Rabindranath Tagore: The Poetics of Landscape

Supriya Chaudhuri  (Jadavpur University)

The Tagore season has passed, with his 150th birth anniversary being celebrated in 2011, so it was refreshing to listen to Anita Desai’s reading of one of Rabindranath Tagore’s early short stories, ‘The Postmaster’, as a Guardian podcast. This is one of the three stories that were filmed by Satyajit Ray in a remarkable evocation of life in the Bengal countryside close to the turn of the nineteenth century. The stories that Ray chose were all about young women or girls, and of the three ‘The Postmaster’ sticks in the memory as a little masterpiece of neo-realist cinema. But it is worth going back to the stories themselves, and the period of their composition, the 1890s, when Tagore was looking after his family’s estates in riverine East Bengal, living in a houseboat on the River Padma or in the estate house in Shilaidaha. This was a critical decade, in India as in Europe, for debates about reform and female education, for the uncovering of the hidden histories of women in personal narratives, and for the birth of modernism.

Tagore, very much a Victorian by birth, may be said to have inaugurated one of the most distinctive of modernist genres in the form of the short story during this period, commencing in 1891 with six stories in the journal Hitabadi, edited by Krishnakamal Bhattacharya. No copies of Hitabadi have survived, and it appears that the stories were criticised for their lack of plot or purpose, though as we read them today, they appear startlingly fresh and modern. Closely linked to the Bengal countryside in which they were produced, they evoke what Gaston Bachelard called the feeling of ‘intimate immensity’ in their treatment of land, river and sky. While my Journal of Victorian Culture article examined Tagore’s treatment of the furnished interiors of the bourgeois household in his longer fiction, it is impossible to overstate his greater achievement in creating, for Bengal and perhaps for Indian modernity, a poetics of landscape that imbued a familiar vocabulary with enormous resources of affect, produced new ways of seeing and inspired new modes of visual representation, in painting as in cinema. In a sense, the Bengal landscape that is so intextricably a part of Tagore’s poetry and music is Tagore’s invention.

Tagore’s childhood was spent in a state of confinement and lonely privation, cooped up in the inner apartments of his grandfather’s town house, and forbidden to step out of doors. An anxious, sensitive, restless child, he spent long periods of time immobile, gazing through the shutters at the bathers in the nearby pond and at the shadows under the banyan tree. The first extensively recorded experience of a wholly different sense of physical space is in the letters of Chhinnapatrabali [Scattered Leaves], composed in the 1890s, recording a new sense of amazement at the unboundedness of earth and sky. This is also the period when he begins writing short stories for journals such as Hitabadi and Sadhana. Collectively, the writings of this phase of his life – poetry, short stories and letters – mark the inception of a new register of feeling. In a letter written on the 21st of June, 1892, he writes:

Today I’ve been drifting all day on the river’s course … sitting alone, silent – on both sides of the river the villages, the landing-ghats, the fields of crops present ever-shifting scenes, and as they come, as they pass, the clouds float in the sky, taking on different colours at dusk, the boat drifts, the fishermen catch fish, the waters murmur ceaselessly as though in affection. But in the evening the vast spread-out mass of waters falls still, like a tired child falling asleep, and all the stars wake and gaze at me from the unbounded sky above my head … as I view all these changing pictures, the stream of imagination flows on, and on its two banks, like the distant scenes by the river, new desires are painted. Perhaps the scene before my eyes is unremarkable, a yellow barren sandbank stretches ahead, a deserted boat is moored on it, and the light-blue river, reflecting the colour of the sky, flows past, yet as I look at it, I can’t describe the feeling in my heart … in the human mind, imagination and reality weave such a complex web![1]

But this landscape held tragedy as well as tenderness, and the short fiction of the period is ruthlessly unsentimental in its detailing of the cruelty, neglect and oppression that afflicted the lives of women and young girls in rural Bengal. In ‘The Postmaster’, the young man from the city, sent out to man a rural post office in a remote village, finds little to attract him in the beauty of the countryside, though he makes conventional attempts to write poetry about it.

Essentially, the story is a study of indifference, a profound, unthinking inability on the young man’s part either to respond to his physical setting or to understand a young girl’s heart. Ratan, the orphan girl who does the household chores and looks after him in his illness, becomes deeply attached to him, but the Postmaster is unconscious of her feelings, and longs only for the day when he can leave his rural exile behind him. But when he does leave, a ‘huge anguish’ fills his heart, an anguish rising in him like the swelling of the river-tide, though he does not turn back, and consoles himself that life is made up of separations. Ratan has no such philosophy to console her: ‘O poor, unthinking, human heart!’ comments the author.[2] Here, as in other stories like ‘The Exercise-Book’, ‘Punishment’, or ‘Subha’, Tagore catches unerringly the tenor of a feeling that would otherwise go unrecorded, a history of the emotions that has no place in official chronicles. It is difficult to reconcile this writer with the father whose three daughters were married off before they were fourteen.

Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor of English and Coordinator of the Centre of Advanced Study at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India (email: supriya.chaudhuri@gmail.com). She works on Renaissance literature and on 19th and 20th century Indian cultural history. Among recent publications are Petrarch: The Self and World (co-edited: Kolkata: Jadavpur University Press, 2012) and articles on ‘Interiors and Interiority in Nineteenth Century India’, in The Domestic Space Reader, ed. Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 351-58, and ‘Translation and World Literature’, Global Circulation Project Forum, Literature Compass 9/9 (2012), 593–598. Her current project is on ‘Subjects and Objects in Indian Modernity’.

[1] Rabindranath Tagore, Chhinnapatrabali [Scattered Leaves] (Kolkata: Vishva Bharati, 1960 corr. rpt 1992), 95-6. My translation.

[2] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Postmaster’, in Galpaguccha [A Sheaf of Stories] (Kolkata: Vishva Bharati, 1926 rpt 1933), [26-32]: 32. My translation.

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