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Review: Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation

books Updated: Jan 27, 2012 18:54 IST

Soumitro Das
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What is a poet? In the West, at least since Baudelaire, the poet has also been a revolutionary, not in the way Lenin or Mao, but at a far deeper level of consciousness. The poet has been a revolutionary of poetic language. He has been a conqueror of meaning in an essentially meaningless world. He nurtures flowers of contrariness, the negation of everything that is, ignoring the absence of light and even of vitality. In the process, he has usually been marginalised, isolated, hauled up before the law, ignored and his work suppressed.

The names, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Mallarme, Apollinaire, now glorious, were known only to a limited circle of intellectuals and poets in their own time. They were contemporaries of Rabindranath Tagore, but they differed from him in one very important respect — they had one quality that is entirely missing from Tagore’s poetry: aggression. In other words, they were willing to give offence, strike back at the society whose values they abhorred and whose endeavours they spurned.

This book is not a biography in the traditional sense of the word. It has the ambition of being an ‘interpretation’, a search for the philosophical unity behind Tagore, the man, the poet and the thinker. The strategy is quite simple: divide Tagore’s life into coherent phases, discuss his poetry and his extra- poetic activities and find the factor unifying them and dwell on what Bhattacharya calls Tagore’s ‘inner life’.

The strategy does not work satisfactorily as there is nothing original about the interpretation of Tagore’s poems and his philosophical or political works. They reflect the way Tagore is taught in our universities. His life, too, is touched upon in normal, conventional terms. In other words, this book does not ask the questions that need desperately to be asked about Tagore. Take his life. Apart from a lonely childhood and the later solitude of the “great man”, it offers no clue as to the connection with his poetic instincts. There is no sense of rebellion, no sense of whether he was uncomfortable with the world around him. He takes over the family responsibility of running its estates without self-doubt. His initial creative efforts are welcomed by his own family and his plays are performed in his family mansion of Jorasanko in Calcutta with enthusiasm. He is not in rupture with his family either. He has no apparent vices. During the Swadeshi movement, he seamlessly graduates to a political role, defending the country and its people, a  conventional step for a colonial subject. He has no problems with being Indian either. And as for religion, his poetry is full of it. What sort of a poet is this?

The real questions that Bhattacharya does not answer are: how does a poet become captive to the reigning political discourses of the day to the point that his songs are played mandatorily at traffic signals in the city of his birth? How is it that he is claimed by almost every political formation — the Left, the Trinamool Congress, the Congress? How is it that the people as a whole celebrate his poetry and his songs without any kind of self-appraisal on their part? What sort of a poet is it who does not breed unease, discomfort, anger, who, in fact, turns literature into a mela? In other words, how does a poet come to be identified with the life of the nation so completely that politicians think he is a kinsman? It is not only the West that thinks Tagore is some kind of a mystic sage. Even his own countrymen do so. That is what Bhattacharya’s book tells us. That, too, in imperfect English. Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer