The Dutta-household at Simla and Tagore’s ancestral residence at Jorasanko were within a short distance but the two illustrious personalities – Rabindranath and Swami Vivekananda – despite growing up in such close proximity, seem to be far away from each other’s influence. Over the years, there has been a growing perception that there existed a deliberate and polite distance between the Bard of Bengal and the monk who heralded his country’s eminence despite its bondage at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Yet, despite the obvious silence and the different paths chosen to serve their country, Tagore and Swami Vivekananda had immense influence upon each other, writes Tarun Goswami.
On 28 January, 1898, Sister Nivedita had organised a tea party at her residence at Bosepara Lane in north Kolkata which was to be attended by Rabindranath Tagore and her guru, Swami Vivekananda. Nivedita was excited about the party as she wanted Vivekananda to meet Tagore. Previously, she had come in contact with the Tagores, a Brahmo family and found them to be educated and liberal. It was a small tea party – Nivedita being very selective about her guests. Swamiji was accompanied by Dr Mahendralal Sirkar, a well known physician of the time. Rabindranath had reached early and intermingled with the guests. Though the poet and the ascetic had conversed, we have very little written evidence since Nivedita did not follow their exchange in Bengali. But a letter written by Nivedita to Josephine Macleod, one of Swamiji’s disciples reveals that he had delivered a brief speech at the gathering while Tagore sung a few songs.
It is often believed despite being contemporaries (Tagore was older by two years) the two were not close to each other. But an in depth study reveals that both had profound respect for each other though they met only once at the tea party after Swamiji came back from the West in 1897. In fact Swamiji had been moved by Tagore’s compositions and on many occasions sung them. For instance, in 1888, Vivekananda still a householder, had sung a song composed by Tagore on the occasion of Maghotsava, a Brahmo festival held annually on Magh 11. Tagore was present and the song which Narendranath had sung was Satyamangalo Premomaya Tumi. Naren had taken lessons in Indian vocal classical music from Benimadhab Sarbadhikari popularly known as Beni Ustad. Benimadhab was the music director of Chaitanyalila, a drama directed by Girish Chandra Ghose. Sri Ramakrishna had gone into trance after watching the drama on 21 September, 1884 and blessed Binodini who had acted as Nemai.
Even after coming under the influence of Ramakrishna, Naren continued to pursue his musical interest, singing songs for his guru. Three of his favourite Tagore’s songs – Ei Ki Shundoro Sobha, Mahasinghasane Boshi and Tomarei Koriachi Jibonero Dhrubotara were rendered in front of Sri Ramakrishna who went into trance after listening to them. Sri Ramakrishna preferred devotional songs and Swamiji had sung compositions of famous composers like Ramprosad, Kamalakanta and Dashorathi Roy. The musical as well as philosophical appeal of Tagore’s creations moved Swamiji. The poet had learnt Upanishad from his father, Mahorshi Debendranath which was reflected in his songs.
Naren along with his friend Baisnabcharan Basak had published Sangeetkalpataru – a book containing 672 songs composed by great poets like Bidyapati, Chandidas and even Tansen. Twelve songs of Tagore, who was barely 25 years of age at that time, featured in the book when Naren had gone to Jorasanko to get his permission for including the songs. In the preface he had also praised Tagore for composing songs with deep spiritual philosophy. On an earlier occasion he had also rehearsed a few songs under the guidance of Tagore. The poet had composed two songs, Dui Hridayer Nodi and Subhodine Esecho Dohe on the occasion of the marriage of Lilabati, daughter of Rajnarayan Basu with Krishnakumar Mitra. On 29 July, 1881, the marriage function was held at Sadharan Bramho Samaj Hall. Besides, Narendranath, the lead singer, there were three others, Nagen Chatterjee, Chunilal and Dr Sundari Mohan Das who rendered the two songs before the gathering.
After Sri Ramakrishna’s death, his monastic disciples went to reside in an old dilapidated house in Baranagore. The youths faced acute financial problems and hostility from locals. Also, there was immense pressure from the elders to return home after giving up monastic life. Despite poverty, the youths were busy reading books on various subjects and quite often Naren used to sing songs to dispel despair including those of Tagore.
Again in Varanasi, in 1888, Naren met Kshitimohan Sen who requested him to sing a song. It was Mori Lo Mori, a song composed by Tagore on the occasion of Maghotsava. In 1895 in England, one finds Swamiji singing a song of Tagore, Jal Jal Chita and translated the song in English for his Western admirers who were present there.
But it is not music that connected the two; both Tagore and Swamiji believed that despite her bondage India’s deep spiritual and cultural inheritance would be the country’s contribution to the world at large. In Chicago while addressing the World Parliament of Religions in September, 1893, Swamiji highlighted the philosophy of acceptance and universality outlined in the Upanishads. In 1921 Tagore delivered his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech and spoke about uniting the East and West.
Both went on to set up organizations to realize their ideals; while Swamiji founded Ramakrishna Mission to serve the poor and needy and extend the spiritualism of the east to the western world, Tagore’s aptly named the institution ‘Visva Bharati’ to achieve the same cultural and spiritual interface with the world at large. However, while they kept their faces turned towards the world, their hearts had beaten in unison for their poor and weak brethren. True, Tagore, rocked by a series of deaths in the family including that of his wife, father, youngest son Shami and daughter Renuka, remained silent after the death of the young Swami in 1902. Years later, it was indeed profound respect for that luminous personality that made Tagore advise Romain Rolland to study Vivekananda if he truly wanted to know India.