In the 1950s, when some of us were aspiring to be poets and writers in Bengal, we were “Rabindra-birodhi“ (Rabindranath-resisting) and even made disparaging remarks about him. Tagore died in 1941 and our intention in opposing him has mostly been unexplained. More than wanting to attack Tagore, our target were the Rabindrik people (the Rabindranath-fixated), his chelas, who thought literature ended with Tagore and whoever would write after him would merely clone Tagore.
Colossus: (top) Tagore’s major body of work is not known widely outside of Bengal; Santiniketan no longer follows his ideals and philosophy.
We staked our claim and maintained that Bengali literature couldn’t stop at Tagore. While publicly we opposed, at home and with friends we would ceaselessly sing Rabindra sangeet (Tagore’s songs).
I don’t call myself Rabindra-birodhi any longer. I have since studied Tagore well and have discovered him anew. It is also pointless to oppose him since post-Tagore modern Bengali literature is now well-established, Tagore too has moved to the classical realm and one can’t revolt against what is classic.
I think the universalism of Tagore’s works needs to be rediscovered. As part of Tagore’s 150th anniversary celebrations, which begin this year, the Sahitya Akademi is planning to bring together 40-odd poets from different languages and take them to Santiniketan.
Santiniketan was important in Tagore’s life, not merely for his university, but also for his paintings and other exhibits. Though sadly, the Nobel Prize medal he won in 1913 got stolen, and has been replaced by a replica. In Santiniketan, these poets coming from outside might get acquainted well with Tagore. Equally true, they might not find Tagore and the artistic air of Santiniketan appealing enough.
Beyond Bengal, most people know Tagore as the author of Gitanjali, which got Asia its first literature Nobel. We think, though, that Gitanjali is a weak book that is unworthy of the Nobel. It doesn’t reflect Tagore’s talent. He had written enough material for three Nobels.
Tagore pioneered the short story form in our country, penned over 1,400 poems, wrote and composed over 2,200 songs, authored 12 novels, wrote dance and musical dramas. He had also written extensively for children. His essays are over a thousand pages. Many believe that Tagore could well have been a painter without ever needing to write. It’s an immense and unmatched body of creation, none of which seems hurried or of mediocre standard.
For the 150th anniversary celebrations, a lot of agencies are involved: Central government plans initiated by the Prime Minister, which will involve the three Akademis (Sahitya, Sangeet Natak and Lalit Kala, since Tagore’s works span multi-art disciplines), West Bengal government’s plans, and other agencies such as Unesco.
In my opinion, the best way to celebrate would be by presenting his work beyond Gitanjali to the world. There should be a travelling exhibition of his paintings and his writing should be translated further, not just in English, but also in Hindi and other languages. Tagore, for me, is not just the national poet of India but an international figure too. As a creator, he is unique.
Nevertheless, it seems that people are getting a bit bereft of ideas. Recently, it was said that the Nimtala burning ghat in Kolkata where Tagore was cremated would be renamed after him. Many places and institutions bearing his name already exist. The best way to immortalize him is by showcasing his many creations. Renaming a crematorium won’t help.
Unfortunately, in India, we create icons easily. If there are murmurs of protest over a proposed foreign film on Tagore’s relationship with the beautiful Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo, it stems from our prissiness resulting from idol-worship. Why Ocampo? There could be a film on his relationship with Lady Ranu (Mukherjee) too.
In my book Ranu O Bhanu, I had written that when Tagore first saw Lady Ranu as a 11-year-old, she wasn’t wearing any clothes. I interpreted Tagore’s illusion of seeing a beautiful little fairy. There was a hue and cry, but fortunately, I possessed Lady Ranu’s own writing, where she mentioned her unnatural tomboy streak.
There is another story. In the Bengali literary magazine Desh, I had written that when Tagore was 19, he lived with his brother at Chandannagar. He would swim across the Ganges clad in blue-coloured swimming trunks. Many readers wrote back to Desh saying that it’s bad to say that Tagore wore swimming trunks—for them, the only image was of Tagore in his long robe. But how can one swim in a robe? My addition was the colour blue for visual effect, but people only protested about the trunks.
As a seven-year-old child, I remember seeing his funeral procession pass through Vivekananda Road. His body seemed to be carried above the sea of mourners, even as there were instances of people pulling off his hair and beard to keep as mementos.
Had he read our poetry, which we called Confessional Poetry, Tagore might have been shocked. I was inspired by Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg on his long trip to Kolkata and by Jack Kerouac, whom I met at Ginsberg’s home in New York. At Krittibas, the poetry magazine that we produced, we employed colloquial street language. Jibanananda Das, we announced, could find his own style post-Tagore. Others like Buddhadeva Bose and Bishnu Dey were there.
But we’ve learnt from his works and his music continues to be sung by us. Secretly, we’ve admitted that Tagore single-handedly crafted the modern Bengali language.
As told to Shamik Bag.
Kolkata-based Sunil Gangopadhyay is an author and poet of more than 25 books who has researched and written on Tagore extensively.
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