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Owning Rabindranath

  • Published at 05:07 pm May 15th, 2018
  • Last updated at 06:20 pm May 15th, 2018
Rabindranath Tagore - Four figures - sketch

Like all other great writers’ works, Rabindranath’s oeuvre is an organic whole and all its component parts are closely interwoven

While musing on the pains and pleasures of his life-journey in the 43rd poem of Shesh Saptak (1935), Rabindranath Tagore speaks of himself as a “garland of many Rabindranaths.” This self-introduction is amenable to different interpretations but at the simplest level of meaning it can be taken as indicating the diverse roles he took on at different stages of his life, and the multiplicity of ideas he brought in his works – roles and ideas which may sometimes seem unrelated, or even inconsistent. It is not hard to see the great variety of his roles as we know how splendidly he performed as a poet, story-writer, novelist, essayist, playwright, actor, painter, composer, singer, translator, educationist, editor, and whatnot. Likewise, the wide-ranging thoughts we encounter in his vast corpus are simply astounding in their richness and profundity. The amazing versatility of Rabindranath sometimes causes an embarrassment of riches. Sometimes it sets a reader puzzling out how to come to terms with the varied selves of this “myriad-minded man.” It drives some critics to pose a sharp question: “Which Rabindranath do we need?” Some of them would like to discard a Rabindranath who they think is inadequate or irrelevant, and then opt for one who would neatly fit into their present and future priorities. They sound much like Hamlet asking Gertrude scornfully: “Oh, throw away the worser part of it, / And live the purer with the other half.”

One may feel intrigued to ask if it is really possible to “throw away the worser part” of Rabindranath, and yet to have a Rabindranath worth the name? The answer could have been a yes, had the “worser part” been so easily identifiable and surgically removable like a lump from the body known as Rabindranath Tagore. A basic fact is that, like all other great writers’ works, Rabindranath’s oeuvre is an organic whole and all its component parts are closely interwoven. Truly, it is a multi-colored garland though the linking thread is not always visible. Besides, every work of Rabindranath is multi-layered, and has something to offer to anyone who, however, may not be in full agreement with all the underlying ideas. Even an idea which may seem less promising at one point of time may take on some special significance and relevance when the context changes and a new reality vindicates it. Anything segregated from its context and looked at in isolation may have disastrous consequences in Rabindranath’s aesthetic-intellectual world. We can remember what the professor in Raktakarabi (1926) says in response to Nandini when she wants to know why she has been brought to the Yakshapuri without her friend Ranjan who she thinks can “put a beating heart behind the dead ribs” of the mining workers. The professor explains, “It’s their way to snatch things by fractions.” But this way of “snatching” or fragmenting things cannot really do justice to Rabindranath as it severs the unifying thread of a colorful and fragrant garland, reducing it to a pale stray flower.

A look at Rabindranath’s collection of poems Naibedya (1901) may help to illustrate this point. Naibedya is known to be steeped in mystic religiosity and full of paeans to someone who is in control of the universe.  What can it then offer to a person who has nothing to do with a divine being who occupies a central place in that scheme of things? Does it make any sense to someone who has no special religious fervor or who is faced with challenges that are quite mundane in nature? A story that Caruchandra Bandopadhaya told us may be of interest in this context.  A blind old man once came to Rabindranath to express his gratitude. His daughter, who had lost her husband a few days ago, was distraught with grief and utterly disconsolate. But she stopped mourning so quickly that it surprised the father. The widowed daughter then explained this sudden change saying that she had just read Naibedya which worked miracles on her agitated mind, and she was completely at peace with herself now. She read out the book to her blind father, and the poor old man too felt immensely relieved and consoled. This is how the book won their hearts, and the poet claimed their gratitude.

In Naibedya, Rabindranath’s spiritual philosophy is touched and blended with a rebellious spirit that denounces all kinds of injustice, domination and oppression. So much so that Indira Gandhi, an astute ruler and alumnus of Shantiniketan, took care not to miss it, and she went so far as to ban some of these poems during her emergency rule in the 1970s. It is also worth noting that these devotional poems – as they seem with their frequent and explicit references to a supreme being – place a great emphasis on reason, celebration of freedom, and universalism in a breathtaking manner. The following lines beautifully depict Rabindranath’s “heaven of freedom” which is in fact a truly secular world: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; / Where knowledge is free; / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; / … Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; / … Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake (trans. Rabindranath Tagore).”

Let us now turn to Gitanjali (1910) that made a rage in the West mostly for wrong reasons and was “snatched” by many eminent Westerners “by fractions” much in the same way as noted in Raktakarabi. As Amartya Sen observes, “WB Yeats and Ezra Pound placed Rabindranath ‘in the light of a mystical religiosity that went sharply against the overall balance of Tagore’s work.’” Nonetheless, we know that Gitanjali is replete with “talk of the infinite” which a great rational mind like Bertrand Russell trashed as “vague nonsense.” But there is a whole range of meanings in the Gitanjali song lyrics that break through a narrow frame of spirituality. A superb treatment of the themes of love, nature, introspection, value of lowly people, and, again, protest against injustice in these lyrics claims every reader’s attention. The God we encounter here is very affectionate and has a clear preference for the poor and lowly as reflected in the following lines: “Where the lowliest live, the poorer than poor, / it’s there that your footsteps ring: / behind all, below all, among those who’ve lost everything. / When I make an obeisance to you, somewhere my gesture comes to an abrupt end. / … Pride can never reach you where you wander / in humble clothes, bereft of adornments: / behind all, below all, / among those who’ve lost everything (trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson).” The thin veil of spirituality is stripped off when the poet pronounces: “My ill-fated country, those you have affronted -- /with them you must be equalized by sharing the same affront. / Those you have denied / human rights, / allowed to stand before you but never invited in -- / with all of them you must be equalized by sharing the same affront (trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson).”

In Rabindranath’s song lyrics, three over-arching themes of puja, prem and prakriti – devotion, love and nature – flow into one another freely though the songs are grouped thematically in Gitabitan (1950). The person who is so wistfully awaited at stormy nights, or when “cloud piles on cloud” and “gloom grows,” remains elusive in these songs. From the beautifully ambiguous images deployed here, one cannot really make out if this cherished being is human or divine. Does this intermingling of the human and the divine detract from the appeal of Rabindra sangeet? Many eminent listeners, who have made no bones about their lack of belief in a supreme being, have found these songs very compelling and regenerating.

How strongly Rabindranath opposed nationalism from the early twentieth century is well known and it is much discussed these days, but it is also important to note that his literary works, particularly his songs, have always inspired the people of Bangladesh to love and even die for this country. We know he was passionately involved in fueling Indian nationalism in the late nineteenth century and then in championing Bengali nationalism during the first partition of Bengal in 1905. Ezra Pound once tellingly said, “Tagore sang Bengal into a nation.” In addition to his active role in street agitations during the anti-partition movement, his songs had a magical effect on the revolutionary terrorists. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (1995) have recounted how Ullaskar Dutta, who was sentenced to death on the charge of seditious activities, bolstered his spirits during his trial by singing from Rabindranath: “Blessed is my birth – for I was born in this land … ,” and how all present in the courtroom including the European sergeants listened with rapt attention. 

But this is the same Rabindranath who had distanced himself from the anti-partition movement when he noticed the fear and coercion it triggered, and wrote Ghare-Baire (1916) to express his reservations a few years later. His later novel Char Adhyaya (1934) and the lectures titled Nationalism (1917) are also strong critiques of the seamy side of nationalism. In his book The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self (1994), Ashish Nandy shed light on how Rabindranath questioned nationalism in its heyday. But, interestingly, long after his quarrel with nationalism, he emerged as an inspirational figure in the national liberation movement of Bangladesh, and his poems and songs resounded through this country fighting a war to be born as a nation-state. He came striding along as the nemesis of the Pakistani rulers who had banned the broadcast of his songs, and tried to banish him. One can clearly see that the inspirational potential of his works is far from being exhausted, and it can stir the blood again if a reawakening on the national question is in the wind. This explains why he keeps drawing the ire of those who are still loyal to the two-nation theory – the core ideology of Pakistan.

Rabindranath’s association with Benito Mussolini and Italian Fascism is also a vexed question, and the debate surrounding it is resurfacing off and on. Eyebrows are raised often for what is perceived as his lingering admiration for Mussolini. It is now time to say that unless one can rise above the Yakhshapuri approach of “snatching things by fractions” and take a comprehensive view of the matter, one can hardly hope to get close to the truth. Persuaded by Carlo Formichi, a visiting Sanskrit scholar at Shantiniketan, Rabindranath visited Italy in 1926 as a state guest and said a few words of praise about Mussolini. It is true that he was rather impressed by Mussolini’s personality, and it was not possible for him to see Mussolini’s true face so early on.

Later, when he met Romain Rolland and Georges Duhamel in Switzerland, he could wake up to his mistakes and wrote a corrective statement in the form of a letter to CF Andrews, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian. The Fascist press in Italy lost no time to heap scorn on the poet. In 1930, he met Formichi in New York, and was persuaded again to write a letter to Mussolini in a slightly apologetic tone. He asked his son Rathindranath Tagore to send the letter but there was some doubt as to whether the letter was really sent to Mussolini. Recently, it has come to light that the letter was finally sent but Mussolini gave no reply. It is a bit of a puzzle why Rabindranath repeated his mistake, and there is still some confusion in certain quarters about his alleged infatuation with Mussolini and Fascism. But a look at his great poem “Africa” (Patraput; 1936), which was written after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, should be an eye-opener to those who still have misgivings about Rabindranath’s stand on Fascism. Truly, the poem is a blast at colonialism and Fascism – for the “man-trappers” who “came with iron handcuffs, / Those whose claws are sharper than your wolves.” In 1937, he made an appeal for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war, saying: “This devastating tide of International Fascism must be checked … come in your millions to the aid of democracy, to the succor of civilization and culture.” 

To this, one can add poet Abul Hussain’s testimony in his autobiography This Little World of Mine (2003). In the summer of 1940, young Abul Hussainand his friend Akbar Kabir visited an ailing Rabindranath at Kalimpong. When let in, they found the poet lying stretched in a bed, wrapped all over in a black shawl. As the visiting young men softly touched his feet, the poet opened his eyes only to close them again. Quite some time passed before his lips stirred and he said, as if in a whisper to himself, “Have you heard that Paris has fallen to the Nazis? I heard it on the radio this morning. The Nazis now hold sway over there. A great centre of world culture is thus on the verge of ruin. All the light is going out. It’s dark all around – I can only see absolute and unremitting darkness.” As the visitors were sneaking out, they saw the poet re-open his agonized eyes and heard him mutter out: “What’s the point living anymore?” A few months after this, his address for his 80th and last birthday in 1941, which he named Crisis in Civilization, confirmed his revulsion against Fascism and Nazism. Now, the address ended on an optimistic note, and it indicted the “new barbarity” striding over Europe, “teeth bare and claws unconcealed in an orgy of terror.”

In response to some school children in England, Rabindranath once mentioned inconsistency as both his supreme vice and virtue. Of course, he was no celestial being -- he was great but human, and as fallible as all humans are. Imperfections he had and, like other mortals, he made mistakes in his long life and writing career. But thanks to his keen sensitivity and clear vision, he could quickly grasp his mistakes and correct them. He was such an artist who always transcended himself and had a protean way of changing shapes in ever new situations. All his thoughts contained some seeds of counter-thoughts.

True, there are ambivalences and tensions in him. The remedy is not to disclaim a portion of his oeuvre, and to cut him to our size. By clipping him in this manner, one can come up with a host of miniscule Rabindranaths of different hues – Brahmo, Hindu, feudal, comprador-bourgeois, socialist, existentialist, postmodernist, and so on – but the real Rabindranth with his infinite possibilities and richness will be terribly missed out. If we can take a holistic view of his works and appreciate how his thinking changed its course at different points of time, with a clear idea of the unifying thread that runs through his works, the “garland of many Rabindranaths” will make full sense to us. To do so, we need to own him, warts and all.


Golam Faruque Khan is a poet, essayist and literary critic.