Tagore and Freedom: Language by Ranjan Sen

One of the most striking illustrations of the theme of Tagore and Freedom is his linguistic innovation. Tagore was a pioneer in spurning rigid classical forms in Bengali arts, and nowhere is this more evident than in his creative exploration of the Bengali language. He is credited with inventing, at a very early age, the Bengali-language short story genre, and he promoted the use of colloquial language throughout his literature, in poems, plays and songs.


However, a simple story of modernisation does not do full justice to the thought process behind his literary linguistic choices. Tagore had a keen sense of the effect of linguistic medium, employing the artificial literary language Brajabuli for archaising effect in his very early work, and using shadhu bhasha, a Sanskritised form of Bengali for several songs and poems, most notably in Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem. He saw the value of English translation of his work, and echoed the diction of shadhu bhasha in the English Gitanjali, using ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, which as one eminent scholar felt, ‘has so tried our patience’.

Tagore was fascinated by language and speech, as is evident in his regular metaphorical attribution of voice to an entity: the voice of stars, the voice of truth and goodness, the living joy that sends its glad voice across a hundred years, and the more ominous voice of the thundering cannon. Tagore’s interest stemmed from a degree of introspection: he himself notes that because he picked up Bengali as a mother tongue he assumed it was an ‘easy’ language, but when he tried to teach it to a non-Bengali, all manner of difficulties reared their ugly heads.

So he went about exploring those difficulties, or the adbhuta ‘wondrous’ as he described his own interests. A problem soon manifested itself: ‘Of real Bengali grammar, there is nothing’ he lamented, and indeed there was almost no modern Indian language grammar before the 19th century. The preoccupation with Sanskrit and Panini’s undoubted supreme linguistic intellect had led to a state of affairs whereby the first Bengali grammars were based on the structure of that ancient language, not of Bengali.

Tagore sent out a heartfelt plea to treat it as a language worthy of study in its own right, and went on to write not only a primer for teaching, but also essays on the mismatch between Bengali spelling and pronunciation, notably in the Shabdatattwa (1909) ‘Science of Words’. Then in 1938 at the age of 77, he published the original and insightful Banglabhasha-Parichay ‘Intro to the Bengali Language’, in which a range of matters were covered: style, standardisation, language and society, spelling, rhythm (an important aspect of his writings), plurals, noun cases, enclitics, verb roots, and (the many, many) onomatopoeic words of Bengali. Crucially, his grammatical writing took careful note of geographical dialectal variation; as with modern linguistic scholarship, it was not prescriptive, but descriptive and analytical.

However, Tagore was a self-confessed ‘traveller’ in the lands of linguistic study, not a ‘geographer’ as he termed professional linguists. This resulted in his adopting no strict methodology, but gave him the freedom to explore whatever struck him as adbhuta at any time. One striking aspect unifying his work is his interest in synchronic linguistics, language as used and processed by speakers at that time, in the face of the comparative-historical approach which was so prevalent from the late nineteenth century. Tagore found more of interest in the language forms he heard around him. As Radhakrishnan noted, ‘it was his love of Man which was the motive force behind his… interest in language’.

Let us conclude with Tagore’s view of language and literature in his own words: “When we come to literature, we find that, though it conforms to the rules of grammar, it is yet a thing of joy; it is freedom itself. The beauty of a poem is bound by strict laws, yet it transcends them. The laws are its wings. They do not keep it weighed down. They carry it to freedom.” (Sadhana)


Ranjan Sen

Ranjan Sen, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Sheffield

Rabindranath Tagore: Great Sentinel of Freedom

Sheffield Humanities Research Institute, 7 October 2017