Tagore and the ‘Universal Man’ 

Review of Critical Lives: Rabindranath Tagore by Bashabi Fraser

London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2019; 244 pages; ISBN: 9781789141498

Reviewed by Sabiha Huq

Bashabi Fraser’s book on Rabindranath Tagore in the Critical Lives series is a fresh appreciation of the poet’s long life and career; the freshness emerging from the biographer’s unimpassioned treatment of the life she deals with. We certainly find this approach in the mention of extra-literary factors like Tagore’s “illustrious family, his multifaceted talents and his pioneering work in education and rural uplift” that the Nobel Committee was fully aware of, which perhaps contributed to the poet’s qualifying indicators for receiving the Prize. This approach is not entirely new though, as some of the previous biographies refer to similar aspects of the poet’s life. For example, Uma Dasgupta’s Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, though briefly, focuses on the poet’s role as an educator and rural reformer during the establishment of Visva Bharati. Dasgupta disseminates information on Tagore among different titles, and it is obvious that one of her works may not give that sense of completeness that this new biography offers. Indeed, Fraser attaches utmost importance on Tagore’s family, the family house at Jorasanko, and the talented members who somehow or other bequeathed their legacy unto the one man who was ready to receive it all. She carefully depicts each of the family members and her or his contribution in the evolution of Tagore. In her own words, she offers “an analytical reappraisal of the familial, socio-political and cultural background” that provides “a prism” through which the readers would be able to see the author in different dimensions. 


From chapter one that deals with the Josasanko house, Fraser gives an elemental history of how Tagore’s great great grandfather Panchanan Kushari became Panchanan Thakur in the early eighteenth century. Thus, the writer exposes the apparent irony that lies in the acceptance and reverence of the Pirali Brahmins that Tagore’s ancestors were, who were otherwise ostracized by the Brahmins of Bengal. She also briefly sets the notion of the family growing against the schisms that every joint family faces at one point or other. Nilmoni Kushari, the poet’s grandfather Dwarkanath’s grand uncle, then an employee of the East India Company, built the house in 1784 while the family was facing such complicated property issues. In this chapter the reader also gets to know the history how the Pirali Brahmins became monotheist Brahmos with the changing times, which ideology Tagore upheld and propagated throughout his life. Towards the end of the chapter, Fraser deals with Tagore’s siblings sporadically and his closeness with Jyotirindranath and his wife Kadambari Devi, may be because of the poet’s intimacy with the latter became legendary. Fraser acknowledges Krishna Kripalani’s biography of Dwarkanath Tagore while elaborating on the available facts on him who primarily ushered the secular atmosphere in the Jorasanko house. Here and in other chapters too she mentions earlier and informed works on the Tagore family by scholars like Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Sisir Kumar Das, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Bhabatosh Chatterjee, Rekha Sigi, which is appreciable. Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen or the like come naturally in her theoretical elaboration, while anthologies with editors’ names are mentioned every now and then. Indeed, such references are quite helpful for the Tagore scholars who are in the lookout for sourcebooks on the Tagore family. This book is the outcome of a thorough and sincere research, and will be a great resource for future researchers. 

The second chapter begins with Tagore’s early childhood, partial reflections of which some of us in Bangladesh will be able to connect with, as we read “Amar Chelebela” (part of My Reminiscences) in our Bengali textbooks of the early eighties, with the immortalised figure of the servant Brajeswar. With Fraser, the Bengalee reader finds more assimilation, sometimes in the detention of the child Rabi by Brajeswar’s Laksman Rekha, the boundary set for Sita by her brother-in-law in the Ramayana; or sometimes in the imaginary Ganga gurgling in the child Rabi’s mind that started its creative journey quite early in life. The chapter shows how young Rabindranath grew up in that jam-packed Thakurbari that still holds attraction for visitors after all these years. Vivid description of family members whose encouragement and support made the Rabindranath we know today is wonderfully added into the folds of the chapter. We see a curious Rabindranath moving within the circle of open-minded men and intelligent and forward-thinking women; he is in the becoming of a man who could engage with his social and spiritual commitments. Because of his nurturance in that great house owned by a rich entrepreneur class of the time who also patronised arts and social reformation, he could develop an understanding of the narrow worldly affairs as well as man’s engagement with the metaphysical world, a rare combination. 

The book is spread across its twelve chapters, each giving us a new phase in Tagore’s life and works. As each work by Tagore has a specific context in his life, the biographer rightly introduces the English girl Ana in the beginning of the third chapter that delineates Tagore’s time in the English nooks, along with the lines of several poems and songs written on Nalini, a name Tagore gave to his English confidante. The chapter comes full circle when the biographer refers to Tagore’s return from his “utter disorderliness” of the English days with the unfinished manuscript of Bhagna Hridoy (Broken Heart) to the shores of Bengal. 

Chapter four begins with the loss of a beloved niece that perhaps ushers a long line of losses for the writer whose several children’s untimely death seasoned his poetic self that made his appeasement with sufferings, a fundamental trait in Tagore’s spiritual poetry. This chapter offers the minutiae of Tagore’s involvement with social and political changes of the time simultaneously with the publication of his first major writings. This was more a time of family gatherings in which Tagore exposed his literary talent. Among several trips to England and places within India, Tagore’s marriage is recorded as an important event. The biographer shows her conformist approach here while she lightly touches on the child marriage issue, but rather strongly voices the appreciation of Bhabatarini (Tagore named her Mrinalini after their marriage) “a practical, devoted wife and companion for Rabindranath with her selfless, self-effacing motherly nature”. Indeed, one learns to make compromises with history that cannot be recycled. However, it is not clear if she means to be ironic when she writes about Tagore’s public talk organized by the Savitri Sabha held at the Science Association Hall in Calcutta on Hindu Marriage in 1887, and that too “three years after his marriage to ten year old Mrinalini”. This long chapter deals with lots of family events including Kadambari Devi’s suicide that enormously impacted Tagore’s creative life. 

Chapter five takes us to a new episode in Tagore’s life, his Shantiniketan ventures with his pathbreaking ideas of education. The biography rightly connects Shelidah and Shantiniketan, as the former complemented Tagore’s vision of rural development while the latter gave him the opportunity to realise his dreams.  From this point he prepares his journey for the world despite a long line of deaths in the family that could have sojourned his flight. Tagore expanded his international circle even as he constructed his Bengalee and Indian consciousness in the same breath. Such inclusiveness would be a hard task for any ordinary person, but Tagore being Tagore, the acceptance of the Nobel Prize and the renunciation of knighthood were real episodes of life, both for the person and the nation at large. In chapters from six to ten the biographer describes this part of the poet’s life minutely under catchy titles. Chapter eleven “Tagore’s Modernity” is specifically important because here the biographer engages in theoretical discussion on modernity in Bengal with scholarly references and puts Tagore in the pantheon of Bengalee writers that brings out Tagore’s magnitude and veracity as a modern man. 

Bashabi Fraser is an example of a life devoted to Tagore scholarship, hence her critical understanding of the poet’s private and public life means much at this time. Tagore’s responses towards major events happening at home and abroad, his passions and ambivalence, and most importantly his syncretism that remains as the last remnant of hope for us in the 21st century living in a world full of confusion, conflict, resistance, and fraction have all been relevantly explored by Fraser. This book is one to look out for, since it tells us how the ‘universal man’ is our only refuge in these trying times. Apart from the biographer’s unfaltering language, the edition has a few black and white photographs that add to its attraction.

  • Sabiha Huq is Professor of English at Khulna University, Bangladesh.