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Bhaskar's Corner

Tagore & Odisha

Odisha and West Bengal, two geographically contiguous states of India, are as much a proximate in culture and language. Both states have a close link – from people movements to culinary familiarity. More to that. Puri attracts lakhs of people from Bengal. In truth, it is the Bengalis around whom the holy city of Puri revolves. They contribute greatly to the city’s economy. The Tagore family of Jorasonko too had a close connection with Odisha and it stretches back to generations. Rabindranath Tagore’s great grandfather Nilamani Thakur had come to Cuttack as a ‘Sirastadar‘ (revenue collector) duly appointed by the British.

In 1840, Rabindranath’s grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Tagore had bought a small estate near Pandua in the present Jagatsinghpur district. Tagores even had a house built in Cuttack’s Tulasipur area. Later, Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore visited Odisha sometime around  1851 to supervise the estate at Pandua  from where he visited Puri.

Records of those times bring out how the Tagore family was fascinated by Puri’s pristine beach, the camaraderie, and the cool breeze.

In 1891, Rabindranath Tagore visited Odisha for the first time to oversee the land his ancestors had bought. Tagore’s maiden visit to Odisha was memorable and soul-stirring. The bard’s fascination for Puri finds mentioned in ‘Chinnapatra’ — his letters to Indira Devi, Tagore’s niece. In one such letter, Tagore wrote: 

“The road from Cuttack to Puri is good. It is high with low-lying fields on both sides. There are big shady trees, mostly mango. At this time, all the mango trees are in blossom, filling the way with fragrance. Some villages are seen surrounded by mango, pipal, banyan, coconut and palm trees.”

Tagore informs further:

“In places covered carts are standing on the banks of shallow rivers. There are confectioners under palm-leaf thatches. Inside the huts in rows, under the trees on both sides of the road, the pilgrims are taking their meals. The beggars are shouting in strange languages, whenever they see fresh batches of pilgrims or carriages or palanquins.”

He wrote fabulously about what he saw on his way to the glorious city of Puri:

“As one approaches Puri, the pilgrims are seen in greater numbers. Covered carts are seen moving in lines. People are found lying down, looking or gossiping together on the banks of tanks. On the right side of the road, a big spire of the Jagannath temple rises. Suddenly at one place, crossing the line of trees and bushes, the wide stretch of sandy sea-beach and the azure line of the sea become visible.”

Tagore visited Odisha once more in 1893.This time it was Cuttack with his nephew Balendranath. Tagore was a guest at the then District magistrate BL Gupta, ICS ( Malati Chaudhury’s grandfather). Having spent a few days there, Tagore  set out to Puri  on a palanquin and he was spellbound  over the unspoiled  sceneries on both sides of  the Jagannath Sadak as it was called then. Tagore’s last visit to Odisha was in 1939. 

 He came on the request of Biswanath Das, the then Chief Minister (called Prime Minister) of Odisha   to visit the province. When Das was in Kolkata to attend a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, he personally met the poet to pay respects and extend the invitation.

Tagore reached Puri on 19th April in 1939. He was warmly received by the ministers and government officials. The poet stayed in the Circuit House as the state government’s guest. But all his engagements were canceled as the poet developed a slight fever and the doctors advised him complete rest.

On 8th May 1939, the poet was given an ovation on behalf of the women of Odisha. The next day — his birthday – was celebrated with gusto. The birthday bash was held on a well decorated pandal with an opening song. The poet was welcomed with the chanting of Vedic hymns by the pundits of Puri’s Sanskrit College. Flower, sandal paste, vermilion and coconuts were offered to the poet as a mark of veneration.

So enthralled was Tagore at this spirit of love and affection that he wrote in a letter to his former Secretary Dr. Amiya Chakravarti:

“I have come to Puri. I am the invited guest of those who are now at the helm of the affairs of Orissa. There is something novel in this fact. In older days, they who were kings or heads of the state, used to honour the meritorious, thereby honouring their own countries and governments. By this liberality, they used to keep contact with human culture and admit the universal heritage in the development of faculties.”

He further wrote:

 “We have learnt the modern system of political administration from the English. The talented have no place in it. The statesmen of Europe wield the outward aspect of that power which is based upon economic and administrative laws. They cannot have the right to govern the spirit that lies underneath but it is needless to argue that having acknowledged and paid due regard to it, a noble environment can be created for the government. In oriental system of administration, the scope for acknowledgment of the individual talent has, however, not been neglected.”

In the same letter, he was a bit apologetic: 

“Let me now tell you about myself. I have no work here, nor am I of any use to anybody. Those who are taking care of me here, expect no material advice from me. That salutary and refreshing effect with which the sea breeze is touching my body and mind is the very symbol of the hospitality of the newly responsible Orissa Government. Administrative procedure has created no obstacle to it, nor has it been affected by the budgetary economy.”

On human relations Rabindranath wrote when he was convalescing:

“Sitting on the first floor of the Circuit House, I have unhesitatingly given myself up to pure idleness. The ministers here, having noticed the tired condition of my health, come every day to encourage me to spend my days without any purpose. The mentality of admitting human relationships even in the midst of heavy pressure of work is still inherent in our country; and this has been felt by me especially after I have come over here.”

During his stay at Puri, the Raja of Puri – an institution by himself – and the Superintendent of Sri Jagannath temple, bestowed upon Rabindranath, the title Parama Guru (the great teacher). As the poet was indisposed, the ceremony was not held publicly. The Dewan (manager) of the king came down to the circuit house in a procession to confer the title. The panegyric was read out in the hallowed Sanskrit language. Then a camphor garland, head dress and a pair of silk clothes were offered as a mark of respect by the chief priest. 

Historian Prof. Pravat Mukherji later wrote about Tagore’s acceptance of the recognition thus: “He had been warmly received in many countries of the world, but the reception which was given that day by the people of Odisha touched his heart, as it was according to the traditional Hindu style.”

Tagore’s stay in Puri had a few other blissful moments. Many poets and freedom fighters met him. Among them were Lexicographer and compiler of ‘Purnachandra Bhashakosh’ (Odia Encyclopedia), Gopal Chandra Praharaj, Pandit Raghunath Mishra, freedom fighter Sarala Devi, poet and novelist Kalindi Charan Panigrahi and yet another gentleman from Jajpur, Chandrasekhar Das, about whom Tagore penned a few lines:

“O’ my unknown admirer,

Today you have become known.

With my blessings I repay

My admirer your loan.”

Two contemporary Odia poets — Bhaktakabi Madhu Sudan Rao and Kantakabi Laksmikanta Mohapatra (creator of the state song ‘Bande Utkal Janani’) – were inspired by Tagore and wrote two books – Kusumanjali (Posy of Flowers) and Jiban Sangeeta (Life Song) respectively, which are rare beginnings in modern Odia literature. 

It was also during the Puri layover that Tagore wrote the dance drama ‘Chitrangada’ – the theme he seemed to have overheard from the local epic-sayers. Tagore also wrote some of his famous poems: Pravasi (Expatriate), Janmadin (Birthday) and Epare Opare (This side and that side) in Puri. In Pravasi, Tagore describes himself as a “man of the world and he does not consider anybody to be alien”

Tagore loved the people of Odisha so much that he concluded: 

“From a distance I have formed an idea about the love of the people and the efficiency of those who are at the helm of the administration of Orissa at present, and now I am appreciating it from close quarters.”



References:

Guru Kalyan Mohapatra: Puri & the Poet

Sambad by Prof Basanta Kumar Panda ( Odiya translation of Chinnapatra). The excerpts from the Chinnapatra have been translated by Bhaskar Parichha from Odiya.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Review Tribute

Under the Shadow of Death: Memoirs of Tagore’s Last Days

To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs

Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021

The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.

Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.

The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others.  Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.    

In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.

The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.

In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”

The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.

The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.

Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.

Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come  close to hagiography. They also lay bare a  performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.

The socio-cultural context  is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of  a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes  to get the landslide cleared.

With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.

A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often  in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.  

Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:

“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”

Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:

You had brought along with you

 Deathless soul

In your death you have

Donated that

You have donated that

In your death.”

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Author Page

Aruna Chakravarti


Aruna  Chakravarti  
has been  Principal of a prestigious Women’s College of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well- known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books on record. They comprise four novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations. Her first novel The Inheritors (published by Penguin)was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko (by Harper Collins)received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta  and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days, First Light and Primal Woman: Stories. Daughters of Jorasanko, a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews. Her latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, has been published by Pan Macmillan Ltd under the Picador imprint, last year in 2020.

Among the various awards she has received are Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi  Award and Sarat Puraskar.

Interview

Click here to read.

Discussion

Rabindranath Tagore: A Universal Bard.

This conversation between Aruna Chakravarti and Sunil Gangopadhyay that took place at a Tagore Conference organised by the Sahitya Akademi in Kochy in 2011. Click here to read.

Songs of Tagore translated by Aruna Chakravarti

We launch our Tagore section with the translation of seven of his songs by the gifted Sahitya Akademi winning translator and author, Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.

  • Tomar eyi Madhuri Chaapiye ( This Loveliness of Yours…)
  • Jibon Moroner Shimana Charay ( Beyond the Horizons of Life and Death..)
  • Esho Shyamalo Shundoro ( Come, Dark, Beauteous One)
  • Asha Jaaoar Pother Dhare (By the Path)
  • Shopney Amar Money Holo ( I Thought in my Dream)
  • Amra Notoon Jibonyeri Doot (We are the New Youth)
  • Amar Bela Jey Jaay (My Day Wanes)

Janaganamana (Lord of Masses, National Anthem of India) — complete by Tagore. Click here to read.

Stories in translation

Abhagi’s Heaven

A poignant story by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay translated by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.

The Witch

The witch is Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay . The original story titled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali. Click here to read.