Bonding With Tagore

Tarun Goswami

Rabindranath Tagore was a towering personality whose colossal presence over shadowed the contributions of his contemporaries save Vivekananda in public memory even after his death. Hence while figures like Kadambini Ganguly, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Binodini Dasi, Kamini Ray, Ashutosh Mukherjee and Dwijendralal Ray were all born in the same year or a few years apart, it is only Tagore whose birthday celebrations have been observed widely. Tagore shared a close rapport with many of his contemporaries like Upendrakishore and Jagadish Chandra and contrary to popular belief harboured immense respect for Swami Vivekananda.

True, Tagore as a Brahmo and Vivekanada as a Hindu reformer could not have sailed in the same boat but their interaction dated back to their youth when Swami Vivekananda as Narendranath Dutta frequented Brahmo Samaj, still unaware of his true calling. It was music which bridged the wide chasm between the two, for Vivekananda had a strong musical sense and appreciated both the strong philosophical content and music of Tagore’s compositions. In 1881, a function was held at the Adi Brahmo Samaj temple to celebrate the marriage of Krishna Kumar Mitra and Lilabati, youngest daughter of Rajnarayan Basu. Young Rabindranath had composed two songs for the occasion, ‘Dui hridayer nodi’ and ‘Subhodine esecho dohe’. Tagore chose four Samaj members – the lead singer was Narendranath while the other three were Chunilal, Dr. Sundori Mohan Das, a noted kirtan singer, and Niren Chattopadhyay. He taught them his compositions.

Narendranath had sung some compositions of Tagore including ‘Tomarei koriyachi jiboner dhrobo tara’ and ‘Maha singhasane boshi’ before Sri Ramakrishna who went into trance and appreciated the composer for his spiritual depth. Tagore once told Romain Rolland who was eager to read some book on India that “If you want to know India read Vivekananda, there is nothing negative in him, everything positive and affirmative.” Similarly, a few months before his death Swamiji told the famous Japanese painter Okakura that he should go and meet Tagore at Jorasanko and take lessons of life from him. One can only gauge the close bonding between the two colossal personalities of their age from the respect they showered on each other.

Though a man of science Jagadish Chandra Bose was among Tagore’s closest friends; he was only three years senior to the poet. In fact both Jagadish and his wife Abala, were close to Tagore and they often took part in the prayer meetings of Bramho Samaj together. Almost every Sunday, they met in the house of Sister Nivedita at Bosepara Lane over breakfast. Initially, Tagore was not comfortable with Abala riding a bicycle on the streets of Calcutta but later changed his view and urged her to be more cautious of the slippery tram tracks.

It was Jagadish Chandra who took the initiative to translate Tagore’s prose in English. Tagore always believed that his prose was weak and did not agree to the proposal. But Jagadish Chandra quietly passed on the manuscript of Kabuliwala to Sister Nivedita during her stay in London in 1907. She translated the story which was read by Rottenstein who in turn contacted Abanindranath Tagore and agreed to translate Tagore’s work in English. Rabindranath was fascinated by Jagadish Chandra’s scientific quest and his success at the World Congress in Paris in 1900. Tagore also requested Bose to write prose in Bengali and finally dedicated his famous poetry book, Katha O Kalpana (which was later titled as Katha O Kahini) to Jagadish Chandra.

On Jagadish Chandra’s request, Tagore had addressed the students of Presidency College in the Physics Lecture Theatre, speaking on Science and Philosophy shortly before Bose retried from the college in 1913.  Tagore stood beside his friend when Presidency College authorities wrongly pulled up Bose, alleging misuse of house rent allowance. Tagore wrote a letter to the Governor refuting the allegation and the college authorities had to tender an apology.

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury was a pioneer in the field of printing. An excellent violin player, not many people know that he was the first one to jot down the notations of Tagore’s musical compositions. Fascinated by his friend’s creative genius, he named his eldest daughter and son, Sukhalata and Sukumar, after Hanshi and Tata, two central characters in Tagore’s famous novel, Rajarshi. Tagore also inspired Upendrakishore to write and publish books for children.  He authored Cheleder Ramayan and several other books and brought out Sandesh, a children’s magazine. Upendrakishore became a Bramho and several of his songs were sung at the Bramho Samaj temple. Tagore had visited Upendra’s house at 13, Cornwallis Street quite a number of times. Even his room at Shilaidaha had a painting by Upendrakishore who was also a noted painter.

Upendrakishore, though a patriot at heart, maintained a distance from nationalist politics; but he walked beside Tagore on October 16, 1905, in protest against Lord Curzon’s proposal to partition Bengal. Tagore was also close to his son Sukumar, whom he often referred to as his ‘young friend’. Tagore, blessed with a long life, survived his friends – Vivekananda, Jagadish Chandra and Upendrakishore. The death of these three left a deep mark in him.  He presided over a meeting held to condole the death of Vivekananda on July 11, 1902, at South Suburban Branch School and wrote a long piece in Bharati.

Tagore wrote two long articles on Jagadish Chandra after he died in 1937 and presided over the condolence meeting of Upendrakishore held at Adi Bramho Samaj.  In an interview to Rani Chanda in February 1941, considered to be his last, Tagore reminisced about his three friends – an indication of the bonds of his youth.