Essay: Tagore’s Love Affairs
by Aju Mukhopadhyay
Expressions of love are different with different objects. With the divine, it is pure; we call it devotion or worship, but with fellow human beings, especially of the opposite sex, we find it tinged with desires of lust and other emotions. Love is the finest, and at the same time, the crudest emotion in the human heart, though it is sometimes possible to find it in animal hearts also. Man’s love with woman is the most common bond, which has created a sea of literature. With all types of love in him, Tagore was not a stranger to this type of love also. Poems of light and shade, love and remorse, joy and pain, are the results of his experiences at different levels. Such love affairs occupied different parts of his long life. Some of them, which we have come to know of, are the bases of our story.
Rabindranath Tagore has written innumerable songs of love; love for the divine and humans. He wrote more than 2500 lyrics; perhaps the most among world poets and song composers. All his love was based on the faith that he explained throughout his life and demonstrated. His immortal songs live vibrantly not only in Bengal but in other Indian provinces and sometimes they travel abroad. Rabindra Sangeet is a popular song-word now, which reminds us of beautiful tunes with befitting words that touch the heart and soul of man.
The First Epistle of Love
In spite of all his cravings and thirst for divine love, Tagore loved Life more than God. He enjoyed it. His moner manus or man of the heart included humans too. He loved his first-love, his sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, so intensely from the beginning till his last days that he easily succumbed to his father’s command to marry in the orthodox and ordinary way — as whispers about their affairs were getting louder, slander was touching the reputation of the Tagore family — without perhaps understanding the full implication of his decision to get immediately married as arranged by his father. This would not have happened with others so easily who knew full well the depth of his love for the sister-in-law. Young Tagore was already being rebuked for his conduct by the elders, mainly his other sisters-in-law who were like his mothers. Even Kadambari Devi was older to him by about two years and some months; they first met when she was 10 and Rabi was a boy of about eight years old. With her indulgence, Rabi got the chance of a real entrance into the ladies’ quarters of the Tagore family. Their affectionate relationship as elder sister and brother bloomed into intense love covering all the aspects of childlike love to juvenile love, growing into adult love.
When his mother died leaving him in his teens, the new sister-in-law and her husband Jyotirindranath gave him shelter. Both loved him. Kadambari was young enough to play with dolls and at her dolls’ weddings, she invited Rabi to partake of the beautiful delicacies she prepared. She was already a connoisseur of literature and encouraged Rabi to write, discouraging him when she found he was overconfident. She was such a friend and sister that Rabi craved for her approval and applause for all that he created. Her approval was the most important thing to the young genius.
“My sister-in-law would rather listen to my reading aloud than read for herself. There were no electric fans then, but as I read I shared the benefits of her hand fan.” Quoting this, Kripalani opined, “There grew between the motherless boy and this childless lady a warm affection and friendship that satisfied and sublimated the pent-up, chaotic yearnings of his adolescence and warmed his wayward genius into fruitfulness.” (Kripalani 27)
It was a family of large numbers of brothers and sisters and their children, the head of the family mostly remaining on tour. It was a family of intensely artistic culture, growing and leading among the Calcuttans of their time. Tagore’s grandfather, Prince Dwarakanath, industrialist and Zamindar, was very close to the kings. He was the richest Indian of his time, whose hospitality was so generous that the highest British dignitaries were delighted to attend any invitation from him. An intimate friend of Queen Victoria, he came in close touch with the highest dignitary of France.
Rabindranath, like a docile child, married as asked. But the marriage certainly brought a great hazard into his life in the form of a wife who was 10 years and a few months old when he was 22. Just after their wedding, his wife Mrinalini realized the attraction between her husband and his sister-in-law, who committed suicide four months after their wedding. Kadambari suddenly died in April 1884, without any apparent reason. Actually she committed suicide by poisoning herself on 19 April 1884 and eventually died on 21 April 1884.
A wife who was already torn between rivalry and anguish in her heart must have suffered more when after the suicide, an avalanche of grief and loss afflicted her husband. Their relationship must have been affected for the time-being though later they reconciled and led a normal life. It was surely an aberration. But we have something from him written long after as an explanation:
“I had not realised till then that there could be gaps in life’s familiar patchwork of smiles and tears, to which I had clung, unable to see anything beyond it. When death came and what had been there as part of life became suddenly a gaping void, I felt utterly lost. Everything else had remained the same, the trees, the soil, the sun, moon and the stars; only she who was as real as they, indeed far more real than they, for I had felt her touch on every aspect of my being — only she was not there, she had vanished like a dream. This terrible paradox baffled me . . . . The painful realization that life was not everlasting was transformed into a source of comfort. That we were not prisoners for ever within the impregnable walls of life’s solid actuality — this indeed was welcome tidings to gladden the heart . . . Her death had given me the necessary distance and detachment to see life and world in their wholeness, in their true perspective, and I looked at the picture of life painted on the vast canvas of death, it seemed to be truly beautiful.”
At his tender age in 1878, Rabi was taken to Ahmedabad to stay with his elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, I.C.S. and his family. After four months, he was sent to his elder brother’s friend, Dr. Atmaram Pandurang Turkhud in Bombay. Rabindranath stayed in their family for two months in August-September, 1878 before he was taken to England for the first time in his life. The family was Westernised. He was virtually left under the guardianship of a teenage girl, the daughter of Dr. Pandurang, Anna or Annapurna Pandurang. She was of the same age or a few years older than Tagore. Tagore was to learn from her the conversational style of English and their life style. The purpose was to equip him for his ensuing sojourn to England.
Witty and smart, Anna was a teenage beauty. She fell in love at first sight with Rabi. Beautiful Anna played pranks on him. When she realized for the first time that he was a poet, she challenged his ability to write poems, and when he was ready to write a poem on her, she wished to be named by him. She was named Nalini, the heroine of Tagore’s first published book of verse, Kavi Kahini. Nalini is lotus which blooms at the touch of the sun. The poet wrote a long poem on her instantly on her demand and sang it to her utter satisfaction in Bhairavi Raga. The first few lines in translation are like this:
Oh! Nalini open your eyes
Is sleep still to abandon its ply
See standing at your door
The rising sun’s first score (Robi is a synonym for sun)
. . . .
But friend you sleep, what beget
Am I not your poet. 3
“For most of the time, when Tagore was in the house, she would hang around him, would come to his room stealthily, shut his eyes from behind, pull away the book from his hand and mock at his being a bookworm and indulge in other pranks to attract his attention,” wrote Satyendra R Shukla. 4
“Another time, she tells R that if someone steals the glove of a woman, he earns the right to kiss her. Then she falls asleep on the easy chair in her room. However, on waking she finds beside her that both her gloves are intact. While Rabi realizes that something big is happening, he is not able to proceed.” 5
On another occasion we get Tagore’s version of an anecdote, “I never could imagine why, of all the games, tug-of-war was thought of. Before I could even agree to this bout, she had slumped onto my body as a mark of defeat. But even this did not give me ecstasy nor did it endow me with a romantic wisdom, which must have made her despair about my future.” 6
She wrote later that the poet would recite from his verse, “Kavi Kahini” on several occasions which she enjoyed so much that she could recall them line by line from her memory. She was infatuated with the poet, saying, “Poet, I think that even if I were on my death-bed, your songs would call me back to life.” (Kripalani 36)
Tagore left for England on 20 September 1878. It seems that eventually his love for Anna took another turn, making his love for Kadambari Devi more real, to whom he dedicated Bhagna Hriday (The Broken Heart), written in England. He dedicated four more books of poems to her or to “Sreemati Hey”, the name given to her by him.
Anna was married to a Scotchman to whom she was betrothed, and died, maybe in a couple of years, of T.B. “She asked me once,” the 80-year-old poet reminisced, “‘You must never wear a beard. Don’t let anything hide the outline of your face.’ Everyone knows that I have not followed that advice. But she herself did not live to see my disobedience proclaimed upon my face.” 7
The authors of “Tagore’s First Love” inform that Anna continued to use Nalini, the name Rabindranath had given her, as a literary name and that one of her nephews was named Rabindranath by her.” 8
Krishna Kripalani commented, “But Rabindranath never forgot her memory and his references to her in his later life, whether in conversation or in writing, are instinct with tenderness and respect.” (Kripalani 36)
More Teenage Lovers in Tagore’s Life
After staying for four months in Ahmedabad and two months in Bombay, he sailed for England on 20 September 1878 at the age of 17 years and five months with his elder brother and his family. At first he lived with his brother’s family but finally he had to leave them at their place of work to proceed to London where he was placed as the paying guest of one Dr. Scott. Gradually he became one of their family members, intensely loved by the housewife as her son. Dr. Scott’s two younger daughters, afraid of the newcomer, left their house to live elsewhere but returned later. These two daughters, specially one, fell in love with the poet. Indranath Choudhuri remarked in his essay, “He was similarly unresponsive to the erotic advances of the Scott sisters of Bloomsbury, London where the young poet had been a paying guest.” 9
Tagore in his mature years said to Dilip Kumar Roy (mentioned in his Tirthankar) that he believed them to be his lovers in a former birth.
Though the poet could not react physically to the love offered to him by the beauties of the time, he was sensitive enough to his failure. He wrote quite some poems on Nalini before and after meeting her. In London he composed a poem, the title of which was changed a few times, and finally published as Du Din (Two Days). This signified his very temporary love affairs with both Anna and the daughters of Dr. Scott.
When he wrote letters openly praising the freedom and movement of Western women, his suspicious father called him back. He came back in obedience, pleased to be in his own country again.
Love for his Wife
Tagore loved his wife and gradually a very intimate relationship developed between them. She tried hard and with his and his family’s help, became highly educated in English and Sanskrit besides her Mother Tongue, and translated the Ramayana under Tagore’s guidance. She acted proficiently on their family stage and became a worthy wife to Tagore, taking full charge of his household, giving birth to five children, bearing the first one at the age of 13 years.
Tagore wrote her many letters and expressed his unrelenting love for her. She died at the very young age of 29 years. When she fell ill before her death, Tagore nursed her constantly at her deathbed for two months. A year after her death, he published a volume of 27 poems in her memory, titled, Smaran or “Remembrance”.
Love for Ranu
Ranu Adhikary, who later became Mukherjee after marriage, the wife of Sir R. N. Mukherjee, came to Tagore’s life at a very tender age when she was ten. She was 12 years old when Tagore’s first child, Bela, died at the age of 29 years as her mother had died at the same age. She fulfilled the poet’s thirst for daughterly affection. The aged poet soon had shown tremendous attraction for the teenage beauty. It is said that Tagore had a multivalent relationship with Lady Ranu Mukherjee in later years when she became a young woman of exquisite beauty. He was in contact with her throughout and there is no doubt that she loved him. Tagore wrote her 200 letters. His famous drama, Rakta Karabi or Red Oleander, was conceived as a love triangle, among other things, between him, Ranu Mukherjee and Elmhirst, a young friend and companion of Tagore.
Shadow of his First Love over the Others
What strikes one most is the depth of his first love, overriding all norms, gone to such depths that it could not be fathomed. Tagore never forgot her in his life though he had many temporary love affairs before and even after his marriage and after the demise of his wife. The rejuvenation of lurking love between him, a widower aged 63, and Victoria Ocampo at Buenos Aires, continued even after his return. His stay in an isolated villa, Sun Isidro on the bank of river Plate, under the care and hospitality of the talented and charming lady rejuvenated not only his falling health due to travel but also the lost love.
Victoria states, “Thus I came, little by little, to know Tagore and his moods. Little by little, he partially tamed the young animal, by turns wild and docile, who did not sleep dog-like on the floor outside his door simply because it was not done.” 10
He was in Buenos Aires in 1924 and the next year a book of poems was published, titled Puravi, which is a raga suited to evening; an evening melody. It was dedicated to Vijaya, the name given to Ocampo by the poet, meaning victory. In it there were poems capturing his playful mood at Sun Isidro, full of tenderness. In one of the poems, the shadow of Kadambari fell over his new-found love. It records,
I had said I would not forget, when
with tear-dimmed eyes you had looked into my face . . .
Your dark eyes had inscribed on my soul
the first epistle of love, shyly, timidly . . .
If in today’s spring is hushed
the music of that earlier spring,
If from my lamp of pain the flame has departed
without a sound,
He had many affectionate relationships with young ladies even when he was quite aged; all such relationships cannot be marked in terms of today’s boyfriend-girlfriend-type relationship but the fact is that Tagore was disposed to love throughout his life; with women surely, but he had many loving friends and well-wishers among men too. In spite of all such loves, from time to time, he continued his repentance and asking for forgiveness from his sister-in-law Kadambari in songs. Sitting under a clear sky with floating white patches of cloud, he feels disturbed somewhere and writes, “In this morning light dreaming in autumn’s warmth, I know not what it is my heart desires. Someone is missing and that is enough to make this life a barren waste.” 11
Long after, somewhere at a different place he chanced upon a picture of Kadambari Devi and wrote a poem, some of the lines of which are very significant:
Alas picture, you are just a picture! . . . .
Because you’ve taken refuge inside these eyes – hence today,
You are the green within green, the blue within blue,
My world has found its heart’s match in you . . . .
Your tune plays within my song,
You are the poet within this poet’s heart . . . .
Not a picture, not a picture, not just a picture. 12
Throughout his full life, a life of bereavement and success, of great travails and travels throughout the globe, huge achievements and popularity, amid involvement in social and political activities, Rabindranath Tagore remained a lover. Among all, he loved women most. It was so much that sometimes he became clueless in bestowing his love even to God. In one of his songs addressed to God he wrote,
“Where from shall I get so much of love Lord, to keep you in my heart?” 13
It was not only with them that the poet was bound by the thread of love. He had relationships of love and romance with some others too, however short-lived that might be. He had an affectionate relationship with Indira Devi Chaudhurani (his niece), Sahana Devi (niece of C. R. Das, a patriotic leader and friend), and Maitreyi Devi (with whom he stayed at Mungpoo, a Himalayan hill station, which he often visited between 1938 and 1940 in the last years of his life. There, he was looked after by Maitreyi Devi, who later wrote a book on it, Rabindranath at Mungpoo), Rani Mahalanabis (Chanda) and others. He had long correspondences with many of them. He once said that he remembered all who loved him at one time or the other.
About the women who have so far come into focus, it may be said that four of them were prominent and who affected the poet’s life and were more affected by their love for the poet. Both Anna and Kadambari suffered the pang and bereavement of the non-fulfillment of their love for the poet. Though in the first case he did not commit to anything, did not fully respond to Anna’s love, indirectly he was the cause of her pain and suffering and finally, perhaps for the loss of her life. Kadambari and he were fully responsible for their affairs though it emerged out of life without any one of them causing its birth. Kadambari’s suicide might have multiple causes, though Tagore’s marriage seems to be the main cause. It is sure that it was beyond the imagination of Tagore. He was a man of love, made of love and was played by love, fashioned by it. It may be said that what happened had happened without any direct plan of action. Humans were victims of passion. He wrote many poems on his lovers at different times.
Beautiful to look at, pleasing to hear from, enticing to talk with, inviting adulation; he was never blamed for being sensuous; at least it remained a secret between the players. Women must have felt jealous of each other with him as the cynosure. It seems that Rabindranath loved women like flowers, like an object of his song and adulation. He ever respected them and ever wished their freedom. In his life it seems that love was an artistic dream never to be crushed under the stone of reality. Each woman he loved or loved by, was his Muse, to a greater or lesser extent. Women enriched his creativity. He remained grateful to them.
- Quoted in Kripalani, 27
- Quoted in Kripalani, 59
- Excerpts from poem “Probhati” from Tagore’s work Shaishob Songeet, Translation by Sudipto Sengupta as quoted in “Tagore’s First Love”. Editorial Team. Probashi, Faridabad, Haryana, India. 20.6.2015 (http://www.probashionline.com/tagores-first-love/)
- “Gurudev’s first love” by Satyendra R Shukla. Published in “The Tribune” (Sunday Reading) on 12. 9.1999 (http://www.tribuneindia.com/1999/99sep12/sunday/head6.htm)
- Pal Prashanta kumar. Rabi Jibani. p.12-13. Print book. Excerpts in the Net. http://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/amit/books/img/cvr/pal-rabijibani-2.jpg
- At the Edge- tagore with women (http://8ate.blogspot.in/2011/09/tagore-with-women.html
- Quoted in Kripalani, 36
- “Tagore’s First Love”
- Indranath Choudhury wrote in his article, “Letters of Tagore and his Notion of the Feminine”
- At the Edge
- Quoted in Kripalani, 63
- Few lines from Abul Tahir’s translation of the poem.( www.facebook.com) dated- 18.8.2012
- Gitabitan: Puja and Swadesh. Calcutta: Vishwabharati. Reprint. 1993. Song No. 394; p.162
Kripalani Krishna. Tagore A Life. New Delhi: National Book Trust. 1986. Paperback.