Articles By Elizabeth Severs

Organising Secretary of the

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Some Modern

Indian Literature

By Elizabeth Severs

From the Vahan 1916


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I suppose if anyone living in either Europe or America were asked to mention any living Indian authors the names that would instinctively rise to his lips would be those of Sir Rabindranath Tagore and of Mrs. Sarojini Naidu,

Place aux Dames.


The child was early mother to the woman in the little Sarojini's case. At the age of 11 she began to write poems; at the age of 12 she was famous in India as a matriculate of Madras University. Sent to England in 1895 to study-and to break off the marriage that later she was destined to carry through with Dr. Govindurajula Naidu, a marriage opposed by her family as he was not of the Brahmin caste-she visited Italy and studied first at King's College, London and later at Girton.


Mr. Edmund Gosse may be said to be Sarojini's literary godfather as he encouraged her to publish her poems. He writes the introduction to her best known book The Golden. Threshold. It is the beauty of the East that the Indian poetess celebrates, but beauty wherever it lodged always fascinated her and the beauty of Italy enthralled her.


But the thoughts and the emotions of the East are embodied in her poems. The unity that underlies diversity, the immanence of God, that central thought of Indian religion and philosophy colours much of her verse. Read the concluding verse of her Harvest Hymn:


" Lord of the Universe, Lord of our being,

Father eternal, ineffable One.

Thou art the Seed and the Scythe of our harvests,

Thou art our Hands and our Heart and our Home.

We bring thee our lives and our labours for tribute,

Grant us thy succour, thy counsel, thy care,

o Lord of ail life and all blessing, we hail thee,

We praise thee, 0 Brahma, with cymbal and prayer."


The poem Suttee (occasional instances of suttee are recorded to-day in the Indian press) shows how deeply this sacrificial aspect of woman's wedded love is still cherished in Indian womanhood.


" Lamp of my life, the lips of death

Have blown thee out with their sudden breath;

Nought shall revive thy vanished spark.

Love must I dwell in the living dark?


Life of my life, Death's bitter sword

Hath severed us like a broken word,

Rent us in twain who are but one. .

Shall the flesh survive when the soul is gone? "


Into an Indian Love-Song is compressed the rich Indian imagery' of nature, jasmine gardens; "ripe boughs of many coloured fruits," perfume, garlands and the glories of an Indian dawn when "the morning sows her tints of gold on fields of ivory."


The poem "To My Children" illustrates the exquisite tenderness of the Indian mother to whom maternity is the fulfilment of womanhood.


In India lately Mrs. Naidu has been speaking a good deal in public. She is feted wherever she goes and should do a good deal to remove popular prejudice against female education and so promote Indian women taking a more active part in public life.


Beauty inspires this modern daughter of India; the wisdom of the East makes her wise; "an agony of sensation" gives her that faculty of perception which is at once the joy and the agony of the poet.


There is a curious similitude in the heredity of the two Indian poets who are to-day interpreting the East to the West. Both are of distinguished Bengal ancestry, noted as famous alike for their Sanscrit knowledge and for their personal piety. The father of Rabindranatb Tagore was the Maharishi Davendranath Tagore, famous through­out India; two brothers are artists and one is a great philosopher, while famous men for genera­tions have preceded their Tagore descendants.


Both poets had the inestimable advantage of  being brought up in cultured homes, Sarojini's father was determined, she writes, "that I should be a great mathematician or scientist," while "when Rabindranath was a boy he had all round him in the home literature and music." The spirit of literature runs through his prose poems and the melody of music marks their syllables. He is a musician; he sets his poems to music and they are sung wherever Bengali is spoken. He is also poet, philosopher, playwright-his plays are performed in India and one The Post Office at the Court Theatre, London-novelist, fervent Indian patriot, and schoolmaster. His famous Indian school at Bopur in Bengal is maintained by the poet, he has dedicated the Nobel Prize to the work, and runs the school on old Indian lines-the boys call him Gurudu "my Guru" and he teaches the boys himself-above all Tagore is a mystic.


Lord Hardinge dubbed Rabindranath Tagore "Poet Laureate of Asia," and some of his admirers call him a world-poet. All true poets in fact transcend nationality, and belong to the world. Yeats in his preface to Gitanjali, in England Tagore's best known work-compares him to St. Thomas a Kempis, and William B1ake. Some of his poems strike me as curiously akin in spirit to that great mediaeval work The Dark Night of the Soul.


I am told - I have never myself seen the poet­ - that the personality of Rabindranath Tagore conveys a wonderful atmosphere of spiritual influence. He incarnates that sense of other worldness, of a beyond, of wider horizons, of portals opening, that are the sign-manuals of mystic writing. From the love poems of The Gardener, lyrics of love and life, his art developes into the mystic aspirations of Gitanjali, where as ever the mystic cloaks his search for Divine union, his thirst for Reality, under the familiar symbology of human love. The first words of Gita11-iali affirm man's immortality: "Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure," and also witness to reincarnation, for the poem continues: "This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life. Ages pass and still there is room to fill."


The poem beginning" Life of my life," might be taken as a rule of life, with its insistence on purity, on banishing untruths from thought, with the necessity of expelling evil from the heart and of keeping love in flower, culminating in the en­deavour to show forth the Divine immanence incarnated in man. "And it shall be my en­deavour to reveal thee in my actions, knowing it is thy power gives me strength to act."


A remarkable feature in the poet's philosophy and particularly in an Indian mystic, is that he has no dread of the senses. "1 shall never be an ascetic," he says in The Gardener, and in Gitanjali we find: "Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight. No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight," a note also struck In Sadhana, the book that contains his teaching to his students at Bolpur, and his working philosophy of life illustrated by the Upanishads, matter not philosophically treated, the author says, by which he means there is a refreshing absence of technical philosophical terms. In this prose work Sadhana: one notices how remarkably good is the author's English, entirely free from the usual Indian faults of verbosity and long, many ­claused sentences. His definition of the Mahatmas is interesting. He writes: "Our great revealers are they who make manifest the true meaning of the soul by giving up self for the love of mankind. They face calumny and persecution, deprivation and death in their service of love. They live the life of the soul, not of the self, and thus they prove to us the ultimate truth of humanity. We call them Mahatmas, "the men of the great soul."


Sadhana is of great philosophic interest as the contribution of a modern Indian restating the fundamentals of Indian philosophy mingled with modern learning and a knowledge of other religions. But the Indian philosophy of the Upanishads is his guide to life.


The Crescent Moon., Child Poems, shows the Indian love of childhood, plus the poet's instinctive sympathy with and comprehension of the child, the completion of the human trinity, mirroring the Divine Trimurti.


The characteristics of this Indian poet are spontaneity and simplicity. He sings as a bird does-because it is his nature to sing. "I am here to sing thee songs." And again: "It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument, and I have done all I could."


He repeats all lovers' constant prayer-s-the earthly lover and the lover of God both know the same need. "That I want thee, only thee-let my heart repeat without end. I want thee, only thee." He shares the mystic's first hand knowledge of God and he gives his personal witness " that what I have seen is un surpassable. In this playhouse of infinite forms I have had my play, and here have I caught sight of him that is form­less." It is this vision, perhaps, that has made him, as the true mystic is wont to be, impatient of  forms, so that he cries: "Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads. Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple, with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee. Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense. What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained?  Meet him, and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow."


Death has no fears for the poet-mystic. "And because I love this life I know that I shall love death as well." Only those who have been in India can realise how vividly the work of the poets we have been considering breathes the atmosphere of that most fascinating of countries; sums up in a few words the thoughts, emotions and pictures of the daily life of its inhabitants. It is a true mental and spiritual refreshment now to turn from daily life in a Europe distracted by war and to enter even temporarily the Eastern setting of life and of thought these Indian poets conjure up.



But the terrible war has not left these two great poets of peace untouched. Sir Rabindranath Tagore contributed a fine war poem. The Trumpet to The Times, reprinted in The Times' Supplement of '''War Poems. The final verse of which runs:


.. From thee I bad asked peace only to find shame.

Now 1 stand before thee-help me to don my armour!

Let hard blows of trouble strike fire into my life.

Let my heart beat in pain-beating the drum of thy victory.

My hand sliall De utterly emptied to take up thy trumpet."


The following beautiful poem by Sarojini Naidu, which had already been extensively circulated in the Indian Press, appeared in The Times, December 17.




Is there aught you need that my bands withhold,

Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?

Lo! I have flung to the East and West

Priceless treasures torn from my breast.

Anti yielded the sons of my stricken womb

To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom.


Gathered like pearls in their alien graves.

Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,

Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands

They lie with pale brows and brave, broken bauds,

They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance­

On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.

Can ye measure the grief Q£ the tears I weep

Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?

Or the pride that thrills thro' my heart's despair

And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?

And the far sad glorious vision I see

Of the torn red banners of Victory?


When the terror and tumult of bate shall cease

And life be refashioned on anvils of peace.

And your love shall offer memorial thanks

To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks.

And yon honour the deeds of the deathless ones,

Remember the blood of my martyred sons!



So in our war both Indian poetess and Indian poet use their art to celebrate Indian loyalty and devotion. The woman calls on us to remember the heroic Indian dead when we commemorate our loss; the man assures us of India's entire self­ sacrifice " my 7hand shall be utterly emptied to take up thy trumpet."






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