GROWING up in Delhi in a small middle class family in the 1980s, I had a desultory and haphazard literary education. At school we read and memorized the words of a jumble of Indian poets, some medieval some modern, some in Hindi some in English, some original some translated. Occasionally we were taught songs in Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi or Tamil – as preparation for our future lives as citizens of secular India, rather than as evidence of any actual knowledge of different cultural worlds within the country.
As well as the next kid in my class, I could sing a poem by Rabindranath Tagore or Subramania Bharati, but perhaps I had a slight edge, unbeknownst to my classmates and unappreciated even by me at the time. Why? My parents were both professors of literature; my father a widely respected and well recognized Hindi poet. I got by at school, but I was raised in a deeply literary household. Without my realizing it, I soaked up poetry the way my friends soaked up cricket or TV serials – it was the ambient noise in my parents’ home.
As I got older, I ended up following the parental example, despite desperate early efforts to branch out into the hard sciences. I studied literature in multiple languages, at universities in India, England and the United States. I developed a better understanding of who my own father was and what he wrote. But even after all this, after a childhood and early youth spent steeped in literature, when I finally turned to Tagore in my mid-thirties, as part of the research for my first book, I felt as though I had opened a secret door into a whole unexpected pleasure garden that I never knew existed right behind my house.
The nature of the revelation was so profound that it completely consumed two years of my life. I was surprised not just by the man’s unending creativity, but also by my own ignorance of and lack of exposure to this great poetic genius of modern India. A committed Indian, a professional scholar of the humanities, and my father’s daughter – how on earth had I missed Rabindranath Tagore for the preceding three decades? A chance conversation with the novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri, in the late summer of 2008, changed my perspective on Tagore forever.
My discovery of Tagore reflects, I suspect, a larger truth about the poet’s reception in contemporary India, 150 years after his birth (in 1861) and 70 years after his death (in 1941). Unless you are born into Bengali bhadralok society, a narrow and insular band of India’s enormous and diverse population, or belong to an even narrower elite across the border in Bangladesh, you might never learn anything significant about Tagore – not even that he wrote the songs that became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh respectively. He is shrouded in the oblivion that sometimes attends the overly famous – everyone knows him, no one knows him.
Bengalis listen to a type of cloying, beatless music the rest of us are dimly aware of as being somehow associated with him, but for the most part, it doesn’t translate out of Bengali culture, neither as words nor as a musical style. Tagore’s poetry that one might come across in English sounds vaguely Victorian and thoroughly irrelevant. Occasionally an enormous dusty portrait of the bearded sage might hang mournfully in some seminar room in a government building – Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar have long elbowed Tagore off the walls, pillars and podiums of the nation’s historical consciousness. Even among Indian intellectuals, were it not for the efforts of Tagore’s later compatriots and eminent alumni of his university like Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen, it might have been difficult to grasp exactly why this man mattered, why we ought to care.
But care we must, and care we do, or so the expense and fanfare of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary this year might suggest. Conferences, edited volumes, cultural festivals, concerts, exhibitions, newly instituted university chairs, journal issues like this one, articles in newspapers, TV shows, singing schoolchildren – suddenly, in 2011, it’s as if India has woken up to remember and celebrate its long-lost national poet. Bengalis and non-Bengalis reflect on what Tagore means to them. Prominent Bollywood film stars return to their neglected roots in Bengal. Indians and Bangladeshis living overseas grasp at his memory even harder, as a way to connect to their distant homelands. Historians have a field day with the Bengal Renaissance, otherwise a closed chapter.
Luckily, even after this hubbub has died down, one thing that will remain with us is Harvard University Press’s new collection, The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (2011), soon to appear in its Indian edition from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan. This important work distils, collects, translates and synthesizes a range of Tagore’s fiction, prose and poetry, making him once more the contemporary that he ought to have been all along. Prominent contributing translators include Supriya and Sukanta Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh and Sunetra Gupta, as well as Amit and Rosinka Chaudhuri, Reba Som, Sudeep Sen and Somdatta Mandal, whose work appears in this issue of Seminar too. The volume’s importance is enhanced by its inclusion of scholars from Bangladesh and India, in addition to those based elsewhere – proof that Tagore is a living force in both parts of divided Bengal.
Ever since I found Tagore, I began teaching his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), as well as his three essays, collectively titled Nationalism, in my American classroom. Semester after semester, my students have loved him. I have devoted two chapters of my book to the Tagores, Rabindranath and his nephew, the painter Abanindranath. My house is overrun with prints of their artworks, and my collection of Rabindrasangeet CDs has slowly but steadily grown, much to the distress or amusement of those who must live with me. I still cannot read the Bengali script, but I am thinking about learning it soon. I have reconciled myself to the fact that I will never experience the emotional connection to Tagore’s poems and songs that so many Bengalis feel, because I did not grow up with Tagore the way they did. I do not automatically associate particular seasons, flowers, foods, trees, moods and fragrances with his poetry, nor does he speak to any of the elements of my cultural identity.
And yet, if there is one figure in the literary life of modern India who has come to fascinate me in an abiding way, it is Tagore. I have no primordial affinities with him, and any knowledge I crave must be painstakingly acquired, but this much is clear to me: Tagore represents something very important in our history. He stands at the very centre of and yet at an angle to India’s modernity, to nationalism in India, and to any conception of Indian literary traditions. Though he stayed away from mainstream politics, opposed the nation state as a political form, died before independence, and had long-running disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore is in the fullest sense a founding father. One may or may not be born into a relationship with Tagore, but such a relationship is important to forge, because it can provide an insight into the very ‘idea of India’ – itself, incidentally, a Tagorean phrase.
It is hard to think of a single living intellectual in India who approximates Tagore’s stature, either within the country or internationally. Certainly polymaths like him are rare in any period, but even to find a poet, a painter, an essayist, a fiction writer, any one of these, who might currently be as famous or as influential as Tagore was during his lifetime, is impossible. In one of his pieces of literary criticism, Tagore refers to the poets of the Sanskrit epics as belonging to ‘a race of giants’, now extinct – this description could well be applied to him.
Another new volume, Tagore and China, edited by Tan Chung, Amiya Dev and others, opens up the astonishing range of Tagore’s travels to, interest in, and knowledge about East Asia, as also his friendships and correspondences with a number of Chinese and Japanese artists and intellectuals.1 This year Argentina and Uruguay have issued stamps in Tagore’s honour: it seems as though he left behind a memory in every corner of the world. I once came across a letter by Tagore, written from Cambridge (Massachusetts), where I live, with the sender’s address noted as 1000, Massachusetts Ave. I pass by that location everyday – I went to look at it again, after I read the letter. It is now a large multi-people building, housing among other things a graphic design and print store, an ATM kiosk, and the Cambridge College. I wondered to myself what it was when Tagore stayed there, and if any record may be found of his time spent at that address.
We do know that he was in Boston in 1916, lecturing against nationalism to bemused American audiences who did not like being told that nationalism was not the right ideology for their country to follow. America’s hostile reception of Tagore is exemplified by an article in The Nation magazine, dated 30 November 1916, by Paul Elmer More, in which More questions both Tagore’s greatness as a poet, and his ‘virility’ as a political thinker. Tagore himself is critical of The Nation’s style of reportage, when, in a piece titled ‘Civilization and Progress’, he recounts an incident in Afghanistan as reported by this American magazine, in contrast to versions that appeared in the British press.2
In this incident, British airmen who have been bombarding the Afghan village of Mahsud crash-land in the village, only to receive help and hospitality from the villagers, and to be nursed back to health. For Tagore, the British soldiers represent a technologically advanced but aggressive and therefore less ‘civilized’ culture; the Afghans, overcoming their poverty and their predicament as civilians who are wrongfully air-bombed by the colonial power, give succour to their enemies as evidence of their true civility, their status as a civilized people.
Both More’s critique of Tagore, and Tagore’s reading of the British bombing of Mahsud, illustrate the clash between ‘nationalism’ and ‘civilization’, two important ideas that embody opposed sets of values about what really makes any country great. In his essay on Tagore, ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’, Isaiah Berlin recognizes the uniquely ethical nature of Tagore’s complex position on nationalism and internationalism, on national strength and international peace. Berlin lauds Tagore for taking a middle path between chauvinist patriotism and empty pacifism.3
Tagore’s ideas, controversial in their own milieu – and particularly during World War I, when his three lectures, titled Nationalism first appeared – have a strong resonance with contemporary discussions about the ethics and continuation of American imperialism overseas after the end of the Republican administration and the election of Barack Obama.4 As a political thinker, Tagore has a renewed relevance in our own time. President Obama, in many of his writings and speeches, often seems to have a natural affinity with two of modern India’s greatest political leaders and thinkers, M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It may therefore be worth asking how Tagore too might speak to Obama, as a humanist, a cosmopolitan and an internationalist, and moreover as someone with a political vision that is at odds with the political climate in which it is articulated. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize of 2009 (premature and ill-timed though it may have been) gives us even more reason to imagine a conversation between Obama and a figure like Tagore, one of the earliest and most prominent advocates of global peace in the 20th century.
Modern India in the first part of the 20th century has no dearth of ‘national’ poets – poets who speak to and stand for their people, their place. Bharati in Tamil Nadu, Vallathol in Kerala, Kuvempu in Karnataka, Nirala in the Hindi belt and many others around the country are surely part of such a series. Tagore too would have been a poet of this order – specific to his language and his culture – but he managed to rise above his regional identity and become a truly national figure for India as whole. Arguably, and ironically, it was after independence, despite the national anthem, that Tagore fell into a narrower domain, both claimed and extolled by Bengalis, but treated with indifference by Indians elsewhere. Tagore’s reputation lingered on in the Nehru years – a golden age for poets, with figures like Maithili Sharan Gupt and Ramdhari Singh Dinkar designated as poets for the nation (rashtra kavi) – but began a steady and apparently irreversible decline in the 1960s. How are we to explain this vernacularization and marginalization of Tagore in the post-Nehruvian, postcolonial period? And can we hope that the time has come, now, for him to regain his rightful position as the definitive Indian poet of the previous century?
For in truth, Tagore is to India what Yeats is to Ireland, Faiz is to Pakistan, and Nazrul is to Bangladesh. He compares also to Chaim Nachman Bialik (d. 1934) the Hebrew poet, Mahmoud Darwish (d. 2008) the Palestinian poet, and Agha Shahid Ali (d. 2001) the Kashmiri poet. What is so interesting is that Tagore is, in the words of one of his foremost contemporary translators, William Radice ‘near to his people’, and yet he cannot be called a Bengali or an Indian nationalist in the way of his poetic peers in other languages, whether within and outside India.5 Perhaps most analogous to Tagore, in this regard, would be Iqbal, another complex thinker and visionary who died before any of his ideas came to be realized – or mutilated – in the concrete realm of politics.
It is Tagore’s contrary position on the nation and nationalism, combined with his inimitable ability to conjure up his land and its people, and to evoke in his readers an ineffable love for this land and people, that makes him unique among the great poets of the modern era, poets whose names are inextricably bound up with their nations. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s classic essay ‘Nation and Imagination’ in his Provincializing Europe (2000) is an excellent place to revisit this set of themes, as also the distinction between poetry and prose in the work of nation-making.6 Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee and Ranajit Guha, among others, have made it necessary to keep Tagore constantly at the centre of our consideration of nation, nationalism, history and poetry in India’s modernity.
As I write this piece, I am in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, where I have recently met several poets from Tibet who write poetry in either Tibetan or English. The number of such poets in exile is astonishing, as also the quality of their work. Each one of them writes about the distant, beloved country, Tibet. Some were born there, others born in India, but all of them live, in their minds, in the Tibet of memory or hope. If ever poetry and the nation articulate with one another, it is here, among the exiled Tibetans, whose country was occupied over 50 years ago, and whose struggle unfolds either under occupation in Chinese-controlled Tibet, or in exile in India.
Here for example is part of a poem by Bhuchung D. Sonam, dedicated to Woeser, a Tibetan writer and blogger who was thrown out of her editorial job at a newspaper in Lhasa and forced by the Chinese government to relocate to Beijing. The poem, which is situated entirely in the context of present-day repression, censorship and political conflict, evokes a Tibetan homeland of myth, epic, history and religion. It skilfully weaves together elements from a sacred geography and Buddhist narratives that tie the two exiled poets – Woeser banished in China, Sonam a refugee in India – into a single song:
From a distance I sing:
You and I are the fragments of an arrow
Shot forth from Gesar’s bow,
You and I are the ears of barley
Watered by the Yarlung River.
From a distance I sing:
You and I are the pieces of a broken pot
In which Milarepa boiled his nettles,
You and I are the fronds of a juniper tree
Fragrant in the hills of Amnye Machen.
From a distance I sing:
You and I are fragmented words in a poem
Gendun Coephel wrote in his cell.
You and I are chipped pieces
Of Yurupon’s sword that pierced the April night.
You and I will have
A bowl of thukpa
In that dingy Lhasa hotel.
You and I will be
Snow lions roaming
The mountains of Nyenchen Thangla.7
The brilliance of this poetry lies in its ability to make a seamless fabric out of discourses that have disparate ontologies – some historical, some imaginative; some traditional, some modern. Milarepa’s pot and the bowl in the dingy Lhasa hotel are both inalienable parts of a Tibetan selfhood that is under attack, and the poet must sing them equally to prevent their erasure from the consciousness of an exiled and beleaguered people. India today may well be the country where Tibet’s poets find their voice, but in a sense, India is incidental to the outpouring of this poetry. It is the terrible struggle between the Chinese and the Tibetans over the meaning of nationhood that gives to these poems their piercing quality. In Sonam’s words:
I have principle and no power
You have power and no principle
You being you
And I being I
Compromise is out of the question
So let the battle begin…
I have truth and no force
You have force and no truth
You being you
And I being I
Compromise is out of the question
So let the battle begin…
You may club my skull
I will fight
You may crush my bones
I will fight
You may bury me alive
I will fight
With truth running through me
I will fight
With every ounce of my strength
I will fight
With my last dying breath
I will fight…
I will fight till the
Castle that you built with your lies
Comes tumbling down
Till the devil you worshipped with your lies
Kneels down before my angel of truth.8
Upon reading such lines, one is forced to reconsider the work of poetry in relation to the work of the nation. Where historical circumstances are violent, the poetry is visceral. Rabindranath Tagore, whom Indians took to be their national poet at Independence in 1947, hardly a decade before Tibet was occupied by Communist China in 1959, seems a world away from such an embattled and painful sense of what it means for a people to have their aspirations for nationhood respected and realized.
Yet Tagore too lived through almost the entirety of the rule of the British crown over India, and wrote his poetry simultaneously with India’s national movement. How did he keep his sights on a point in the sky that hovered somewhere above the horizon of the nation? With this lofty gaze, how did he at the same time keep his ear so close to the ground, attuned to the rhythms of natural, rural and pastoral life, the busy everyday lives of the little people, far from the political destiny of the People? Rabindranath’s greatness lies precisely in his gift of singing to Indians even as he transcended India. It is for this reason that we celebrate him as our voice, our conscience, and our poet.
1. Tan Chung, Amiya Dev, Wang Bangwei and Wei Liming (eds.), Tagore and China, Sage India, 2011.
2. ‘Civilization and Progress’ by Rabindranath Tagore may be found most conveniently in Sisir Kumar Das (ed.), The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 2 – Plays, Stories, Essays, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1996, pp. 621-29.
3. ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’ by Isaiah Berlin in Henry Hardy (ed.), The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, Pimlico, London, 1996.
4. Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism (1917), with an Introduction by Ramachandra Guha, Penguin Classics, Delhi, 2009.
5. See the Penguin Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, edited and introduced by William Radice (multiple editions).
6. ‘Nation and Imagination’ by Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2010 (2000), pp. 149-79.
7. ‘A Song from a Distance: For Woeser’ by Bhuchung D. Sonam in his collection Songs from a Distance, Tibet Writes, Dharamshala, India, 2009, pp. 4-6. Woeser now works closely with the dissident Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong, whose famous debates on the occupation of Tibet with the Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya have been published in the New Left Review.
8. Bhuchung D. Sonam, ‘Duel’ in his Conflict of Duality: A Collection of Poems, Tibet Writes, Dharamshala, India, 2006, pp. 33-34.