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Tagore Family History

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Anirban Bhattacharyya in conversation with Pramantha Mohun Tagore on the history of the Tagore family

 

Pramantha Tagore: Any discussion involving the Tagore family naturally takes us back to around the early 1700s. We know that the Tagore family’s lineage usually starts from the time of a man name Panchanan Kushari. But then again historical sources have suggested that the family traces its roots back to 994 AD. It was the time when Bengal was under the Senas, the Sena dynasty, and there was a lack of Brahmins in the state. So the reigning king was a man called Adisura and he had contacts with north India and with the king of Kannauj called Virasingha and Adisura had requested Virasingha to send a couple of, rather he specifically mentioned to send five Brahmins who could actually revive the fallen glory of the state, bring back certain ritualistic practices, the knowledge of which was available with the Brahmins of Kannauj, back to Bengal, which had lost that particular knowledge.

 

Virasingha obliged and sent five Brahmins, and the chief of these Brahmins was a man called Bhatta Narayan. When Bhatta Narayan and the five Brahmins came to Bengal proper, they spent around two to three years and thereafter they couldn’t return because it is said that they lost their caste once they had left their hometown. When Bhatta Narayan actually came back to Bengal a second time realising that he can no longer live in Kannauj with the other five Brahmins, then he probably settled in the land of Adisura.

 

From here actually we trace the ancestry of the Tagore’s we know today. Sixteen generations if I am not mistaken. Sixteenth generation from Bhatta Narayan was Panchanan, whose original home was near the Jessore district and from there he came to the city of Calcutta, newly developing, newly emerging city of Calcutta. As you know it was in 1690 that the so-called Kolikata was founded by Charnock. And it was shortly after that Panchanan with his brother Sukdev, Panchanan and Sukdev Kushari, they came from the Jessore district and settled near the Ganges. They took a land near the Ganges in former Govindapur. And they brought their household deity with them which was Kali Thakur, an adaptation we might say of Ma Kali. And he started as a pujari for a mandir that was erected near the Ganga. And from there what happened is that he was interested in actually exposing his practices to some of the English travellers who used to walk by the Ganga. This wasn’t the birth of the name Tagore yet, of course, but he was referred to as Thakur Panchanan and thereafter Panchanan had a son Joyram, Joyram Thakur.

 

Joyram became an Amin, a sort of a collector, and he also began learning, I think it was French and he used to repeatedly go to Chandannagar. Joyram eventually bought a plot of land near Esplanade and there he wanted to shift his family. But what happened is this was the time when Siraj-ud-Daulah was more or less starting his campaign against Calcutta, which was a stronghold of the British, and the Old Fort William was still standing. So due to repeated attacks they had to fall back; the residents of the Esplanade area had to go back and as you know Fort William was eventually destroyed. And thereafter, after the Battle of Plassey, the English company decided to pay off many of the residents of the Esplanade area and take over their residences as it were. So they paid Joyram a handsome amount of money taking which he went off to Pathuriaghata and it is here that the story of the Tagore family properly starts.

 

The Adi Bari, the first house where Joyram came and settled, is actually near this house. It is in 2, Raghunandan Lane—that is the address of the house today. It is around ten minutes away from this street, Prasanna Kumar Tagore Street. There Joyram settled down with his family—his wife’s name was, if I am not mistaken, Ganga. So Joyram and Ganga settled down at their residence in Pathuriaghata. The Tagore family has four proper, we may say, branches, from Panchanan and Sukdev. The family spread to four parts. The first is Pathuriaghata, Jorasanko which is more famously known, Koilaghata, Koilaghata Thakur, everybody will know that, and Chorbagan. These are the four areas where the family later on branched out.

 

Joyram eventually had two sons. One was Nilmani and one was Darpanarayan. Darpanarayan was the elder son, Darpanarayan Thakur, and Nilmani was the younger. Darpanarayan and Nilmani, both were educated in Arabic and Persian. This was done for a reason. The reason was that they were trained to be officials or scribers, meaning people who could deal with official legal documents. Darpanarayan himself actually became a Dewan of the French company in Chandannagar, because he later went on to the French language. And of course he was trained in Sanskrit. All of these older members of the Tagore family were trained in Sanskrit beginning from Panchanan and Sukdev because they were pujaris, so they were there, it was by definition that they were required to know Sanskrit and make a study of the texts. So later on what happened was that there was a fall out between Darpanarayan and Nilmani regarding the separation of the family property. Nilmani therefore decided to leave Darpanarayan’s property with a settlement and went to what we might call the place of today’s Jorasanko Thakur Bari. This happened in around the 1760s.

 

The Jorasanko Thakurbari was built in around 1780s. The proper house structure that we know but when Nilmani was there he bought it from a man called some Seth. The Seths and Basaks were very famous in the Sutanuti and Govindapur area because they were the original families who had inherited the landed wealth. This was also a culturally significant time because it had the birth of a new social class, the new rich as we say it, who get their money and their livelihood from dealings or acting as middlemen with the British government that had firmly established itself in Bengal.

 

To continue our story, Darpanarayan is the founder, we might say, or the ancestor of the Pathuriaghata branch proper. Now we can say that because Darpanarayan stayed in Pathuriaghata, his descendants are part of the Pathuriaghata branch of which I belong, my humble self belongs.

 

And from Nilmani we had the other branch of the Tagore family, the one where the great poet Rabindranath Tagore is the descendant.

 

This does not mean that the family never really had a—after the split—that there wasn’t any connection; there was a very good deal of connection between the two families and culturally important ideas and significant debates and issues of the day were discussed among these families.

 

Darpanarayan’s son, one of his sons was Gopimohan. He decided to leave the Adi Bari of the family and come and settle in this area, that is near Notun Bazaar, Pathuriaghata Street. He got four plots of land and there he erected four buildings. Today the numbers of these houses are 65 and 66, Pathuriaghata Street and the opposite side it was 12 and 13, Prasanna Kumar Tagore Street. Although this house that we have today, built in 1884 by Jatindramohan Tagore, who was a descendant of Gopimohan, the address currently is 13-B, Prasanna Kumar Tagore Street. But Gopimohan decided to build four houses for his four sons. And the most important heir he had, the eldest, was Hara Coomar Tagore. Hara Coomar was a Sanskrit scholar.

 

It is important to say a few things about Gopimohan because he is after all the proper, we might say, he is culturally influential in a great deal to Bengal’s future. Gopimohan Tagore was learned in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, French, Sanskritised Bengali, we might say, and English. So he was one of the first men of letters and he used to have dealings with the Company and often used to work as a translator. And he often translated various types of old Sanskrit texts into Bengali. The most important reason he is known for is that he was a patron, one of the early patrons of Presidency College, the Hindu College actually, which later became Presidency College, and now Presidency University.

 

Gopimohan’s son was Hara Coomar Tagore. Hara Coomar Tagore was, like his father, a learned pundit and he started building the family Sanskrit library. He used to play the sitar although he wasn’t a professional. He spent a great amount of his time on music and instruments. He was very much interested in trying to look into the remnants of old music, musical cultures within the Samaveda, Samavedic texts because he knew Sanskrit, this was available easily. And he also encouraged Sanskrit learning among the other members of the family and those who would generally come to visit. It is not just the sitar that he learnt, Hara Coomar was taught vocal, basically vocal music at first. Thereafter he was trained in a percussion instrument. I don’t remember what percussion instrument but perhaps we can assume that it was an old form of a tabla. And then he learnt the sitar.

 

There was no reason as such for him to learn these instruments, just that instrumental music would later become a very important part of the family. We might say that Hara Coomar Tagore was a sort of founder of this tradition of the family members taking on instrumental music more than vocal music, although vocal music is very important. Sourindro Mohun would also play the sitar like his grandfather, perhaps his father. In all probability it was Gopimohan, who wanted above all that Hara Coomar be able to translate the music from the Samavedic texts and therefore gave a practical dimension to the musical knowledge that he has acquired from his literary studies. He learnt from a master who used to come from north India. I don’t recall his exact name but perhaps we can look into this. But there isn’t enough evidence that he took a great amount of time to actually, devoted a great amount of time to the sitar as much as he had devoted to Sanskrit texts. There is a great deal written about him in Glimpses of Bengal [A. Claude Campbell 1907]. During this time Hara Coomar actually built up the structures of these four houses and made them much stronger and the proper faces of these four houses would come out in the next generation wherein we have Hara Coomar’s eldest son, Jatindramohan Tagore and his younger brother Sourindro Mohun Tagore to come into the stage.

 

So from here we have the two figures, Jatindramohan and Sourindro Mohun, two brothers. Jatindramohan born in 1831 and Sourindro Mohun, nine years later in 1840. Jatindramohan Tagore is a figure who we know that was very significantly one of the first, we might say, literary and dramatic enthusiasts. A connoisseur who actually supported the development of all sorts of arts, not just say drama or literature but music as well. His foundational studies in dramatic cultures led him to actually write original dramas some of which are available in the British Library.

 

He is very significant because he built up the family’s fortunes a great deal. Of course he was a polyglot, a man who knew many languages. He was a prodigy like his brother because he graduated from Hindu College, learnt a bit from Sanskrit College and then I think went to Presidency. Then afterwards he learnt at home. He had a master who used to come at home, Alexander something, I forget the name. Jatindramohan was trained like Gopimohan in Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu and Bengali of course and he knew English very well. He is known as the Maharaja Bahadur Sir Jatindramohan Tagore because he was knighted and he is KCSI, Knight Commander of the Star of India. He was a part of the Bengal Legislative Council and often took on various portfolios, education and was also associated with public administration. So one of the most important men of his times and contributed a great deal to, what we might say, charities and building of schools, so on and so forth.

 

In around 1850s, he and his younger brother, Sourindro Mohun had initiated the Pathuriaghata Banga Natyalay at No. 66, Pathuriaghata Street. It was the first, we might say, sort of private theatre which opened its doors to the public later. The first play that was staged there was Kalidasa’s play Malavikagnimitram. Generally when we think about Jatindramohan we tend to think about Sourindro Mohun along with him, the younger brother helping or getting through despite the older brother.

 

Sourindro Mohun, which is the main object or main concern, he joined Hindu College when he was nine years old. And from then on he stayed till another decade or so. He completed his education there and when he was around 14, as you know, he wrote a work on history and geography of Europe, Bhoogol o Itihas Ghatita Brittanto. He wrote this history, this work on history and the geography of Europe in 1857, the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, it was published in that year, called Bhoogol o Itihas Ghatita Brittanto. Then the next year, the very next year he wrote an original drama called Muktabali Natak. Then on he went on to translate Kalidasa’s Malabikagnimitra into Bengali.

 

The literary culture of the family was always at the forefront. And when we think about Sourindro Mohun’s interest in music and musical cultures, it is a great deal owing to his elder brother, Jatindramohan that we can think about Sourindro Mohun’s early interest in the science of music as it were. He would later go on to say that music was a science, more than he would say it was an art. Jatindramohan Tagore and Sourindro Mohun were connoisseurs and therefore they had a lookout for talent, various types of singers, various types of....this was at the heart of the Bengal renaissance. So you had public playhouses, theatres and other sort of public spaces that were being used for entertainment. Private houses used to open up their doors for social performances by, then we would say nautch girls, and other sorts of entertainment, which included classical musical entertainment as well.

 

We know that Bengal became the centre of travelling musicians after the city was properly born and the influence of the Mughal Empire. Two members, two particular members of the Bishnupur gharana were very important culturally in the history of the Pathuriaghata Tagore’s. One of them was Kshetra Mohan Goswami and the other was Jadunath Bhattacharjee, Jadu Bhatta. More important is Kshetra Mohan Goswami because he was a part of this Jatindramohan’s circle and used to perform in Jatindramohan’s court. He became a member of the court of Jatindramohan, wherein they used to have lively debates about musical advances in the West and dramatic cultures of the Occident and try and find out ways in which Indian culture can also be presented in a similar fashion.

 

Sourindro Mohun, well, he grew up in the court of Jatindramohan, we might say, and he was lucky enough to be taught under a man from Benares, Lakshmi Prasad Mishra, from whom he learnt the sitar. And of course he interacted a great deal with Kshetra Mohan Goswami and others. And they began discussing the possibility of formulating an orchestra on the lines of a Western orchestra. This is a novel concept. We know that instrumentalists and singers perform together, that is one thing but to have a full-fledged orchestra, who are performing maybe Indian and western tunes, is a very, very new idea that did not exist till then. That is why often the history of orchestra music in India is generally looked back to Kshetra Mohan Goswami, Jatindramohan and Sourindro Mohun and others. Because of the novel way in which they initiated this idea of orchestration and the first time this idea was presented to the public was through a play, Ratnavali, the music of which involved an orchestra with Western music.

 

Why I am saying that this is a significant moment in the life of Sourindro Mohun is that because they were playing Western tunes there was a great deal of debate about whether to use Western notation or Indian notation. Sourindro Mohun as we all know—from here we begin our discussion of Sourindro Mohun actually—we know of the numerous accolades that he had received all over the known world and he was the, at one point in time, the second most decorated man after Bismarck but he actually towards the end of his life had overtaken Bismarck by two more, what you might say, degrees that he received from universities. It is interesting that he always associated himself as a doctor from an American university, not a British university although he was revered as a Doctor of Music in absentia from Oxford but he decided to take the 1875 University of Philadelphia doctorate. And there is a great deal of amusing discussions in the State Archives for that episode. But he was Dr. Sourindro Mohun Tagore, Dr. Raja Sourindro Mohun Tagore.

 

It is a pleasure to actually belong as, we might say, a descendant of a man like Sourindro Mohun Tagore for myself. I play the sarod keeping in mind that the family’s literary and musical legacy involves an individual who actually was revered as the first musicologist proper of India. We know of Dr. Ranade, we know of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkande and others but the innovations that were brought in by Sourindro Mohun a great deal seemed to outline the ways in which Indian music would later be perceived in the West and later on understood in the East.

 

 

Pramantha Mohun Tagore is a descendant of the Pathuriaghata Tagore family. He is a student of English literature and finished his Masters from Jadavpur University. A student of Pandit Kamal Mallick, Pramantha is a sarod artiste of the Maihar Gharana.