Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part One
FOR Smt. BIJAYA GHOSH
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
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.
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 stories – In 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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
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