The Complete Genius of Rabindranath Tagore

I am currently working on two demanding writing projects: turning my thesis into a book and writing an article for the Global Circulation Project. When – and only when – I have completed those, can I move on to what I really want to do, which is write the book on how Tagore’s ‘One World’ ideal can be taken forward.

I have written reams of notes, on all three projects, but I was stuck, until a few days ago when a realisation came to me. It is that to write usefully and authentically about Tagore one needs a sense of his complete genius. This is necessary even if one is focussing on a particular aspect of his thought and achievements – in my case his holistic science of mankind and society. So I went on a re-reading journey, back to the beginning of my experiences of Tagore. The article which follows: ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ by Ramananda Chatteriee,[1] is taken from a book – actually an enlarged issue of a journal – which I first read at Dartington ten years ago, and then hunted down my own copy. (‘Tagore Birthday Number’, Visva-Bharati Quarterly Vol. VII, Parts I & II, May-Oct. 1941, ed. by K.R. Kripalani.) This collection of articles was assembled to celebrate Tagore’s eightieth birthday. He was alive then (although he had died by the time it appeared in print), and this is why it gives a sense of his complete genius, conveyed by colleagues who knew and loved him in life.

Rabindranath Tagore

By Ramananda Chatterjee

ON the twenty-fifth of Baisakh of the Bengali year corresponding to the eighth of May, 1941, Rabindranath Tagore completes eighty years of his life. Lives eighty years long, though not common, are not extremely tare either. But it is not the length of a life but its quality that really matters. We read in the Yoga-Vasishtha:

Taravopi hi jivanti, jivanti mrgapakshinah,
Sa jivati mano yasya mananena hi jivati
‘Plants also live, and birds and beasts live;
But he lives (truly) whose mind lives by thinking.’

Rabindranath Tagore’s life has been eminently such a life of thought and of action in accordance with his thought.

Within the compass of a magazine article it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the genius, personality and achievements of such a person,—they are so great and varied. But an attempt is made in the following pages to give some idea, however inadequate, of his personality and varied achievements, as a humble token of the participation of the writer in the festive functions of the occasion.

The poet writes in one of his poems:

Do not in this way see from the outside—
Do not look for me in externals:
You will not find me in my sorrow and my joy,
Do not seek in my bosom for my anguish,
You will not find me in my joy,
The poet is not where you seek him:
You will not find the poet in his life-story.[2]

[1]

If he cannot be found in his biography, perhaps then he may be discovered in his works? True, but ‘the self-concealment of genius in literature’ may baffle the seeker there, too, sometimes. In his My Boyhood Days the Poet conjures up before our eyes a picture of his earlier years and of his father’s family. His Reminiscences, too, are of some help. But as they cover only the first twenty-seven years of his life, they do not help one to understand the growth of his personality during the next fifty-three years. And few are alive today from whom relevant personal information could be obtained.

He is our greatest poet and prose-writer. There is hardly any department of Bengali literature that he has not touched and adorned, elevated, and filled with inspiration and lighted up by the lustre of his genius. He began to write very early in life—exactly how early it is not possible to say. He translated Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Bengali when he was only nine years of age. So he has been an author for seventy-one years. He would feign condemn almost all his juvenile productions to oblivion—though most of them would do credit to any ordinary poet, but at the earnest request of the Publication Board of Visvabharati he has agreed to their separate publication. They will fill several big volumes. The Bengali works to whose publication he has never objected are estimated to fill twenty-five volumes, totalling 16,000 royal octavo pages. But this estimate is likely to be exceeded, as he is still active with his pen.

He has not written any epic poem. The age for epics is dead and gone,—somewhat as the earth has left behind the age of the mammoth and the megalosaurus. It is not merely because men are too busy today to write or read big books that epics have ceased to be written in our day. Epics are mostly concerned with wars and dynastic ambitions. But though wars have become more frightful and destructive than ever before and dictators of totalitarian states have their ambitions, these things have lost their glamour and no longer provide poets with inspiring themes. [2]

Difficult as it undoubtedly would be to give an exhaustive list of Rabindranath Tagore’s multifarious achievements from early youth upwards, even the departments of literature and knowledge which he has touched and adorned would make a pretty long list. The late Mahamahopadhyaya Haraprasad Sastri, M.A., D. Litt., C.I.E., said of the poet in the course of his presidential address at the preparatory meeting for the Tagore Septuagenary Celebrations:

‘He has tried all phases of literature—couplets, stanzas, short poems, longer pieces, short stories, longer stories, fables, novels and prose romances, dramas, farces, comedies and tragedies, songs, opera, kirtans, palas, and, last but not least, lyric poems. He has succeeded in every phase of literature he has touched, but he has succeeded in the last phase of literature beyond measure. His essays are illuminating, his sarcasms biting, his satires piercing, his estimate of old poets is deeply appreciative, and his grammatical and lexicographical speculations go further inward than those of most of us.’

Tennyson, in his poem addressed to Victor Hugo, called that great French author ‘Victor in Drama, Victor in Romance, Cloud-weaver of phantasmal hopes and fears’, ‘Lord of human tears’, ‘Child-lover’, and ‘Weird Titan by thy winter weight of years as yet unbroken….’ All these epithets and many more can be rightly applied to Rabindranath Tagore.

By way of supplementing and elaborating what Pandit Haraprasad Sastri his written of Rabindranath’s literary productions, it may be observed that he has written much on religious, educational, social, political, historical, economic and philological subjects, and on music. He is an authority on metre. He is perhaps the greatest literary critic in Bengal. As a writer of letters he is unrivalled in Bengal for the number, volume, variety, and excellence of his epistles. In the writing of prose poems and of free verse, too, he is unrivalled. He has written a scientific book, Visva-parichaya (‘Introduction to the Universe’), which has gone through six editions. In the production of charades in Bengali he perhaps stands alone. [3]

Then there is that unclassifiable work Pancha Bhuter Diary (‘Diary of the Five Elements’), imaginary conversations which are like a transcript of his own talks in Bengali. He is the creator of some dance-plays, too. The aggregate of what he has done for the Bengali language and literature exceeds what any other author has done. It is remarkable that in the decade following 1930, during the latter part of which he has been twice seriously ill, he has produced some three dozen new books, including primers, nursery rhymes, nonsense verses and picture books for children, and severa1 dance-dramas. Two books of poems and a book of reminiscences of his boyhood days have appeared during his present period of convalescence. Two more are to be shortly issued. Many new songs have been composed during this period. The articles and essays written during this period have not yet been published in book form.

All this he has been able to do, not merely, because he is a man of genius but also because he is a scholar whose range of reading is very extensive and varied. In addition to what he has read in Bengali and Sanskrit, and of English literature proper and of the literature of other countries in English translations, he has read English books, as a glance at his reading shelves reveals, on the following and other subjects:

Farming, philology, history, medicine, astro-physics, geology, bio-chemistry, entomology, co-operative banking, sericulture, indoor decorations, production of hides, manures, sugar-cane and oil, pottery, looms, lacquer-work, tractors, village economics, recipes for cooking, lighting, drainage, calligraphy, plant-grafting, meteorology, synthetic dyes, parlour-games, Egyptology, road-making, incubators, wood-blocks, elocution, stall-feeding jiu-jitsu, printing.

Milton wrote in his day, when knowledge was neither so vast nor so varied and specialized as today, that the poet should take all knowledge as his province. Rabindranath Tagore’s ideal has been similar to that of Milton.

Had he not been famous as a great poet and prose-writer, he would have become famous for the range and variety of his [4] studies. Yet such is the genuine humility of the poet that in a poem written the other day and translated as The Great Symphony, he declares:

How little I know of this mighty world.
Myriad deeds of men, cities, countries,
rivers, mountains, seas and desert wastes,
so many unknown forms and trees
have remained beyond my range of awareness.
Great is life in this wide Earth
and small the corner where my mind dwells.

An impression seems still to prevail in some quarters that Rabindranath Tagore’s genius was not recognized even in Bengal before he won the Nobel Prize. It is quite wrong. On his completing the fiftieth year of his life, all classes, all professions and ranks, the representatives of the spirituality, character, culture and public spirit of Bengal, combined to do him honour in the Calcutta Town Hall in a way in which no other author in Bengal had been honoured before, or, has been since. There were also other magnificent celebrations of the occasion. And all this took place before the Nobel Prize in literature had been awarded to him. The fact is, he became famous outside Bengal after winning the Nobel Prize, but was already famous here before that event.

Some works of his have been translated into more languages of the world than those of any other modern Indian author or perhaps of any other author of the world. Many works and some kinds of works of his in Bengali, e. g., those which are full of humour and wit, have not yet been translated into English or thence into other Western and Eastern languages. In the translations of the works which have been translated, much, if not all, of the music, the suggestiveness, the undefinable associations clustering round Bengali words and phrases, and the aroma, racy [sic] of Bengal and India, of the original have been lost. No doubt, the translations of the poems and dramas, particularly when done by the poet himself, have often [5] gained in directness, in the beauty and sublimity of simplicity, and in the music and strength belonging to the English or other language of the translations. But admitting all this, one is still constrained to observe that, for a correct estimate and full appreciation of Rabindranath’s intellectual and literary powers, his gifts and genius, it is necessary to study both his original works in Bengali and their English translations, as well as his original works in English, like Personality, Sadhana, The Religion of Man, etc. A study of his works in their Bengali originals is essential for a correct estimate of his genius and literary achievement.

His hymns and sermons and some of his other writings on spiritual subjects let us unconsciously into the secret of his access to the court of the King of kings, nay to His very presence, and of his communion with Him. His devotional songs and other writings in a spiritual vein have brought solace and healing to many a soul in travail and anguish.

Insight and imagination are his magic wands, by whose power he roams where he will and leads his readers, too, thither. In his works Bengali literature has outgrown its provincial character and has become fit to fraternize with world literature. Currents of universal thought and spirituality have flowed into Bengal through his writings.

In philosophy he is not a system-builder. He is of the line of our ancient religio-philosophical teachers whose religion and philosophy are fused components of one whole. His position as a philosophical thinker was recognized by his selection to preside and deliver the presidential address at the First Indian Philosophical Congress in 1925, and also when he was asked to deliver the Hibbert Lectures, which appeared subsequently as The Religion of Man. Both his poetry and Prose embody his philosophy.

The theme of The Religion of Man has been thus explained by the Author:

‘India has ever nourished faith in the truth of the Spiritual Man, for whose realization she has made in the past innumerable [6] experiments, sacrifices and penances, some verging on the grotesque and the abnormal. But the fact is she has never ceased in her attempt to find it, even though at the tremendous cost of losing material success. Therefore I feel that the true India is an idea, and not a mere geographical fact, I have come into touch with the idea in faraway places of Europe, and my loyalty was drawn to it in persons who belonged to countries different from mine. India will be victorious when this idea wins the victory—the idea of “The Infinite Personality, whose light reveals itself through the obstruction of Darkness.” Our fight is against this darkness. Our object is the revealment of the light of this Infinite Personality of Man. This is not to be achieved in single individuals, but in one grand harmony of all human races. The darkness of egoism which will have to be destroyed is the egoism of the Nation. The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts. Therefore, my own prayer is, let India stand for the co-operation of all peoples of the world.

‘My religion is the reconciliation in my own individual being of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit’ This is the theme of my Hibbert Lectures.’

Rabindranath is not simply a literary man, though his eminence as an author is such that for a foreigner the Bengali language would be worth learning for studying his writings alone.

It does not in the least detract from his work as a musician to admit that he is not an ustad or ‘expert’ in music, as that term is usually understood, though he was trained in Indian classical music. He has such a sensitive ear that he appears to live in two worlds—one, the world of visible forms and colours, and another, which one may call the world of sound-forms and sound-colours. His musical genius and instinct are such that his achievement in that art has extorted the admiration of many ‘experts’. cThis is said not with reference only to his numerous hymns and patriotic and other songs and the tunes to which he has himself set them, or to his thrilling, sweet, soulful and rapt singing in different periods of his life, but also in [7] connection with what he has done for absolute music. He is not only the author of the words of his songs, possessed of rare depth of meaning and suggestiveness and power of inspiration, but is also the creator of what may be called new airs and tunes.

It is said that among European musicians Franz Peter Schubert holds the record for the number of songs composed by him. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition) says of Schubert that ‘He was the greatest songwriter who ever lived.’ His songs ‘number over 600, excluding scenas and operatic pieces.’

According to a rough estimate Rabindranath Tagore has composed some 2,000 songs, all of which he has set to music. These do not include his dance-plays and operas. He continues to compose new songs, never repeating himself.

About fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to be present at some of the meetings in Germany and Czechoslovakia where he lectured and recited some of his poems. To such a meeting at Dresden I have briefly referred in my article on ‘Rabindranath Tagore at Dresden.’ His recitations were such that even though the poems recited were in a language not understood by the vast majority of the audience, he had to repeat them several times at their earnest request. Those who have heard him read his addresses and deliver his extempore speeches and sermons in Bengali know how eloquent he could be as a speaker, though his delivery in years past was often so rapid and his sentences branched out in such bewildering luxuriance as to make him the despair of reporters. No wonder, he shines also as a conversationalist. His humorous and witty repartees and his improvised playful poems are unrivalled.

He is a master and a consummate teacher of the histrionic art. Those who have seen him appear in leading roles in many of his plays have experienced how natural and elevating acting can be. From the prime of his manhood upwards he has been in the habit of reading out his new poems, discourses, short [8] stories, plays and novels to select circles. On such occasions, too, his elocution and histrionic talents come into play.

If it is true that the credit of reviving the performance of music in public by respectable women goes to the Brahmo Samaj, that credit belongs in great part to the Tagore family and Rabindranath Tagore. They have also made it possible for girls and women of respectable classes to act in public. The poet has also rehabilitated in Bengal dancing by respectable girls and women as a means of self-expression and innocent amusement and play. The new dances he has created, in which he has personally trained many girl students of Santiniketan, are entirely free from the voluptuousness and worse features of many prevalent dances. In the course of a letter written to His Excellency President Tai Chi Tao on the significance of artistic education in Visva-bharati, the Poet says:

‘Tonight we shall present before you another aspect of our ideal where we seek to express our inner self through song and dance. Wisdom, you will agree, is the pursuit of completeness; it is in blending life’s diverse work with the joy of living. We must never allow our enjoyment to gather wrong associations by detachment from educational life; in Santiniketan, therefore, we provide our own entertainment, and we consider it a part of education to collaborate in perfecting beauty. We believe in the discipline of a regulated existence to make our entertainment richly creative.

‘In this we are following the ancient wisdom of China and India; the Tau, or the True Path, was the golden road uniting arduous service with music and merriment. Thus in the hardest hours of trial you have never lost the dower of spiritual gaiety which has refreshed your manhood and attended upon your great flowerings of civilisation. Song and laughter and dance have marched along with rare loveliness of Art for centuries of China’s history. In India Sarasvati sits on her lotus throne, the goddess of Learning and also of Music, with the Golden Lyre—the Veena—on her lap. In both countries, the arcana of light have fallen on divinity of human achievements. And that is Wisdom.’

Tagore’s patriotic songs are characteristic. They are refined [9] and restrained, and free from bluff, bravado, bluster and boasting.

Some of them twine their tendrils round the tenderest chords of our hearts, some enthrone the Motherland as the Adored in the shrine of our souls, some sound as a clarion call to our drooping spirits filling us with hope and the will to do and dare and suffer, some call on us to have the lofty courage to be in the minority of one; but in none are heard the clashing of interests, the warring passions of races, or the echoes of old, unhappy, far-off historic strifes and conflicts. In many of those written during the stirring times of the Swadeshi agitation in Bengal more than three decades ago, the poet spoke out with a directness which is missed in many of his writings, though not in the Katha-o-Kahini ballads, which make the heart beat thick and fast and the blood tingle and leap and course swiftly in our veins.

To Andrews Fletcher of Salton, a famous Scottish patriot, is attributed the authorship of the observation that ‘if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.’ He is generally quoted, however, as having said so with respect to songs. Both ballads and songs have much to do with the making of nations. Rabindranath’s songs and ballads—the former to a greater extent than the latter, have been making and shaping Bengal to no small extent and will continue to mould the character of her people, literate and illiterate, town-dwellers and village-folk, and their culture and civilization.

But it is not merely as a maker of songs that he has taken part in the Swadeshi movement. His socio-political addresses, the annual fairs suggested or organized by him, are part of the same national service. He has worked earnestly for the revival of weaving and other arts and crafts of the country, particularly village arts and crafts, and contributed his full share to making education in India Indian as well as human and humane in the broadest sense, and to the sanitation, reconstruction, reorganization and rejuvenation of villages. Even official reports have [10] praised him as a model landlord for his activities in these directions in his estate.

His scheme of constructive ‘non-co-operation’, or, properly speaking, of constructive self-reliance, in education, revival of village crafts, village reconstruction, etc., as outlined in some of his writings and addresses more than thirty years ago, was part of his Swadeshi-movement politics. It is to be found in his lecture on Swadeshi Samaj, delivered on 22nd July, 1904, and in his presidential address at the Bengal Provincial Conference at Pabna, 1908. The ‘No-Tax’movernent adumbrated in his plays Prayaschitta (‘Expiation’) and Paritran (‘Deliverance’) and the joyful acceptance of suffering and chains by its hero, Dhananjaya Bairgi, a Mendicant, embody his idea of what the attitude of leaders and the rank and file should be on such occasions. Both plays are dramatic renderings of an earlier work, a historical romance named Bou-Thakuranir Hat (‘The Bride-Queen’s Market’), published in 1884. Of these plays Prayaschitta is the earlier one, published in May, 1909. Translations of some portions of its dialogues and of some of its songs are given below.

Dhananjala Bairagi, a Sannyasi, and a nunber of villagers of Madhabpur, going to the King:

THIRD VILLAGER: What shall we say, Father, to the King?
DHANANJAYA: We shall say, ‘we won’t pay tax.’
THIRD VILLAGER: If he asks, ‘why won’t you?’
DHANANJAYA: We will say, ‘if we pay you money starving our children and making them cry, our Lord will feel pain. The food which sustains life is the sacred offering dedicated to the Lord; for he is the Lord of life. When more than that food—a surplus, remains in our houses, we pay that to you (the King) as tax, but we can’t pay you tax deceiving and depriving the Lord.’
FOURTH VILLAGER: Father, the King will not listen.
DHANANJAYA: Still, he must be made to hear. Is he so unfortunate because he has become King that the Lord will not allow him to hear the truth? We will force him to hear. [11]
FIFTH VILLAGER: Worshipful Father, he (the King) will win, for he has more power than we.
DHANANJAYA: Away with you, you monkeys! Is this a sample of your intelligence? Do you think, the defeated have no power? Their power stretches up to heaven, do you know?
SIXTH VILLAGER: But, Father, we were far from the King, we could have saved ourselves by concealment,—we shall now be at the very door of the King. There will be no way of escape left if there be trouble.
DHANANJAYA: Look here, Panchkari, leaving things unsettled in this way by shelving them, never bears good fruit. Let whatever may happen, happen; otherwise the finale is never reached. There is peace when the extremity is reached.

Let us take next what passes between Dhananjaya, the Sannyasi, leader of the people, and King Pratapaditya.

PRATAPADITYA: Look here Bairagi, you can’t deceive me by this sort of (feigned) madness of yours. Let us come to business. The people of Madhabpur have not paid their taxes for two years. Say, will you pay?
DHANANJAYA: No, Maharaj, we will not.
PRATAPADITYA: Will not? Such insolence!
DHANANJAYA: We can’t pay you what is not yours.
PRATAPADITYA: Not mine!
DHANANJAYA: The food that appeases our hunger is not yours. This food is His who has given us life. How can we give it to you?
PRATAPADITYA: So it is you who have told my subjects not to pay taxes?
DHANANJAYA: Yes, Maharaj, it is I who have done it. They are fools, they have no sense. They want to part with all they have for fear of the tax-gatherer. It is I who tell them, ‘Stop, stop, don’t you do such a thing. Give up your life only to Him who has given you life (that is, die only at the Lord’s bidding, but not by depriving yourselves of the food which He has given you);—don’t make your King guilty of killing you (by allowing him to take from you the food which is necessary for keeping your bodies and souls together).’

I do not wish to add to the length of this article by quoting similar passages from the play Paritran, based on the same story. Let me take some other passages from Prayaschitta, the other play. [12]

PRATAPADITYA: Look here, Bairagi, you have neither hearth nor home; but these villagers are all householders—why do you want to lead them into trouble? (To the villagers) I say, you fellows all go back to Madhabpur. (To Dhanaujaya) You, Bairagi, have to remain here (that is, he will be arrested and jailed).

VILLAGERS: No, that can’t be so long as we are alive.

DHANANJAYA: Why can’t that be? You are still lacking in sense. The King says ‘Bairagi, you remain!’ You say, ‘No that can’t be.’ But has the luckless Bairagi come floating like flotsam (that is, is he not master of himself with a will of his own)? Is his remaining here or not to be settled only by the King and yourselves?

(Sings)

Whom have you kept by saying ‘he remains’?
When will your order take effect?
Your force will not endure, brother,
That alone will endure which is fit to endure.
Do what you please—
Keep or kill by bodily force—
But only that will be borne which He will bear
Whom all blows strike.
Plenty of coins you have,
No end of ropes and cords,
Many horses and elephants,—
Much you have in this world.
You think, what you want will happen,
That you make the world dance to your tune;
But you will see on opening your eyes,
That also happens which doesn’t usually happen.

(ENTER MINISTER)

PRATAPADITYA : You have come at the nick of time. Keep this Bairagi captive here. He must not be allowed to go back to Madhabpur.
MINISTER: Maharaj—
PRATAPADITYA What! The order is not to your liking;—is it?
UDAYADITYA: (Pratapaditya’s son and heir)—Maharaj, the Bairagi is a saintly man.
VILLAGERS: Maharaj, this cannot be borne by us! Maharaj, evil will follow from it. [13]
DHANANJAYA: I say, you all go back. The order has been given. I must stay with the King for a few days; the fellows can’t bear this (good luck of mine)!
VILLAGERS: Did we come to petition His Majesty for this? We are not to Have the Yuvaraj (heir-apparent), and are to lose to boot?
DHANANJAYA: My body burns to hear what you say: What do you mean by saying you will lose me? Did you keep me tied up in a corner of your loin-cloths? Your business is done. Away with you now!

Owing to an accidental conflagration, the jail where Dbananjala was imprisoned is reduced to ashes. He has come out.

DHANANJAYA: Jai, Maharai, Jai! You did not want to part with me, but from where nobody knows, Fire has come with a warrant for my release! But how can I go without telling you? So I have come to take your order.
PRATAPADITYA (sarcastically): Had a good time?
DHANANJAYA: Oh I was so happy. There was no anxiety. All this is His hide-and-seek. He thought I could not catch Him concealed in the prison. Bui I caught Him, tight in my embrace; and then no end of laughter and songs unending. I have spent the days in great joy—I shall remember my Brother Prison.

(Sings)

O my chains, embracing you I enjoyed
The music of your clanking.
You kept me delighted, breaking my pride,
Playing games with you,
The days passed in joy and sorrow,
You encircled my limbs
With priceless jewellery.
I am not angry with you,—
If anybody is to blame, it is I,
Only if there be fear in my mind,
I regard you as terrible.
All night long in the darkness
You were my comrade,
Remembering that kindness of yours
I salute you.

[14]

PRATAPADITYA: What is it you say, Bairagi! What for were you so happy in prison?
DHANANJAYA: Maharaj, like your happiness in your kingdom was my joy in prison. What was lacking (there)? (The Lord) can give you happiness, but can’t He give me any joy?
PRATAPADITYA: Where will you go now?
DHANANJAYA: The road.
PRATAPADITYA: Bairagi, it strikes me at times that your way is preferable; my kingdom is no good.
DHANANJAYA: Maharaj, the kingdom, too, is a path. Only, one has to be able to walk aright. He who knows it to be a path (to the goal), he is a real wayfarer; we sannyasis are nothing in comparison with him. Now then, if you permit, out I go for the nonce.
PRATAPADITYA: All right, but don’t go to Madhabpur.
DHANANJAYA: How can I promise that ? When (the Lord) will take me anywhere, who is there to say nay?

All the passages quoted above are free translations from the original. It is also to be noted that the poet has named the leader of the people in these two plays ‘Dhananjaya’, which means, ‘He who has conquered (the desire for) riches.’ One may take that to indicate the poet’s idea of the essential qualification of a leader of the people.

As the poet has denounced Nationalism in his book of that name, taking the word to mean that organized form of a people which is meant for its selfish aggrandizement at the expense of other peoples by foul, cruel and unrighteous means, and as he is among the chief protagonists of what is, not quite appropriately, called Internationalism, his profound and all-sided love of the Motherland, both as expressed in words and as manifested in action, has sometimes not been evident perhaps to superficial observers. But those who know him and his work and the literature he has created, know that he loves his land

with love far-brought
From out the storied Past, and used
Within the Present, but transfused
Thro’ future time by power of thought.

[15]

His penetrating study of, and insight into, the history of India and Greater India have strengthened this love. Especially noteworthy is his essay on the course of India’s history.

The origin of what is called his Internationalism has sometimes been traced to his revealing and disappointing experiences during the Anti-partition and Swadeshi movement of Bengal of the first decade of this century. Such experiences are not denied. But his love of the whole of humanity and interest in their affairs are traceable even in the writings of his boyhood when he was in his teens. And in maturer life, this feature of his character found distinct expression in a poem, named ‘Prabasi’, written more than forty years ago, which begins with the declaration that his home is in all lands, his country in all countries, his close kindred in all homes there, and that he is resolved to win this country, this home and these kindred.

In his patriotism there is no narrowness, no chauvinism, no hatred or contempt of the foreigner. He believes that India has a message and a mission, a special work entrusted to her by Providence.

He writes in ‘Our Swadeshi Samaj’:

‘The realization of unity in diversity, the establishment of a synthesis amidst variety—that is the inherent, the santana, Dharma of India. India does not admit difference to be conflict, nor does she espy an enemy in every stranger. So she repels none, destroys none, she abjures no methods, recognizes the greatness of ideals, and she seeks to bring them all into one grand harmony.’

Again:

‘In the evolving History of India, the principle at work is not the ultimate glorification of the Hindu or any other race. In India, the history of humanity is seeking to elaborate a specific ideal to give to general perfection a special form which shall be for the gain of all humanity; nothing less than this is its end and aim. And in the creation of this ideal type, if Hindu, Moslem or Christian should have to submerge the aggressive part of their individuality, that may hurt their sectarian pride, but will not be accounted a loss by the standard of Truth and Right.’

[16]

Tagore’s ideal is the same as that of Rammohun Roy, who, he says, ‘did not assist India to repair her barriers, or to keep cowering behind them,—he led her out into the freedom of Space and Time, and built for her a bridge between the East and the West.’

This statement of India’s ideal is supported by Mr. C.E.M. Joad in the following passage in his book, The Story of Indian Civilization, published, much later, recently:

‘Whatever the reason, it is a fact that India’s special gift to mankind has been the ability and willingness of Indians to effect a synthesis of many different elements both of thoughts and of peoples, to create, in fact, unity out of diversity’

Rabindranath is above all sectarianism, communalism and racialism, as is evident from his poem ‘Bharata-Tirtha’, of which a few lines are translated below:

No one knows at whose call
How many streams of humanity
Came from where, in irresistible currents,
And lost their identity in this (India’s) ocean (of men).
Here Aryan, hero non-Aryan,
Here Dravid and Cheen,
Hordes of Saka, Huna, Pathan and Mughal
Became merged in one body.
The door has opened in the West today,
All bring presents from there,
They will give and take, mix and mingle,
Will not turn back—
In this India’s great
Human ocean’s shores.

.           .           .           .

Come O Arynan, come, non-Aryan,
Hindu-Mussalman,
Come, come today, you English,
Come, come, O Christian.
Come, Brahmana, purifying your mind, [17]
Clasp the hands of all,
Come, O ye outcasted and ‘fallen’,
May the burden of all ignominy
Be taken off your backs.
Come, hasten to the Mother’s anointing;
For the auspicious vessel has not yet been filled
With water from all shrines,
Purified by the touch of all
(castes, creeds and classes).

The poet has never denied that other countries, too, may have their own special messages and missions. He does not dismiss the West. with a supercilious sneer, but respects it for its spirit of enquiry, its science, its strength and will to face martyrdom in the cause of truth, freedom and justice (now, alas! gone to sleep), its acknowledgement and acceptance of the manness of the common man (now also, alas! not manifest), and its activities for human welfare, and wishes the East to take what it should and can from the West, not like a beggar without patrimony or as an adopted child, but as a strong and healthy man may take wholesome food from all quarters and assimilate it. This taking on the part of the East from the west, moreover, is the reception of stimulus and impetus, more than, or rather than, learning, borrowing, aping or imitation. The West, too, can derive advantage from contact with the East, different from the material gain of the plunderer and the exploiter. The study of his writings and utterances leaves us with the impression that the West can cease to dominate in the East only when the latter, fully awake, self-knowing, self-possessed and self-respecting, no longer requires any. blister or whip and leaves no department of life and thought largely unoccupied by its own citizens.

His hands reach out to the West and the East, to all humanity, not as those of a suppliant, but for friendly grasp and salute. He is, by his literary works and travels, among the foremost reconcilers and uniters of races and continents. He has renewed India’s cultural connection with Japan, China, Siam, Islands-India, Iran and Iraq by his visits to those lands. His [18] extensive travels in Europe and America also have established cultural and friendly relations with the peoples of those lands. The Greater India Society owes its inception to his inspiration.

In spite of the cruel wrongs inflicted on India by the British nation, and whilst condemning such wrong-doing unsparingly, he has never refrained from being just and even generous in his estimate of the British people. Therefore it is that his disillusion has been so agonizing, as revealed in his eightieth birthday pronouncement on the Crisis of Civilization.

It will be recalled that he was the first to publicly condemn the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, and that he gave up his knighthood in protest.

His politics are concerned more with the moulding of society and character-building than with the more vocal manifestations of that overcrowded department of national activity. Freedom he prizes as highly and ardently as the most radical politician, but his conception of freedom is full and fundamental. To him the chains of inertness, cowardice and ignorance, of selfishness and pleasure-seeking, of superstition and lifeless custom, of the authority of priestcraft and letter of scripture, constitute out bondage no less than the yoke of the stranger, which is largely a consequence and a symptom. He prizes and insists upon the absence of external restraints. But this does not constitute the whole of his idea of freedom. There should be inner freedom also, born of self-sacrifice, enlightenment, self-purification and self-control. This point of view has largely moulded his conception of the Indian political problem and the best method of tackling it. He wishes to set the spirit free, to give it wings to soar, so that it may have largeness of vision and a boundless sphere of activity. He desires that fear should be cast out. Hence his politics and his spiritual ministrations merge in each other. Quite appropriately and characteristically have the lips of such a Poet uttered the prayer:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free; [19]
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by
narrow domestic walls:
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening
thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country
awake. (Gitanjali)

Age and bodily infirmities have not made him a reactionary and obscurantist. His spirit is ever open to new light. He continues to be a progressive social reformer. His intellectual powers are still at their height. His latest poetic creations of the month—perhaps one may sometimes say, of the week or the day— do not betray any dimness of vision, any lack of inspiration or fertility; nor are there in any of them signs of repetition. He continues to be among our most active writers. This is for the joy of creation and self-expression and fraternal giving, as he loves his kind, and. human intercourse is dear to his sou1. His ceaseless and extensive reading in very many diverse subjects, including some out-of-the-way sciences and crafts, and his travels in many continents enable him to establish ever new intellectual and spiritual contacts, to be abreast of contemporary thought, to keep pace with its advance and with the efforts of man to plant the flag of the master who knows in the realms of the unknown— himself being one of the most sanguine and dauntless of intellectual and spiritual prospectors and explorers.

When Curzon partitioned Bengal against the protests of her people, the poet threw himself heart and soul into the movement for the self-realization and self-expression of the people in all possible ways. But when popular resentment and despair led to the outbreak of terrorism, he was the first to utter the clearest note of warning, to assert that Indian nationalism should not stultify and frustrate itself by recourse to such violence. Such warnings have been given by him on other occasions, too. [20] Though he has had nothing to do with active politics for decades, he has not hesitated to give the nation the advantage of inspiring messages and outspoken pronouncements from the presidential chair at meetings on momentous and critical occasions. He has been unsparing in his condemnation of the Predatory instincts and activities of nations, whether of the military or of the economic variety. He has never believed that war can ever be ended by the pacts of robber nations so long as they do not repent and give up their wicked ways and the spoils thereof. The remedy lies in the giving up of greed and promotion of neighbourly feelings between nation and nation as between individual men. Hence the poet-seer has repeatedly given in various discourses and contexts his exposition of the ancient text of the Isopanishad:

‘All this whatsoever that moves in Nature is indwelt by the Lord.
Enjoy thou what hath been allotted to thee by Him. Do not covet anybody’s wealth.’

In pursuance of this line of thought, while the poet has expressed himself in unambiguous language against the use of violence by the patty in power in Russia, and while he holds that private property has its legitimate uses for the maintenance and promotion of individual freedom and individual self-creation and self-expression and for social welfare, he sees and states clearly the advantages of Russian collectivism, as will be evident from his book Rashiar Chithi in Bengali and the following cabled reply to a query of Professor Petrov of V.O.K.S., Moscow:

‘Your success is due to turning the tide of wealth from the individual to collective humanity.’

How the poet feels for the humblest of human beings may be understood from many of his poems and utterances; e. g., the following from Gitanjali:

Pride can never approach to where thou walkest in the clothes
of the humble among the poorest, and lowliest and lost.
My heart can never find its way to where Thou keepest company
with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest and the lost. [21]
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where
the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in
shower, and His garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy
mantle and even like Him come down on the dusty soil.

In spite of all his genuine sympathy and love for the poor and the down-trodden, he feels in all humility that he is not one with them. In The Great Symphony he mourns:

Not everywhere have I won access,
my ways of life hare intervened
and kept me outside.
The tiller at the plough,
the weaver at the loom,
the fisherman plying his net,
these and the rest toil and sustain the world
with their world-wide varied labour.
I have known them from a corner,
banished to a high pedestal of society
reared by renown.
Only the outer fringe have I approached,
not being able to enter
the intimate precincts.

Thirty-one years ago he wrote a poem, included in the Bengali Gitanjali, addressed to the Motherland, referring to the

treatment accorded to the ‘untouchables’. Its first stanza runs as follows (translation):

O my hapless country, those whom thou hast insulted—
To them shalt thou have to be equal in thy humiliation,
Those whom thou hast deprived of the rights of man,
Kept them standing before thee, not taking them in thy lap,
All of them shalt thou have to equal in humiliation.

As regards the poet’s ideal of womanhood, the passage in Chitra, beginning,

‘I am Chitra. No goddess to be worshipped, nor yet the object of common pity to be brushed aside like a moth with indifference. If you deign to keep me by your side in the path of danger and daring, [22] if you allow me to share the great duties of your life, then you will know my true self.’

is well known. But to get a complete idea of what he thinks of Woman, many other poems and prose writings of his have to be read. For instance, among poems, ‘Sabala’ (‘The Strong Damsel’) in Mahua, not yet translated, written with reference to the word ‘Abala’ (‘The Weak’), a Sanskrit word denoting woman, the series of poems named ‘Namni’ in the same work, ‘Nari’ in Arogya, etc. Gora and some of his other novels and many short stories enable the reader to know his ideals of womanhood, though he writes as an artist, not as a preacher.

Regarding our unfortunate sisters, stigmatized as fallen women, though their betrayers, ravishers, and exploiters are not called ‘fallen’ men, read the poet’s ‘Patita’ (‘The Fallen Woman’ ) in Kahini, and ‘Karuna’ (‘Compassion’) and ‘Sati’ (‘The Chaste Woman’) in Chaitali. These, too, have not yet been translated into English.

As an educationist, he has preserved in his ideal of Visva-Bhatati, the international residential university, the spirit of the ancient ideal of the tapovanas or forest-retreats of the Teachers of India—its simplicity, its avoidance of softness and luxury, its insistence on purity and chastity, its spirituality, its interplay of influence between teachers and students, its reverence for the Infinite Spirit, its practical touch with Nature, and the free play that it gave to all normal activities of body and soul. Up till his last serious illness, whenever he was at Santiniketan he would periodically conduct the service and prayers in the Mandir and pour out his soul in elevating and inspiring discourses. While the ancient spirit has been thus sought to be kept up, there is in this open-air institution at Santiniketan no cringing to mere forms, however hoary with antiquity. The poet’s mental outlook is universal. He claims for his people all knowledge and culture, whatever their origin, as their province. Hence, while he wants the youth of India of both sexes to be rooted in India’s past and to draw sustenance therefrom, while he has been practically [23[ promoting the culture of the principal religious communities of India as far as the resources of the institution permit, he has also extended a friendly invitation and welcome to the exponents of foreign cultures as well. China’s response has taken the concrete shape of the Cheena-Bhavana for the study of Chinese culture. Chinese, Tibetan and Islamic studies—and, of course, the study of Hindu and Buddhist culture and of the teachings of the medieval saints of India, have long been special features of Visva-Bharati. All this has made it possible, for any who may so desire, to pursue the study of comparative religion at Santiniketan. He wants that there should be no racialism, no sectarian and caste and colour prejudice in his institution.

Visva-Bharati stands neither for merely literary, nor for merely vocational education but for both and more. Tagore wants both man the knower and man the doer and maker. He wants an intellectual as well as an artistic and aesthetic education. He wants the growth of a personality equal to meeting the demands of society and solitude alike. Visva-Bharati now comprises a primary and a high school, a college, a school of graduate research, a school of painting and modelling and of  some crafts, a music school, a school of agriculture and village welfare work, a co-operative bank with branches and a public health institute. Here students of both sexes have their games and physical exercises. The poet’s idea of a village is that it should combine all its beautiful and healthy rural characteristics with the amenities of town life necessary for fullness of life and efficiency. Some such amenities have already been provided in his schools. There is co-education in all stages. It is one of the cherished desires of the poet to give girl students complete education in a woman’s University based on scientific methods, some of which are the fruits of, his own insight and mature experience.

When he is spoken of as the founder of Visva-Bharati, it is not to be understood that he has merely given it a local habitation and a name and buildings and funds and ideals . That [24] he has, no doubt, done. To provide funds, he had, in the earlier years of the school, sometimes to sell the copyright of some of his books and even temporarily, or for good, to part with some of Mrs. Tagore’s jewellery. His subsequent efforts to collect funds are well known. In the earlier years of the institution, he took classes in many subjects, lived with the boys in their rooms, entertained them in the evenings by story-telling, recitations of his poems, games of his own invention, methods of sense-training of his own devising, etc. Many a day at that time would Mrs. Tagore, who was an expert in the culinary art, regale the boys and their teachers with dishes prepared by herself. In those days when the number of teachers and students was small, the institution was like a home for them all. Even more recently the poet has been known to take some classes. And he continues to keep himself in touch with the institution in various ways.

Student self-government, unsectarian prayers and worship, and Season Festivals are characteristic features of Visva-Bharati. The poet also introduced the ‘honour system’ of keeping no watch over his students in examinations. The opportunities which the pupils of Santiniketan have had to render service to the neighbouring villages, have resulted in the establishment of the Prasad Vidyalaya and the Pearson School for the Santals.

That Tagore is an independent thinker in education has been recognised. But one of the group of institutions constituting Visva-Bharati, namely, Siksha-Satra, has not received due public attention, and is perhaps practically unknown even to Indian educationists. It was founded in 1924. Its origin and principles were stated when it was founded, and re-stated by Mr. L. K. Elmhirst in Visva-Bharati Bulletin No. 9, December, 1928, from which I make a few extracts below.

‘To dig our own cave in the earth, where we could creep out of sight, much to the disgust of the matter-of-fact gardener, to chop sticks with a real axe, to be given a pair of boots to polish, a fire to light, or some dough to knead and bake—these were our keenest joys; yet only too often had we to be content with toy bricks, toy houses, [25] toy tools or toy kitchens; or, if serious work was provided, it was in the nature of sweated labour, which fatigued without giving play to our creative instincts. ‘The aim, then, of the Siksha-Satra is through experience in dealing with this overflowing abundance of child life, its charm and its simplicity, to provide the utmost liberty within surroundings that are filled with creative possibilities, with opportunities for the joy of play that is work,—the work of exploration: and of work that is play, —the reaping of a succession of novel experiences: to give the child that freedom of growth which the young tree demands for its tender shoot, that field for self-expansion in which all young life finds both training and happiness.’

As regards the age at which the child’s education at the Sikshi-Satra should begin, it is stated: ‘It is between the ages of six and twelve that the growing child is most absorbed in gathering impressions through sight, smell, hearing and taste but more especially through touch and the use of the hands. From the start, therefore, the child enters the Siksha-Satra as an apprentice in handicraft as well as housecraft. In the workshop, as a trained producer and as a potential creator, it will acquire skill and win freedom for its hands; whilst as an inmate of the house, which it helps to construct and furnish and maintain, it will gain expanse of spirit and win freedom as a citizen of the small community.’

Some of the crafts in which the pupils can learn are mentioned in the Bulletin. It is stated that,

‘From the earliest years it is well to introduce to the children some special craft, easily grasped by small hands, which is of definite economic value. The product should be of real use in the home, or have a ready sale outside. . . . In the carrying out of every one of these crafts, again, some art, some science, some element of business enters in.’

Rabindranath has been a journalist from his teens. He has often written with terrible directness. In years past the poet successfully edited several monthlies and contributed, and still contributes, to numerous more. He has written for many weeklies, too. He is the only man in Bengal I know who was capable of filling a magazine from the first page to the last with [26] excellent reading in prose and verse of every description required.

His contributions to periodicals have been copious all along, and in such work he has been regular, punctual and methodical. It is easy and pleasant to lead his beautiful handwriting. As an editor, he was the making of many authors who subsequently became well-known, by the thorough revision to which he subjected their work.

His beautiful Bengali handwriting has been copied by so many persons in Bengal that even those who have had occasion to see it very frequently cannot always distinguish the genuine thing from its imitation.

There is an impression abroad that no English translation by Rabindranath of any of his Bengali poems was published anywhere before the Gitanjali poems. That is a mistake. As far as I can now trace, the first English translations by himself of his poems appeared in the February, April and September numbers of the Modern Repiew in 1912. This is how he came to write in English tor publication. Some time in 1911 I suggested that his Bengali poems should appear in English garb. So he gave me translations of two of his poems by the late Mr. Lokendranath Palit, I.C.S. Of these ‘Fruitless Cry’ appeared in May and ‘The Death of the Star’ in September, 1911, in the Modern Review. When I asked him by letter to do some translations himself, he expressed diffidence and unwillingness and tried to put me off by playfully reproducing two lines from one of his poems of which the purport was, ‘On what pretext shall I now call back her to whom I bade adieu in tears?’, the humorous reference being to the fact that he did not, as a school-boy, take kindly to school education and its concomitant exercises. But his genius and the English muse would not let him off so easily. And I, too, had not ceased to remind him that his Bengali poems should be translated by himself. So a short while afterwards, he showed me some of his translations, asking me playfully whether as a quondam school master I considered [27] them up to standard. These appeared in my Review. These are, to my knowledge, his earliest published English compositions. Their manuscripts have been preserved.

He has been all along very diffident in writing English, though even when he was a student of Henry Morley in his teens that strict judge of English praised his style and diction before his British class-mates. The subject of what Rabindranath wrote and submitted to the professor was ‘Englishmen in India’, who came in for much criticism in his composition. Henry Morley asked his British students to note what Rabindranath had written, as many of them were likely in future to serve in India in some capacity or other.

I have referred to his beautiful hand. All calligraphists cannot and do not become painters, though, as Rabindranath burst into fame as a painter when almost seventy, the passage from calligraphy to painting might seem natural. I do not intend, nor am I competent, to discourse on his paintings. They are neither what is known as Indian art, nor are they any mere imitation of any ancient or modern Oriental or European painting. They are unclassed. One thing which may perhaps stand in the way of the commonalty understanding and appreciating them is that they seldom tell a story. They express in line and colour what even the rich vocabulary and consummate literary art and craftsmanship of Rabindranath could not or did not say. He never went to any school of art or took lessons from any artist at home. Nor did he want to imitate anybody. So, he is literally an original artist. If there be any resemblance in his style to that of any other schools of painters, it is entirely accidental and unintentional. In this connection I call to mind one interesting fact. In the Bengali Santiniketan Patra (‘Santiniketan Magazine’ ) of the month of Jyaistha, 1333 B. E., published fifteen years ago, Dr. Abanindranath Tagore, the famous artist, described (pp. 100-101) how his uncle Rabindranath was instrumental in leading him to evolve his own style of indigenous art. Summing up, Abanindranath writes: [28]

‘Bengal’s poet suggested the lines of Art, Bengal’s artist (i.e., Abanindranath himself) continued to work alone along those lines for many a day.’ (Translation).

It was my happy privilege some twenty-three years back to live at Santiniketan as the poet-seer’s neighbour for long periods at a stretch. During one such period, my working room and sleeping room combined commanded an uninterrupted view of the small two-storied cottage, ‘Dehali’, in which he then lived—only a field intervened between. During that period I could never at night catch the poet going to sleep earlier than myself. And when early in the morning I used to go out for a stroll, if by chance it was very early I found him engaged in his daily devotions in the open upper storey verandah facing the east, but usually I found that his devotions were already over and he was busily engaged in some of his usual work. At mid-day, far from enjoying a siesta, he did not even recline. During the whole day and night, he spent only a few hours in sleep and bath and meals, and devoted all the remaining hours to work. During that period I never found that he used a hand-fan or allowed anybody to fan him in summer. And the sultry summer days of Santiniketan are unforgettable!

His late serious illness and the infirmities of age have necessitated changes in his habits. But even now he works longer than many young men. Not long ago during Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Santiniketan, he had to exact a promise from the poet that he would take some rest at mid-day.

I have all along looked upon him as an earnest ‘Sadhak’.

He is not, however, an ascetic—nor, of course, a lover of luxury. His ideal of life is different. ‘Deliverance is not for me in renunciation,’ he has said in one of his poems.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace
of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
Thou ever pourest for me the fresh draught of thy wine of
various colours and fragrance, filling this earthen vessel to the
brim. [29]
My world will light its hundred different lamps with thy flames
and place them before the altar of thy temple.
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of
sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.
Yes, all my illusions will burn into illumination
my desires ripen into fruits of love. (Gitanjali)

The poet has been so reticent regarding his personal relations that, before Srimati Hemlata Devi, eldest daughter-in-law of his eldest brother, wrote an article on ‘Rabindranath at Home’, little was known of his home life. Her pen picture revealed what a loving and devoted husband, what an affectionate father and what a kind and considerate master to his servants he was and is. He has been a widower since November 23, 1902. We can here extract only a few sentences from Srimati Hemlata Devi’s article, beginning with his ascetic experiments.

‘Sometimes the poet would begin dieting for no earthly reason with such rigid determination that the whole family would feel concerned. . . . On occasions when his dieting reached almost the ‘starvation level’, we would approach his wife to exert her influence and prevent a catastrophe. She knew her husband better and so she did nothing of the kind. I remember she once said: ‘You do not know, he insists on doing what he is asked not to do: one of these days his body itself would protest and then he will take to his food.’

‘He is an affectionate father. He nursed his first child—a baby daughter—with a mother’s care . . . . We have ourselves seen the poet feeding the baby, changing her linen and making the bed.’

And then this sacred picture of the poet tenderly nursing his wife during her last illness:

‘Members of the family still remember the picture of the Poet patiently sitting by the sick bed, nursing his wife literally day and night close on two months before death finally released her from her pain. His constant ministering to her comfort was instinct with love and concern. Electric fans were not known in those days; I see a distinct picture of the poet moving a palm-leaf hand-fan, to and fro, fanning his wife to sleep with tender care. In those days in affluent households it was almost a custom to engage paid nurses. The Poet’s house was perhaps the first exception.’ [30]


[1] In ‘Who’s Who Among the Contributors’, Ramananda Chatteriee, M.A. is described as ‘the doyen of Indian journalists; Founder and Editor of the Modern Review and Prabasi; has presided over several all-India conferences’.

[2] English translations of the Bengali originals quoted in this article are by the writer. Where the translation is the Poet’s own, reference is made to the English publication where it appears. (‘Birthday Number’, pp. 339-41.)

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