Originally serialized in the magazine Sabjupatra in 1915, Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga (Quartet) is a short novella set in 19th century Bengal. Later it was published in book form in 1916 and is considered a landmark in Bengali literature. A quartet carries four squares of space and Tagore was fascinated by the Bengali quatrain, the classical four-part musical form. The story of the novel follows the journey of a young man named Sribilas (the narrator), his meeting with his best friend, philosopher and guide Sachis, the story of Damini, a widow, and Jyathamoshai (Uncle), an idealist. As the title indicates, the novel consists of four chapters, each named for these four main characters and raises pointed questions about religion and atheism, a recurrent idea in many works of Tagore. It also deals with another significant theme—the complex hues of the man-woman relationship. Thus the text can be studied from two different perspectives—the eternal debates about religious ideology and the true path to salvation that plagued Tagore, along with his ideas about woman’s liberation. The second significant aspect is the writer’s unique experimentation with the narrative style where the language is crisp and minimalist, often comprising disjointed sentences.
The story revolves around the four pivotal characters with just one woman in the midst of three males. The protagonist Sachis is a tormented soul who is torn between natural human longings and a forced imposition of spiritual emancipation. When he was under the shelter and guidance of Jyathamoshai who was an atheist to the core and in the true spirit of European humanism disregarded all the religious practices of Hinduism, Sachis and his friend Sribilas worked with him to improve the lot of the Muslims and chamars of his neighbourhood. But after his uncle died of plague, his world turned upside down and he left behind everything and became a seeking wanderer. After a long search, Sribilas discovers Sachis in the company of Leelananda Swami, fully immersed in the ocean of devotion, singing and dancing in ecstasy. He had become so deeply immersed in the meaningless rituals of Hinduism that he would even massage his Guru’s feet and make his tobacco as part of service. After a while a widowed Damini joins Swamiji’s group as per her departed husband’s will. While Damini falls desperately in love with Sachis, he however considers her an impediment on his path of salvation. Tagore uses subtle psychological interpretations of the two minds to lead the relationship towards the path of evolution from the physical to the mystic. After several bizarre incidents and twists and turns in the plot, finally Damini accepts Sachis as her spiritual guru and marries Sribilas, discovering in him a new soulmate, though she does not live long to enjoy marital bliss. In fact, her death is narrated by the author in two brief sentences. Tagore’s profound understanding of the human subconscious is evident in the novel and he seems to send the message to the reader that both the paths that Sachis adopts are false and lead to futility and destruction.