On the Mount Rushmore of Indian nationalist iconography, we can expect to see, as we pass by in an aeroplane, Gandhi’s and Nehru’s faces carved into the stone. The third face is a blur — but the myopic likeness is of course Ambedkar’s. The fourth visage just may be Tagore’s.
And this, you feel, is largely the company Tagore will keep in the days leading to his 150th birth anniversary: Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar. I repeat this litany verbatim from an article by Ramachandra Guha, who, reassessing Tagore, considers him eligible for a place in the constellation of India’s founding fathers. “If Tagore had merely been a ‘creative artist’,” Guha says, “perhaps one would not have found him fit to rank alongside those other builders of modern India.” Of course, Tagore was much more, as famous poets of colonised nations were especially doomed to be. WB Yeats, in ‘Among School Children’, describes his public role thus: “The children learn to cipher and to sing,/ To study reading — books and histories,/ To cut and sew, be neat in everything/ In the best modern way — the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” The children are learning to be citizens; they are perhaps also being civilised “in the best modern way”. (If anything, the Irish, as a subject race, had worse opprobrium heaped upon them by the English than the Indians did.) But Yeats’s sparse diction and his unobtrusive line-endings hint that, in the midst of the citizen-making, the intruder has been identified as both a diversion and a fake; the children, with their staring eyes and ‘momentary wonder’, have found him out: and we, like Yeats himself, are estranged from the public persona. Later in the poem, Yeats lets on that he knows perfectly what he is at 60: “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” and “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. Outside of the “momentary wonder” and the stares, to be an ageing poet, a mere “creative artist”, is to be nothing at all.
Tagore knew this, and it’s from his intimacy with solitariness and secrecy that his extraordinary language and his transformative vision of the world emerge. He often seems to make this solitary self an interlocutor, in a tone at once self-flagellating and accusatory: “You were hidden at my heart’s core/ And I did not notice you.” It’s remarkable that, as Tagore moved from, in his own words, the “great good fortune” of being “young and unknown” into the mêlée of international fame, he should have kept this conversation, between the speaking voice and the self hidden in the heart, alive, and crucial to the ordinary middle-class Bengalis’ imaginations, to their private reveries. Among the many striking things about Tagore’s life is his consistent struggle to be, primarily, a mere ‘creative artist’ even as he mutated into a worldwide figure; a struggle most artists find difficult, but which Tagore had the better of, and even benefited from.
Few writers have had the misfortune, as Tagore did, of becoming famous for principally the wrong reasons. Even Rushdie, who became more well-known than he wanted to with the fatwa, stands or falls, in the end, on the basis of his work, especially Midnight’s Children, rather than his speeches, his advances, or his general philosophy. An antagonistic author called the fatwa an “extreme form of literary criticism”. But Tagore criticism, alas, is even less known than his poetry is. In India, Tagore is viewed as a sort of Guinness Book of World Records-holder: he wrote more than any other modern writer did; he mastered more genres than any of his contemporaries; he was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize; he’s the only man to have composed two national anthems. To the febrile nationalist imagination, such lists are all-important. Even if some of these claims were true, they — without reference to specificities — exemplify the sort of absurd rhetoric Tagore is surrounded by. Although there’s no shortage of kitsch renditions of the national anthem, emanating from A R Rahman and others, I’ve yet to read a persuasive analysis of the anthem as a composition.
Both anthems, ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana’, show Tagore to be the restless bricoleur he is, seizing upon available material and working it anew. ‘Jana Gana Mana’ begins as a sort of marching tune influenced by the measure of popular English songs, and then, unexpectedly, in the line ‘Punjab Sindh Gujarat Maratha’, shape-shifts into the melancholy of raga Kedar. The echo of Kedar is reinforced in the last note of the anthem, the fourth, the madhyam, Kedar’s mainstay. These mercurial transitions in the composition have been absorbed by us so completely that we don’t hear them any more. The Bangladeshi anthem, on the other hand, is a high-spirited reworking of a Baul tune. The two anthems are themselves a clue to the nature of Tagore’s creativity, and the range and eclecticism of his borrowings.
Tagore needs to depart from Mount Rushmore and return to the company he properly belongs to, and from which (outside Bengal) he was long ago banished — that of the poets who are his peers, and those who preceded and followed him. From Vidyapati (of whose songs he once composed a pastiche) to Tagore there’s an immense movement: but of what kind? Ezra Pound and Yeats championed him for the English Gitanjali, then lost interest in him. How does one explain the intense infatuation with that questionable version of Gitanjali, and the disenchantment later? It’s a mystery, an event only possible in a magic zone, and to be viewed, aghast, from the outside, like Titania’s inexorable attraction to the transfigured Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, leading to those sluggish memories she has on waking up.
Of course, the Gitanjali is no Bottom, though the Nobel may have recreated Puck’s magic; in fact, it’s possible to argue a case for Tagore being the great poet of his age, and certainly one of its greatest. ‘The sky full of the sun and stars, the world full of life’: like Whitman and Lawrence, Tagore is a polemicist for the value of life and song. Ramachandra Guha is right to say that the Bengalis are primarily to blame for his neglect — especially as a mere ‘creative artist’. But there’s also the larger context of Indian intellectual discourse, governed as it is by history and the social sciences, showing little affection for literary language.
Not long before he died, Tagore wrote to the younger poet-critic Buddhadeva Bose: “I have heard it said again and again that we are guided altogether by history, and I have energetically nodded, so to say, in my own mind whenever I heard it. I have settled this debate in my own head where I am nothing but a poet... I have it in my mind to say, ‘Off with your history!’” Like his assertions on behalf of life in the songs, this is an extraordinarily courageous thing to say — a polemic, again, against abstraction, made in favour of a direct perception of lived life. The question isn’t whether we should turn seriously to Tagore; the question is whether we, in India, are ready for him.
Amit Chaudhuri’s latest novel is The Immortals The views expressed by the author are personal