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A Tagore primer for non-Bengalis

A Bengali explains his community’s great obsession with Gurudev and Robindro Shongeet

books Updated: Oct 11, 2016 11:43 IST
Tagore,Robindro Shongeet,non-Bengalis
Rabindranath Tagore with Albert Einstein, 1930

A Bengali explains his community’s great obsession with Gurudev and Robindro Shongeet

You should read this only if you are non-Bengali. Non-Bengali is common parlance in Bengal for all those who come from other localities. Broadly, we recognize two kinds of people - Bengalis and non-Bengalis. We are one of the few societies in the world to have a separate word in our language for it.

Bengalis do not need to read about Rabindranath, he is already flowing in our veins. Non-Bengalis are a different matter. When I was a boy in Calcutta, I remember watching one of my uncles reading the newspaper every morning, shaking his head and saying, ‘These non-Bengalis, I tell you!’ He was not pleased with the news, and he was clear about where the responsibility lay. Therefore, when Hindustan Times asked me to explain Rabindranath to non-Bengalis, I did not undertake the task lightly.

The first thing to understand about Rabindranath is that his shape is very distinctive. He had a strong aesthetic sense, and always art directed himself most beautifully. But he was most often portrayed with a yard long beard and in an ankle length kaftan, in profile, hands behind his back. He is one of the few famous people, along with Einstein and Gandhi, who can be recognized by a silhouette. He was a man so advanced, he created his own emoji. As children growing up in Calcutta, long before we read him, we recognised his shape.

In Calcutta, Rabindranath is like the IT Department, impossible to escape. Music is more popular than reading, so his songs are the bedrock of his domination. There are schools, which teach his songs on every corner. Mamata Banerjee frequently leads her MPs and MLAs in impromptu sing-alongs, clapping her hands and urging the laggards to raise their voices. Most recently they sang on the streets of the Vatican, as they marched in honour of Mother Teresa. Many of their performances can be viewed on YouTube. So if you want to watch Derek O’Brien sing Robindro Shongeet (he’s quite good, actually), all you have to do is search.

The singing of Robindro Shongeet in Bengal is widespread. No other form of music comes with such a well-defined ecosystem of culture and lifestyle. Even children are not spared. Almost every Bengali child, has at some point, sung him reluctantly, to an equally reluctant group of family members. It’s like the Jewish tradition of Bar Mitzvah, but with less joy. I myself have performed in this way, and it scarred me for life, and left me with an unnatural level of prejudice against him. Another hellish experience is being forced to perform in one of his dance dramas, which brought in the additional challenges of fluid movements and hand gestures. I was a rather pudgy kid, so I was spared this one. But because many Bengalis have gone through such experiences, you should never underestimate them.

How do you describe Robindro Shongeet to someone who has not been forced to sing it? It’s the exact opposite of Yo Yo Honey Singh. You cannot move vigorously to it. You cannot mention intercourse. Your expression needs to be spiritual. Harmonium skills are not compulsory, but without them, your fight to achieve credibility will be that much harder. The harmonium, as we all know, is the second most annoying instrument in the history of music, after the bagpipes. Once we realise Rabindranath’s role in ensuring its enduring popularity, we have to accept the possibility that he may have been evil. One way to explore this is to look at the students at the University of Shantiniketan, which was founded as per his principles. Are they good or evil? Those of us, who studied in more robust institutions, where mothers were invoked at football matches, viewed them as nambie pambies. Legend had it that if you threatened them, they would throw flowers at you. We were told that they were nyaka, a Bengali word for a particular type of behaviour, which is very hard to define. It involves limp wrists, coyness and lisping. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi studied at Shantiniketan, and she could make grown men cry.

But the biggest aspect of Rabindranath is obviously his poetry. Rabindranath was primarily a poet, although there is some confusion regarding exactly what type of poet he was. In some circles, he is referred to as Bishwo Kobi or Global Poet. Others call him Kobi Guru or Guru of Poets. Both have been used extensively in public forums. After East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and Ritwik Vs Satyajit, this is one other thing, which divides us. As a result, unlike ‘Mahatma’ in the case of Gandhi, the terminology for Rabindranath has not been standardized. What cannot be disputed is that he was a poet, and that he was very prolific. Almost every family in Bengal has a set of his complete works, and they run into so many volumes that there is very little space left for anything else. This has been a problem for Bengali writers and poets who have followed him. As a result, most novels and poetry collections published since then have been extremely slim, so that they can be slipped in between Rabindranath on the bookshelf.

As an innocent school child in Calcutta, my life was full of his poems. I don’t remember too many details, except that they rhymed very nicely, and one of them featured a servant whose situation never seemed to improve, until finally one day he died. I remember being very depressed by it. His short stories are brilliant, though. He wrote a big, fat volume of them; full of characters you don’t easily forget, from the lady who loved her jewellery to the postmaster who was just hanging out. I’m still suffering from PTSD, but if you’re curious about him, or trying to romance a Bengali person, this is a good place to start.

Shovon Chowdhury’s novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, is about a crime, which could only take place in Calcutta.

First Published: Oct 11, 2016 11:42 IST