Anyone for Tagore’s Legacy?

15 May,2020


By Avik Chattopadhyay


We celebrated Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday on the 25th of Baisakh [May 8] with the usual reverence and fervour. We prefer to address him as either “Gurudev” or “Robi Thakur”. In this lockdown our fervour was more feverish with social media being the primary channel of showing our homage to the old man and demonstrating how well we follow him.


Okay, who are this “we”? We are Bengalis. On both sides of the border. And across the world. We are a 260 million strong tribe speaking the seventh largest language on earth. We take pride in our language and culture and fiercely protect it with a sense of self-bequeathed racial superiority. Rabindranath, along with Rosogolla and Ray, are Bengal’s best export items. Sadly, Revolution does not make that list.


I have read a bit of Tagore through the years…in English. I cannot read Bengali very well and cannot write it, things I admit with a sense of loss but not guilt. I have been told a million times that to understand Tagore one must read him in Bengali. Otherwise the essence is lost. That means I need to read Tolstoy in Russian, Ibsen in Swedish and Camus in French. That means I need to know close to 50 odd languages to appreciate 50% of world literature!


One of my favourite works of Tagore is a novel called “Home and the World” [Ghare Baire, in Bengali]. There he questions the core concepts of home and world. He questions whether one can clearly differentiate and distinguish between the two in the context of human evolution. He asks us whether staying closeted within one’s home and protecting it by tall walls is the crucible of civilization, or we need to open all our doors and windows and allow the wafts and winds from across the world embrace us and help us evolve. He questions, through his protagonist Nikhilesh, whether imposing Swadeshi at the cost of the livelihoods of the poor is true nationalism. The home, open and welcoming, is part of a larger world. And the world is made up of countless such homes.


Yet, why do we Bengalis bind Tagore into shackles of tradition, ritual and the ‘right way’ in order to keep him and his works “pure”? Why could Tagore not have been the truly global philosopher given the span of his works and the spread of his thought? One must remember that Tagore was not just a poet. He built a university, an institution of agri-sciences, an entire township and worked on socio-religious harmony apart from painting, designing, writing novels, plays, dance-dramas and treatises on philosophy. I strongly believe that his book “Nationalism” should be an integral part of our high school curriculum.


For years we have been tutored that there is only the ‘right’ way of singing his songs accompanied by only the pre-determined set of musical instruments! We have been told that there is only one way of presenting his dance dramas and plays. For there is only one interpretation “officially” approved by a handful of people who have taken upon themselves the task of ‘preserving’ the legacy of Tagore. After his demise in 1941, Viswa Bharati, the very institution he created, set about rules and regulations on anything and everything about him and his works. Those that did not comply were literally treated as outsiders and ‘impure’! the old man had carefully built a home with lots of doors and windows to allow everyone in. The self-appointed purists went about closing them and building high walls all around.


And that, unfortunately, was the start of the decline of Tagore’s legacy and took away his rightful place as a global philosopher. They bound him and gagged him in their own ways, obviously to ensure their own livelihoods and impose their status. They had a licence on all of his works. Fair enough, but that should have stayed up to credits and acknowledgements. They extended it also to the applications, depictions and renditions. In their mindless obsession with ‘purity’ they sacrificed the very traits and values of the old man, of going out and exploring new cultures, thoughts, genres and lifestyles.


We never encouraged the world to sing his songs in their different languages and genres.

We never allowed the world to adapt his plays and dramas to their cultures and share with millions.

We did not envision that Gitanjali, in various languages, could be the typical gift that an Indian carries to the rest of the world.


Most of India knows “Ravinder Nath” Tagore as the person who wrote our national anthem. We do not even know that it is the first of a five-stanza poem called “Bharat Bhagya Vidhaata” set to music by a young pianist called Margaret Chambers! About the rest of his contribution, the less said the better.


We have made Tagore a symbol of Bengali elitist culture. Only the aficionados will ever understand him. He is not for the commonplace. One needs to read him in Bengali to grasp the nuances of his brilliant mind. How utter tragic! We, his own people, have reduced him to a black-and-white photograph on the wall that we possibly garland once a year.


Under us, Tagore himself would have felt most breathless and might as well have been banned from the household!



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