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Remembering Rev. Narayan Vaman Tilak

Rev. Narayan Vaman Tilak is counted among the five eminent poets or Panch Kavi of Maharashtra and occupies a venerable position in Marathi literature, besides being revered by his own Marathi Christian community.

Remembering Rev. Narayan Vaman Tilak

By Camil Parkhe
Reverend Narayan Vaman Tilak was a 19th century Marathi poet and Christian missionary who left an indelible mark on the history of modern Maharashtra. He is counted among the five eminent poets or Panch Kavi of Maharashtra and occupies a venerable position in Marathi literature, besides being revered by his own Marathi Christian community.

Rev. Tilak’s poems on nature continue to be taught in schools across Maharashtra. More importantly, the hymns he wrote in Marathi after his conversion to Christianity are sung in Catholic and Protestant churches even to this day.

India’s visionary first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recognized that Christianity was “as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion of India.” There could be no better embodiment of this than Rev. Tilak’s life and works.

Maharashtra is observing his death centenary this year with year-long functions being organized across the state. Rev. Tilak died in Mumbai on 9 May, 1919. But he lives on through his poems, which provide a glimpse into his sensitive nature. His poems on flowers, birds and nature earned him the honorific, 'Phula-Mulanche Kavi' (poet of flowers and children), which is a befitting tribute to his genius.

Students of Marathi medium schools in Maharashtra learn about Rev. Tilak’s personality through some of the lessons excerpted from the well-acclaimed autobiography of his wife, Laxmibai Tilak, entitled 'Smrutichitre' (memoirs).

 Cover Page of Smritichitre by Lakshmibai Tilak

There are many dimensions to Tilak's versatile personality: the truly nationalist Tilak who immensely loved his motherland and native culture, the visionary missionary who after embracing Christianity tried to live as a complete Indian Christian, a Kirtankar who composed devotional songs like bhajans, abhangas, and gave discourses through Kirtans, a traditional form of musical narration of spiritual or religious discourse.

Tilak evolved a unique spiritual-cultural movement for the newly converted Marathi-speaking Christians in Maharashtra and thus saved them from becoming cultural aliens in their own country. This is indeed a great contribution on Tilak's part as his bhajans and abhangs are sung, accompanied by musical instruments like harmonium, cymbals and tabla in churches in Maharashtra even today.

Tilak's contribution in this regard is akin to the great role played by Thomas Stephens who wrote the ‘Kristpuran,’ an epic in Marathi in the early 17th century. It is said that Stephens, a British Jesuit serving in Goa during the Portuguese regime, was inspired to write the legendary epic when local Christians approached him to provide them something spiritual, religious on the style of the Puranas available to the Hindus. Stephens composed the ‘Kristpuran,’ which could be recited in the style of the Hindu scriptures.

Rev. Tilak and fellow Marathi Christians, Pandita Ramabai and Rev. Baba Padmanji, are widely recognized as the leading personalities of their time who greatly contributed to the creation of modern Maharashtra through their services in literature, social work and spirituality.

Narayan Tilak was born at his maternal grandparents' village Karanjgaon in the Konkan region on 6 December, 1861. Like Pandita Ramabai, Rev. Tilak belonged to the Chitpavan Brahmin community. He studied Sanskrit at Nashik and married Manubai (Mankarnika) Gokhale around 1880. This Manubai was named Laxmibai after marriage and went on to become one of the best autobiographers in Marathi literature.

Rev. Narayan Vaman Tilak & Family

For eleven years after their marriage, Rev. Tilak did varied jobs like Kirtankar, teacher at places like Nagpur, Mumbai, Vani and Murbad. In 1883, he used to edit a magazine 'Rishi' devoted to the religion. Once a Christian presented him a copy of the holy Bible after which he developed an interest in studying Christianity. Gradually, he started liking the religion and embraced it in 1895. He devoted rest of his life in the service of Jesus Christ.

With his own example, Rev. Tilak proved that it was possible for Marathi Christians to follow Christ without giving up on their local socio-cultural traditions. He fulfilled their spiritual needs by composing Jesus-centric bhajans, kirtans and epics. This helped to a great extent in preventing the adoption of western forms of worship in churches at Ahmednagar, Pune, Nashik and Aurangabad districts, where thousands of people embraced Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laxmibai’s ‘Smrutichitre’ explains the sensation and shock that resulted when her Sanskrit scholar husband embraced Christianity. He was ostracized by his close relatives and society after his conversion and had to stay away from his wife and young son, Devdatta, for nearly four years.

In 1890, Laxmibai defied her family members and along with their son joined her husband. However, she continued with her conservative rituals and customs for quite some time even after joining her now Christian husband and refused to have contact with the people belonging to the untouchable and other lower castes.

Once, there was acute shortage of water and Laxmibai was forced to drink water offered by a Muslim woman. Immediately after having a sip, she threw up. This incident marked conversion and transformation of conservative Laxmibai to a liberal and rebel personality. The revulsion caused in her after drinking water offered by a Muslim made her change her attitude towards her fellow-beings.

Gradually, Laxmibai started accepting food offered by people belonging to the untouchable communities. A year after joining her husband, she too embraced Christianity. Laxmibai has penned all these events in ‘Smrutichitre’ which serves as a mirror reflecting the lives of this great missionary couple and the social situation prevailing in 19th-century Maharashtra.

Rev. Tilak's personality cannot be understood thoroughly without 'Smrutichitre'. Although a married person, Rev. Tilak was an ascetic and paid little attention to the materialistic aspects. He was truly 'Christian', kind to the underprivileged sections of society, as is seen with the two orphan girls the Tilaks adopted and brought up as their own daughters.

Tilak's true genius is reflected in the large number of poems and other literary works he penned. Rev. Bhaskar Ujagare edited a collection of 84 poems titled ‘Tilakanchi Kavita’ (Tilak’s Poetry) in 1914. Narasinha Chintamani Kelkar, a close associate of Lokmanya Tilak, wrote a foreword to this poetry collection.

 Cover Page of "Tilakanchi Kavita"

Rev. Tilak's other well-known work is ‘Khristayan,’ an epic based on the Bible. Composed entirely as per Indian tradition, it has similarity with the Tamil epic 'Tembavani' written by Italian Jesuit Joseph Beschi alias Virmamunivar, and also with the 17th century Marathi epic ‘Kristpuran’ written by Fr Thomas Stephens.

Both Fr Beschi and Fr Stephens were foreigners who composed epics based on Christian themes in regional languages. Rev. Tilak was the first Indian Christian missionary who composed an epic in a similar manner.

Rev. Tilak wanted Indian Christian forms of worships to be deeply rooted in the local culture and traditions - a principle emphasized by the Second Vatican Council five decades later. The epic ‘Khristayan’ was a part of that effort.

Rev. Tilak started writing ‘Khristayan’ in 1910. Many a time, he would leave his home and stay at places like Panchgani and Bhuinj in Satara district to devote himself totally to this mission. Towards the end of his life, he settled at Satara town with his family for the same purpose. But his wish to complete the epic did not come true. He could complete only 10 chapters and some part of the 11th chapter before he passed away.

Twelve years after his death - in 1931 - Laxmibai decided to finish her husband's incomplete work. In the next five years, she added 64 chapters. After her demise, their son Devdatta penned the concluding 76th chapter. In 1938, the epic ‘Khristayan’ was finally published. It was edited by veteran poet S K Kanetkar.

Rev. Tilak’s success in introducing Indian forms of worship like singing bhajans and conducting kirtans in churches was a rare achievement in his time. He wrote in the preface to his book on compilation of Abhangas; "Singing bhajans and narrating stories from mythology are the traditional ways of propagating religion which are acclaimed and upheld by the masses." His efforts yielded rich dividends in Maharashtra. The faithful in Catholic and Protestant churches continue to follow the tradition.

Tilak maintained that conversion to Christianity does not mean emigration to another country and therefore, even after conversion, people should retain their distinct cultural identity. He was truly a nationalist missionary who took pride in Indian culture. Towards the later years of his life, Rev Tilak had started using saffron clothes, which symbolised renunciation.

Prior to his conversion, a friend had asked Tilak: "Will your intense patriotism remain the same once you become a Christian?" In reply to this question, Tilak composed a poem, which throws light on Tilak's patriotism. Tilak wrote at the end of the poem, which when broadly translated from Marathi, expressed his deepest sentiments: “Oh dear friend! I might cry, might languish, work hard while living on the earth, but would die for my own country even if I become a Christian. By doing this, I would enhance the grace of Christ. Otherwise, I would be a Christian only for the namesake."

Tilak believed, “A Christian must be like Christ. And an Indian Christian must be like an oriental Christ.” Towards the end of the 19th century and in early 20th century, hundreds of families from western Maharashtra, Marathwada and Northern Maharashtra embraced Christianity. These families did not belong to the high castes like Rev. Tilak, Fr. Nilkanthashastri (Nehemya) Gore or Pandita Ramabai. They were people from different low, untouchable castes and tribes.

As untouchables and tribals, they were not allowed to enter Hindu temples in those days. Denied education for centuries, they had no access to religious books. Even after their conversion to Christianity, the higher caste people continued to treat them as untouchables.

The abhangas or Marathi hymns composed by Tilak fulfilled the spiritual need of neo-Christians who were trying to understand their new religion. The spiritual composition by a Sanskrit scholar like Rev. Tilak was also of a great literary value. That is why, although Rev. Tilak was a Protestant, his hymns are sung for the past several decades in Catholic churches as well.

Tilak served as editor of a Marathi periodical 'Dnyanodaya' from 1912 till his death in 1919. The periodical, established by the American Marathi Mission in 1842, continues to be published even today.

Tilak was once invited by Pandita Ramabai to stay at her village, Kedgaon near Pune, and help her in translating the Bible into Marathi. Around 1905, Tilak along with Laxmibai and son Devdatta stayed in Kedgaon for nearly six months during which Ramabai published a collection of his 108 bhajans titled, 'Bhajan Sangraha,' at her printing press. She also printed its second edition later.

Tilak insisted that the girl inmates at Ramabai's 'Mukti Sadan' in Kedgaon should be taught Christian hymns sung in Indian classical music style. He had produced 'Bhajan Sangraha' for the same purpose. Before Tilak's visit, Ramabai used to teach the girls to sing hymns with western music style.

Pandita Ramabai had thorough knowledge of Sanskrit. Tilak had learnt Sanskrit but he was influenced more by the literature of Marathi sants (saints) belonging to the bhakti cult. That is why he used to say that, he had reached at Christ' feet by walking on the bridge built by Sant Tukaram. It was difficult for Tilak and Pandita Ramabai with different inclinations and bent of minds to agree upon translations of the Bible. Therefore, within six months, Rev. Tilak along with his family left Kedgaon. Although Tilak left Kedgaon, his friendship with Ramabai continued. During his last days when Tilak was critically ill, Ramabai had sent Rs 100 to him through her daughter, Manorama.

 Postal stamp released by Indian Postal Department in memory of Pandita Ramabai

Rev. Tilak's will is a testimony of his immense patriotism and love for Indian culture. He stated in it that his mortal remains should not be buried as per western tradition but be consigned to flames according to the Indian tradition and insisted upon banning the black colour during his funeral procession.

He said, "If my near and dear ones wanted to raise a memorial or a tomb at a place where my ashes would be kept, the following lines should be inscribed on it: 'Pushkal Ajuni Una, Prabhu Mi, Pushkal Ajuni Una Re!' (Oh God! I am still incomplete. God! I am still incomplete!) There should be no prefix like 'Reverend' or 'Mr.' to my name. The name should not be written as N. V. Tilak in English but as Narayan Vaman Tilak. I have not loved my parents, wife, children, friends or even myself as much I loved my country."

Rev. Tilak passed away at J. J. Hospital in Mumbai and his last rites were performed at Worli cremation ground. His ashes were taken to Ahmednagar, where they lie buried underneath a tomb. Rev. Tilak's favourite Marathi poem 'Pushkal Ajuni Una' and a poetic tribute by poet Madhav Julian have been inscribed on a marble plaque at his memorial.

To this date, Narayan Vaman Tilak remains one of the tallest Christian missionaries in Maharashtra, appealing both to the Catholic and Protestant devotees. The personalities of Rev. Tilak and his wife, Laxmibai, continue to fascinate people. Numerous books have been written on their lives and contributions. Their memory lives on.

 (Image Courtesy: margnetwork, behance, epusthakalay)

(Camil Parkhe is a Pune based senior Journalist and Author. He has written books in English and Marathi on contribution of Christian missionaries in India, Dalit Christians and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Dr Martin Luther King.)

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