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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

Chronicles of a Gamechanger

Monday 22 April 2013, by Uttam Sen


Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; Penguin Viking, India; 2011; Rs 499.

A realistically insightful volume sheds light on the process by which ideas percolate a culture and arguably create their own fusion. The scholarly antecedents of the author, with a professional eye on documentation, are bonuses. The historian’s facility reaches out to connect fragments of events and the human condition across the country and the world in Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation. It also demolishes a piece or two of sometimes salacious hearsay. The awesome corpus of Tagore’s published work, personal records, correspondence etc. over a period of sixty years covering a seminal, formative period of India’s relations with the West sustain an endeavour meant to catalyse debate rather than clinch the last word.1 The author risks the pronouncement that Tagore’s creative writing brought about a change that reshaped the aesthetic sensibilities of an entire people. But the assertion is consequently vindicated.

If we look at the 19th century’s impact on society and commerce, and more provocatively, the idea of a spontaneous unbroken thread of discourse running through time, the strength and resilience of a unique Indian culture emerges more forcefully than in the seemingly expedient claims heard in public rhetoric. This is facilitated by the catholicity of seeing the “other” even from within a beleaguered milieu, for which flair both the Mughal, Dara Shikoh, and Indian reformer, Raja Rammohan Roy, were the poet and thinker’s talismans. As a reformer Tagore pioneered regeneration within the Adi Brahmo Samaj, and took up the nationalist cudgels in the anti-(Bengal) partition movement in 1905 and the Swadeshi andolon, when the re-drawing of Europe’s map with its deliverance to suppressed peoples, notably the Slav peasantry, was surely coming home. Yet, seldom a believer in the deceptive integrity of the straight and narrow, he reconsidered the option of runaway mass fervour that did not noticeably ameliorate the condition of the common man.

Europe witnessed a return to political conser-vatism and avowed stability after the scientific breakthroughs with their attendant rationalism had culminated in the proverbial showdown at the barricades with the established order. The hinterland was forgotten as people scoured the cities for jobs and a better quality of life. Latter-day European historians were to dub the militant working classes as cannon fodder for the goals of an emergent bourgeoisie, but the predicament of the indisputably oppressed was mitigated.

In India the travails of the poor belonging to a particular community led to Tagore’s revision of patriotism based on any kind of exclusive creed in Gora, hailed as the foundational Indian novel by the distinguished Kannada littérateur, U.R. Ananthamurthy. Tagore also incurred considerable radical wrath for his portrayal of the revolutionary in Ghare Baire (The Home and the Road). Tagore impressed a spiritually-starved West which arguably misconstrued his holism, namely, that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection and that they could not be understood independent of the whole, as mysticism. W.B. Yeats’ initial enthusiasm translated into the rendering of Gitanjali into English and the poet’s celebrated receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Bhattacharya offers a more nuanced approach both on certain philosophical postulates Tagore put forward to Physicists, including Albert Einstein, and his own world-view.

Rigorously home-schooled in science, mathe-matics, philosophy, literature and the classics, Tagore questioned an arrangement underpinned by nationalism that led to war over spoils as the earlier idealism began to dissipate. He visited China, Japan, the Soviet Union, the West and Latin America to reiterate a humanistic tolerance he considered intrinsic to mankind. In this project he was later to be joined by Gandhi, despite differences. A stark materialism was distressing ordinary people denied the intellec-tual gear of the crème de la crème in most of Europe, though France had begun to universalise education by 1870. Sociological factors such as rural-urban migration, technological adjustment, the dramatic break-up of the traditional family et. al constituted the definitive first causes of their anguish, despite overall material progress. Faith became an alibi for security. Some turned to India for non-materialistic succour. An informed—albeit elite— club, Indians like Tagore presumably responded with this perspective in mind.

Tagore, along with several others, furnished the templates for the middle-professional classes which sprang up across India later.2 Ideological benchmarks of the churning had created the space beyond the select universes of the ancien regimes. People from the workaday world of the present day could well be intuitive carters of knowledge and experience and have something to offer in global crises that Gandhi and Tagore patently anticipated.

Among several high-points is the author’s comment on the creativity suffusing a chequered career. Though a product of the city, it was Tagore’s experiences in the countryside (that too as a landlord maintaining the family ledger) that stirred him into a variety of literary activism. But the author ignores the class benchmark:

“...a mechanical interpretation of an intellec-tual’s class position leaves out the possibilities of an imaginative mind’s ability to build bridgeheads of sympathetic understanding into social terms which are far from one’s class position, inherited or earned. This might have been Tagore’s chief achievement in his attempts to understand the social and cultural milieu in Bengal in his times.”3

Thus the landlord’s quest of rural reconstruc-tion for self-development was not a contra-diction. It is also significant that today’s acclaimed human development agenda was finding expression as the welfare apotheosis in political philosophy by the 1920s. The colonial government is believed to have toyed with the idea before abandoning it for the War effort. Tagore’s investment into rural development and education (the founding of the Vishwa-Bharati) gave expression to aspects of his mind and character that differed from the prevailing attitude. Self-development and the critical faculty were more important to him than the political dimension consuming the public sphere, an area he found to be in its infancy. The particularism of his times thwarted people’s meaningful partici-pation in any activity beyond family, sect or group.

His own redemption from the hard times of a family caught in the whirlpool of social ostracism in the Muslim period (when an ancestor was tricked into the ruler’s court) to the colonial presence (which it admittedly overcame with financial success) had many facets. Lonely and motherless from early childhood, and witness to the suicide of a trusted friend and sister-in-law to whom he had read out his first composition, his memory is still haunted by speculation that the death was caused by her sense of desertion on his marriage. Bhattacharya finds no evidence to support what must pass as gossip. A widower again early in his life, there is not much room for outrage over a platonic involvement with Victoria Ocampo in Argentina either, though the fact of the lady being a source of literary inspiration is generally not in doubt. More remarkably, Tagore is a subject of study in many Latin American universities today, often as a non-European model for Latin Americans emerging from the European cultural grip.

The loneliness of later years was broken by friendships, among iconic figures those with C.F. Andrews and Mahatma Gandhi. The author delivers important material by way of comment and correspondence. The compact volume can be welcomed at several levels, not the least an Indian cerebral and aesthetic response to a game-changing 19th century Europe. 

References and Endnotes 

1. Tagore, 1861-1941, began writing short stories and drama by 1877.

2. The author mentions an impressive list of such contemporaries, for example, Munshi Premchand, Purushottam Das Tandon, B.M. Sreekantiah, T.P. Kailasam, D.V. Gundappa, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Subramania Bharati, Mohammad Iqbal, Gopabandhu Das, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Chandu Menon, and Ulloor Parameswara Iyer, among others, op. cit., Tagore, pp. 234-35.

3. Ibid., p. 10.

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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