Tagore’s ‘Letters’ (1885-1895): A Reading in Ecopoetics
Ecopoetics, is the new innovative terminology of the twenty-first century signifying a combination of the term ‘eco’ that refers to the eco-system or the environment/ the dwelling place, or habitation and ‘poetics’ derived from the word ‘poesis’ meaning ‘making’ or ‘writing’. Jonathan Skinner, the editor of the journal ecopoetics, defines the term so:
“Eco” here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million
other species, our planet Earth. “Poetics” is used as poesis or making, not
necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus:
ecopoetics, a house making. (Skinner 5)
In other words, ‘ecopoetics’ concerns itself with the interconnectedness, interdependence and cohabitation of the Natural world and the human world. Writing in the prime of his youth, Rabindranath Tagore in his collection of ‘Letters’, in a book entitled Glimpses of Bengal, is eloquent about his deep sensitivities for the environment of rural Bengal. A true visionary, Tagore in the year 1927 had only then introduced the concept of the Earth Festival which included planting of trees and the tilling of lands in Visva-Bharati, though he carried the seeds of this vision even at a very young age. Tagore’s ‘letters’ in particular those composed during the years 1885 and 1895, exemplify the poet/ philosopher’s tryst with Nature wherein he writes extensively on nature and the relationship between nature and humans. In reading through these letters it can be deduced that Tagore’s idea of ‘ecopoetics’ (though literally a new terminology) contains in itself the theory as well as the praxis of what environmentalists or ecopoets of today’s world are talking about.
It is a well known fact that Rabindranath Tagore, a versatile litterateur, has donned the role of poet, playwright, short story writer, and novelist with great ease. That he also excels in the epistolary art is evident from these letters. Moreover Letters Personal are a powerful means of understanding the inner most recesses of the workings of the human mind. It is more so, for a poet and philosopher as that of Tagore’s caliber, that these letters from the book Glimpses of Bengal, form the very theoretical base for his future experimentations in terms of literary creations (Gitanjali), and the making of Santiniketan as well. In his capacity as writer, educator, manager, teacher, Tagore has always connected with Nature. Nature, in fact has been the common link in all his endeavors. In the introduction to this particular collection, Tagore himself points out that the thought process by way of the description of village scenes and the reactions evoked in him from time to time to the ever changing faces of Mother Nature, synchronizes with his own writings, that would certainly broaden his readers’ understanding of his poems- “Such was my justification for publishing them in a book for my countrymen” (Tagore VI).
Almost all the letters in this collection deal with Tagore’s journey across the rivers Padma or the Ichamati on boats and sometimes letters written from his estate, show the keen observations that he makes about his surroundings with such clarity of passion and expression. There is a thorough animation between the human world and the world of nature, between the poet himself and everything around him. The most distinct aspects of Tagore’s recordings in his letters include the description of human life in close affinity with their natural environment, the description of the natural phenomenon such as the rains, the clouds, the rivers, the moon, trees on the one hand and the activities of animals and birds on the other. Apart from the picturisation of the natural scenery he also does not fail to reproduce the sounds of the environment. Unless he was a conscious and sensitive writer, Tagore could not have succeeded in representing nature and its bounty with great precision and sensitivity. In one of his letters he writes about the gypsies whose lifestyle he has been observing with curiosity-
That is always the gypsies’ way: no home anywhere, no landlord to pay rent to,
wandering about as it pleases them with their children, their pigs, and a dog or
two:… these are truly children of the soil, born on it somewhere, bred by the way-
side, here, there, and everywhere, dying anywhere. Night and day under the open
sky, in the open air, on the bare ground, they had a unique kind of life; and yet
work, love, children, and house-hold duties- everything is there. (18-19)
Nature contributes to the meaning of who they are, as environmentalists would define them these ecosystem people have become the ecosystem refugees of today’s modernized /urbanized world. But for Tagore these gypsies were an integral part of nature at peace with themselves. Men, women, and children are portrayed with such affection that Tagore celebrates human life as an endowment of the benevolent nature. Fisher folks are often picturised in the act of casting their nets caught in the very process of making their livelihood. The letters frequently make references to children playing on the banks of the rivers and streams while women are seen bathing or washing clothes. Speaking of the peasants with a tender feeling Tagore in his letter from Shelidah written on tenth May 1893, expresses the way in which these people get their subsistence from nature:
I feel great tenderness for these peasant folk- our ryots- big, helpless, infantile
children of Providence, who must have food brought to their very lips, or they are
undone. When the breasts of Mother Earth dry up they are at a loss what to do,
and can only cry. (102)
Tagore does not see man as separate from nature, rather he writes that the country life witnesses the flow of human life just as “the river runs through many a clime, so does the stream of men babble on winding through woods and villages and towns” (50). Life in the villages is so full of activity with the cultivators singing in the fields, the boats floating past the streams, women filling their pitchers with water and carrying them home etc. The sea of humanity runs parallel to the banks of rivers for hundreds of years. In a letter of October 1891, Tagore beautifully captures the variegated sounds of nature- like the voice of the cowherd calling, the splashing noise of the fast moving boat, the ripples of which lap against the empty jar of the village woman, the twittering of the birds, the creaking sound of the house boat and the humming bees all combined together. Sounds in nature make a significant representation in his letters, for these sounds make him more alive to the environment around him. As he describes one afternoon in Patisar in his letter dated 27th February of 1894,-“ Steeped in this countrryside noonday, with its different sounds- the quacking of ducks, the swirl of passing boats, bathers splashing the clothes they wash, the distant shouts from drovers taking cattle across the ford” (121). Tagore points out again how the sounds made by men and those of nature make a harmonious whole:
The monotonous blows of woo-cutter’s axe or carpenter’’s mallet, the splashing of oars, the merry voices of the naked children at play, the plaintive tune of the ryot’s song, the more dominant creaking of the turning oil-mill, all these sounds of activity do not seem out of harmony with murmuring leaves and singing birds, and all combine like moving strains of some grand dream-orchestra, rendering a composition of immense though restrained pathos. (113)
Describing animals in his letters, Tagore delights in watching birds, a squirrel and also elephants. He expresses with tenderness how he loves the overgrown beast which when calm is the incarnation of peace itself. His love of nature is well divined in one incident when he sees a dead bird floating on the river. Tagore is at once able to identify the probable reason for it. The rising Padma would have swept away the roots of the tree on which the tiny bird would have built its nest. He immediately connects it to the human predicament when Nature is at its Fury: “When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial” (133). Nature’s fury in the form of floods causes destruction to almost all habitat, human and animal alike. He draws lessons from nature and says that in a civilized society man is “cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own” (133). Tagore sensitizes the issue by making a comparison between the West and the East, for the transmigration of the soul from animal to man and vice versa is a basic Indian philosophy, so that, while for the West the animal is just an animal, but for the East it is not ‘sentimental exaggeration’. Hence the poet emphasizes the fact that, “when I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird” (133-34).
Rabindranath Tagore’s love for Nature and every phenomenon in Nature follows its own ethics. As for instance in his letter from Patisar, dated 22nd March 1894, he writes that sitting by the window he watches a domestic fowl being chased by its owners, finally being caught by its neck. That minute Tagore decides not to have any meat. He describes beautifully the change of heart that he undergoes:
So long as we are unconscious of our cruelty we may not be to blame. But if, after our pity is aroused, we persist in throttling of feelings simply in order to join others in their preying upon life, we insult all that is good in us. I have decided to try a vegetarian diet. (124)
Tagore here speaks like a true environmentalist with a certain code of ethics. One of the chief characteristics of Ecopoetics is that it is defined by its connection to the world in a way that implies responsibility and is also surrounded by questions of ethics. He realizes that the “highest commandment is that of sympathy for all sentient beings, and that love is the foundation of all religion” (123). Being part of nature makes man more responsible towards its conservation rather than its destruction. Tagore’s ecological thinking, being and feeling create an ecopoetics that is exemplary and serves to raise consciousness / awareness about Nature. Tagore’s treatment of Nature is almost ingenious in that he eulogizes it as the “Mother of a multitude of children, she attends to their constant calls on her” (93). Woman according to him is cast in the model of Mother Nature. He thinks of nature as an intimate friend that soothes him in times of worry. His consciousness becomes one with Nature as when he says, “My own consciousness seems to stream through each blade of grass, each sucking root, to rise with the sap through the trees, to break out with joyous thrills in the waving fields of corn, in the rustling palm leaves. I feel impelled to give expression to my blood-tie with the earth, my kins-man’s love for her” (87); his love of nature exemplifies the Indian philosophy of Oneness of Being. Tagore clearly visualizes this concept in his relation with nature- “when we feel the flow of life in us to be one with the universal life outside…the facts I am, I move, I grow, are seen in all their immensity”(163), always in constant communion with the environment. Tagore, even in the nineteenth century was a visionary who could envision the need and necessity for a biocentric earth rather than an anthropocentric one. His letters written during 1885-1895 certainly is a revelation of the ecopoet in Tagore and the letters themselves an essay at ecopoetics.
Skinner, Jonathan. “Editor’s Statement.” ecopoetics 1 (2001): 5-8.
Tagore, Rabindranath.Glimpses of Bengal. Calcutta: Macmillan,1960.