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Book Review

More and More on the Myriad-Minded Man

Fakhrul Alam

Tagore, the myriad-minded man. Photo: Courtesy

Perhaps the epithet that best describes Rabindranath is the one Krishna Dutt and Andrew Robinson use as the title of their biography: The Myriad-Minded Man. Surely, it can be said of this colossus of literature that he contained multitudes! At times it would appear that the best way to describe him is through a line of one of his songs: “Infinite amidst the finite—you go on playing your own tune”. But as he puts it in another song: “there is no end to knowing oneself”! For the/admirer /aficionado/student of the man, there is simply no end to discovering more and more facets of his creation and personality.

It is for this reason that The Poet and His World: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore, the sesquicentennary tribute competently edited by Mohammad A Quayum and published by Orient Blackswan, is so welcome. This collection not only adds to our fund of knowledge about the work of the universal genius but also furnishes us with many new insights into his creativity, personality, achievement and reception. The thirteen essays Quayum has assembled here illuminate our understanding of the poet's life, throw light on his standing amongst his people and the world outside Bengal, highlight his philosophy of education, his politics, his theatre and fiction, and elucidate the commitment as well as idealism that drove him till the very end of his life to represent the world that he lived in as well as endeavour to change it for the betterment of his people in particular and humanity in general.

The two opening essays of The Poet and His World provide a nice contrast thematically: the German scholar Martin Kampchen starts of the volume with an account of Rabindranath's relationship with the German aristocrat-philosopher Hermann Keyserling while the Bengali scholar Sukanta Chaudhuri discusses Rabindranath's current status in his homeland. The subtitle of Kampchen's essay, “A Difficult Friendship”, aptly sums up its argument: Rabindranath and the German philosopher met thrice because they had things in common but they were so dissimilar in their views that differences between them were bound to surface. To his credit Keyserling could perceive that Rabindranath was outstanding even when he was surrounded by the other talented members of the Tagore family in their first meeting in Jorasanko in 1912; the two talked intimately about music in London a year later; and in Germany Keyserling took it on himself to guide the Indian poet through his war-devastated country in 1922. Both men believed that it was part of their mission in life to bring east and west closer and felt that non-formal schooling was a key to changing the mindset of their peoples. However, Rabindranath found the German overbearing at times and Keyserling was clearly more interested in the Indian sage than his works. For his part, Rabindranath seemed to have appreciated Keyserling's interest in him to an extent but did not show any real respect for the German's philosophy. In focusing on this “difficult” friendship, Kampuchen enables us to see how and why quite a few intellectuals of the west took to Rabindranath but also indicates how the Indian retained a sense of himself as quite other than what westerners imaged him to be.

Perhaps the best essay Quayum has collected in The Poet and His World is Sukanta Chaudhuri's reflection on Rabindranath's reception among Bengalis. As Chaudhuri puts it so pithily at its outset, his “aim is investigation, not iconoclasm”; what he finds on scrutiny is that Rabindranath's absorption in the Bengali consciousness was “a complex process”. Chaudhuri notes, for instance, how despite their sophistication Rabindranath's songs have consistently commanded “the biggest and steadiest sales in the [west] Bengali music market. Although Bengali bhadroloks claim him as their own, he has clearly left his mark on the Marxists of the region. The zealots of Visva-Bharati would have liked to control the “reception and circulation” of his works in the interest of” purity” but the lapse of copyright in 2002 has proved not only that they had nothing to fear but also that they were only holding him back from the masses by restricting circulation of his works. This takes Chaudhuri to the source of the abiding popularity of his creations: though Rabindranath belonged to Bengali elite society he owed a great deal to “long-standing popular piety and mysticism”/.As a result, Rabindranath's oeuvre “reorders the expected lines of class encounter and cultural geography”. Chaudhuri's probing account demolishes the myth of the mystic poet who is “temperamentally aloof from mundane matters”. He shows how without abandoning his class position Rabindranath succeeded in embracing all classes, drawing on the life of his people as well as the world of the spirit in an endless quest for “absorption in the social and the universal”.

The Poet and His World: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore
Ed. Mohammad A. Quayum
Hyderabad, India: Orient BlackSwan, 2011

No less than three essays of The Poet and His World focus on Rabindranath as an educator and discuss his experiments in education. The first of these is by William Radice and has the catchy title “Never Not an Educator: Rabindranath Tagore as a Poet-Teacher”. Radice's thesis in the essay, however, is an unexceptionable one: “in everything Rabindranath did and wrote he was always, in one way or another, a teacher”. Ranging deftly over his verse, fiction and drama as well as his experiments in education, the English admirer of the Bengali writer convinces us that everything that Rabindranath wrote or did is instructive. Nevertheless, he concludes on a sober note wondering out aloud about the future prospects of Rabindranath's most sustained educational project—Shantiniketan. In the essay that follows Radice's, Kathleen M O'Connell makes us aware of the creativity that Rabindranath wanted to foster through his ideas about education and suggests that these ideas are in line with the thinking of many leading contemporary experts on education. She also points out that Rabindranath's educational ideas were even aimed at encouraging eco-consciousness and are thus of great relevance in our time. The last of the essays on Rabindranath and education Quayum has collected in the volume, Uma Das Gupta's “Rabindranath Tagore's Visva-Bharati University and Its Ideal of International Cooperation: A Case Study of China and India,1921”, is important because it shows us clearly that the writer's energy was focused as much on east-east exchanges as well as east-west ones for this idealist-internationalist wanted his university to be the site of the study of “the whole range of Eastern cultures—the Aryan, Semitic, Mongolian and others” in addition to European ones. It must be said though that Das Gupta's point could have been made more succinctly; this reader, certainly, was left wondering why she had to reproduce the six page text of Rabindranath's address on the occasion of the inaugural of Cheena Bhabhan in Shantiniketan.

At least two essays of The Poet and His World centre on Rabindranath's thoughts about politics and nationalism. In “Empire and Nation: Political Ideas in Rabindranath Tagore's Travel Writings” Quayum emphasises that this indefatigable traveller was always for “inclusivism and synergic interaction between cultures” and consistently against any kind of hegemonism in global affairs. He singles out an instance when Rabindranath commented on the “reckless bombing of Iraqis by the occupying British soldiers” in a manner that strikes one now as nothing less than uncanny. Quayum, however, drifts somewhat in this essay from the subject announced in his title: there is far more general discussion of Rabindranath's critique of empire and nation than an attempt to connect this critique to his travel writings systematically. Nevertheless, his essay adds to our awareness of the passion with which Rabindranath raged against the arrogance of imperialists and nationalists and is much more illuminating than Narasingha P Sil's pretentious excursion into part of the same territory, “Rabindranath Tagore's Nationalist Thought”. To find a sentence such as the following is certainly enough to make one feel that Sil is more intent on verbal excess and showing off than on sober assessment or analysis of his stated subject: “Tagore's emphasis on a primordialist self-regulated, self-sufficient and egalitarian community and culture make him a votary of the Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) on the one hand, and the Anarchist Peter Koroporkin (1842-1921) on the other”. Really?

Two essays of Quayum's collection deal with Rabindranath's plays. In “The Author as Actor: Rabindranath Tagore as a Theatre Practitioner”, Abhijit Sen reminds us of Rabindranath's intense involvement with the theatre throughout his life. Perceptively, Sen comments: “While 'imagining” a new nation, he was also perhaps 'imagining” a new kind of theatre, which would be significantly different from the colonial mimicry then practiced on the [Calcutta] public stage” As author, actor and producer Rabindranath continued to experiment so that he could evolve distinctive plays, musicals and dance dramas but perhaps because he was in many ways ahead of his time for his work in these forms was never accepted by “mainstream theatre” in Bengal. Anand Lal's brief but spirited piece, “A Blueprint for Reinventing Tagorean Performance”, however, comments on the paradox that this great experimental writer's creations in these (and other) genres have “sadly” been so elevated by some devotees and the Bard of Bengal himself so idolised as a “cultural icon” that there is great danger of reification as far as his reputation is concerned. When Lal concludes by exhorting “artists in West Bengal, Bangladesh, India and across the world to experiment with Tagore's creations” to rearrange Rabindrasangeet, to deconstruct Rabindrik dance, and to reconstruct his drama” one can only exclaim: “Hear! Hear!”

Three pieces of The Poet and the World analyse individual works of the great Bengali writer. Lalita Pandit Hogan's “At the Margins of Family Life: Abjection and Purification in Rabindranath Tagore's Binodini,' is a sophisticated exegesis of the figure of the widow of Chokher Bali “who destroys social forms so that their fragility and bad faith can be exposed” (108). Quayum follows Hogan's perceptive analysis of Rabindranath's fictional examination of Hindu marriage and the prejudices against widows in his time with a careful consideration of what is arguably his best known novel. In “Tagore's Political Imagination in The Home and the World: A Textual and Contextual Reading”. Quayum shows convincingly how Rabindranath constructed the novel out of his experience of the “pitfalls of nationalism” and his embrace after his brief swadeshi period “of a larger ideology of love, creation and global human fellowship”. Bharati Ray's “ 'New Woman' in Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories: An Interrogation of 'The Laboratory'” pays attention to a late story intending to reveal the writer's increasing fascination with the role of the “'new woman' in the new age” that he envisioned. Ray's point in the essay is well-taken and it is good to have this relatively obscure story highlighted; however, she tends towards summary and generalisations and scants analysis in her paper.

One other essay of The Poet and the World deserves to be considered separately for its relevance to present-day Bangladesh. In Quayum's “A Herald of Religious Unity: Rabindranath Tagore's Literary Representation of Muslims”, Bangladeshis can read about the way this advocate of toleration between people of all religion, races and classes is being misrepresented not merely in print but also in cyberspace by some people who have willfully distorted his work to make him appear an apostle of “Hindu chauvinism”. The truth of course is that these critics would rather breed hate than serve truth through “deliberate disfiguration and mutilation” of Rabindranath's works. Quayum stresses that Rabindranath was not loyal to “any organised religion or religious institution”, preferring instead to serve humanity by “promoting the principle of dialogue and human consonance” in his works. In considerable detail and through patient exposition, Quayum exposes the chicanery of these proto-fascists and cyber-critics and underscores “the vision of unity and universalism” that “was central to Tagore's imagination”.

Quayum is to be thanked, then, for such writing as well as his valuable compilation. His ‘The Poet and the World’ is a welcome addition to our stock of knowledge about the foremost exemplar of the Bengal Renaissance. As time goes by, we will continue to learn more and more about Rabindranath's life and works but this sesquicentennary tribute will no doubt be of enduring value to anyone interested in the many facets of his personality and creations. There is truly no end to knowing him and one is thus thankful for works like Quayum's that enable us to view many distinctive aspects of this continuously fascinating maker of the modern Bengali consciousness and Bengal's unique culture, language and literature.

Dr Fakhrul Alam is an academic, writer and critic. He is Professor of English at Dhaka University.

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