By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

Dear Friends,

            After studying Gandhi and Iqbal’s biographies when I was reading Rabindranath Tagore’s biography written by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, I came to this fascinating realization that Tagore, Gandhi and Iqbal, in spite of their differences in personalities, ideologies and philosophies, all three of them had one interesting thing in common: their marriages were arranged by their traditional, religious and conservative families. They were not only not in love with their wives, they had not even met them. Gandhi was married off when he was thirteen to a bride who was nine while Tagore was asked at the age of twenty two to marry his arranged bride Bhabatarini, who was ten and had her first child when she was thirteen. A child was born to a child. It is amazing how any society can let that happen. Ironically, the community even celebrated that tragic incident and Tagore’s brother gave the bride a new name Mrinalini.

            Like Gandhi, Tagore was also embarrassed and ashamed and never spoke about his wedding publicly. Even in his prolific writings, his arranged and painful marriage is conspicuous by its absence. Both Gandhi and Tagore spoke and wrote openly and honestly against the barbaric tradition of child marriage. They were vehemently against such a cruel and inhumane Hindu cultural and religious tradition. Tagore was quite aware that the tradition of child marriage was embedded in the joint

family system. The conservatives rationalized that the younger the bride was, the easier it was for her to adapt and adjust to the new family consisting of her husband and in-laws. Tagore in his writings challenged the traditions of child marriage and joint family system and predicted their decline. He wrote, “ Both institutions had proved themselves restrictive of the individual’s personal development.”

          Before Tagore got married he led an outgoing life. He was quite a charmer and had impressed many young women in India as well as in England, during his visit as a teenager. There were two relationships with young women that were significant. The first one was with Anapura, who was Tagore’s father’s friend’s daughter. She was smitten by Tagore and tried to communicate her tender feelings by saying “ Poet, I think that even if I were on my death-bed your songs would call me back to life” but Tagore did not reciprocate her feelings. Tagore’s biographers Dutta and Robinson state, “ Later, he laughed at his naivety, but he never laughed at Ana’s love for him, as he said, “I have never made light of the love of a woman no matter how she had loved me…” For some mysterious reason Tagore’s father disapproved of Rabindranath’s relationship with Ana and did not give blessing for marriage. Ana was so impressed by Rabindranath that she kept on using Nalina, as her literary name, as it was given to her by him. She even named one of her nephews Rabindranath. Tagore’s biographers Dutta and Robinson write, “ Ana dies young in Edinburgh in obscurity. It is difficult not to feel a pang of regret that we shall never know what turn she might have given to Rabindranath’s life”.

As a teenager, Tagore had a better opportunity to develop an emotionally and creatively intimate relationship with one of his sisters-in-law Kadambari, who was his age. They both loved literature and enjoyed reading poems and singing songs together. Tagore dedicated many poems and books to her.

Tagore’s relationship with Kadambari was passionate but not sexual. After a few months of Tagore’s marriage she committed suicide. Kadambari was not happy with her husband, who was a popular actor and used to flirt a lot with actresses. Kadambari was aware that those actresses wrote love letters to her husband. Kadambari was not only disillusioned in her marriage but also disappointed in losing her soul-mate to marriage. Finally she decided to end her life by ingesting poison. The whole family tried to suppress the news. Dutta and Robinson write, “ The police was informed but the body was not sent to the morgue; instead a coroner’s court sat at Jorasanko. The report appears to have been destroyed, along with a rumored letter in which Kadambari explained her reasons for suicide, and all her other letters…to avoid scandal”.

The family destroyed all evidence of Kadambari’s love for Tagore but could not erase the imprints of her love on his mind, heart and soul.  Kadambari’s suicide was a great loss for Tagore. Acquiring a ten year old stranger as his bride and losing his best friend were two tragedies within a year of Tagore’s life.

            While reading Tagore’s relationship with Kadambari, I remembered Iqbal’s relationship with his soul-mate Atya Faizi. It echoed the same sad song, the same tragedy of the spouse not becoming the soul-mate and the soul-mate not becoming the spouse. In Tagore’s case his soul-mate was already married to his brother and his spouse was an innocent illetrate girl who had nothing in common with Tagore. Like Gandhi’s and Iqbal’s marriages, Tagore’s marriage was also one of the great misfortunes of his life. The poet of love and peace could not find love and peace in his own marriage. In 1900, seventeen years after marriage and two years before his wife’s death, he wrote to her, “If you and I could be comrades in all our work and in all our thoughts it would be splendid, but we cannot attain all that we desire.”

            Tagore was more preoccupied with his school in Shantiniketan than his marriage. He sold his wife’s jewellery before his death and invested in the institution. Even after her death, he was more concerned about teaching other people’s children than grieving his own wife. Dutta and Robinson wrote, “ Rabindranath did not nurse Mrinalini for two months day and night, as loyally claimed by his biographer Kripalini, he remained absorbed in the running of the school, often away from Jorasanko. After she died on November 30 [1902], he showed no visible emotion and soon returned to Shantiniketan.”

            There is one significant difference though between Gandhi and Tagore in how they dealt with the traumatic experiences of their unhappy marriages. They came to different resolves emotionally, romantically and philosophically. Gandhi became a reformer and a philosopher and adopted a celibate lifestyle while Tagore became a poet and an artist and never lost faith in romantic love and believed in loving the body to touch the soul, discovering the abstract in the concrete and finding the infinite in the finite. Tagore’s faith in love helped him keep on creating and facing crises in life, even episodes of despair and depression. In his drama Prakritir Pratishodh [Nature’s Call]  he describes his philosophy of love and spirituality, “Then the sannyasi realizes that the great is to be found in the small, the infinite within the bounds of form, and the eternal freedom of the soul in love. Only in the aura of love does every limit merge with the limitless. Prakritir Pratishodh may be seen as an introduction to the whole of my future literary work or, rather, to the subject of which all my writings have dwelt, the delight of attaining the infinite within the finite.”

Dear Friends,

            As I read the biographies of creative people, it keeps on fascinating me how their creativity influences their spirituality and sexuality and how different, sometimes contradictory philosophies are born from the womb of similar experiences.

            It is ironic that there seems to be often a dissonance between what they say and what they do, what they write and what they practice. Even Tagore who believed in women’s equality and education and had liberal and progressive ideas about marriages became a conservative and traditional father when it came to his own daughters and started looking for grooms for them when they were teenagers. Dutta and Robinson highlight that start contradiction in these words, “So there he was: in his fiction portraying the searing agony of an arranged marriage between an older man and a barely-more-than-child bride raptured by the passion of the grown woman [in his story charulata], while in his life he was condemning his daughters to precisely the same relationship with the same potential for disaster. Was he conscious of the grotesque contradiction…or did the two activities dwell in distinct mental compartments. There is no way of knowing. In later life, however, Rabibdranath betrayed many guilt feelings about the marriages of his three daughters.”

            It is obvious that even for great people like Tagore there is a lag between intellectual and emotional liberation, between philosophical and spiritual enlightenment, between accepting the ideas and putting it in practice. For some it takes years, for others decades and for still others we need to wait for generations.  Those traditions that are existing for centuries are not easy to change even for enlightened people like Tagore.



May 2003

* Rabindranath Tagore…1861--1941


Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson…Rabindranath Tagore…the myriad-minded man

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 38 Solo Square London  England 1997