‘The Cultural Ambassdor of India’

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Critical Lives: Rabindranath Tagore

Author: Bashabi Fraser

Publisher: Reaktion Books Ltd- /Speaking Tiger, 2020

Almost even eighty years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore continues to be written about. Any biographical account of Tagore’s life and works — whether it is in Bengali, English or any other language — is attention-grabbing and is received with awe and admiration. Indeed, for the bard whose immortal lines echo even today – Jodi tor daak shune keyo na ashe, tobe aakla cholo re (If no one answers to your call, walk alone) — no number of books is enough to have another look at his great mind, make another study of his brilliance.

Emeritus Professor, co-founder, and Director of the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies (ScoTs) at Edinburgh- Napier University, Bashabi Fraser’s newest book on Tagore ( Reaktion Books, London/Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi) is a brilliant account of the Kobiguru simply for the reason that it is both enlightening and at the same time perceptive. This discerning and sophisticatedly brought out a book of 250 pages gives a unique insight to Tagore’s life, his experiences in India, Europe, China, and Japan and cites numerous incidents from his life that directly influenced some of his great works.

Says Fraser in the introduction of her book: “this biographical study reassesses the Renaissance man, a polymath, who embodies the modern consciousness of India, engaged as he was in nation-building and contributing to the narrative of a nation.”

Part of the series ‘Critical Lives’ of leading cultural figures of the world in the the modern period, this biography explores the life of the great artist, writer philosopher in relation to his creations.

As the blurb says, “polymath Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913. But Tagore was much more than a writer. Through his poems, novels, short stories, poetic songs, dance-dramas, and paintings, he transformed Bengali literature and Indian art. He was instrumental in bringing Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and strove to create a less divided society through mutual respect and understanding, like his great contemporary and close friend, Mahatma Gandhi.”

Even though Annie Besant was the first to call Gandhi a ‘Mahatma’, Tagore made the name popular. In the author’s view, “both Tagore and Gandhi, who were and still remain India’s greatest intellectual and political minds, respectively, continued to depend on each other for mutual support until Tagore’s death in 1941. Both believed that man needed to rely on his inner resources, on truth, love, and compassion to find full freedom to realize himself and fellow human beings as brethren.”

But, then, she sees a difference between the two great men: “While Gandhi was against technological advancement and science, Tagore, as a modernist believed that science and humanities were needed for holistic education and social advancement.”

Divided into a dozen chapters (‘The Tagores of Jorasonko’, ‘Growing up in the Tagore Household’, ‘English Interlude’, ‘Journey to the Banks of Padma’, ‘The Abode of Peace’, ‘From Shantiniketan to the world Stage’, ‘The renouncement of Knighthood’, ‘Where the World Meets in a Nest’, ‘The call of truth’, ‘Waves of Nationalism’, ‘Tagores’ Modernity and The legacy: At Home and the World’) the book has more than thirty illustrations — culled out from various albums.

Besides making a timely re-evaluation of the poet’s life and work, Fraser weighs up Tagore’s “many activities and shows how he embodies the modern the consciousness of India”. She examines in great detail Tagore’s ties with his childhood in Bengal, his role in Indian politics and his interests in international relationships, as well as addressing some of the misreading of his life and work through a holistic standpoint.

Fraser says, “India’s debt to Tagore is immense, and together with Mahatma Gandhi, he remains one of the architects of modern India and India’s primary soft power. Tagore’s liberal humanism and modernity make him relevant today and his place in world literature can be endorsed by a close study of his life, times, and work.”

This intuitive and charmingly written biography of a man who transcended all sorts of borders is a must-read. For someone who is interested in knowing the events which shaped Tagore’s literary career, this concise and yet critical book will be of immense help. More than anything else, the present volume is an indispensable and resourceful guide to know all that Viswakobi Rabindranath Tagore stood for. 

Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 

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