Indian Nationalism and the Bengal Partition
As much as Tagore and others like him preferred to spend their time in contemplation of their God, the political situation in India often affected them or their poetry. In “60,” Tagore writes: “Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.” Images like these, while certainly containing religious significance, also speak of instability in general. They also hint at the idea of a coalition, a “great meeting.” For Tagore, these themes often came from issues associated with the British control of India. Mary M. Lago says, speak- ing generally about Tagore’s life and work in her chapter on “Tagore’s Traditions” in Twayne’s World Authors Series Online: “The basic theme . . . was constant: the search for ways to keep civilization, in the East and in the West, unified in a world increasingly divisive and contentious.”
Tagore was an activist at the time that he wrote many of the poems in Gitanjali. In 1905, Tagore joined the nationalist movement to block the partition of Bengal. Prior to this event, certain groups had opposed British rule, but many citizens did not get involved. However, when the British government attempted to divide the province of Bengal, in an administrative move that was meant to increase the government’s efficiency in...
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Tagore translated his Bengali poems from verse poetry into prose poetry, a controversial decision that drastically changed the style and content of each poem. A prose poem is a form of poetry that is a hybrid between prose and poetry. Prose is characterized by the use of full sentences and paragraphs that tend to proceed uninterrupted in a linear fashion until they are complete. Authors use blocks of prose description to develop concrete, complete ideas. Poetry, on the other hand, often proceeds in a nonlinear fashion, using fragments of thoughts, feelings, and images to convey a certain message to the reader. When the two forms are combined into a prose poem, as they are in “60,” the effect is unique. The poet is able to develop complete ideas using uninterrupted sentences, but these sentences are full of flamboyant, literary techniques common to poetry. For example, the middle sentence of the fifth paragraph says: “Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play.” Grammatically speaking, this is a complete prose sentence, composed of a series of four separate statements. In a prose piece, Tagore could use this same structure to describe virtually anything, even something as mundane as how he spent his day: “I went to the post office, bought stamps, saw a friend, and ate lunch.” The difference between these two sentences is immediately apparent. The latter sentence...
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Compare and Contrast
Early 1910s: India struggles to win its independence from Britain, who rules over the subcontinent. An English viceroy is in charge of the daily affairs of government.
Today: India is a democratic state. It features a parliamentary form of government. The elected members of the federal and state parliaments in turn elect a president, who serves a five-year term.
Early 1910s: The entire subcontinent is united under British rule, and most political threats and conflicts occur from within the borders of the subcontinent.
Today: The subcontinent is divided into three separate states—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. India and Pakistan, which is predominantly Muslim, have a long-standing border dispute. In 1998, this dispute erupts when India performs nuclear weapons tests, prompting a response from Pakistan, which conducts its own nuclear weapons tests.
Early 1910s: Although Indians subscribe to many different religions, the majority are Hindus.
Today: The majority of Indians still subscribe to Hinduism. At the end of the twentieth century, Hindu groups begin a massive nationalist movement, placing pressure on non-Hindus to conform to Hinduism.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the relationship between Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, and compare the religious, philosophical, and political beliefs of these two Indian leaders. Also, write a short biography of Gandhi.
When Tagore received the Nobel Prize in 1913, he made an infamous speech to his countrymen in India. Research this speech and write a short report giving some reasons why he might have said what he did. Find a complete copy of this speech and deliver it to your classmates.
Poets since ancient times have incorporated images of the sea in their poetry. Find one other poet, from any point in history, who uses vivid imagery of the sea in his or her poetry. Read a poem by this poet, and compare the sea imagery in this poem to Tagore’s “60.”
Research how the various levels of Indian society treated their children around 1912. Imagine that you are a child in this time period and write a journal entry describing what your typical day is like. Use your research to support your ideas.
Compare infant mortality rates in India in 1912 to infant mortality rates in India today, and discuss the likely reasons behind any similarities or differences.
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Tagore’s The Crescent Moon: Prose Poems was produced as an audiobook in 1996 by Amber- Allen Publishing. The book is read by Deepak Chopra.
Tagore’s Gitanjali was produced as an audiobook in 1994 by Sound Horizons Audio-Video. The audio book, entitled Gitanjali: Offerings from the Heart, is read by Deepak Chopra.
Three of Tagore’s short stories, “Sampati,” “Monihara,” and “The Postmaster,” were adapted for film in India by Satyajit Ray and released in 1961 under the title Teen Kanya (the title means Three Daughters). A subtitled version containing only “The Postmaster” and “Sampati” was released in the United States in 1963 by Columbia Tristar Studios. The film, titled Two Daughters, is available from Columbia/ Tristar Home Video.
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What Do I Read Next?
Some critics consider E. M. Forster’s controversial A Passage to India (1924) to be one of the author’s greatest novels. The book, which was published in the racially tense times when India was still under British control, examines whether or not it is possible for members of the two cultures to be friends.
In Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, originally published in 1923, the author and mystic offers his philosophy on many topics, including love, marriage, and religion. The narrative takes place in a sandy, timeless place that is similar to the metaphysical location in Tagore’s “60.”
Carol E. Henderson’s Culture and Customs of India (2002) explores what life is like for Indian residents today. The book includes sections on every major aspect of Indian life, including food and dress; women, marriage, and family; and religion.
Although Tagore’s poem features idealistic images of children, the reality of many children’s lives on the Indian subcontinent are often very harsh, especially for girls. In her memoir Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood (2002), exiled writer Taslima Nasrin writes about what life was like for her growing up in a Muslim family in Bangladesh.
Jeffrey Paine’s Father India: How Encounters with an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West (1998) examines the many ways that India’s culture, including politics and religion, has influenced the Western world....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bose, Buddhadeva, “Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali Prose,” in A Centenary Volume: Rabindranath Tagore, 1861–1961, Sahitya Akademi, 1961, pp. 102–13.
Chakravorty, B. C., Rabindranath Tagore: His Mind and Art, Young India Publications, 1971, pp. 65–66.
Hesse, Hermann, “Hermann Hesse on Tagore,” in Later Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Aurobindo Bose, Peter Owen, 1974, p. 7, originally published in 1957.
Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa, “Foreword,” in Rabindranath Tagore: His Mind and Art, by B. C. Chakravorty, Young India Publications, 1971, p. 7.
Kilmer, Joyce, “Rabindranath Tagore,” in America, Vol. 13, No. 14, July 17, 1915, p. 355.
Lago, Mary M., “Chapter 1: Tagore’s Traditions,” in Rabindranath Tagore, in Twayne’s World Authors Series, No. 42, Twayne Publishers, 1976.
—, “Chapter 2: Tagore’s Lyric Poems,” in Rabindranath Tagore, in Twayne’s World Authors Series, No. 42, Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Mukherjee, Sujit, Passage to America: The Reception of Rabindranath Tagore in the United States, 1912–1941, Bookland Private, 1964, pp. 126, 129–30.
Palmer, Melvin D., “Tagore’s Poetry in English: A Candid View,” in Rabindranath Tagore: American Interpretations, edited by Ira G. Zepp Jr., Writers Workshop Publication, 1981, pp....
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