Tagore and Globalization of Bengal
This post is from An Intimate History of Bengal, published by Wordsmith University Press ( $ 12.99) and was written in 2006. After a decade, I revisited the book (for the next edition) and find that in this decade, the process of re-barbarization has progressed in Bengal. Study of Tagore remains important, not for those who will be carried by the dominant current.
An Intimate History of Bengal
CALCUTTA, CULTURE CLAIRVOYANCE: TAGORE AND GLOBALIZATION OF BENGAL
The Pre-Conception: Tagore as an Artist and as an Institution
This BOOK owes its existence, in a mixed way to the efforts of my Housing Co-operative in organizing a cultural programme to mark the birthday of Rabindranath Thakur, wrongly but conveniently called Tagore. We will use this misnomer to call him all along, which has dual advantage; first of all it modulates the concept of Bengali-association with him and secondly, it de-modulates the eulogizing epithets bestowed on him quite liberally for a surprisingly long period of time. Any discussion centered on Tagore, in order to remain consistency has to be selective and focused due to the very width of the personality and gravitation of it. Majority of commentators fall into the subtle trap of losing the distinction between Tagore, the person and Tagore, the institution. Hence, many commentators, otherwise quite sincere, learned and having the virtue of objectivity criticize the person Tagore for the inconsistencies of the institution Tagore. On the other hand, institutional evaluation or the use of the institution called Tagore projects a personality-cult which later generation of rebel poets deplored as worship (Rabindra-Puja). Readers may like to read the small volume authored by Buddhadev Basu where he discusses those issues from an objective standpoint without sacrificing the historical connection he shares with the subject. What makes his work interesting is the fact that Buddhadev as a poet and a critique was a very sensitive man not to have ignored the forces that were shaping poetry in other parts of the world. To him and perhaps to him alone goes the credit of this signal service to Bengali literature and it is no wonder why he could write an essay like Ek Grishe Dui Kabi ( Two poets in the same summer) where he discusses the works of two ‘poets‘ of the same country but of different type : Dostoevsky and Chekhov. In this petite volume on Tagore, there appears more substance and signposts for posterity than are to be found in the formidable array of works done on the subject, by individual or by the Institution Tagore founded in Bolpur.
On 9th May this year, I have been passing my days of royal luxury in a flat at Purbachal Housing Complex, Saltlake, Calcutta. With family in vacation, my father in his visit to North Calcutta and I have no office to go, I decided to spend my time in home, wasting time in anticipation as Bertrand Russell has provided the piece of wisdom – Wasted time is not Waste of Time. As I was wasting my time, Tagore reminded me that it is his birthday as songs after song wafted in the air, as if soaking the strength of the May sun, becoming stronger each minute. The songs were coming from a stage which was some two hundred yards away from my second floor window. Tagore, I remembered had passed quite a considerable part of his youth in doing things which in typical Bengali society would be considered either worthless or waste of time. My self-love urged me to discover the parallel between Tagore‘s free-wheeling life on the boat of the river Padda and mine own spent in speculation in this East Calcutta suburb. By coincidence, after two days, Bengal was going to polls, one of the historic ones not in terms of the results but in terms of the cause behind the result that had been speculated upon
Since 1960s, the frontline literary artists of Bengal started to ponder over the relevance of Tagore in future. For some, this thought was nothing short of a blasphemy and the opposition came most from the Institutional Tagore-scholars. Buddhadev, while writing about the imitations and imitators of Tagore gave a honourable coup-de-grace – ‘Having sacrificed themselves in the flaming sun (Rabi-tap), they have provided next generation with a necessary and useful warning‘. These imitations were nothing unique for Tagore or for Bengal. As soon as flame of creativity shines stronger, lesser lights tend to borrow. However, in case of Tagore it was the flame of a true genius, a genius which finally consumed the bearer of the gift and also the lesser gifted ones who came in close quarters, personally or institutionally. At certain point in the literary history of Bengal and among some honourable men and women, Tagore‘s work approached the applicability of that of Homer as regarded by the classical Greeks that all wisdom can be found in Homer. As logical mind as that of Greeks could have thought that Homer has something for everything. Homeric odes were sung and consumed not as an artistic product alone but as narrating process of knowledge, wisdom and many other desirable things which we don’t demand from literature anymore now. However, Homer became part and parcel of the Greek world and wherever Greeks went they carried their Homer. At the matured period of classical Greece in 4th century BCE, Homer was synonymous with the idea that was called Greece. The Bengali colonists did the same as late as 1980s with sincerity and conviction. Later, it became a form of habit, having little to do with any inner conviction or internalization or even identification.
Bearing in mind the fundamental differences that remain between classical Greeks and Bengali mind and situation, the colonization process has some interesting parallel. From 1880 to 1930s – these fifty years witnessed some of the grand crystallization of historical deposits in the history of Bengal. In this half a century, her past Buddhist tradition, her reinterpretation of Bhakti spearheaded by Sree Chaitanya and her interaction with Europe through British ambassadorship provided a throbbing scene which was pregnant to give birth to highly unique personalities. Literature, one of the strongest and most sensitive areas of Bengal‘s psyche found in Tagore a culmination of all these forces. In this way, Tagore the artist functioned like fractal image of tradition where local historical tradition of last thousand years found a complex and convoluted space. His syncretism could seamlessly travel from the domains of Chandalika (Buddhist) to Bhanusingha (Vaishnav Lyrical poetry) and Bramho-sangeet (the monotheism). It is interesting to note that he had reconciled and could persuade us through the artistic instrument of willing-suspension-of-disbelief of the fundamentally different philosophical ramifications underlying these traditions. This power of persuasion has been the most profound aspect of the Tagore the person or Tagore as an artist. If he were born in other cultural space-time, he would have done the same synthetic persuasion. His songs, a part of his short stories and a selected part of his poetry symbolize this power of persuasion at the deepest level. Aided by a remarkable gift on language, he became the architect-builder and craftsman of Bengali language. It is a logical confirmation that today, after a century after he wrote those works, his works of persuasion at the deepest level never ceases to fascinate us.
However, as soon as we study the institution Tagore where he was a political activist, a strategist in terms of practical methods of swaraj, a patriot or nationalist, builder of institution and as soon as he took his greatest gift as an aid of persuasion in these areas, we could always find almost exactly opposite results. This remains at the root of his failure as a novelist, as an artist who failed to mirror the agony of his time and for some Western critics, – a boudoir poet.
During my stay in London as a student last year, I could read a columnist in The Guardian, while writing about Nobel winners bracketed Tagore with Pearl Buck under the heading – who are not read anymore and are not part of any living tradition. Off came a reprimand from the Bishop of Oxford who justly rebuked the author for his euro-centricism and extolled the virtues of lush mysticism of Tagore‘s poetry. This action-reaction sequence has an interesting lesson: his syncretism as an artist or an institution has a more lasting appeal than one of the artistic hallmarks of portraying the agony of the age. In this way, the characters of his novels have little life, they raise no singularities on existential issues, they speak no truth which only a novel can utter and they smell too much of design and craftsmanship and have no element of fantastic in them. On the other hand, in his short stories, he was guided by his own spirit and his conscious and unconscious efforts gave birth to certain characters and sequences that are unique in Bengali literature. They represent what Tagore the artist always tried and succeeded and Tagore the institution has failed most often: to re-present the eternal human dilemma.
Buddhadev has drawn our attention to the historical setting of Tagore‘s mind while being active as an artist. He argues that in his artistic geography, he was citizen of another historical time. This capacity remains his greatest strength and greatest weakness, depending on the form of his art and what his readers or critics are looking for. The fault was not Tagore‘s, nor Tagore was ignorant of the complaints of his readers. Being acutely self-aware, he was sensitive to his relevance also for the next generations to come. But when the setting is right, when the historical age or the theme is beyond and pervading all or any historical time, Tagore becomes the chosen instrument of melody and yearning and we could detect a melting of the creator with the creation. To the language, to the landscape and to the mind of Bengal, he gave the idea and hope that the universe reflects here too, in spite of our repeated folly of spinning a web of homilies and familiarity. If the entire landmass of Bengal in some geological aeon goes under the sea or some catastrophe destroys the land and the people altogether, if entire Bengali language is forgotten, still it is possible to convey the essence of the land and its people from his work. His life as a creative artist was an intense laser beam which opened a new channel between the retina of the eye and the mind‘s eye and once that‘s opened, the language and the meaning never remained the same. Also, this new faculty, actually a miracle, in course of time became something so natural that it has been taken for granted. We will focus our discussion on the relationship between the Bengal landscape and Tagore as a creative artist. He has been an intimate artist of Bengal and instead of going into the bemoaning discussion as why or why not young people read him today, we would discuss some of the current trends having influence on this landscape, to which the greatest poet of the post-Tagore generation would like to have eternal return.
Globalization and Landscape of Bengal:
The core competence of Bengal, in spite of all complex rhetoric and marketing communications remains her land, her geography and her fields. Modern technology, in spite of its formidable power cannot add another Bengal in the globe although it can destroy it in a violent frenzy or through slow degeneration. Since the age of empires in India, fertility of Bengal‘s land has been the major agenda in the policy of conquest, colonization, settlement or exit. This Bengal includes East and West Bengal alike. Forever washed in the water of the sky and water of the innumerable of large and small rivers, biological sustenance was never a problem in the land. If it was, it was always the greed or the inefficiency of the people who controlled the generation or distribution of the produce. It is a miracle that for last two hundred years or so, this landscape could maintain a low-cost, abundant and healthy supply of elements required for biological sustenance. There is a major debate raging now in the land as to whether using the farmland for industrial expansion will bring public good or not. This debate is important and more important is to define the co-ordinate of the participant in order to escape the follies of sentimentalism and conditioned response so common in the land today. Another interesting experiment is to imagine Tagore as a participant in this debate, separately as an artist and an individual and then trace his reaction. This exercise would also bring an important aspect on the larger theme – Tagore in the Globalized Bengal. Before undertaking that exercise, there remains a little task of analyzing various choices of positions a commentator of Bengal can take up, including me.
Nirad C Chaudhri had informed us, while rating five of the greatest Bengalis, certain yardsticks and strangely, he argues that all of them share a trait common – they are all un-Bengali. We may also argue that the first criterion of attaining greatness for a Bengali is to shed his Bengali conditioning. This is applicable in a general way, said long ago by the Master of Galilee – A prophet is seldom respected in his homeland. After a continuous struggle with the position of myself as a student of the cultural history of Bengal, I had undergone a process of evolution which has left me with few options lately. I would briefly narrate this process of evolution. My first position was that of intense identification, i.e. an insider. In this position, the greatest danger is that of being sucked into the staid pool of chandimantap culture of Bengal which tends to make one critical about everything else except that of one‘s own belief systems and cultural make-up. The next was that of an observer without qualification and there comes a bigger challenge – experience teaches me that in this land, an observer needs to be always aware of the fact that he is dealing in much deeper waters. He always stands a chance to deceive himself simply because under the simplicity of these people lies a complex net of historical forces and being acutely unaware of history, they deny it more, only to confirm its presence. The next position was that of intellectual modeler and it was discarded as I soon found that these people, highly sensual and sentimental in nature are governed less by intellect than by feeling. In this process, I tried to look into the land with the eyes and mind-set of an observer who might have come here on an assignment and has no contract or obligation whatsoever to respect any of the belief systems of the land. One implicit element in this kind of position has a necessary power equation and I have no qualms to declare that mine is essentially an aristocratic position where I am acutely aware of the divisive line between my acquired world-view and the view that could have come from a natural association. Since I am not bound by the obligations of a judge, a curator or a researcher with grant or a media professional, I may always retain the autonomy of my position. I have few ears to please than my own fancy. The greatest admiration that people have here if an individual can maintain his own fancy and these is the people who are also the target for criticism for the chandipantap culturists. This group of people can be found everywhere here – in the Offices, in the shops, in schools and colleges, in LIG, MIG, HIG (Low, Medium, High Income group) colonies. They believe that if things are fine in their own little world, then the world must be running alright. It never crosses their mind that their little world (sukhi grihakon) might have been intimately connected with the larger world. This group also radiates a most despicable form of irritation and they carry it with them. This group constitutes the largest proportion of the population and since this irritation is quite impotent, no revolution so much worshipped by the Bengali elite of earlier generation would ever take place here. I have heard Asoke Mitra‘s lament  but cannot sympathize as readily with him on his lament on the general loss of quality in contemporary Bengali poetry.
Tagore – the aristocrat by birth and aristocrat by temperament had to deal with this mass of people all through his life and interaction in Bengal. His aristocracy has the characteristics of ownership and that is the reason why he could call any human product as his own irrespective of its origin in time and geography. Amarty Sen, in his essay on Gandhi and Tagore in The Argumentative Indian has brought this feature of Tagore‘s attitude that permeate his views on nationalism, civilization conflict and cultural exchanges. Tagore himself was well read in Kalidas and he was fond of a Sanskrit word and concept – Jananatar-sauhridani – it is impossible to convey the soft and subtle sweetness of Sanskrit but it roughly means friendship between one person and another. He would not have been surprised while finding the stark contrast between the pogrom of Gujrat and the liberal spirit of Bengal. He would have approved Nirad‘s displeasure of the naming of Bangladesh for Bengal or Bangla-desh had an integral cultural and existential unit in his mind. When the poet bestows the artistic gift to Nawalkishore – Nawalkishore tomai dilam bhuvan-dangar math – this is no Bengal or India, he is offering the whole world – not the globe and globalization of any variant but what signifies in the Sanskrit verse – Vasudwiva Kutumbakam, Swdesha Bhuvana-Trayam. It is no wonder that Gandhi and Tagore would have to have a radical disagreement over the contribution of Western Civilization in view of the contemporary situation of India under the colonial rule or mis-rule of the English – one of the pre-eminent representatives of the European Civilization. For Gandhi as a mass-leader and that too of the mass of India, it was politically and temperamentally impossible to be aware of the distinction between the European Civilization and the English administrators of India, petty or big. Tagore always did. He gave a very practical advice to his countrymen that there is a distinction and that distinction is fundamental, that lies between the English spirit and the behaviour and policy of English colonists in India. Applying this concept with regards to India, he grasped the highly significant aspect of contemporary Indian attitude to India‘s ancient past. In one of his essays, he mocks the attitude of some of the elites proclaiming the so-called Aryan heritage mixed-up with a hotchpotch of spirituality, science, and technology and we-have-done-it-all-prehistorically. It was the reaction to this attitude that James Mill had to observe that any Hindu pundit would come in contact with modern scientific and technological ideas and immediately find those in their own books. I have heard this hotchpotch and this variation of themes so many times from many educated and respectable people that I wonder how heroic was for him to escape those follies. For him, India‘s ancient tradition was as much as connected with him as that of other civilizations and other cultures. He was also well-aware that to consider us as the Aryans is equivalent to comparing the mammoth with the elephant. It is not false and being half-truth and shaded truth is more dangerous if taken without proper critical and common sense attitude. Hence, his globalization was of a variety which is equally mysterious to the champion of Hindu pasts of the past days as well as those of the present. His loneliness is his own making and that provides the clue why he is being considered not a living tradition by certain commentators. These commentators are not insincere nor all of them have very shallow knowledge about him and his works, but it is the difference of the quality of thought and perception that lies at the root of underlining the observation.
It is now natural and interesting to review two questions which are not important for Tagore anymore but for us. Firstly: how the globalized and globalizing Bengalis would continue to find Tagore in their intellectual and cultural life? Secondly: how significant and relevant the ideas of Tagore will remain in this globalized environment? In the next two sections these two questions will be tackled, not from a scholarly standpoint but from circumspection and observation, much of it personal and acquired while working within the contemporary environment of Bengal.
 Milan Kundera commenting on the Truth of Novel. He argues that the truth of novel is that which only novel can unveil or discover. I find this definition most appropriate for such a highly complex art form like novel.
 I read in the newspaper that the Central Government of India is thinking of passing a law to forbid any agricultural land to be handed over to private industrial houses to build industries. In case of Bengal, it seems that there is no such land which is not cultivatable. This is an evidence which adds fuel to the highly charged debate of building up a car factory by Tatas in Singur.
 Literally means Happy House-Corner and I have discovered in the streets that there is a magazine goes by this name.
 Kabita theke Michile – Collected Essays by Asoke Mitra meaning From poetry to procession.
 Gandhi and Tagore – The Argumentative Indian
 As quoted by Taslima Nasreen in her essays – Diwakhandita – Part 2
 Choto o Boro – Kalantar
 Amartya Sen as quoting in The Argumentative Indian.
 Buddhadev Basu paraphrased while he spoke about the lack of quality translation of Tagores work and the loss thereof.
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