To understand Rabindranath Tagore’s views about food, it is necessary to look at the contrary approaches of his father Debendranath and grandfather Dwarkanath, as well as the myriad culinary experiments by the women of the Tagore household.
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Bid me and I shall gather my fruits to bring them in full baskets into your courtyard, though some are lost and some not ripe. / For the season grows heavy with its fullness, and there is a plaintive shepherd’s pipe in the shade.
Bid me and I shall set sail on the river. / The March wind is fretful, fretting the languid waves into murmurs. / The garden has yielded its all, and in the weary hour of evening the call comes from your house on the shore in the sunset.
— From ‘Fruit Gathering’, Rabindranath Tagore
AS HIS 162nd birth anniversary approaches, and various facets of the life and times of Rabindranath Tagore are celebrated by his fans in India and the world, food is among the aspects bound to feature prominently on the occasion. Skimming through what’s been reported on the Bard’s relationship with food, one encounters details that seem contrary at first glance. He was said to be a spare eater, but also an epicure. He was known to collect menus from his travels, but it isn’t clear if he was daring in his explorations of new cuisines. He delighted in his wife Mrinalini Devi’s culinary prowess, and cherished his sister-in-law Jnanadanandini’s western-influenced recipes, but he was a vocal critic of the west’s appetites in other matters.
Tagore was possibly one of the early proponents of today’s buzzwords: natural (organic) farming (at Santiniketan), slow cooking, fusion. Some accounts narrate his love of meat-based dishes; others note his move to vegetarianism with the occasional serving of fish. Still others speak of his penchant for dietary fads, struck by mentions of health benefits. His fiction features elaborate high teas, but his home repasts were simpler affairs.
To understand these varied threads that comprise Tagore’s food experiences, it is necessary to look at the factors that may have shaped it. There are at least four we must take into account: his grandfather Dwarkanath, his father Debnath, the women of the Thakur Bari (Tagore homestead), and the Bard’s own negotiations between West and East.
Dwarkanath is possibly the Tagore of whom the most culinary stories abound. Hailing from a family of staunch Vaishnavites who didn’t permit even onions and garlic in the kitchen, Tagore’s grandfather changed his food habits completely for a multitude of reasons. The first was his business dealings with the British that required him not only to travel extensively, but also to entertain them and other associates when in Bengal. The other was his friendship with Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who was a staunch proponent of overturning caste and religion-based dietary dictums in order to propel reform.
Dwarkanath took to eating meat (although it was cooked in earthen pots that were discarded after use), sampled sherry and wine, and brought Muslim khansamas into his kitchen. For this, he not only faced censure from sections of Bengali society, but it also led to a rift with his wife Digambari. Their living quarters were divided and she would not venture into his. Further, Dwarkanath bought a villa in Calcutta, 5 Belgachia, turning it into a glittering hub for the Bengali elite and the British. His hospitality was legendary, with veritable feasts being served to his guests.
Tagore’s grandfather kept meticulous records of the food he ate on his travels; regarding one multi-course dinner in England, he wrote of what was on table: “eel cutlets, fried flounder, roasted fowl and tongue, a curry that was ‘not good’, currant and cherry tarts, and seed pudding”.
Dwarkanath’s son went the opposite route from his father. As Sumana Roy notes in her paper ‘On Eating: Rabindranath Tagore's Dis(h)courses’ in the Journal Of South Asian Studies: where his father’s dinners would have rarely cost less than 300 rupees, for Debendranath, it was a point of honour to never consume a meal that had cost over four annas. The spartan sensibility extended to how his own children were raised, including Rabindranath. Meals at Jorasanko, where he grew up, were carefully apportioned.
In his memoir, My Boyhood Days, Rabindranath writes of what he considered a luxury as a child: a loaf of bread, and butter wrapped in a banana leaf, that would sometimes accompany his tiffin rations. Other ‘treats’ that he mentions are mourala fish soup and soft-boiled rice, which he supped on while recuperating from a bout of ill health.
As he grew older and travelled the world, Tagore’s tastes evolved and incorporated many more hitherto untasted dishes. There was a mingling of East and West — much like in his grandfather’s time. On the home front too, culinary innovation was a constant courtesy the women in his family.
For instance, having lived with her husband (Tagore’s brother Satyendranath) in England, Rabindranath’s sister-in-law Jnanadanandini brought in ideas that were foreign to the Thakur Bari kitchen. She instituted birthday dinners for the very first time in the family (previously the only marker of the occasion was partaking of charanamrito and a serving of payesh) and was a favourite of her brothers-in-law.
When Tagore married Mrinalini Devi, he encouraged her endeavours in the literary realm (she translated Bengali literature and collected folk tales) and in the culinary one. Her prowess as a cook is well-documented as are the myriad dishes she added to the Thakur Bari’s repertoire. Roy, however, dwells at length on the contributions of Rabindranath’s niece Prajnasundari (his brother Hemendranath’s daughter).
“For a household where the everyday meal was a simple daal-maachher jhol-awmbol, awmbol-maachher jhol-daal, bori bhaaja, papad bhaaja and alu bhaatey, Prajna’s forays into an innovative cuisine were exemplary. Abetted by Rabindranath, her uncle, and her father Hemendranath, who called the culinary art ‘kalavidya’ (the arts), she began documenting the experiments in the kitchen in the magazine Punyo,” Roy writes.
Prajna also recorded authentic recipes from Bengal’s villages, and the many condiments (pickles, chutneys etc) that were prepared in the Tagore household. Meanwhile, another book by one of Tagore’s descendants includes family recipes for dishes like ‘Madrasi Salad’, ‘Philipni Murgi Curry’ and ‘Irish Stew’.
Rabindranath Tagore’s food experiences therefore are a testament to the culinary traditions of the Thakur Bari itself, shaped over generations and through manifold forces — and all the more delicious for it.