IT IS common knowledge that psychoanalysis as it is practised today is an invention of Europe and North America. It is there where it is also practised the most. Some decades ago it was a matter of shame to be treated by a psychologist for psychic maladies. Today just about every middle class city-bred American comments “My analyst says that….”. In Germany, too, it is no longer kept hidden when a person suffers from depression. It is openly discussed and mostly without any feelings of embarrassment. This spells a huge progress in the attempt of a society to face its own maladies and by being honest and open to begin solving them.
Sudhir Kakar is not the only person who has introduced psychoanalysis to India, but he has certainly popularized the psychoanalytical viewpoint to an extent nobody else has. His epochal book, The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India (1978) has made it clear that India is in need of its own psychoanalytical methods as the Indian mind cannot simply be equated with the Western psyche. Among other features it is shaped by stronger family ties and by archetypical figures and stories popularized through mythology. Sudhir Kakar’s merit is that he has brought Western science and Indian mythic mentality closer to each other, but he has also shown the differences between the two. His book The Indians (2009) was a courageous tour de force study of Indian mentality with all the necessary as well as dangerous generalizations such a subject is unable to avoid.
In his recent book, Kakar analyses the personality and the works of Rabindranath Tagore. The title Young Tagore is slightly misleading. The bulk of the book does deal with the budding poet until the time of his sister-in-law Kadambari’s suicide. Kakar adds a chapter on “The Falling of the Shadow” following up Rabindranath’s creative urges into the 1920s. The chapter “Art and Psyche” is a reflection on his paintings ~ the poet’s passion when he was well beyond the age of sixty.
“Tagore and the Riddle of Creative Genius”, the concluding chapter, deals with the psychological situation of Tagore’s entire life.
As a psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar adds a new and crucial dimension to Tagore Studies, especially to understanding his life. The author offers interpretations of the vital facts of Tagore’s life which have not been given before and which would escape a literary scholar. With Sudhir Kakar we have the fortunate combination of an Indian who, as a psychoanalyst, is himself interested in literature and creativity ~ he has just completed his fifth novel. He is knowledgeable about Tagore’s abiding preoccupation, about religion, as he has widely written about aspects of Hinduism, for example on Sri Ramakrishna. This gives him a background uniquely suited to say something new and striking on Tagore.
In the first seven chapters which deal with Rabindranath’s childhood and early youth until his departure to England for studies, we see the author apply his psychoanalytical experience with Indian mothers and their children, with Indian family relationships, as he has so carefully described in The Inner World, to the Tagore family. Kakar’s interpretations of Rabindranath’s two autobiographical books, Jibansmriti (Reminiscences) and Chhelebela (Boyhood Days), combined with his poems in Sisu (The Crescent Moon), are refreshing. He vividly describes the agony of Rabi’s “banishment” from his mother’s care to the regimen of servants and their “servocracy”. What it means to the mind of a young boy not to have his mother’s immediate loving attention is encapsulated in Kakar’s harsh sentence describing Rabi’s reaction to his mother’s death ~ “In Rabi’s psyche, his mother had died eight years earlier with his exile into the servants’ quarters.”
In his letters to family members, Rabindranath has often written about his sense of loneliness and inability to intimately connect with people. In this book we get a detailed scrutiny of the difference between “anxious loneliness” and “creative solitude”. While the poet battles with the despair of loneliness, the older he gets the more he also constantly yearns for the blessings of solitude. The one creates “a feeling of emptiness and being deserted”, the other “a feeling of fullness and constant presence of loved others even if they are long gone or physically absent”. Without solitude no real creative work can be achieved. That pining “for simple human warmth” saps our mental energies and, if unrequited, leads to depression. But such “normal human relationships” tend to be “destructive of creativity”. Writers and artists are in the grip of a lifelong dilemma, and so was Rabindranath. This tension became all the more acute when the Nobel Prize catapulted him to international fame and he fashioned a public role for himself. His letters to CF Andrews bear witness to the poet’s grave doubts.
It was to be expected that Kadambari, Rabindranath’s sister-in-law, plays a pivotal role in the book. Her part in the young poet’s life is to this day shrouded in mysterious silence and exposed to irresponsible gossip. Here the analyst’s tools may have brought some clarity. Well, Kakar’s sensitive treatment of this theme throws up possibilities of interpretation, but they do not seem to be revelatory. Important is Kakar’s insistence on how severe the loss of Kadambari was to Rabindranath. “The mourning of Kadambari’s absence and the summoning of her presence keep recurring in Rabindranath’s poems, songs, fiction and later, in old age, also in his paintings.”
Of vital relevance is the chapter on the young Tagore’s visit to England to study law. This first sojourn away from the family’s protective and restrictive circle opened his mind to the “wonders of a wider world and, above all, the gratification of being admired and found desirable by the opposite sex, thus consolidating a masculine identity that had seemed vulnerable in his latency years”. It also brought him face to face with the West and its social mores which he vividly and humorously described in his letters. From this visit onward Rabindranath was preoccupied with the “duality of India […] and the West”.
Rabindranath, as Kakar aptly summarizes, “never lost his attraction for the West and what it gave him: a quickening of the mind in the company of other searching and alive minds […]. The West never became his world, yet he remained grateful for the gift of acceptance and love he had received from it.” This theme of comparing India with “the West” also brings back one of Kakar’s favourite themes, namely to define the “overarching Indian identity” amidst all the noticeable differences.
This leads to the most moving passage in Young Tagore where Kakar describes and evokes the importance of “sympathy”. Considered to be the single most important feature of the Indian mind, sympathy is “a continuum of loving connectedness” to humans and to nature, to all creatures and to ideas and visions of the future. One may speak of a cosmic sympathy towards the whole of creation which frees the mind from the bondage of self. The road to such freedom may be long and arduous, but, as Kakar beautifully asserts, “only the wider and wider manifestations of sympathy […] are the true measure of human progress”. Here we see the poet and the analyst ~ not the analyst interpreting the poet ~ speaking in one voice. Indeed, Sudhir Kakar abandons his customary reserve and becomes personal, even emphatic: “Sympathy, as I understand it, is the highest manifestation of the human soul.”
The evocation of such sympathy through his poetry and songs, through his educational endeavours may be called the peak of Rabindranath’s lifelong contribution to us. The price he had to pay for this were his spells of sadness about Kadambari’s death, about the passing of his young children, and the shadows of his loneliness. Indeed, Kakar confirms that ~ ironically ~ soon after Tagore faced fame, he suffered a year-long depression. The analyst discovers the sure signs of a clinical depression in the letters the poet wrote to his son Rathindranath and to CF Andrews and in the utterances of Nikhil in Tagore’s novel “The Home and the World”. Kakar realizes that this breakdown was a result of his sudden fame which robbed the poet of his privacy, made him open to “envy, criticism and attack” and loneliness.
It may come as a shock to some lovers of Rabindranath that he was vulnerable to such a degree and suffered depression which even in our days is not openly discussed in India. To me, this discovery has made Rabindranth more deeply human. With this experience he was able to empathize with all the pain the soul was capable of. We thank Sudhir Kakar for not mincing words but for being clear and rational about his analysis.
Ultimately, Rabindranath was able to lift himself from the depth of his depression through the experience of solitude at the river Padma. He was able to regain his creative powers and overcome his loneliness.
This is a book without which henceforth no Tagore scholar will be able to form an opinion of the poet. Sudhir Kakar approaches his subject with humility and circumspection. He knows and explains that a genius cannot be fathomed easily because “the poets have always known the deeper secrets of the human heart earlier and better than the analysts.” Yet, genius is not above psychological analysis. And the results can be striking.