For most of India, Bengal’s favorite bard is not more than a symbol – a legend falsely associated with nationalistic pride. The side of Tagore that can only emerge from the reading of his soulful immortalities remains undiscovered, despite the multitude of translations available. After discussions with many non-Bengali friends, I have reasoned why Tagore remains so under-read and misunderstood in his own country. The repertoire of the man’s work is so large, it is intimidating for someone whose life has not revolved around Tagore celebrations. A child in Bengal grows up with Tagore. Her first recitation on stage is Tagore’s, her introduction to culture is via Tagore. She reads Tagore as a romantic teen, as an angry youth, as a somber adult. And, at each meandering corner, she finds Tagore embracing her journey as if it was his own. It is almost impossible for a person born outside the cultural sphere of Bengal to replicate this organic understanding of Tagore. To suddenly discover the mountain pile of Tagore’s work, without a guide, could make even a seasoned lover of literature feel lost. So, to those adults interested in knowing the man beyond the writer of our anthem, here’s a simple guide to start reading Tagore:
Tagore’s three-volume collection of short stories is probably his most lauded creation after his poetry. For those being initiated to his work, his genius is best felt through the bursts of life in his short story collection. The Postmaster, Kabuliwallah, The Home-coming (Chhuti) will tear you apart before rebuilding your perspective on love and loss. He masterfully dabbled in the uncanny and the occult in his stories, The Skeleton (Konkaal), The Lost Jewels (Monihaara), The Hidden Treasure (Guptodhon), The Hungry Stones (Khudhito Pashan). As someone new to Tagore’s work, the stories are bound to draw you in and get you hooked.
This is Tagore’s autobiography of his progressive upbringing in the famous Tagore household of Jorasanko. It gives a glimpse into the extraordinary lives that influenced Tagore to his genius. It also helps us understand Tagore’s empathy for women in the 19-20th century India. Chhele Bela (My Boyhood Days) is a fantastic looking glass into the world that was and the thought leaders who made Modern India happen.
Sesher Kobita (The Farewell Song)
My personal favorite novel penned by Tagore, The Farewell Song is considered a landmark in Bengali literature. The novel walks us through the tumultuous love story of Amit Ray, a barrister educated at Oxford, and a simple Shillong girl, Labanya. The way this novel disassociated love from the shackles of a union is more modern than most writings of the day. A tragedy, but not quite, the story will linger with you for a lifetime.
While many opine that Chandalika is probably Tagore’s best musical drama, I feel a special love for Chitrangada, his interpretation of the story of the Princess of Manipura, a martial expert, Arjun’s wife. Note how I have listed the introduction to this great woman of Indian mythology. It is because, according to Tagore, being Arjun’s wife was probably the least of her accomplishments. Chitrangada was a study in Feminism before Feminism became a movement.
Gitabitan (Garden of Songs)
I write Gitabitan, and not Gitanjali, his Nobel-winning work, because this is more extensive and more widely performed basket of Tagore’s lyrics. Gitabitan is a bible in Bengali families. There is a song for every mood and every occasion within those pages. Once you are reading this book, trust me, you would no longer need a guide to read Tagore. He would lure you into the stunning world of his creations and make you a lover forever.
Happy Birthday, Robi Thakur! You have my soul for an eternity.
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