Tagore was haunted by depression: biography

Kolkata: Famed for his literary, artistic and intellectual capabilities the world over, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore led a very lonely life and even suffered from frequent bouts of depression, says his new biography.

"In January 1915 Tagore again speaks of a `breakdown`, `deep depression`, but in February he claimed to have been healed in the solitude of the boat he inhabited on the banks of the Padma (river) in north Bengal," says Prof Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in his book `Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation`.

Incidentally, one of Tagore`s worst spells of depression was in 1914, a year after his book of poems `Gitanjali` brought him sudden international fame as he became the first non-European Nobel laureate by earning the 1913 prize in literature.

"Another such bout of depression is recorded in Tagore`s letters in October 1914….Earlier to that, in May 1914, he had one of his worst spells of depression," the book says disclosing a part of the poet`s life rarely examined by Tagore scholars.

Published by Penguin India, the biography portrays him as a man who was deeply skeptical, self-critical and struggled handling the turmoil and conflicts in his `inner life`.

According to the author, Tagore was always chased by loneliness ever since his childhood as reflected in his memoirs `Jiban Smriti` and `Chhele Bela`. In a letter to his confidant Charles Freer Andrews, the bard says, "I was very lonely, that was the chief feature of my childhood, I was very lonely. I saw my father seldom: he was away a great deal…I was kept in the charge of the servants of the household after my mother died".

Even as a young man he spent a great deal of his life in solitude as he had to supervise the rich Tagore family estates in north Bengal, and stay on his boat on the river by the sand-flats for months together with no other companion than servants and boatmen.

"Sometimes I would pass many months absolutely alone without speaking, till my own voice grew thin and weak through lack of use," Prof Bhattacharya quotes Tagore as having written to his friend once.

On the spell of depression which lasted for three months in 1914, the book quotes his friend Andrews as saying: "he (Tagore) told me afterwards that the mental pain he experienced soon after his arrival (for a retreat at Ramgarh) was almost equivalent to death agony. He had hardly expected to survive it".

Six years later, Tagore again suffered from another bout of depression, but this time it was due to illness. In 1921, Tagore had confided to Andrews in New York as to how he was afraid that he will be rejected by his own countrymen once he returns to India. "My solitary cell is awaiting me in my motherland," he had said.

The biographer attributes the bard`s chronic loneliness to "disappointment with the support he received from his people, especially the Bengali people, a sense of loneliness in his life as an institution builder in a society, and a mindset that was hostile, or at best apathetic".

After winning the Nobel in 1913, a cynical Tagore felt that the felicitation by his countrymen is a "momentary excitement" which would soon disappear because only a few among the celebrants truly appreciated his writings.

In 1919, when Chittaranjan Das attacked him in his presidential address to the Bengal Provincial Conference, a Congress organ, Tagore felt that he was "alone and support less" in his home state.

The author says one of Tagore`s most memorable songs `Ekla Chalo Re` (If They Answer Not to Thy Call, Walk Alone) was written in 1905 when he felt isolated and support less.

"His mind was in turmoil caused not only by the partition of Bengal but also by his failure to gain the attention and support of the mainstream nationalist leaders in the anti- partition agitation," writes Prof Bhattacharya.