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10 May, 2019 01:07:35 AM

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Rabindranath Tagore: As relevant as ever

Tagore strived to remind his listeners that the world was bigger, more complex, and therefore more precious than any single social custom, ritual or ideology
SYED MEHDI MOMIN
Rabindranath Tagore: As relevant as ever

For a long time and particularly in a last few decades it has become a fashion of sorts for many to portray Rabindranath Tagore in a lesser light. There are people in Bangladesh-and also across the order in West Bengal - who never miss an opportunity to denigrate Rabindranath Tagore - both the man and the wri ter.
There are two groups of people who indulge in this practice.

Firstly there are those imbeciles for whom Tagore's fault was that he was a Hindu-actually he was a Brahmo (a monotheist belief) and so naturally (according to them) an anti-Muslim. Would you believe it that after all these years there are educated Bengalis who believe that Tagore poisoned Kazi Nazrul Islam out of jealousy? I studied in a rather well-known school in Dhaka and one of our teachers often used to sigh about the fact that if it was not for Tagore's cruelty Nazrul would have been the one to win the Nobel prize as the first Bengali writer. Nazrul, by the way, was in his early teens when Tagore got the prize. But, then, rationality is not something you can expect from morons. Just for the record, Tagore and Nazrul shared a good relationship. Their relationship was based on mutual respect and affection.

Many so-called intellectuals who are vociferous in their condemnation of the writer. Some Marxist scholars have gone on record saying that a landlord like Tagore can't possibly be a great writer. Tagore was a landlord and he was also a humanist. He resented being straight-jacketed. In a letter to his daughter Mira on December 22, 1920 he wrote: "I have always been attacked by political groups, religious groups, social groups and so on. If I belonged to the opposition camp, each group would have forgiven me. That I do not belong to any group makes them all angry. No one will be able to put a chain around my feet"

Seventy-eight years after the poet's death the great writer remains as relevant as ever and his legacy is vitally important to the 21st century readers. The modern literature in Bangla finds its roots deeply ingrained in Tagore. Poetic form and content may have changed after the breakthrough experiments in diction in the 1930s, but Tagore still represents the basic character of the modern Bangla poetry. His writing was free of both pomposity and sentimentality. It is him who has first welcomed in Bangla poetry day-to-day feelings and thoughts in relation to nature and man's immediate surroundings. From his time on, the first person of 'I' has been given free rein in poetry, a trait radically different from that followed by his predecessors.

In many different ways, Tagore’s writings reshaped and reconstructed modern Bengali in a way that only a handful of innovative Bengali writers had done before him, going back all the way, a thousand years earlier, to the authors of Charyapad, the Buddhist literary classics that first established the distinctive features of early modern Bengali. The Bengali language has had an amazingly powerful influence on the identity of Bengalis as a group, on both sides of the political boundary between Bangladesh and India.

In his book Raga Mala, Ravi Shankar, the great musician, argues that had Rabindranath Tagore “been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” This is a strong claim, and it calls attention to some greatness in this quintessentially Bengali writer—identified by a fellow Bengali—that might not be readily echoed in the wider world today, especially in the West. His poems, songs, novels, short stories, critical essays, and other writings have vastly enriched the cultural environment in which hundreds of millions of people live in the Bengali-speaking world.

Amartya Sen noted that Rabindranath himself described of his Bengali family as the product of ‘a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British’. Tagore's grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and he grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature.

There are critics who even say that Tagore was a British lackey and always served the colonial cause. To be fair, Tagore abhorred violence and terrorism and he did say, on certain occasions that there have been some good that have come off British occupation in India. But it is also true that Tagore was never a nationalist and to this that is, in itself, no crime.  He was a multifaceted human being. He never rushed head-on to take a political stand on political and social issues, unless he was 100 per cent sure about it, in its entirety.

Tagore may have been lenient towards British rule in India at a certain stage of his life, but he also repudiated his knighthood in protest against the Jaliwanwalabag killings. He openly condemned the killings and torture of the political prisoners in the detention camp in Hijli in 1931. Although never an ultra-nationalist, he never showed his preference to speak in English and preferred speaking in his mother tongue instead. In mentality and dress, he was always a Bengali.He mocked the Bengalis he met in England while visiting England, who were trying to be English-like in manners and customs. He sarcastically referred to them as Inga-Bangas.

As much as he admired the good of the West, advocated assimilation of modernity and synthesis of East and West, he also disliked the commercialism of Western culture. There are critics who portray Tagore as an armchair poet, out of touch with the reality of ordinary folks, that view has also its limitations. Tagore had already pioneered an early form of micro credit in the rural Bangla where he introduced an agricultural bank to extend loans to the peasants to save them from heavy debt from the greedy money-lenders, he himself borrowing the money from banks.

That is certainly not consistent with the view of an armchair poet.  Noted Western literary critic Brian A Hatcher has this to say about Rabindranath Tagore, "One of the reasons we must continue to look to Tagore is that he was keenly aware of the times in which he lived, of the historical importance of events around him. Obviously through his engagement with social and political issues - even when he fell out of favour for taking unfashionable positions - he attempted to contribute to his times.

His on-again, off-again role in the Swadeshi agitation, his friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, his travels to Europe, Asia, and the United States, his vocal disgust with the kind of nationalism that spawned two world wars, and his commentary on life in Soviet Russia - all of these endeavours and more attest to his ceaseless attempt to wrestle with the changes taking place in his world.

Tagore spent his life rebelling against the hemming in of human life, the blinkered human vision, and the curtailing of human freedom and aspiration. Whether be it in his criticism of blind traditionalism, superstition, religious communalism, or fanatic patriotism, Tagore strived to remind his listeners that the world was bigger, more complex, and therefore more precious than any single social custom, ritual, ideology, or jingoistic slogan.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent

SR

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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