Torn Leaves

The letters of the young Tagore reveal a poet in full possession of his voice

01 March 2014
Rabindranath Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein, an illustration featured in a 1915 edition of the English Gitanjali.

IN 1875–76, when Rabindranath was only 14 or 15 years old, the older brother he was closest to, Jyotirindranath Tagore, took him along to the Tagore estates in East Bengal, which he was then managing on behalf of the family. This was Rabindranath’s first glimpse of Shilaidaha, the place by the Gorai river to which he would return repeatedly during what he called “the most productive period of my literary life … when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.” It was here, in 1912, that Rabindranath first put his hand to the translations that turned into the Gitanjali and won him the Nobel Prize; it was also here—alongside all the other small towns and villages bordering the myriad rivers of this part of Bengal—that he returned when he became manager of the estates himself in the 1890s.

Rabindranath must have expressed some interest in leaving the family home in Jorasanko and taking up this job in Shilaidaha, as a letter from Debendranath Tagore to his son seems to show. Received two days before his wedding in December 1883, the letter advises Rabindranath that “simply living in the mofussil would be of no use without knowing the nature of the work,” and that he should therefore begin to prepare by spending some time in the estate office scrutinising the accounts, making a summary each week and showing it to his father. Once satisfied that the work had been learnt, he would then allow his youngest son to proceed to the mofussil. Nothing came of this idea for the next seven years, however, and it was only in 1889 that Rabindranath finally took over as manager of the estates.

The letters Rabindranath wrote his niece Indira from these mofussil locations of the Tagore estates will be available now in English for the first time in their entirety as Letters from a Young Poet, shortly to appear from Penguin Books. Beloved of Bengalis, who consider the text a classic, all the letters were copied out by Indira into two hardbound exercise books. A selection of these was published in 1912 as Chinnapatra (an English translation of which appeared under the title Glimpses of Bengal in 1920), revised and edited by Rabindranath himself based on the version that existed in the exercise books, giving them a literary shape, and arguably turning them into a distinct fictional narrative of his own.

ROSINKA CHAUDHURI is a professor of cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. She is the author, most recently, of The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Literary Culture (2013).

Keywords: Bengal letter writing Rabindranath Tagore artists nature Indian writers Satyajit Ray