Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth centenary celebrations, to begin next month, have already set the drums rolling at the ‘cultural departments’ of the government, both Central and states. Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, ever anxious to get a foot in the door, has renamed as ‘Rabindra Ghat’ the crematorium by the river Hooghly where the poet was cremated 69 years ago. That jells with a Tagore song if sung in reverse: for you it is the beginning, for me it is the end.
Not to be outmanoeuvred by Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, the ruling Left Front in West Bengal is christening even routine rural development projects with the ‘R’ word embedded in it. At an even higher level, Tagore’s institutionalising is progressing with great fervour. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced that a “distinguished panel” of 25 persons would oversee the celebrations. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) is unveiling plans to showcase Tagore to the world, maybe to display India’s ‘soft power’. It could well be so as the PM has announced that the celebrations would be ‘jointly’ held with Bangladesh, the second nation of the subcontinent with a Tagore song as its national anthem. Besides, Unesco has passed a resolution that it would celebrate Tagore’s 150 years and the centenaries of Pablo Neruda and Aimé Césaire' as an instance of what it has named, with appropriate profundity, as the ‘reconciled universal’.
While there is nothing wrong in occasional bardolatry — it shows we can worship people other than T20 cricketers and glamorous filmstars — India is not yet quite clear about Tagore’s status in public life. He surely can’t be the Poet Laureate as that’s indeed a government job, or a “stipendiary poet”, as Edward Gibbon described it when he identified Petrarch as the first to hold that title. But is Tagore India’s National Poet, in the sense that Neruda is of Chile, or Shakespeare of Britain? In popular discourse he is indeed one of India’s several ‘national poets’, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Subramanya Bharathi being among the others. But none of these men, Tagore included, is held by popular acclaim as representative of the identity and belief of India’s national culture.
In fact, to many in Delhi, Bharathi is not much beyond the name of a prominent road, despite the Tamil poet having spent years in Varanasi to appreciate India’s cultural diversity. And poor Bankim is remembered outside his Bengal as the man who composed the ‘rival’ national anthem, ‘Vande Mataram’, his more material identity as the father of modern Bengali prose being relegated to obscurity. In India’s babel, if Tagore is best recognised among his fellow National Poets it is because of him being the composer of Jana Gana Mana, the national anthem. Linguistic division has turned India’s national culture into a mere phrase. It is rather hypocritical, therefore, to claim that Tagore occupies a similar place on the mind of the average Indian as Cervantes does with the Spaniard, or Kazi Nazrul Islam with the Bangladeshi.
Arguably, much of Tagore’s linguistic ‘otherness’, as perceived outside Bengal, could be overcome through better translation efforts, which are now in evidence. But the otherness more difficult to negotiate lies in his views on everything — from nationhood to personal behaviour — that post-Independence India has accepted as its ideal. These were moulded by Gandhi and Tagore was critical of these to his last breath. In an acclaimed article in The New York Review in 2001, Amartya Sen, the polymathic economist, enumerated the fields where the two men had polar differences: nationalism, patriotism, the importance of cultural exchange, the role of rationality and of science, and the nature of economic and social development.
In strictly political terms, one wonders if there were more disagreements between Washington and Moscow in the height of the Cold War. Gandhi, it seems in retrospect, was not quite familiar with the evolution of Tagore’s works, from a sectarian and nationalist phase when he was under his father Maharshi Debendranath’s (died 1905) influence, towards an internationalist outlook and an infinitely more tolerant view of the West than Gandhi’s. He no doubt coined the term Mahatma for Gandhi and possibly liked him too. But Gandhi made the blunder of taking him for a swadeshi supporter. Gandhi was the messiah of Independence but Tagore saw its dark underbelly and left its vivid account in his novel, The Home and the World, which was made into a gripping film by Satyajit Ray in another age, in short stories, poems, and in an essay poignantly titled, ‘The Cult of the Charka’.
Tagore was older than Gandhi by eight years but there was an immense gap between their perspectives. Gandhi indeed could visualise an independent India pretty early on but it is doubtful if Tagore ever thought of India as a sovereign nation. In December 1911, his ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was sung at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress after the Viceroy’s office had rejected it as the opening number for the Delhi Durbar with George V at its centre, for its deficit of ‘loyalty’. The swap is significant.
Tagore may be a national poet but it is doubtful if he is the nation’s poet.