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The Continuing Relevance of Rabindranath Tagore

  • Published at 11:25 pm May 11th, 2020

Republished from DT archive: Tribute to Tagore

There is no dearth of people in the Bengali-speaking circles and beyond to claim that Rabindranath Tagore is already an anachronism and his legacy, dwindling as it is day by day, will find very few exponents in years to come. As they hasten to explain, it is unlikely that Tagore will reappear on the global literary scene to serve any meaningful purpose since his language and form reek too much of the old world and his ideas have lost all relevance in the current global intellectual context. Some of these skeptics are only too ready to relegate the whole oeuvre of Tagore to the background while some are a bit lenient with his contribution to genres like songs and short stories. In fact, such skepticism about Tagore’s relevance is not at all a new phenomenon and his detractors of various hues have never held back from crying foul.

In The Argumentative Indian (2005) Amartya Sen discusses how some of the great minds of Europe, WB Yeats most of all once took a partial view of Tagore and tried to imprison him in a narrow box—the box of a comforting oriental mysticism. It is also common knowledge that there was a prolonged silence about him in the West after the initial enthusiasm fueled by his receipt of the Nobel Prize had petered out. However, an analysis of Tagore’s reception in his own country shows that such skeptical and blinkered views of him were never a preserve of the West. Actually Tagore has always been subjected to such one-sided criticism by a good number of his compatriots as well. This trend dates back to the late 19th century when diehard conservatives like Kaliprasanna Kavyabisharad and Sureshchandra Samajpati tried to rule Tagore out of court allegedly for flouting the codes of morality. Bipinchandra Pal and Dijendralal Roy also did their bit to demean Tagore. Some of the modernist poets of the 1930s and their successors viewed Tagore as non-modern in form and deficient in his awareness of the demands of the flesh and the existential crisis. In the 1940s and 50s a section of the Indian Marxists castigated Tagore as an unmitigated idealist and apologist for feudalism and imperialism. The Muslim nationalists loyal to the two-nation theory branded Tagore as a defender of caste Hindu interests and as a threat to the integrity of Pakistan. Despite Tagore’s great inspiratory role in the national liberation movement of Bangladesh that culminated in a war in 1971, the Pakistani paranoia dies hard and is often seen to raise its head in independent Bangladesh as well—now in its original vitriolic form, now in the guise of a more subtle ultra-left ideology spiced with a sprinkling of modernism and postmodernism, as the case may be. A few years ago Partha Chatterjee (2005), a postcolonial thinker of international repute, depicted Tagore’s social and political thoughts as almost useless in coping with the contemporary problems.

Also read: https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2020/05/12/beyond-binaries-and-divisions 

Despite all such dismissive gestures, Tagore is still holding his ground and there is no sign that he can be written off so easily. What these doubters have failed to see is that the works of Tagore and, for that matter, of any great writer do not neatly fit into a narrow frame and their immense potential is not exhausted in a particular context. There are many aspects of Tagore’s writings that address the needs and crises of all ages and not least those of the contemporary world. Tagore is such an artist who always overtakes himself and has a protean way of changing shapes in ever new situations. All his thoughts contain some seeds of counter-thoughts. While Purabi (1925; A Twilight Raga), a book of poems published in his advanced years, signals the end of the day, he reappears in Mahua (1929; An Intoxicating Flower) with a new lust for life. The curtains drawn by Senjuti (1938; The Evening Lamp) even later are lifted again by Nabajatak (1940; The New-born). He was engaged in a continuous dialogue with himself and this helped him see through the limitations of his own thoughts and rise above them when he thought they fell short of his perception of truth. Thus he could grow out of his turn-of-the-century penchant for nationalism soon.  Ghare Baire (1916; The Home and the World), Gora (1910) and Nationalism (1917) amply testify to this. In Russiar Chithi (1931; Letters from Russia) he admits that had he not been to post-revolution Russia, his life-pilgrimage would have remained incomplete. But this admiration for the new society does not make him gloss over what he thinks was a mechanical education system in the Soviet Union and the coercion, in his reckoning, endemic in the system of governance there. It stands to reason that this amazing capacity of Tagore to constantly transcend himself will never let him lapse into irrelevance.

For better or worse, Tagore is still the most prominent icon in Bengali culture. Not that his deeper messages always come home to his audience; they are, truth be told, often lost in the customary ceremonial excesses surrounding him. But the tremendous influence he still has on the Bengali-speaking people long after his death is undeniable. They can hardly express, as it were, their joy and sorrow without quoting him. As time goes by, his songs melodiously resound more often than ever before through all parts of the globe inhabited by the Bengalis. True that Tagore lay forgotten in much of the West, especially in the English-speaking world, for a pretty long time. This is what prompted Hermann Hesse to say way back in 1957 that he would be very happy if he lived to see Tagore’s “triumphant re-emergence after the testing period of temporary oblivion.” Probably it would not be wrong now to say that Tagore is gradually re-emerging in the West. The publication of Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems by William Radice in 1985 may be considered a turning point in this process as the book went a long way toward reintroducing Tagore to the western readers. He was soon joined by a host of worthy translators in disseminating Tagore’s works again mainly through the medium of English.

Also read: https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2018/05/15/owning-rabindranath

One may always wonder if art can touch on everything we live out—if it can relate to whatever we feel or experience. But this question becomes almost redundant when we get in touch with Tagore’s works. We cannot but feel that the world we are slipping into is very much our own. We are surprised to see that like a magician Tagore is reading our mind at every turn. When gripped with a strong sense of despair, one can easily identify with the helpless little bird fading into the vast crepuscular sky and seeking intermittently to fold its wings forever—the bird Tagore has set flying in his wonderful poem “Dussomoy” (Hard Times). One can also find a ray of hope in the nonstop fluttering of its frail wings that help it try to cross the huge expanse of the sky. There are indeed not many like Tagore in world literature to inspire us to live on when engulfed by the “dark night of sorrow.” 

Thanks to Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (1995) we now know the Korczac story. Before being gassed by the Nazis, Janusz Korczac, a Polish writer and educator, had Tagore’s play Dakghar (1912; The Post Office) staged by some orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. This was part of their preparations to “accept serenely the angel of death.” Shankha Ghosh (1980) has a different story to tell us—a story of some Bengali poets of the 1950s who were sold on a particular strand of European modernism and, quite understandably, were not much appreciative of Tagore. Once when at a reception party they were on about their not-so-hidden distaste for Tagore, one of them suddenly began to hum a Tagore tune—a tune from a well-known song of devotion—and everybody was soon carried away and joined the singer, turning the scene into an unannounced Tagore song soiree. 

Raktakarabi (1926; Red Oleanders), one of Tagore’s most significant plays, raises a whole lot of issues which stunningly foreshadow many harsh realities unleashed by today’s globalized world order. Rakatakarabi resonates with the suffering and protests of the people marginalized in an exploitative system. The condition of the miners in the play is not much dissimilar from that of the European coal miners who still have to go on strike to claim their rights. When there are reports of distressed peasants committing suicide in India, South Korea or elsewhere, we are reminded of the subhuman hardships the workers in Tagore’s Yaksapuri are condemned to. Nandini, the heroine of the play, also symbolizes the freshness and abundance of nature and, at one level of meaning, she is a buffer against the desertification of the world—a menace well-known to us these days. 

By now we are all too familiar with the politics of water that we encounter in Muktadhara (1922; The Waterfall). The helpless lower riparians today know to their cost how the powerful upper riparians continue to deny them their right to water. Do the fanatic, oppressive clergy Tagore portrays in Achalayatan (1912; The Immovable) need any introduction in our world that is bleeding so grievously from the outbreak of ever new brands of militant zealotry? 

Tagore was keenly aware of the oppressive role of the state and offered very subtle critiques of the excesses committed by the state in an age when statist ideologies abounded. Although Naibedya (1901; The Offering) is often seen as a book of devotional poems, the pieces, at a deeper level, voice such strong protests against domination and oppression that an astute ruler and alumnus of Santiniketan like Indira Gandhi went so far as to ban the broadcast of some of those poems during her emergency rule in the 1970s.

Almost everything Tagore has written is informed by a deep sense of the bond between humans and nature. It is only recently that people have woken up to how some wrong models of development so popular with the modernizing states have been playing havoc with nature—how ruthlessly forests are being denuded, the air and water polluted and the earth is being burnt to ashes. But Tagore did not have to wait till the Earth Summit to latch onto the dangers staring mankind in the face. Unless we all can empathize with his Balai, a small boy who was heartbroken by the felling of a tree, our grand action plans to protect the environment are not likely to pay much dividend. The message of universalism running through Tagore’s works has much to offer in these troubled times when narrow perceptions of singular, monolithic identity are engendering endless conflicts and tearing the world apart.  The mindless consumerism rampant in the world now is also a serious threat to its well-being. We still have an awful lot to learn from Tagore about how to deal with the false needs to consume unnecessary goods touted by corporate capital and, instead, to enrich the life of the mind. Who else but him can say so contentedly: “I desperately crave to fulfill my myriad desires/ but you have saved me by denying them…!”

Golam Faruque Khan is a poet and essayist. He writes with equal fluency in both Bangla and English.

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