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Tagore’s remembered beard

The display of a clutch of hair from Rabindranath Tagore’s beard in a tranquil English village contrasts harshly with the ghoulish and chaotic scenes witnessed in Calcutta after his death 70 years ago.

india Updated: May 10, 2011 00:10 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The display of a clutch of hair from Rabindranath Tagore’s beard in a tranquil English village contrasts harshly with the ghoulish and chaotic scenes witnessed in Calcutta after his death 70 years ago.

As the funeral cortege moved haltingly along, hairs were plucked from the famous head; and at the cremation itself, beside the Ganges, before the body was completely burnt, the crowd invaded and began searching for bones and other relics of the Poet’s mortal being,” write Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson and in their excellent biography, Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man.

Authorities at Dartington Hall, a Tagore-inspired educational institution in Devon, southern England, say Tagore’s son Rathindranath sent the strands of hair to the poet’s close friend Leonard Elmhurst, the English agronomist who co-founded Dartington Hall. They are being displayed on the poet’s 150th birth anniversary.

Quite how Rathindranath came to possess the hairs remains to be explained. Did he snip a bit off before the funeral cortege set off? Or did someone give them to him? Certainly, the frenzy among Bengalis on August 7, 1941, was such that Rathindranath couldn’t even get to the cremation ghat, so the pyre had to be lit by a great-nephew of Tagore.

Here in England, Tagore and his glorious beard are linked inerasably in public memory, and not only in Devon. William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon has only one object that is not directly associated with the English poet — a bust of Tagore, the hair flowing with undulating Edwardian majesty from his chin, unlike the Bard of Avon’s neat Mughal trim.

During his lifetime, Tagore tried to pick up the rubble of ancient, forgotten bridges between the East and West. Returning from Europe in 1921, he wrote: “Henceforth, any nation which seeks isolation for itself must come into conflict with the time spirit and find no peace. From now onwards the plane of thinking of every nation will have to be international. It is the striving of the new age to develop in the mind this faculty of universalism.”

Pogonotrophy in the public eye is all about wisdom, and Tagore’s spans the ages.