On Rabindranath Tagore’s fascination with the theme of death

03 July 2014
Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk.
PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE
Rabindranath Tagore at his painting desk.
PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE

Vantage will regularly feature extracts from the best current works of non-fiction. Our first selection comes from Death and Dying, a collection of essays edited by psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar.

On 10 September 1937, Rabindranath Tagore—poet, painter, philosopher, educationist, and perhaps the greatest multifaceted genius India has produced in the 19th and 20th centuries—fainted suddenly due to an attack of erysipelas. He was seventy-seven years old. Since there was no telephone in Santiniketan, in rural Bengal where he lived, he was in a coma for sixty hours before a medical team arrived from Calcutta and he began to respond to the treatment.

On 15 September, propped up on pillows, almost the first thing he did was ask for a brush and colours and paint a landscape on a piece of plywood he noticed lying in the room, “a dark wood with streaks of yellow light breaking through its gloom,” a painting one of his many biographers calls “remarkable . . . and obviously symbolic.” On 25 September, he wrote the first poem of a cycle of eighteen poems on life and death, dying and “afterdeath,” published under the title Prantik, the last one written on 25 December 1937. These poems, translated from their original Bengali by Tagore himself, are some of the finest meditations on death and afterdeath in world literature. Besides the fact that poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, especially from a non-European language into a European one, and that Tagore’s unrepentant romanticism may be alien to much of contemporary sensibility, the English translations of Prantik and the other poems in this essay also suffer from the drawback that Tagore was an indifferent translator. But as the poet and translator of some of Tagore’s poems, William Radice, observes, even the best of translators would have struggled with reproducing into English some of the characteristics of Bengali such as “its rich sound patterns, exploited to the full by Tagore, its elegantly economical and regular inflexional system or its abundance of vivid, onomatopoeic words ...”

Saurabh is a lay psychoanalyst and writer based in Goa.

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