POST TIME: 7 August, 2019 10:47:58 AM
Why Tagore matters
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
Syed Mehdi Momin

Why Tagore matters

Rabindranath Tagore’s death anniversary was observed yesterday. It is often said and believed by many that Rabindranath Tagore was vehemently opposed to the establishment of Dhaka University. Yet the proponents of this theory have not been able to provide an iota of solid evidence, there has been intentional misinformation though.
Yes there were strong protests against Dhaka University in Calcutta. However there is simply no proof that Tagore participated in these protests.  One anti Tagore critic has written that “Hindu leaders organized protest meetings and mobilizations all over Bengal against the establishment of Dhaka University. A huge meeting was organized at Garer Math in Kolkata on March 28, 1912 to protest the establishment of Dhaka University. It was presided over by poet Rabindranath Tagore. Nowhere does the writer give the source of this information(?).
On the other hand Tagore archives show that on March 28, 1912, Rabindranath was at Shilaidaha in Kushtia. He left Kolkata on March 24 and stayed at Shilaidaha till April 12, recuperating from illness for which he had cancelled his journey by ship to England scheduled on March 19. Rabindranath used to put dates and notes on places of composition at the end of every poem/song lyric, and the 18 poems and songs composed during those days have the place-name Shilaidaha. One specific poem (number 4 in the anthology Gitimalya) was dated March 28, 2012. And an elementary knowledge of physics say that a person can’t be present at two places at the same time.

Rabindranath Tagore was invited by the scholars of East Bengal and Dhaka University several times. Following such an invitation he came to Dhaka on February 7, 1926. Tagore was cordially welcomed by the commoners of Dhaka. He stayed in the personal boat of Dhaka’s Nawab ‘Turag’. In honour of him a tea party was arranged at Dhaka’s Ahsan Manzil on February 8. Dhaka University’s academic council conferred a honorary Doctor of Literature (D Lit) degree on Rabindranath Tagore in a special convocation on July 29, 1936, albeit he couldn’t attend the programme due to his ailing health.

If Rabindranath Tagore had opposed the establishment of Dhaka University, it was unlikely that the Nawab of Dhaka and the Muslim students of the university would extend such warm hospitality and rousing reception to him within only five years of the establishment of DU and 14 years of Garer Math’s rally. And if the accusation of opposing the establishment of DU against Tagore was true, Dhaka University’s academic council would have thought twice before bestowing a D.lit degree upon him as in that case agitated students and citizens would protest the decision vehemently.  

At present there are a number of people in Bangladesh-and also across the order in West Bengal -  who never misses an opportunity to denigrate Rabindranath Tagore - both the man and the writer. 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.

They had their differences over certain issues. On the whole their relationship was based on mutual respect and affection.   However, one can reluctantly, forgive those ignorant fools.

But what is more dangerous is the fact that 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"

Tagore is a "world poet", yet his heart and soul were rooted in India. For non-Indians, reading him is altogether different. For the Indians, it is easy to relate to the characters and imageries, contexts and themes that are almost exclusively drawn from the Indian/Hindu context.  A Muslim, who is conscious about his own identity, can relate to Rabindranath at the human as well as Indian context. As Amartya Sen noted that Rabindranath himself described of his Bengali family as the product of ‘a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British’. Rabindranath's grandfather, Dwarkana¬th, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath 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 me 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. He even refused to condemn Italian fascism, even when requested by French poet Romain Rolland and his friend Duhamel. But he did criticise fascism later on.

He 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 Jaliwanwallabagh killings. He openly condemned the killings and torture of the political prisoners in the detention camp in Hijli in 1931.

Although not an ultra-nationalist, he never showed his preference to speak in English and preferred speaking in his mother tongue (I wonder, why all of a sudden people are using the term "mother language") 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, 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 (even to Champaign-Urbana!), 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.  As a poet and an author, Tagore called upon others to open their eyes, to be aware of their place in history.

As he put it in the poem we've already considered, 'Open your doors and look abroad.' Taken narrowly, this could be seen as no more than a poet's plea for us to notice the beauty of the world around us; but I think we need to read this line in a broader sense as well.  

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 it be 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.

William Radice, the writer and scholar, said, “Rabindranath Tagore may not be a Bangladeshi poet but he is unquestionably the dominant, all-embracing, all-pervasive Bengali poet: the figure to whom all Bengali or Bangladeshi poets have to relate and orientate themselves.” Massive changes have occurred in the world in the 152 years since Tagore’s birth in 1861. Yet Tagore who was a leading spokesman for compassionate humanism and culture remains as relevant as ever.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at: syed.mehdi@theindependentbd.com