His first chance of finding ‘himself’ came in the decade that he spent in rural East Bengal from 1889-1890 where his father sent him to manage the family’s agricultural estates. There he came into intimate contact with the common man’s miseries and struggle for survival.
The letters he wrote stand out most prominently among the creations from that period, as do his short stories. The letters were published in 1912 in Bengali as Chhinnapatra (Fragments). They are full of vivid details of everyday village life and of his encounters with stark nature.
We also know from the Chhinnapatra letters that the turning point in Rabindranath’s compassion for humanity came out of this firsthand rural experience of seeing how the majority of his countrymen lived. Born into aristocracy himself he was shaken by this revelation. He became restless to do something about it. He wrote:
“I began to feel ashamed of spending my days simply as a landlord, concerned only with my own profit and loss. So I began to think about what could be done. I did not think helping from outside would help. I began to try and open their minds towards self-reliance.”
He wrote some powerful essays at the time for his country’s social reform. His drama Achalayatan (The Immovable) addressed the obduracy of Hindu orthodoxy, while his novels Gharey Baire (Home and the World), and Gora attacked the corrupting Hindu influence on swadeshi politics. In 1904-1905 he himself joined the Swadeshi Movement but withdrew from it when it broke out into sectarian riots among Hindus and Muslims. Rabindranath’s nationalist critics accused him of ‘desertion’.
It is remarkable that Rabindranath’s writings of a hundred years ago had alerted us to the social injustices that continue to hurt our lives to this day, the injustices of caste and creed. He was characteristically candid in self-criticism when he wrote explaining his own change of heart thus:
“There had been a time when I too tried to love and call by sweet names this prison covering our whole country, but my inner soul had remained discontented…Oh, how impenetrable the walls, how solid its foundation! An achievement certainly, but does it deserve to be admired?”
During this period when he was so completely absorbed by the stark reality of the life of the common people, his poetry expressed a certain inner mysticism which was later to become an essential part of his writing. This found expression in several of his poems during 1894 to 1900. One such central poem was Jiban-debata (God of life). He came to realize that the divine was to be found in humanity just as humanity was forever in search of the divine. He explained his concept of Jiban-debata when he wrote,
“[It is]…the idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal….”
This article was written by Uma Das Gupta
Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010; Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.