Tag Archives: Chaturanga

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part Two

Continued from Part One


As said earlier, the Book is the interplay among the four main characters – Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish. Let’s talk of these four and some issues they throw up


12.1. The first part of the Book belongs to Uncle (Jyathamosai) Jagmohan. It is the only part displaying social concerns. It also opens a window in to the world of college students in Calcutta. A wave of atheism was sweeping across the youth of Bengal leading to fierce controversy between the traditionalists and the rationalists. Jagmohan, a teacher by profession, is an amalgam of western intellect and Indian sensibility. Jagmohan is a well informed ‘English-educated’ thinking person. To some, he is the Macaulay of Bengal; and to some others he is Bengal’s Dr. Johnson. He is influenced by Hebert Spencer and John Stuart Mill’s agnosticism, Bentham’s ideology of ‘greatest good of the greatest number’, and by Comte’s creed of vivre pour autrue – to live for ones neighbor. Jagmohan was much exercised by Thomas Robert Malthus’s premonitions of the dangers that would befall India due to rapid explosion its population. He refused to get married after losing his wife at a young age, as he was unwilling to contribute to India’s worsening population crisis

12.2. Jagmohan was a rational-idealist. He vehemently believed in ‘no God’. Jagmohan is described in the Book as `a celebrated atheist of those times’ (takhankar kaler namjada nastik).He must have been a well known person in the society. As he explains to his brother, “Brahmos accept a formless deity who cannot be seen. You (Hindus) accept deities who cannot be heard. We (Atheists) accept the living who can be seen and heard. It is impossible not to believe them.”

Jagmohan took special pride in being a staunch Atheist; and his mission was to blast every notion of god. With that, he combined the motto of ‘doing good to others’ irrespective of their caste, creed or position in society. He advised his nephew Sachish:

‘We are atheists. And, therefore the very pride of it should keep us absolutely stainless. Because we have no respect for any being higher than ourselves, we must respect ourselves.’

12.3. Jagmohan treated the young Sachish as a friend and an equal. He rejected every social / religious norm and practice that tends to dwarf human dignity.  He considered reverence for age an empty convention that chained human mind to slavery. He was also intolerant of submissive behaviour. For instance, his reply to Noren, a young man who had married into the family, is highly amusing, dripping in ridicule. All that the poor Noren did was to address Jagmohan in the traditional style: ‘To Your Auspicious Feet (Sreecharaneshu).’ Jagmohan found it very irritating and shot back:

My dear Noren: Neither you nor I know what special significance it gives to the feet to call them ‘gracious.’ Therefore the epithet is worse than useless, and had better be dropped. And then it is apt to give one a nervous shock when you address your letter only to the feet, completely ignoring their owner. But you should understand that so long as my feet are attached to my body, you should never dissociate them from their context.

Further, they are neither hand nor ear; to make an appeal to them is sheer madness. Lastly, your use of the plural inflection to the word ‘feet,’ instead of the dual, may denote special reverence on your part (because there are animals with four feet which have your particular veneration) but I consider it my duty to disabuse your mind of all errors concerning my own zoological identity.–Yours, Jagmohan.

13.1. Jagmohan’s character is accentuated by depicting his younger brother Harimohan as a weak, self-seeking escapist who is soaked in fake-orthodoxy. Harimohan’s character serves no other purpose. Jagmohan comes in to conflict with his brother and the neighbours, and also loses his share of income from the family property – a religious trust – because he insists on helping the low-caste leather workers and the poor Muslim labourers. His relations with his relatives soon worsen. Because,   he is determined to provide shelter, despite protests and threats from his brother’s family, to Nanibala a young widow seduced and made pregnant by a lecherous fellow, who later turns out to be Purandhar, Sachish’s brother. Jagmohan sells his cherished collection of books to take care of the beleaguered girl. He was immensely pleased with Sachish when he offers to marry the destitute young widow. Tears streamed from Jagmohan’s eyes. He had never shed such tears at any time in his adult life.

The only occasions when Jagmohan was distraught and heartbroken were when Nanibala committed suicide; and when Sachish manipulated by Harimohan is forced to leave Jagmohan’s house. Jagmohan shut the door of his room, and flung himself on the floor.

13.2. The humanism of Jagmohan comes through in his tender and compassionate treatment of the luckless Nanibala in whom he sees motherhood; and also in his sympathy for the fellow beings in distress. Soon after   the city was struck by plague, Jagmohan converted his house in to a hospital for treatment of Chamars and Muslims afflicted by plague. But, Jagmohan dies while serving the plague victims. His last words to his nephew Sachish were: ‘ The creed I have lived by all my life has given me its parting gift. I have no regrets.’

The narrator remarks: Sachish, who had never made obeisance to Uncle when he was alive, bent down and for the first and last time reverently touched his feet.

14.1. Jagmohan is really the most attractive and most morally admirable character in the Book. His atheism is tinged not only with intolerance of hypocrisy and social cruelty, but also with compassion for fellow beings. His belief that people can live without religion; and, that people can lead a sensible life using their intelligence and reason without depending on a god or religion is truly splendid. Jagmohan was a humanist in its true sense.

14.2. Many have attempted to locate the ‘real-life’ model or inspiration for Jagmohan’s character. Shri Prasanta Kumar Paul, a biographer of Tagore, surmises that Jagmohan could have been modelled after the college teacher and writer Krishnakamal Bhattacharya, described as a romantic rebel. Shri Paul bases his argument on Shri Bipinbihari Gupta’s delightful memoirs, Puratan prasanga, an indispensible source-book on 19th century Bengal , which describes sequences where Shri Bhattacharya , an Atheist, is eloquently discussing at park Beadon or Heuda :  Comte, Mill, Isvarchandra Vidyasagar and other atheist heroes. His robust and witty way of talking was said to be similar to Jagmohan’s. But, Shri Bhattacharya seemed to be given to self-criticism and introspection.

[Krishnakamal Bhattacharya (1843-1932) was a teacher at Vidyotsahini Sabha (of Kaliprasanna Singha) and at Surendranath College (of Surendranath Bannerjee) and later at Presidency College Calcutta. He then became a lawyer and a Law Professor at Calcutta University; and Principal of Rippon Collage (1891-1903). He had remarkable literary talent and wrote books on Law. He was known for his lucid and charming style.

Asit Kumar Bhattacharya describes Krishnakamal Bhattacharya, who died at the ripe age of 92 when a fish-bone stuck in his esophagus, as an epicurean. a romantic rebel. He was truly a highly gifted literary artist and humanist, who wanted freedom for his country from the British; freedom for women from the tyranny of men; as also, freedom for himself from the dead-hands of the outdated customs that had coerced him into an arranged marriage when he was barely a lad of sixteen, and would not let him be free ever thereafter.]

14.3. Shri Ashok Mitra however suggests that Isvarachandra Vidyasagar himself could have been the original of Jagmohan’s character, tinted with shades of David Hare (1775–1842) a Scottish watchmaker and educationalist who established the  Hindu School, and Hare School;  and helped in founding Presidency College . He enjoyed a great affinity with the student community.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891)

There were of course many well known personalities during those times dedicated to social progress, the right of the widows to remarry and to order her own destiny.

14.4. I reckon, Tagore had a sort of fascination for creating Jagmohan-like characters. I can quickly recall Amito in Sesher Kobita, overtly practical and ready to criticize the traditional and orthodox society. But, Amito, unlike Jagmohan, is prone to criticize anything and everything that is traditional, sometimes without reason.

Tagore also liked to draw characters of social reformers with liberal attitudes who try to synthesize and reconcile the opposing streams, and thus reform the old society and its values. Tagore infused something of his own person into such characters. Take for instance Paresh Babu in Gora who is much like Tagore: a Brahmo sage, serene and unruffled even amidst very annoying domestic crisis. He is always dignified, exuding warmth and affection; and respected and accepted as Guru, even by such an ardent Hindu fighter like Gora. Similarly, Ananda Moyi is Mother India herself.


15.1. Sribilash is a friend, admirer and follower of his collage-mate Sachish. He  is well read, has an excellent command over English language and is a very effective speaker. He was drawn to Sachish the moment he set his eyes on him; and stays loyal to him ever thereafter. It is his ability to recognize Sachish’s special qualities that sets him apart from the other students. His selfless love, affection and regard for his friend are remarkable. Though Sribilash was in every way as capable as Sachish he never tried to push ahead, compete with or take advantage of Sachish. He always had in his heart the best interests of Sachish. Sribilash was the quintessential average man; a gentleman. The best friend one can have.

15.2. Sribilash is the one who narrates the events in the novel. It is his words that fill the Book. Tagore perhaps chose Sribilash to be the narrator because he, of all the characters, is the one who is well balanced, without prejudices or intolerance. The very name Sribilash evokes a certain warmth, comfort and relaxation. It is his moral courage and social consciousness tempered with relaxed tolerance that standout amidst conflicts of ideas, prejudices and passions. Though Sribilash might seem rather ‘less deep’ than Sachish, he is never fanatical; is free from self-pity and bitterness; and, has always space for the opposing view. He tries to go by reason and to act as Sachish’s conscience keeper; a sort of soundboard.

15.3. Sribilash, seemingly ordinary, is intelligent, sensitive and unbiased. And above all he is of great integrity. He understands the binary philosophies and thus is able to comment on all the characters dispassionately without rancour. At the commencement of the Book , he looks somewhat a minor clog. But, as the story progresses his character too unfolds; and, one comes to realizes how central he is to the events in the story , and how well  he holds together the lives of his friends.

16.1. Sribilash was not merely an admirer of Sachish but was also his reflection and alter ego. To begin with, Sribilash was a ‘believer’. He could hardly trust the rumours going around that Sachish was an Atheist. But when Sachish himself candidly confirmed that harsh reality Sribilash was aghast, heartbroken and deeply disappointed. And yet, he reconciles to the inevitable; and embraces Atheism for the mere reason that his dearest friend was an Atheist and staunchly believed in it. He is amazed that: ‘my fanatical zeal in the creed of atheism would surpass even that of my instructor’. He began to practice Atheism under the influence of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan the celebrated Atheist of those days.

16.2. Later in the story, the shell-shocked Sachish drifts away from his home and his friends in a state of utter confusion following the sudden death of his uncle, guardian and mentor. Two years thereafter the news reaches Sribilash that Sachish had now become an inmate of an Ashram. Sribilash could scarcely believe that his friend and instructor in Atheism was now ‘was making the heavens resound with his cymbals in some out-of-the-way village, singing frenzied kirtans and rousing whole neighborhoods into a state of excitement’. He could not comprehend how someone like Sachish could have become an Atheist, and then again suddenly how he could turn into a devotee dancing to the tunes of a religious Guru.

Yet, out of sheer concern and love for his friend, Sribilash travels all the way from Calcutta to a remote area near Chittagong. He then realized now how much he loved Sachish.

17.1. There at the Ashram, Sribilash is shocked to see his old friend in a sort of spiritual intoxication (nesa); such was the nature of the cult he was caught up in. Sachish greets Sribilash warmly. And yet,

“I realized that the world into which Sachish had been transported had no place for me, his particular friend. The person, whom Sachish has so effusively embraced, was not Sribilash, but a representative of all humanity,–just an idea. Such ideas are like wine. When they get into the head any one can be embraced and wept over. I,  only as much as anybody else”.

17.2. He was pained that Sachish had lost his individuality and had become a servant of his Guru. He argues with Sachish that none of what he is doing at the Ashram made sense and begs him to regain his sanity and freedom : ‘Uncle could have nothing to do with this kind of pipe-filling, leg-massaging business. Surely this is no picture of freedom’. But, when he realized that further arguments and pleas were clearly useless he decided to stick with Sachish and his current-faith.

“I could not desert Sachish. So, as his satellite, I also danced from village to village, carried along the current of kirtan – singing…The intoxication of it gradually took hold of me. I also embraced all and sundry, wept without provocation, and tended the feet of the Master.”

18.1. Just as Sachish, Sribilash too is drawn to the lightning-like beauty of the young and vivacious Damini. Although Sribilash confesses that he lacks ‘experience of the secrets of a woman’s heart’, she strikes him as ‘the lightning in the heart of Sravana rain clouds, having youthfulness to outward view, but flickering with restless fires within.’

18.2. But the moment he realizes that something very serious was going on between the two – Sachish and Damini- he stays neutral but observant. He even lets himself be toyed by Damini in her charade of indifference and anger towards her true love Sachish.

Incidentally, Sribilash develops a sort of hypothesis on how women are more likely to fall for the weird sorts or those with their heads in the clouds. He laments women tend to shun average, normal and dependable men:

“We (the normal) know them (women) as they really are; that’s why even if they like us they won’t fall in love with us. We are their true refuge, they can count on our loyalty; but our self-sacrifice comes so readily they forget that it has any value. The only baksheesh we receive from them is that whenever they need us they use us, and perhaps even respect us a little, but. …”.

19.1. For a while, Sribilash is drawn in to the cult and follows Sachish just as he followed him earlier during the Atheism-days. But he is too level-headed to be sucked in to it, and be absorbed in a state of drunkenness or ecstasy. When Sachish is hopelessly confused about the three points of the triangle that have enclosed him: Atheism, religious fervor and natural attraction for women (Prakrti); and rambles along, saying `We must sever all connections with Nature’, Sribilash retorts: “What you call Nature is a reality. You may shun it, but you can’t leave it out of the human world. If you practice your austerities pretending it isn’t there you will only delude yourself; and when the deceit is exposed there will be no escape-route”.

19.2. And when again , when Sachish expresses his fears  :

“It is obvious that woman is Nature’s (Prakrti’s) spy, forever trying to deceive us with her artful ways” , Sribilash tries to infuse some common-sense; and reasons   “Woman is a natural phenomenon who will have her place in the world, however much we try to get rid of her. If your spiritual welfare depends on ignoring her existence, then its pursuit will be like the chasing of a phantom, and will shame you so, when the illusion is dissipated, that you will not know where to hide yourself… Our problem should not be to stop the current; our problem is to keep the boat from sinking and in motion.”

It is his tolerance, sound commonsense, loyalty to his friend and his persistent questioning of the validity of the cult that awakens Sachish. Finally, Sachish’s spell is broken and the three walk away from the cult.

20.1. Sribilash steps in and proposes to Damini only after it becomes very clear that Sachish has his own priorities in life and marriage is certainly not one among them; and only after Damini in her nobility has released Sachish from her love. His wooing Damini is playful laced with wit and modesty. It also displays his loyalty to Sachish and the courage to defy social opinion. Damini marries him; and they return to Calcutta to lead a married life.

The Women

From the day when man, refusing to recognize the efflorescence of life and establishing ideals to his own convenience instead, and following those ideals tried to create the woman, seeds of rebellion were sown in the heart of woman since then….Since that day when she is denied the true potential of womanhood she has also been denying man his complete manhood, as a form of revenge.” —Rabindranath Tagore (About Chaturanga)

21.1. Among   the favourite subjects of the Bengali social novels of the late 19th century the prominent   were the women’s’ questions in general and the problems of the child-widows in particular. The image of a ‘new-woman’ who stands up to question the current social morality and seeks justice for women was developed as the ideological face of women’s re-emergence. The New Woman is never static ; and, is not a mere artefact to be admired and put away. Nancy Paxton who reviewed female characters in literature between 1830 and 1947, observed: ‘Although the New Woman is able to have equal rights as men, she is never able to break the social bounds with her sexuality’.

21.2. As regards Tagore’s novels, from Chokher Bali (1903) onwards, they are set in Tagore’s own times or in the just recent previous years. Except in Gora the dominant character in each of his novels is a woman who is projected as a symbol of Indian psyche; emerging from shadows and taking her place in the family and in the society; and, responding to the challenges mounting on women. She might not always succeed entirely, but her effort speaks for her innate nobility and courage; and of her sacrificial heroism. While depicting the femininity, tenderness and devotion of traditional Indian women, Tagore also brings to fore their sufferings, pains and sense of betrayal; the discrimination they face;  the humiliation they put up with endless patience; and , the abuses they endure.

[Chokher Bali (initially serialized in the periodical Bangadarshan from 1902 to 1903;  and, later published as a book in 1903) is the story of Binodini, a beautiful young widow, who enters the house of Mahendra and Asha; newly married , living happily. The couple’s pleasant relationship takes a down turn when the pampered, vain and self centred Mahendra falls passionately in love with the maid, Binodini, a young widow. His closest friend Bihari is also smitten with Binodini. And, Asha, the simple untutored wife, is turned into a helpless onlooker.

And, there is also another type of complicated triangular relationship in which the fond and jealous  mother gets into covert fight with the daughter-in-law  to compete, to ensure her son’s  love  ; and , also to gain greater control over the son. That perhaps marked the on setting disintegration of the rather cumbersome joint-family system.

Rajalakshmi, the mother-in-law , initially blames the daughter-in-law Asha for not being able to hold on to her husband. But later, Rajalakshmi and Asha close their ranks; and,  together confront Mahendra.

As regards the rudderless young widow Binodini , frustrated and rebellious ; she , in her sense of insecurity and emotional fallibility , first succumbs to Mahendra’s overtures; but, having realized its futility , then tries to win over Bihari, Mahendra’s friend. Tagore brings out the intensity of her feelings and her fluttering state of mind at different times in the story

And, in contrast, there is Annapurna, the pious aunt, a docile widow (of the type of  the by-gone era, se kaal) who lost her husband at the age of eleven; and , has only a faint memory of her dead husband.  She is a shadowy figure in the novel, serving as a contrast to other female characters.

Between the two types, there is Asha, the sole married woman in the novel. She somehow, could   neither be a perfect a companion to her husband, nor be a good daughter in law, although she succeeded in taking charge of her life and of the household.

The novel is located during the uncomfortable transition period, when the Hindu orthodoxy was coming into conflict with the encroaching western social milieu. Here, Binodini, the widow, of the then modern times e kaal,  aware of her physical needs and desires; pines for love; and, does not mind favouring sexual relationship with married men. She, of course, does not fit into the frame of a typical orthodox widow. Binodini is the symbol of a new class of emancipated women, prepared to assert; and, to fight for their rights in a patriarchal society riddled with its taboos.

But, again, in the end, Binodini does not remarry; and, dies childless, just as Tagore’s other young-widowed heroines. Perhaps, he thought that “widow remarriage  , after all, was not  a realistic possibility of his times.

Tagore chooses to end in a rather defeatist way. Binodini rejects the marriage proposal from Bihari; gives him whatever little money she had; renounces her earthly life; and,  goes to Kashi with Annapurna to live the  life of a pious widow, purged of all desires.

Tagore seemed to suggest that Binodini  retreats from life , not because she was defeated ; but, she exits on a high moral pedestal of not willing to secure victory, regardless of its cost.

It is , to say the least, a rather bizarre end to a story that aimed to  project the image of a modern woman rebelling against orthodoxy. All said and done, Tagore , at that stage of his literary career, was still bound by the spell of Bankimchandra, whose heroine, the young widow Kunda Nandini  (of Bishabriksha)  consumes poison and dies.

You cannot fail to notice that in the novels of Tagore, widows are carefully presented. They serve the twofold purpose of expressing the conflict both within the Bengali society and within the women themselves. The widow, Binodini, struggles with her own passion and unfulfilled love ; and yet , she chooses to abide by the  social norms and conventions set by the orthodox society.

This, in a way, seemed to be a common feature of Tagore’s novels, particularly in regard to young women characters.  Below the veneer of rebellion  there is an undercurrent of tragedy, the note of  regret arising out of frustration  in not being able to break free ; and  , having to  tacitly accept the fatality  of  the structured social norms.]

21.3. Through these novels , Tagore intended to delineate the contemporary social norms and hold up its ills. Each character, in that context, is a tragic metaphor of the time they lived in, unwitting victims of a social structure they had no role in shaping into what it had become. In the novels of this genre – where the society treats widows as ’unclaimed bodies –physically alive and socially dead’ – spirited young widows rebellious in their own ways and raising voice against the system  invariably take the centre stage.

21.4. But somehow, his female characters pushing for reforms keep returning in one guise or the other. For instance, Suchitra’s aunt in Gora is Annapurna’s prototype; and Binodini of Choker Bali   has much in common with Damini of Chaturanga. Yet, they do not lose their individuality and freshness. Another feature is that, for some reason, many of his young female protagonists are child-less; and  those that are caught in throes of passion usually die young. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini) do not actually get married. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies  young and child-less. Some say these features are the shadows cast across by Tagore’s life-experiences.

Woman as the mother and Motherhood is rarely discussed and analyzed by the characters in most of his novels, including Chaturanga.

22.1. The two women of Chaturanga – Nanibala and Damini – are both young widows. While Damini is the heroine of the novel, Nanibala has just a marginal presence. But, the two are totally different in their circumstances, nature and attitude.

22.2. Nanibala‘s is a sad story of a typical young widow uncared, unprotected and much abused. True to her name (cream – puppet- like girl) is frail, weak and passive; and her plight is decided by her uncles and cousins. She is totally defenseless; and is seduced by cowardly rouge, Purandar who happened to be Sachish’s brother. But, what is worse is that she came to love the one who ruined her life; and she recoils from the idea of accepting anyone else as her saviour. Therefore, in her case re-marriage is ruled out. When Nanibala is pregnant and in dire straits with nowhere to go Jagmohan and Sachish rescue her and do their best to provide for her. Jagmohan accepts Nanibala with warm affection and regards her as a symbol of motherhood. His efforts to re-habilitate the luckless girl go in vain. After she gave birth to a dead child, Sachish offers to marry her with a view to protect her from ignominy. But, Nanibala is totally against that idea. She is unable to fight back or rebel – like Binodini or Damini .But she ensures that her silent –protest is heard through her suicide note in which she declares her love for her seducer:

“Baba, forgive me. I cannot do what you wanted. I have tried my best, for your sake, but I could never forget him. My thousand salutations to your gracious feet. Nanibala,   the sinner”.

Nanibala takes on herself the whole burden of sin; and gives up her life for the sinner’s sake.

23.1. Damini is portrayed in an entirely different mould. She is a widow, yet her attitudes and behaviour differed from traditional norms of widowhood. Tagore has depicted Damini as a worldly, outgoing, bold, vivacious young woman who attracts everyone with her charm, grace and glitter, as her name (lightening) suggests. She is so real that no reader can forget her. Except Damini, all the other characters in Chaturanga are meant to compliment Sachish’s life experiences either as an atheist or as a cymbal banging Ashram inmate or as a confused young man. In a way of speaking, those characters are fragments of Sachish’s personality. They have their relevance only in the context of their relation to Sachish. Damini, on the other hand, stands by herself. She alone defines her role.

23.2. The character of Damini is a fascinating one. There are many hues and shades to her character. Damini can be docile, then vociferous, and even downright hostile at times. She is volatile, but committed. She is submissive, yet has her own voice. She exudes sexuality of a woman in her prime and fills the hearts of those around with desire. She can be manipulative with ploys of mock anger or indifference just to stroke the fire of envy and desire in men.   She can argue logically with vehemence and knock down seemingly intellectual positions. She is not afraid to pose disturbing questions.

In one sweeping stroke she demanded justice after she questioned the rationale for treating her as a piece of property. She raises her voice in defense of a woman who commits suicide after coming to know the illicit affair between her husband and her unmarried sister. Damini is enraged about the vulnerability of a woman who can be hurt easily, and shrieks against the social injustice that makes a mockery of a woman’s love and life. She is not much educated, yet she has a certain sensibility. And, at all times she is intriguing; never lets anyone take her for granted. A critic has described Damini as ‘a deadly mixture of enigma and voluptuousness’.

23.3. Damini in an outburst of rage takes the Swami to task – through Sachish- and hurls at him the irrelevance of his cult and its beliefs: `what use to the world are the things that engross you so day in and day out? Who have you succeeded in saving? ‘Damini went on:

`Day and night you go on about ecstasy, you talk of nothing else. Today you have seen what ecstasy is, haven’t you? It has no regard for morals or a code of conduct, for brother or wife or family pride. It has no mercy, no shame, no sense of propriety. What have you devised to save man from the hell of this cruel, shameless, fatal ecstasy?’

It is not surprising that the Swami is scared of Damini and that Sachish is perplexed.

24.1. Damini stands out as the only character who is sure of her likes and dislikes. Damini is steadfastly stubborn, defining her sexual freedom and her spiritual one as well. Like Binodini of Choker Bali, Damini refuses to be tied down to a state of ineffectual nothingness, a role that the society ascribes to the widows robbed of ‘free will’. She registers her protest in no uncertain terms, when she says to Sachish “…Haven’t you people put chains round my feet and flung this woman without faith into the prison of devotion? …Some of you will decide this for me, some that, to suit your convenience – am I a mere pawn in your game?”

24.2. Like Binodini, Damini too is denied sexual pleasure in her early life; but for very different reasons. Her husband Sivatosh, while alive, abstains from sex as part of his discipline, and to keep away from earthly delights; unwilling to be corrupted by  kamini or kanchan .  Sivatosh dies entrusting his entire property, his Calcutta house and even the guardianship of his young wife who still had a zest for life, to his religious guru Leelananda Swami. Damini demands of the Swami to explain to her the rights of her dead husband to will away her house, her jewelry and even herself while none of that was acquired by him. She questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without ascertaining her willingness to be taken care by him.

25.1. Sachish and Sribilash are intrigued by her presence even before they set eyes on her. Damini distracts them even without being seen: the clink of keys, the call of voice to a maid servant, is enough to divert the attention of the disciples gathered around the Swami. The moment Sachish sets eyes on her the ground under his feet caves away. He sees in Damini the reflection of the latent desires concealed within him. He wants her desperately and is also fatally afraid of her sexuality. Though he acknowledges her as ‘the artist of the art of life’ he is uncertain and shy, not knowing how to deal with her voluptuousness.

25.2. Sribilash too desires her. The relation between Damini and Sribilash at the Ashram is an interesting one. She is more relaxed, informal and friendly with Sribilash, perhaps because she neither hates him (as she hates the Swami) nor loves him (as she intensely loves Sachish). Sribilash gets to know Damini, as a person. She pours out to him all her past grief and memories. He however is not much elated, but laments:

“ I happened to be the only person about whom she was not bothered for either love or resentment, which explains why she would pour out to me whenever she could an endless chatter about her past and present, what was going on among her neighbors and all kind of trivial talk. She would sit on the covered terrace in front of our rooms on the upper floor and talk on and on…   That evening Damini laid her heart bare. She said things which are difficult to touch on even if one wants to and everything she said flowed from her mouth with an easy grace and beauty. As she continued I felt as though she was engaged in exploring many hitherto unsuspected dark chambers of her mind, as though by chance she had had an opportunity of meeting herself face to face”.

His understanding of Damini provides him conviction to counsel and reason with Sachish in order to wean him away from the mistaken notions about Prakrti, woman and spirituality.

26.1. It is however the complex relation between Sachish and Damini that forms the central theme of the novella. It attempts delineating the intricate and sensitive conflicts of the spiritual and the sensuous. Sachish believes the human love is a trap; and wriggles to avoid her; but cannot help being away from her and worse being ignored by her.

26.2. Damini, on her part, is not afraid to express her physical desire for Sachish who hesitantly reciprocates, but is afraid to express it fully. She employs many strategies to win over her lover. She beguiles him ; lures his attention by some pretext or other; plays tricks on him with mock anger and indifference using Sribilash as a dummy; She begs him ; implore him; prostrates bore him; and in the darkness of the cave she clasps his feet trying arouse his desire for her.

26.3. Sachish pleads with Damini to vacate the Ashram since she is not a ‘believer’ and he no longer has the strength of mind to resist her. She refuses to go away and rightly argues her case. Sometime later, Sachish begs her to forgive him for asking her to go away; and requests her to join the Kirtan singing.

Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him ’.

26.4. That marks a turning point in Damini’s attitude and behaviour. Damini with her woman’s instinct understands Sachish who views human love as an impediment or a distraction on the way to his goal. She recognizes it is his relentless, obsessive search for truth that is important for him. She also understands that he needs to pursue his quest alone.  She realizes the rigor of the test she subjected Sachish. She resolves the situation renounces her love for him; sets him free; and accepts him as her Guru. She touches his feet in obeisance and promises ‘I shall never transgress’

27.1. Damini never sought to  harm Sachish, nor did she try to prevent him from his spiritual pursuits. Seen in this light, Damini emerges as a powerful mother-figure. From being a seductress, trying to fulfill her desires, she eventually lets Sachish walk the path towards his salvation.  Her feminine instincts do not allow her to see Sachish suffer while she was alive.

[Bijaya Ghosh in her comments, remarks that there is certain nobility ingrained in Damini’s character. She would like to have won, but not at the cost of wrecking the very object of her love; because such a hollow win would have robbed her life of all sense and dignity. She is prompted by a deep sense of justice and fairness. It is the woman in her that  protects, nurtures and loves which  releases Sachish and lets him grow to reach out to his aspirations – whatever that might be , even if it didn’t  make sense to her.]

27.2. It is only because she sets him free that Sachish is able to work towards his liberation. Some have tried to see shades of Samkhya in the relation between the two. As per Samkhya, Prakrti functions solely for the sake of Purusha (purushartha).And Purusha can find his true identity only when separated from Prakrti. Unless Prakrti sets him free there is no release for Purusha. Thus, Prakrti is the liberator of Purusha by taking onto herself and seeing through (jnana, vijnana) Purusha’s blinkered view of himself.

28.1. Thereafter, when Sribilash proposed to her, she accepts him. She marries Sribilash not out of a desire for sensuous pleasures but to clear the way for Sachish in his quest for Truth. Damini asks Sribilash to take her back to Calcutta where they get married later. They move in to the house that Jagmohan had bequeathed to Sachish and resume his (Jagmohan) work of serving the needy Chamars and Muslims. Sachish visits Calcutta briefly to give away Damini in marriage to Sribilash .But, he refuses to stay there “No, I am afraid, my work lies elsewhere”.

28.2. She married Sribilash; though she might not have loved him. After about a year of married life Damini dies due to an unknown pain in her chest, the one she sustained in the cave. Damini is a remarkable character. She has the rare capacity and the strength of mind to renounce without rancour.

Her dying words to Sribilash, at the end of the Book, were:” My longings are still with me. I go with the prayer that I may find you again in my next life”

[Kaiser Haq said , he found it hard to render the words in original to English: sadh mitila Na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai. According to him, the import of those words was that her marriage with Sribilash had not totally fulfilled her aspiration (sadh). She hopes that it may happen in some future life – presumably that can happen if Sribilash moves forward, attain spiritual growth.

I however tend to think Haq’s interpretation is rather contrived. Damini might simply have wished to live a fuller life with Sribilash in her next existence.]


29.1. In the words of Srbilash :” Sachish appeared to me like a constellation of stars, his eyes shining, his long slender  fingers like tongues of  flame, his face glowing with a youthful radiance. As soon as I set eyes on him I seemed to glimpse his inner self; and from that moment I loved him”. To say the least, Sachish was very handsome. He was also a bright, I intelligent and sensitive person.

[Dr. Bijaya Ghosh, in her comments,  has summed up her impressions of Sachish crisply: After Naibala episode his behaviour becomes inexplicable…he is aimless like a Ghuri (kite) separated from Latai (string). He loves freedom of skies but does not take responsibility. His depth is great; but his attention span is short.]

29.2. As said earlier, the Sachish story is mainly about his reactions to the varied influences that exerted on him – Uncle Jagmohan, Swami Leelananda and the irrepressible Damini; his strife to break free from each of those influences in succession; and finally his determined effort to be rid of all influences , attachments and bonds in search of his quest for freedom. As he said, his journey is from bondage to freedom and from form to form-less. We have already recounted, elsewhere, his life-event. Here we shall briefly talk about certain that keep coming up, despite the years since the book was published.

29.3. The questions that often asked are: why did Sachish a clone of Jagmohan a staunch Atheist suddenly catapulted in to the lap of a Swami heading a religious cult? And, again why was he disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices? What really happened at the cave; and why he felt so overpowered? Why was he so desperate to get away from Damini? And, what was the Truth he said he discovered?

30.1. Sachish was devastated by twin disasters that struck in quick succession – the suicide of a wronged woman whom he was about to marry, and the sudden death of his uncle (almost a foster parent) on whom he totally depended for ideologies and approach to life. Sachish was totally disoriented and became rudderless. The ground under his feet was totally swept away. He aimlessly wandered from place to place, and eventually drifted in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult stood for everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned.

30.2. Tagore, however, does not explain this swing from one extreme to another. Many have taken Sachis’s inexplicable behavior as a sign of basic weakness in his character. Kaiser Haq, the translator, tries to explain it as symptom of an ‘underdeveloped ego’ by referring to psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar‘s speculation; and says, however incredible it might appear, it is both psychologically and historically plausible.

Shri Kakkar in his book The Inner World (1978) had pointed out to the peculiar Indian tendency of withdrawing into mysticism when confronted with sudden and grievous loss of family relations, caste and clan (biradari) support or irreplaceable loss of dear one. When these supports suddenly fall away one is threatened, totally lost, and is likely to accept irrational solutions to life’s problems (including political extremism). Such a one is an easy prey for anyone offering a shoulder to weep on. He mentions that historically, the Indian humanists underwent a crisis at the turn of the nineteenth century, when they found human problems to be not particularly amenable to a positivist approach. Many of them  (like Sachish )  religion, spiritualism or extreme irrational positions, not knowing how to fill the void in their lives.

30.3. Some say that Sachish led a sheltered existence; and his Uncle-mentor had not prepared him to face and absorb the shocks of life. When Sachish went off the rails his dead uncle is partly to be blamed for that. I am not sure how credible is that view.

31.1. The cave episode in Chaturanga is truly bizarre. Sribilash narrates the incident as an extract from Sachish’s diary.

`The cave had many chambers. I spread my blanket in one and lay down. The darkness of the cave was like a black beast – its moist breath seemed to touch my skin. It seemed to me like the first animal to appear in the very first cycle of creation; it had no eyes, no ears, it had only a huge appetite. It had been trapped for eternity in that cave. It didn’t have a mind; it knew nothing but felt it sobbing noiselessly.’

He is unable to sleep at first, but eventually `After I don’t know how long, a thin sheet of numbness spread over my consciousness. At some point in that semi-conscious state I felt the touch of a deep breath close to my feet.

That primordial beast!

`Then something clasped my feet. At first I thought it a was a wild animal. But a wild animal is hairy, this creature wasn’t. My entire body shrank at the touch. It seemed to be an unknown snake-like creature. I knew nothing of its anatomy-, what its head looked like, or its trunk, or its tail-nor could I imagine how it devoured its victims. It was repulsive because of its very softness, its ravenous mass.’

The beast with ‘mass of hair’   tugging at his feet turns out be Damini in her desperate effort to be one with her lover Sachish. But Sachish is more desperate than Damini and wants her to get off his way and set him free. The episode is symbolizes Sachish’s internal turmoil and his mortal fear of Damini’s sexuality and his frantic effort to escape from the sensuous female.

The imagery of the ‘primordial beast’ was perhaps meant to   project the nature of unfulfilled desires, which when reaches the brink, overflows violently in a beastly manner.

31.2. The cave-episode per se without its undertones, some say, was prompted by an incident narrated by Sister Nivedita in her book ‘The notes of wanderings with Swami Vivekananda – pages 148-150 ’ (1913). The incident relates to the experience that almost overpowered Swami Vivekananda when he entered the cave of Amarnath   in Kashmir on 2nd August 1889.  Sister Nivedita writes:

“the place was vast, huge enough to hold a Cathedral and the great ice-Shiva was in a niche of the deepest shadow, sacred as if throned on its base.  …to him, the heavens had opened .He had touched the feet of Shiva. He had to hold himself tight, he said later, lest he should swoon away and fall. But so great was his physical exhaustion that a doctor said afterwards that his heart ought to have stopped beating, and had undergone permanent enlargement instead”.” Afterwards he would often tell of the overwhelming vision that had seemed to draw him almost into its vertex.”

31.3. Some have wondered whether Tagore was not influenced by Freudian theories of sex and psychoanalysis while writing the cave – episode. Santanu Biswas in his paper ‘Rabindranath Tagore and Freudian thought’ had gone into this question. According to Shri Biswas, at the time Chaturanga came to be written (1915) one cannot be sure whether Tagore was familiar with Freud‘s theories. It is most likely, Freudian thoughts could not have influenced the composition of the cave scene in Chaturanga. He also mentions ‘in the several letters that Tagore wrote to different persons about these novels during or shortly after their composition, there is no mention of the term ‘manobikalanmulak ’, nor any statement warranting that description’.

Further, even after Tagore got to know Freud’s psychoanalytical work and met Freud at Vienna on 25 October 1926, he was not much impressed with Freud’s theories; and in fact seemed to disliked it.

Tagore Freud

31.4. Santanu Biswas in his paper also mentions of the communications   that took place between Kalidas Nag and Tagore on the subject perhaps sometime later than 1927. In this context he reproduces Tagore’s explanation with regard to Chaturanga:

To the authors of yesteryears life meant desire and frustration, union and separation, birth and death, and certain other similarly imprecise events. Therefore, the play called life had to end either in a cherished and revered union, or with a scene devoted to death’s vast graveyard. Since a few days now, our impression of our life has been changing—it seems we were so long loitering about the entrance—after a long time we seem to have discovered the way to the inner chambers for the first time. We are awake at the outer side of our consciousness—there we are consciously fighting battles, striking others and are being struck by others. But within these strikes and counter strikes, these ups and downs, something is being created in our ignorance of it. The arena for that gigantic game of creation is our submerged consciousness [magna-chaitanya-lok]. It is a new world, as if gradually coming into existence before us “

32.1. Why Sachish was disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices is another interesting question. His release from the Swami may have come about because of Sribilash persistently chipping away his faith in the Swami, and also because of Sachish’s own introspection.

32.2. Sachish by then had realized that he had to work out his own salvation not by depending on someone else’s guidance or grace. He mentions to Srbilash: ‘Today I have clearly grasped the significance of the saying, “Better die for one’s own faith than do such a terrible thing as accept another’s.” Everything else can be taken from others, but if one’s faith isn’t ones own it brings damnation instead of salvation. My god can’t be doled out to me by someone; if I find him, well and good, otherwise it’s better to die.’…  ‘The god within me will tread my road and none other; the guru’s road only leads to his own courtyard.’

`One who is poet finds poetry in his soul,’ Sribilash said, `and one who isn’t borrows it from others.’ `I am a poet,’ replied Sachish brazenly. That perhaps was Tagore himself speaking.

At the end

33.1. Sachish sets forth his vision of Truth:

 `He loves form, so He is continuously revealing Himself through form. We can’t survive with form alone, so we must pursue the formless. He is free, so he delights in bondage; we are fettered, so our joy is in liberty. Our misery arises because we don’t realize this truth.’

‘The singer progresses from the experience of joy to the musical expression of the raga; the listener moves from the raga towards joy. One moves from freedom to bondage, the other from bondage to freedom. He sings,  we listen. He plays by binding emotion to the raga and as we listen we unravel the emotion from the raga.’

The path that Sachish chose was one leading from bondage to freedom, from form to formless. Tagore too aspired for the Upanishad ideal of formless entity.   I am not sure if Sachish was echoing Tagore’s philosophy. But what is more important here is the process, his integrity and intense search for what he considers as The Truth.

33.2. No character in Chaturanga achieves the human ideal in full. But taken together – Jagmohan’s humanism, Damini’s passion, Sribilash’s loyalty to selfless friendship and Sachish’s quest for truth- all express facets of human aspirations in each sphere of life. That is the unity of the Book.

Jagmohan, Sachish, Damini and Swami and even Sribilash pursue their traits along a single direction; and keep running away from the centre of life. Each one of those characters is not complete in himself/herself. It is only when the attitudes peculiar to each are amicably blended into living experience they gain some sense. That is what I mentioned as the unity of the Book.

At another level, extremes of Atheism and irrational religious frenzy or extreme asceticism are set aside. It is the sense of balance in life that Tagore seems to be aiming at.  At the end, Sachish too returns to social work, to life among men and women of the world ;  but, with greater understanding and compassion.


In a way,  Love  could be taken to be the theme of the book.Whatever  be the failings of the characters in the book, none of them, by contrast, is lacking in love: Jagmohan loves Sachish, Nonibala and the Muslim tanners; Sachish loves Jagmohan and Damini; Damini loves Sachish and Sribilash—and also her pet animals; Sribilash loves all the other three.

[While explaining this aspect , William Radice remarks :’ Whenever Tagore tried to express moral, spiritual and emotional purnata he used the language of love’; Thus he begins one of his finest Santiniketan sermons, on Sa¯man˜jasya (‘Balance’).

And  he quotes a passage from Santiniketan, Rabındra-racanabalı vol.13:3 (Visva-Bharati, Calcutta, 1961), p. 467.

amra ar kono caram katha jani ba na  jani nijer bhitar theke ekti caram katha bujhe niyechi seti hacche ei ye, ekmatra premer madhyei samasta dvandva ek sange mile thakte pare. yuktite tara kata kata kare, karmete tara maramari kare, kichutei tara milte cay na premete samastai mitmat haye yay. tarkaks.etre karmaks.etre yara ditiputra o aditiputrer mato parasparke ekebare binas karbar janyei sarbada udyata, premer madhye tara apan bhai

‘Whatever supreme things we know or do not know, there is one supreme thing I have understood from my own inner experience: only through love can all conflicts be resolved. Those who cut themselves to pieces in arguments, or who fight over actions, those who don’t want to agree at all, can reach agreement only through love. Those who, whether in the fields of debate or activity, are always ready to destroy each other like gods and demons, become brothers to each other through love.’ ]

Tagore by Prof D Sampath

Tagore by Prof. DSampath

Let me explain:

Finally :

Rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life. But, each of those – harsh Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment- is just an aspect ,  part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life. Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more. But , it is Love that holds them all together. 

If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers , engulfs and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility. Tagore, I presume, was looking at the totality of human life – balanced and wholesome. And, he, therefore, rejected the overextended projections of each of those traits (uncle’s strict Atheism; Swami’s irrational cult-faith; Damini’s passion; and Sachish’s reclusive escapism), one after another. Even Sribilash’s life , which erases itself at each stage , is incomplete; and, at the end, he is rewarded but  with n o  sense of achievement. A judicious and harmonious blend of varied aspects  alone sum up an ideal life; but, such a life is rarely ever lived.

Javier Rubinstein - FB awakening art

Javier Rubinstein – FB awakening ar

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq

Heinemann, 1993

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra

Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels

KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’

By   William Radice

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu Biswas



Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim


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Chaturanga : a novella by Tagore Part One

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part One


Of  Tagore’s eight novels and four novellas, Chaturanga is perhaps among the least acknowledged and least translated. Chaturanga is virtually unknown outside of Bengal and the English-language readership, although it appeared in the immediate years following his most celebrated Geetanjali and his Nobel Prize. Tagore’s other novel Ghare Baire – Home and Abroad – (1916) – published soon after Chaturanga, in contrast, gained immense popularity.

Let’s talk about his Chaturanga.

The making of Chaturanga

RBT cropped

(Tagore 1905-6)

1.1. Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize – Diploma and Medal – from Lord Carmichael, the Governor of Bengal, on 9 January 1914, in presence of distinguished guests gathered at Governor’s  House, Calcutta.

Calcutta Belvedere, Calcutta. The Lieut Governor of Bengal's official residence - 1878

In the months thereafter, Tagore was rather pensive with apprehensions about the worsening political instability in Europe. Sadly, Tagore’s premonition of a major disaster came true with the declaration of war in Europe, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914. The Great War, which later was named the World War I, eventually struck the globe on 28 July 1914 and spread.

[The term ‘First World War’ was coined in September 1914 by the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, just as the European war spread to Asia and Africa.]

1.2. Tagore , in a restless frame of mind, then traveled to the regions of Allahabad and Buddha-Gaya. His poems of this period are dark and foreboding; both in form and content. While wandering about in quest of peace and understanding, he started crafting, with well pointed arguments and poetical expressions, a cycle of four stories of philosophical nature, exploring the inner world of man striving to realize Truth as it actually is. What he created was at once a philosophical investigation and a poignant love story caught between opposing worlds of ideas.

Its story is set against the background of conflicts between: reason and emotion; liberalism and orthodoxy; atheism and mysticism; spiritual aspiration and earthy passion.  The stories   also bring to question the paradoxes and ironies of life; the things perceived to be good but are not; unpopular rational views and irrational faiths that common people somehow love to cling on; self-seeking social superstitions and   annoyingly ridiculous customs.

But above all, they celebrate the nobility of woman’s Love and her emotional purity; and , the soaring aspirations of an earnest man seeking freedom,  striving to progress from form to formless, and to be rid of all attachments that bind human spirit. They also project, in a mellow glow, the purity of selfless Love and true friendship. These four esoteric stories of high technical merit were tied together, in to a quartet, under the title Chaturanga.

2.1. Chaturanga was initially serialized in four consecutive issues of Sabuj-Patra (November 1914 – February 1915-16) , a monthly literary magazine edited by Shri Pamathanath  (Pramatha)  Chaudhuri, doyen of the Bengali – literary journalism. The Sabuj Patra (meaning the Green Leaves , which  started on May 8, 1914 – the day after Tagore’s birthday) was the first voice of protest that spoke out against conventional beliefs and irrational thinking. Rabindranath Tagore had a high regard for Shri Chaudhuri ;and, acknowledged Sabuj Patra’s role in paving way for his literary activities to branch out in new directions. Sabuj Patra enabled Tagore, through his essays, stories and poems,   to express his reformist views on the state of the society and on the current political situations.


2.2. Chaturanga came to be  published in a book form during the year 1916 by the Indian Press of Allahabad, which also brought out collected works of Tagore , in Bengali , in ten volumes. Tagore seemed to have special affinity towards Chaturanga ; for, he himself , together with W W Pearson , translated it into English and gave it the title Broken Ties. The translated work was serialized as A Story in Four Chapters in the prestigious literary magazine the Modern Review during February-May, 1922.

The Broken Ties along with six other storiesIn the Night (Nishithey); The Fugitive Gold (Swamamriga); The Editor (Sampadak); Giribala (Manbhanjan); The Lost Jewels (Manihara) – together with a poem “Emancipation” (Parishodh), was published by Macmillan in London in the year 1925 under the collection of stories titled Broken Ties and other stories.

The Broken Ties was again reprinted without any changes in 1964 by Visva-Bharati under the title Boundless Sky.

broken ties

There are two other English translations of the Chaturanga quartet, as I know: one by Ashok Mitra (1963); and the other by Dr. Kaiser Haq (1993). There could be few others that I am not aware of. 

The Book

3.1. Chaturanga is rather short in length; running into just about 90 pages. The Book has been categorized as a novel, novella and as a long-short story, and kabya-upanyas (poem-novel) as well. Some say, it does not have a gradual building of a plot, development, unfolding and expansion that a traditional novel should have.

3.2. It is written in a style that is completely different from that of his earlier five novels; the last of which being Gora written about five years earlier (1910). His novels , earlier to Chaturanga, were elaborate, spanning many characters, attempting to explore their mutual relations, social interactions; analyzing their motivations, the impact they have on those around them as also on the society; and, picturing the myriad ways that the society reacts.

3.3. Chaturanga, in contrast, is terse, light and dramatic. Here, Tagore relied more on intimate conversations, half-spoken monologues and compelling situations, than on flow of events. The author’s preoccupation was with the intensity and turmoil of the personal world, than with the plot or its structure. He raises more questions than he answers.

4.1. The critics point out; Tagore’s technique underwent changes after the publication of his Gora (1910) followed by his tour to the United Kingdom and the United States during 1912-13. According to Prof Humayun Kabir, the French influence was clearly noticeable ‘as he moved from dominance of theme over plot; and simultaneously of mind over the heart’.

4.2. Chaturanga represents Tagore’s interesting experiment in crafting a novel by placing accent on the patterns of thoughts and feelings; on structuring of ideas and emotions; and, on highly stylized musical sounding literary language (Sadhu-bhasha). It is its innovative treatment of the subject; and its lyrical prose, elegantly phrased and constructed that provides the Book its rich texture, its varied tones and its ethereal quality. Here, Tagore achieves the fusion of poet and novelist. Tagore’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, remarks : that taken together, the four chapters are like a lyric – kabya-upanyas (poem-novel).  Ashok Mitra says its lyrical quality ‘gives the strangely agitated stormy world of Chaturanga a still point’.

Why was it not popular?

5.1. The Book – Chaturanga – could not achieve great popularity though the critics hailed it as ‘one of the greatest novellas in world literature, an exquisite work of art’ (Niharranjan Ray); ‘ a great work of art having something ethereal about its theme and something elfin about its character’ (Dr. SC Sengupta). Some critics  hailed  that Chaturanga ‘is undoubtedly one of the most complex novels of Tagore’ (Amitava Nag); ‘ is artistically more satisfying than Tagore’s longer and more celebrated novels; it more than makes up in intensity for what it lacks in detail, and is unique in the author’s oeuvre for its range of technical experiments’ (Dr. Kaiser Haq).

6.1. But, many say that Chaturanga makes a rather difficult reading; and, its characters are so ethereal and are far removed from the day-to-day life experiences of common people. And, that the average readers, normally, can scarcely identify with or relate to its main characters. That is to say; the book did not echo the common concerns; unlike , most of the successful Bengali novels of that period did.

6.2. As regards the language of the novel,  Tagore employed the formal Sadhu Bhasha with its rich ornamentation, lengthier verb endings and pronouns. Though the narration was compact and tight knit, it sounded more like poetry. And William Radice remarks : ‘Some its passages are poetically mysterious, hauling the reader down below the surface of realistic fiction into weird, intangible regions’. Kaiser Haq, one of its translators, remarked that at times   he found it difficult to appropriately render into English the import of certain culture-specific terms and stylized phrases.

6.3. Some critics have pointed out that, in a way of speaking, its narrative style was ahead of its times; and the readers were not yet equipped to appreciate its daring originality. They cite the instances of its rather abrupt transitions in plot; unexplained character-reversals, sudden flashes of compressed imagery and epigram. Kaiser Haq remarked that his task was particularly challenging because of the Book’s experimental qualities.

7.1. Though Tagore has made the human feelings the main material of the book, Chaturanga is clearly not a novel of social realism. Similarly, though the ideas in the book stem from a social context it does not address itself to the then current problems of the society. The book mainly serves as a vehicle for conveying philosophical ideas than social mimesis (‘imitation’ or ‘re-presentation’).

7.2. The time-less quality of its theme is both its strength and its weakness. The story is apparently set in the late 19th century at a time when Calcutta suffered a serious outbreak of plague; and, while it was about to turn in to a widespread epidemic (1898-1899).  Though the novel spans almost half a century of life and thought in Bengal, Chaturanga does not refer to the contemporary political situation. Obviously, Tagore was trying to address deeper concerns about human ethos and codes of existence relevant at all times. Here, he chose not to be restricted by the barriers that divide men and obscure their uniqueness.  His preoccupation was with the questions that haunt thinking persons in every generation. This classic element in Chaturanga lends itself to re-interpretations and reviews even long after it was written.

The Title


8.1. The relevance of the Book’s title – Chaturanga – is much discussed; and varied meanings have been read in to the term. Tagore , however, named his translation of it in to English as ‘Broken Ties’ perhaps suggesting that the theme of the Book was essentially seeking freedom from limitations of forms , attachments and their lingering  ties.

8.2. Chaturanga , in the old-Indian context, refers to the four arms of the traditional Indian army : the infantry, cavalry, charioteers and elephant-mounted troops. And, by extension, it can mean anything divided into four parts. Chaturanga is also the name of the complex mind-game (chess) where a player attempts to out-think, manoeuvre and ambush the opponent. As the scholar William Radice remarks:

Chaturanga evokes both the intellectualism and intense passion….Like a chess game played by grand-masters, Chaturanga is not initially easy to follow, but with careful reading and re-reading its deliberateness, the thought that has gone into every move, emerges clearly’.

8.3. The title has also been taken to imply the ‘four limbs’, ‘four parts’ or ‘quartet’ that make up the Book, as also the interplay between the four characters that the chapters are named after. There is also an observation which points out that though the story is centred on two friends and their involvement with two young women , there is no neat pairing of the couples. The novel actually revolves around two ‘triangles’.

Charur-ranga could also mean four colors of life

8.4. Another explanation is based in the theme-content of the book. It is said; rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life.

But, each of those when it takes  the form of –  strict Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment –  is just a part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life.

Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more.

If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility.

8.5. Ashok Mitra offers an interesting explanation. He suggests that Tagore had always had a fascination for structuring his songs, stories and novellas in ‘four-part’ components in terms of their ‘exposition, development, variation and recapitulation’. Ashok Mitra explains that Tagore ‘was deeply attached to this form, its varying rhythms and speeds; and used it repeatedly not only in his early stories but  also in the most powerful novella of his early fifties, Chaturanga. He returned to it with renewed power in his seventies in Malancha, Dui Bon and Char Adhyaya’.

The Plot

9.1. Chaturanga is set in Colonial Bengal during the twilight of the 19th century and the early years of   the 20th century. It was the time when western education and western ideas was taking grip over the young minds. Many were trying to accept west without rejecting the east or without condemning everything that was Indian. In the process the old customs, beliefs, ideas, practices, notions and institutions came in to scrutiny and question. The initial chapter of Chaturanga portrays, in a more matured form, the conflict between the reformist liberal attitudes and orthodoxy; and between modernity and the old world of traditions of the Bengali society.

9.2. Chaturanga is mainly the story of Sachish an English-educated bright and a very handsome young man; his reactions to the varied influences exerted on him; his strife to break free of all influences and attachments, and to move towards absolute freedom. His story is narrated by his friend, ardent admirer and follower Sribilash, another English-educated young person. The intellectual and the emotional dilemmas of Sachish are presented against the cross currents of religious and reformative movements that rocked the Hindu society in Bengal during the second half of the 19th century. The story unfolds the conflicts between western atheistic humanism and orthodoxy; between rationalism and devotional cults; between mysticism and harsh realities of life.

10.1. The story starts with the acquaintance of the narrator Sribilash with Sachish; and moves on to descriptions of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan and Sachish’s father Harimohan. Jagmohan, is a well educated staunch atheist, humanist and Utilitarian. He is a typical rationalist, the likes of whom enlivened Calcutta in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. Jagamohan rejects every social and religious norm and practice that lowers human dignity. He is willing to sacrifice his family ties and inheritance to be able to pursue his ideals of service to the underprivileged and the outcaste.

10.2. Sachish was brought up by Jagmohan as his virtual-son. Sachish imbibes the ideas and idealisms of his Uncle and follows him in every manner. Sachish’s friend Sribilash was a ‘believer’; and, initially was pained to know that Sachish was an atheist. And yet, in deference to his affection for Sachish he adopts his friend’s attitude.   Following that, Sribilash too comes under the influence of Jagmohan and turns agnostic.

10.3. Sachish scandalizes the family by offering to marry a young widow seduced and made pregnant by his cavalier brother. The young mother unable to face the shame and also the separation from her betrayer – lover commits suicide. This heart breaking incident is soon followed by a major tragedy. Sachish’s uncle Jagamohan – his friend, philosopher, guide and guardian- succumbs to plague while serving its poor victims.

11.1. Devastated by the twin disasters – a helpless woman’s suicide and the beloved uncle’s sudden death – Sachish is totally disoriented and becomes rudderless. The ground under his feet is totally swept away. He aimlessly wanders and eventually drifts in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult represented everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned. Now, Sachish had crossed over to a faith that was diametrically opposite to the views he professed while he was under his Uncle’s tutelage. Sachish turns in to an ardent and a fanatical devotee of religious Guru Swami Leelananda.  Following him, his friend Sribilash too joins the cult and becomes the Swami’s disciple.

11.2. While at the Ashram the two friends are attracted by a beautiful and vivacious young widow Damini who true to her name (lightening) is sparkling. Damini had been given away by her dying husband, along with all her property, to his guru Swami Leelananda. She is worldly, outgoing and bold. She has definite likes and dislikes. She is not afraid to hurl disturbing questions even at   Swami Leelananda that he cannot answer. He, for some reason, seems to be afraid of her. Damini questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without asking whether she agreed to be taken care of.

11.3. Damini falls passionately in love with Sachish, and is not afraid to express her physical desire; moans: ‘Oh, you stone, you stone, have mercy on me, have mercy and kill me outright!’ Sachish too falls intensely in love with the young widow – whom he calls ‘the artist of the art of Life’-   but is afraid either to face it fully or to acknowledge his love. He is at a loss how to respond or to react to her love.He wants her to keep away, but he wants her to be near too.

11.4. Sachish is thrown in to an abyss of doubt, confusion and indecision. He is much agitated and is unable to reciprocate Damini’s love. He comes to view Damini and her sexuality as a distraction enticing him away from his path of attaining True Freedom. Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him’.  Damini in the nobility of her heart resolves the situation; releases him from her love, and accepts him as her Guru.

Sachish disillusioned with the Swami and his faith becomes a recluse, takes up to contemplation and meditation in solitary places and furrows his own path.

11. 5. Damini agrees to Sribilash’s proposal and marries him. Sribilash returns to working-life; and the couple continue social service activities on the lines of Uncle Jagmohan’s ideals. After a few years of happy-married life Damini dies of an unknown pain in her chest, which she sustained in a cave while she desperately hankered for Sachish. Her last words to Sribilash were ‘May you be mine again in our next birth- (sadhmitila na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai) ’.


Supriya Chaudhuri writes  in ‘ Imagined Worlds – The Prose Fiction of Rabindranath Tagore

The idea of freedom is also at the core of Rabindranath’s experimental poetics in Chaturanga, a novel in four chapters serialized in Sabuj patra (Agrahayan–Phlgun 1321/November 1914–March 1915; published 1916).

Given these sequence of short stories that preceded them, the chapters – ‘Jythmashy’ (Uncle), ‘Shachish’, ‘Dmini’, and ‘Shribilas’ – might have read as separate stories; but the lives and destinies of the four main characters are linked together in a narrative that goes beyond, and even transgresses, the ordinary limits of domestic or social life.

The four-part structure is in tension with a deliberate triangulation of relationships in each section. Typically, three principal agents, closely tied to each other, contend over a single object of difference or desire: Jagamohan, Shachish, and Shribilas over Nanibala in the first section; Shachish, Shribilas, and Lilnanda over Damini in the second, third, and fourth sections.

Yet the novel is also a quest-narrative, with the fiery, brilliant Shachish, idolized by his friend Shribilas, as questing hero. Shachish’s first mentor is his upright, atheist uncle Jagamohan; after  Jagamohan’s death, he gravitates inexplicably to the Vaishnavite guru Swmi Lilananda; at the end, renouncing all mentors, he pursues his quest alone.

But we are also presented with an unsparing examination of the human capacity for self-delusion in the very act of self-surrender to an ideal or a cause: unlike the principled and compassionate Jagamohan, Shachish appears to be driven not so much by idealism or a spirit of self-sacrifice but by some compulsion of the ego.

 This is especially visible in his treatment of Damini, a young widow left to the care of Swami Lilananda. Resentful of her situation, bitterly distrustful of the swami and his circle of devotees, Damini is attracted to Shachish at the same time as she questions his punitive, self-destructive obsession with an abstract, undefined spiritual goal.

Unsurprisingly, it is the patient Shribilas who emerges as the most admirable of these three characters and is allowed, in the end, some modest human happiness.

Chaturanga’s scathing rejection of traditional Hindu family life is accompanied by transgressive alternatives. The atheist Jagamohan gives shelter to the raped and abandoned widow Nanibala and welcomes plague-stricken Muslims into his home, while Damini, made the ward of her husband’s guru Lilananda, forms unconventional alliances with Shachish and Shribilas, ultimately marrying the latter in defiance of his family.

In consequence, the novel too breaks free of the demands of social realism, offering, instead, an extraordinary examination of psychic life, especially the exemplary self-reliance of Jagamohan, the passionately ego-driven personal quest of Shachish, Damini’s desperate search for independence and personal fulfilment, and Shribilas’s commitment to care.

 A central concern, here as elsewhere in Tagore’s fiction, is the destructiveness of the male ego, especially in charismatic individuals who are convinced that all causes must give way to their solitary pursuit of an idea.

 Between the extremes of male abstraction and female self-absorption, we have the philanthropic Bihari in Chokher bali,  the patient Binay in Gora, the modest Shribilas, and a host of less-prominent female characters who offer the alternative of an ethic – even a philosophy – of care.

The experimental structure of Chaturanga  allows these alternatives to be clearly examined and judged


    Let’s discuss the four main characters

(Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish)

As also few other issues emanating from Chaturanga

in the next part

 Please click here for Part Two

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq Heinemann, 1993

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’ By   William Radice

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu  Biswas


Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim


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