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Last Updated: Sat, Apr 07, 2012 05:21 hrs

In a world that has just finished acknowledging the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, there has been the expected spate of seminars, workshops, exhibitions, lectures — both national and international — as well as publications on his life and myriad contributions. Predictably, standards vary; Rabindranath Tagore — A Pictorial Biography disappoints because it ends up being a biography illustrated with photographs in which neither are the visuals adequate in number nor the captions detailed enough to merit the status of a pictorial biography.

What’s more, we are given no sources for the photographs; the author and publishers are indeed brave people in the universe of IPR and strict copyright laws to cock a snook at this established requirement! As for the reader, she is left deeply frustrated at not only not knowing the provenance of the visuals but also having to be satisfied with one-line descriptions. It would be reasonable to surmise that most of the photographs are from the extensive collection of Tagoriana at Visva Bharati’s Rabindra Bhawan. Fortunately, the photographs follow the logic of the many chapters.

Clearly, the Tagores were a family deeply committed to visual representation. As early as the 1850s, members of the family were among the earliest clients of the first photographic studios that were springing up in Calcutta. In time, among the better placed and more affluent, photographers were hired to come home, and the present volume has a number of on-location shots in addition to formal studio portraiture and group photographs.

Writing the life of a man who was not only an outstanding litterateur, but also a political and social commentator, sometime estate manager, actor, singer, traveller, lecturer and, indeed, a world figure by the early years of the twentieth century — Ghosh informs us that Rabindranath Tagore’s publishers, Macmillan, US, reported in 1914 that Gitanjali had sold 800,000 copies — could not have been easy; biography-writing involves making choices, particularly when there is an enormous corpus of material available. Though there may be little new information for the cognoscenti, interesting anecdotes enliven the present volume.

Ghosh follows the usual chronological style of biographies and as we wander through the many rooms of the Jorasanko mansion we arrive at the staging of Tagore’s plays, the actors being members of family. The author informs us — and one can but chafe at the absence of a source — that preeminent actor Girischandra Ghosh “who had no love for the Tagores” conceded after an enactment of the farce, Baikunther Khata that “the Tagores were truly born actors” (p. 56).

The author engages the reader in the controversy over Tagore as a singer — the poet felt that his voice had been irrevocably strained when he had sung to an assembly of almost 800 at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress. While many found Tagore’s voice soft and effeminate, English singer Clara Butt felt that “though quite untrained [his voice] had a natural silvery sweetness” (p. 67).

A particularly touching part of the present biography are vignettes from Tagore’s family life and his great love for his five children, pain at the early loss of all but two of them and of his wife, Mrinalini. Ghosh draws attention to the differences between daughters Madhurilata (Bela) and Mira, and when Mrinalini died in 1902, he wrote a collection of poems, Smaran (in memoriam).

The dynamics of the award of the Nobel Prize for literature are recounted in detail; it is interesting to know that Carl Heidenstam, member of the Swedish Academy but not of the Nobel Committee, argued forcefully against Eurocentrism, reminding the jury that it was time to find new authors and that Tagore filled the bill very well. The citation’s “clever phrasing” that spoke of “his [Tagore’s] poetic thought, expressed in his own English words” did not draw too much attention to the fact that Gitanjali was a translation; a sleight of hand that worked as the Nobel Prize was meant strictly for writings in English.

Tagore’s presence on the national scene too was significant, and he was in touch with Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru; in 1937, when Gandhiji fainted in the car on his way to meet the poet, then on a medical visit to Baranagar on the outskirts of Calcutta, Tagore insisted on calling on the Mahatma. This involved being carried up to the third floor of Sarat Bose’s house in a chair by Nehru, Bose and the host — all men in their forties! Nityapriya Ghosh’s book is full of anecdotes of this kind, where world figures appear like friendly neighbours — and not merely the subjects (or victims) of hagiography. Where it disappoints is in its pictorial content, referencing and editing.

Malavika Karlekar edits the Indian Journal of Gender Studies. She is the author of Re-visioning the Past: Early Photography in Bengal 1875-1915

Author: Nityapriya Ghosh
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 263
Price: Rs 1,500

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