Book:Bengali magic: a new life of the poet, musician, thinker and reformer Rabindranath Tagore conveys his grand complexity
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The Independent Culture
THE LATEST biographers to take on Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, composer, artist, social reformer and, although he did not like the notion, guru, are aware of difficulties of cultural placement in offering their account. They are clear, too, about their intended readership, considering that the standard Bengali biography is already over six volumes long and growing, almost 30 years short of its subject's death in 1941. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson declare that a biographer of Tagore writing in English "can aim primarily at non-Indians, or at Indians who are not Bengalis, or at the large number of Bengalis who like to read seriously in English. What one cannot do is to give equal attention to the interests of all three groups. We have therefore had to make a choice. This book is for non-Indians, for Indians who are not Bengalis, and for Bengalis - in that order."

Tagore himself was profoundly Bengali; during his unceasing travels it was for Bengal that he was homesick. His ancestors, Tagore told an audience at Oxford, "came floating to Calcutta upon the earliest tide of the fluctuating fortune of the East India Company. The unconventional code of life for our family has been a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British." The family claims descent from five orthodox Brahmins invited into Bengal around AD 1000. The Brahminical purity of the Tagores had however been tainted in the 15th century; they became known as Pirali Brahmins. Although of moment only to those of already elevated caste, this pollution was taken seriously; in the early 19th century an orthodox Brahmin who had eaten with a Pirali Brahmin had to pay the large sum of 50,000 rupees for readmission to caste.

As is not uncommon, the ostracised became middlemen, well placed by their state of not entirely belonging to deal with the East India Company. Tagore's grandfather, Dwarkanath, a zamindar (landowner), patron, businessman and philanthropist, was known as "Prince". He met Queen Victoria and Peel, attended a march of Chartists and met the unemployed in Glasgow, dined with Dickens, Thackeray and Mayhew. Before meeting this Tagore, in whose character Dutta and Robinson astutely see prefigured something of his apparently very different grandson, Dickens wrote, "A Tiger with such a name as Dwarkanaught (sic) Tagore, is not an everyday animal. Can a pinch of salt be dropped upon his tail?"

His son Debendranath came to be called the Maharshi. He became a Brahmo, devoted to rational religious and social reform, opposed to idolatry, excessive ritual, caste rigidity and suttee. He had a strong aversion to wealth. The austerity of the father and the magnetic nature of the grandfather, charitable without prejudice, are observable in this book's subject, born the sixth son and eighth child in 1861.

The historical run taken at Tagore by the authors is helpful when dealing with the scale involved in his long life, one that spanned the 1919 massacre at Amritsar (when he renounced his knighthood), the rise of Gandhianism (whose originator he loved, although the two men did not agree as to the means of liberation from the British), and, across "the Dark Seas" in Europe, the rise of Fascism. The extended breaths of Indian time, in which the British Empire was a short convulsion, are strongly conveyed. Such a long slant along the generations is also constructive in placing the fluctuations of Tagore's reputation; he is revered now but has been mistrusted for not sufficiently condemning the British. I wish that Dutta and Robinson, bearing in mind their declared brief, had attempted some similar extension in the geographical or regional way. It would have been instructive to learn something of what Bengalis feel is the nature of Bengal, a place whose charm exudes from even the grimmest study of Calcutta; I imagine it to lie in landscape, in intellectual curiosity and in conversation, and would have loved to learn more.

Undeniably, too, in spite of the eminence and ability of Tagore's translators, who have included Gide, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Pasternak, the non Bengali- literate reader is less able to appreciate the verbal surface of the poetry. Tagore was precociously poetically aware, his vocabulary early adjusting its pitch as context required. An anecdote from his childhood when he used a word roughly translatable as "twin-proboscean" for "bee", wishing to be as it were high-flown, emphasises this. Nonetheless we can feel tremors through translation, and through those whom the poems deeply affected, including Yeats and Wilfred Owen, whose mother wrote to Tagore on her son's death to say he had carried Tagore's words in his pocket book.

"My mind is like a fish being fried - first this way up, now the other - blistered by the boiling oil on one side, and then on the other... Enough of this. Since it is impracticable to be uncivilised, I had better try to be thoroughly civil - why foment a quarrel between the two?", wrote Tagore to his niece in the direct idiom that has more potency now, perhaps, than his sublime mode. And again, replying to a critic, he wrote: "It is as though the restless energy and the will to action of the West were perpetually assaulting the citadel of my Indian placidity." It is this self-awareness that gives force to Tagore's dedication of his life to the cultivation of virtue. He could have done nothing but be an artist. Yet he led a life of unceasing activity, some of it self-contradictory, such as his campaigning against and yet engaging in marriage to a child bride, some of it painfully deluded - the muddle he got into with Mussolini makes unhappy reading - much of it almost nudely idealistic in the beastly centuries that his life visited.

The lives with which Tagore's own intersected (Gandhi, Nehru, Lawrence, William Rothenstein, Forster) were irrevocably touched by his. The elusiveness of the man is caught; his brushes with the world and its lion-hunters amusingly but not un-kindly set down - he was, after all, beautiful and often in need of funds for his educational projects. With similar skill, the unconveyability of Indian music is transmitted. It is a triumph so faithfully and lucidly to record the life of a contemplative who did so much. Political and religious context is soberly conveyed. While I have some reservations about its style, this book seems to exemplify a sort of biography little dared any more; an enquiry into the spirit and mind of a man whom the authors trust and admire and do not to presume to overinterpret.

One of Tagore's grandeurs was his battle against the indulgences of personality. Yet his own comes up from these pages, selfless, egocentric, convinced, uncertain, morally isolated, but touching millions of lives at the heart, throbbing with intelligence and an exciting human inconsistency. As Tagore lay dying the - English - doctor enquired whether the patient understood English.

8 Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Bloomsbury £25