The name of Rabindranath Tagore is etched in glorious words in the history of this country. A prolific poet, playwright, novelist, educationist and painter, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for an English translation of his collection of poetry called ‘Gitanjali’. He pioneered a literary movement and gave two countries, India and Bangladesh, their national anthem and song respectively. For a man whose life is well documented and researched, Tagore ultimately remains a mystery for most, with certain aspects of his life continuing to elude many, including his life long battle with depression.
Biographer Sabyasachi Bhattacharya claims that one of Tagore’s worst spell of depression occurred in 1914, just a year after becoming the first non-European to win a Nobel in this category. In the book, perhaps aptly named ‘Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation’, Bhattacharya writes,” “In January 1915 Tagore again speaks of a ‘breakdown’, ‘deep depression’, but in February he claimed to have been healed in the solitude of the boat he inhabited on the banks of the Padma [river] in north Bengal.”
Hiranmay Saha, a leading psychiatrist, places Tagore’s depression early in his childhood. Tagore witnessed deaths of family members, including that of his mother as a child and two of his five children as an adult. These experiences deeply impacted his psyche, as did the criticism for the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913. His constant longing for companionship also manifested in bouts of depression.
Saha, the author of another Tagore biography called, ‘Asim Manasloke Ekaki Ek Kobi‘ (Lone poet in ocean of humanity)’ in his work delves deeper and shows Tagore, a normal boy suffering from phobia for attending school. It shows how as an adult, in his letters to son Rathindranath in 1914, the legendary philosopher had admitted to contemplating suicide. “On numerous other occasions he had talked about wanting to die following severe bouts of depression. However, the main thing we see in him is the catharsis. The fact he realised the remedy is within him and the resolve to overcome it… that is the lesson we take away,” Saha explained.
Furthering Saha’s thesis of Tagore’s depression being deep seated in his childhood experiences, Bhattacharya cites a letter in which Tagore wrote about his early days to a confidant, “I was very lonely – that was the chief feature of my childhood – I was very lonely. I saw my father seldom: he was away a great deal…I was kept in the charge of the servants of the household after my mother died.”
Bhattacharya also quotes Tagore as having written to a friend that he would sometimes “pass many months absolutely alone without speaking, till my own voice grew thin and weak through lack of use.”
His anxiety and depression was further strengthened in the early 20th century, with the political turmoil in Bengal due to its partition in 1911 and also because of the response generated by his win in 1913. “His mind was in turmoil caused not only by the partition of Bengal but also by his failure to gain the attention and support of the mainstream nationalist leaders in the anti-partition agitation,” writes Bhattacharya.
On the other hand, Saha shows Tagore’s longing for companionship through his relationships with women. “His relationship with sister-in-law Kadambari left a lasting impact and her sudden suicide in 1884 a few months after Tagore married Mrinalini Devi. His relationship with Mrinalini was also a strange one and it is said she did not occupy much of a space in her husband’s life. Then there were his associations with Lady Ranu Mukherjee and Argentine writer and feminist Victoria Ocampo,” Saha said.
However, Saha said that Tagore’s long battle with depression and loneliness can inspire people suffering from depressive illnesses to speak out and engage their near and dear ones to aid them in tackling the issue.
At his book launch in Oxford Bookstore, Saha had been quoted saying, “Tagore’s fight with depression is absolutely relevant today. People suffering from depression should speak out and admit to the problem, tell their relatives and friends about it and say ‘please save me’, instead of neglecting it.”
Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behaviour, feelings and sense of well-being. People with depressed mood can feel sad, anxious, empty, hopeless, helpless, worthless, guilty, irritable, ashamed or restless. Over the years, as with many other mental illnesses, depression has been associated with a stigmatization, relegating several people experiencing it to silence.
Tagore’s willingness to engage with it and speaking about it thus shines as an example of how even the worst of situations can be overcome with resilience. Tagore in fact had even challenged Freud’s psychiatric way of looking at mental illnesses stating, “Why should you accept everything that Freud says?”
Accepting your mental condition and refusing to bow down to the angst brought about it thus becomes one of the many lessons that we get to learn from this bard, hailed as “the Shakespeare of India.”
#SpeakYourMind is a special series on mental health by The Alternative in partnership with The Live Love Laugh Foundation. Starting Mental Health Day, Oct 10th, the series will feature voices and expert views on issues like depression and anxiety disorders and how sensitivity and timely support can help people overcome them. If you have a personal story around mental health to share, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will publish it in the strictest confidence.