, class, property, and even gender. This salon ' at once embarrassing, silly, and deeply creative and original ' and Tagore's part in it were permanently shadowed by Kadambari's suicide in 1884. The reasons for it are unclear; though speculations range from her attachment to Rabindranath, who was married a few months before she took her life by consuming opium, to her husband Jyotirindranath's flirtation, possibly liaison, with an actress he came into contact with during his forays into theatre, and whose letters Kadambari discovered in his pocket; again, a scene retold in the novel, Chokher Bali.

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