Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rabindra Jayanti - Tagore's Birthday

Tagore holds a very special position for all Bengalis. The reverence, with which Tagore is associated with almost everything that’s ‘Bengali’, has reached such a state that it has become a matter of joke to the non-Bengalis. Bengalis are often made fun of their excessive obsession with Tagore. The general impression outside Bengal is that every Bengali knows to sing Rabindrasangeet and every girl has sometime or other taken part in some form of choreography with Rabindrasangeet. Well, that might not be too much of an exaggeration. I’ve found myself that Bengalis are in general more interested in any form of classical or semi classical song or dance or music than most other people in India. Hearing blaring sounds of evening or early morning ‘rewaz’ or practice by kids (and at times, much to everyone’s horror, grown ups also) is still now a very common thing in the traditional ‘paras’, or localities in Bengal. I myself was a part to this when I used to practice violin in my childhood days in the mornings. I’ve left Bengal quite some time back and come across people with diverse backgrounds and cultures in the past decade. I’ve now converted my hypothesis to a law now that Bengalis do take more interest in music or art. Nevertheless, I do accept that this extra bit of interest in music is not the center of all the jokes about obsession in Tagore. I do believe that Bengalis have overdone or rather overused Tagore, perhaps to create a superior identity in the post independence era when Bengal was losing its edge fast over other parts of India. For almost a century Calcutta has been the center of India’s political, financial and intellectual activities. With the shift of capital to Delhi, Calcutta started losing its importance and that continued more after independence. Hence the Bengalis might have resorted to retain the superiority in cultural and intellectual areas and hence overdid Tagore.

Nevertheless, I do feel that most people have overdone only a small aspect of Tagore. A vast part of Tagore has not been exposed or understood well. Apart from the writings, the personality of Tagore also surprises me a lot. His life was full of tensions, temptations, frustrations etc that we all have started feeling more and more in our lives. It’s worth understanding how he was able to tackle all those and still had so much time to write enormous volumes of stories, novels, poems, songs and what not. The pragmatism that he’d showed throughout his life is really a benchmark. I’m fascinated by all those things more than anything.

Tagore’s family had huge properties and he had to spend quite some time in maintaining or managing his own part. He started the Vishwa Bharati University in early 1900’s. He had to raise funds and ensure a smooth running of the facilities. The entire curriculum and vision of the University, which was quite unique and truly indigenous compared to the British mode of education, was his brain child. He was closely associated with most of the political leaders of his time and had to spend quite some time in attending political meetings and discussions. He never shied away from his responsibilities as an enlightened citizen of India. He had a huge family with many children. After his wife had a premature death he had to take care of his children too. And on top of all these he had to also take out time to write and it’s only these writings for which he has been mostly remembered now. Very strikingly his poems, which became very popular in the earlier decades of 20th century among the English litterateurs, had so much spirituality in them that he was misconceived as a surreal and mystic person. Even W B Yeats, his greatest advocate in earlier days, started criticizing his later works because they lacked the deep spirituality of Gitanjali. Amartya Sen has also acknowledged in his “Argumentative Indian” that most Western thinkers mistook Tagore. He was for sure not a typical Indian mystic ‘Sadhu’ or saint which the West has, in multiple times, associated with ethnic. For various reasons people in the West might have sough to get some sort of mystic healing from Tagore, which Gitanjali might have provided for a time being, but when they started reading more of more of Tagore they discovered very easily that Tagore was not what they had hoped to be.

To me Tagore is an almost ideal combination of spirituality and practicality. He was one of the strongest advocates of nonviolence and supported of Gandhi. Even the name ‘Mahatma’ was also coined by Tagore, whom Gandhi used to address as Gurudev. But still Tagore didn’t approve of Gandhi calling a draught ‘God’s Rage’ against untouchability. He was a staunch patriot. He is the only Indian who renounced his Knighthood protesting against the massacre in Jalianwallabag in 1919. He was one of the foremost thinkers who stressed on mass education as the only way to lead to true freedom. On top of all these is also the only person I can get back to when I’m desolate, depressed and need someone to give me strength. He is the only person to oar by boat in a turbulent sea. He is the only person to make me happy, make me cry, make me smile with the least of efforts – with his songs. I feel his songs are the strongest ammunition that he might have given to his people and as a Bengali I feel honored that only we can understand the strength of his songs, which are much more than just “Ekla Chalo”, and “Jana Gana Mana”. He himself has classified his songs based on the theme. The devotional songs are classified under “Puja” or worship, love songs under “Prem”, nature-related songs under “Prakriti”, patriotic songs under “Swadesh”, and then there are many other ballads and other smaller sub categories. Most of the poems in Gitanjali are in the “Puja” section. Very interestingly most of Tagore’s devotional songs can be treated as intense love songs and vice versa. After all it’s always ‘LOVE’, be it for God or human. The simplicity of the words and the perfect music he has composed for the songs amaze me like nothing. It’s the perfect synchronization between the music and each word that makes them unique. Over the years I’ve generated this habit of reading the lyrics of his songs at leisure. The simple lyrics offer the magnificence and vastness that I seldom get from anything else. Even the music, without the words, can bring out the meaning of the song. Tagore might have been the first person to start a tradition of composing songs with a plethora of elements like folk, traditional, classical ranging from the puritan ‘dhrupad’ to lighter styles, western music etc. The modern day Indian movie songs also follow the same pattern and tradition. I don’t think anyone else in India has experimented with so many styles of music. His songs provide a synopsis of almost all popular forms of Indian music. I do accept that there have been many other music composers in India who have might have composed better music than Tagore. But I don’t think anyone else offered this much diversity. The over obsession of the Bengalis with Tagore might be due to the fact they never got anything more diverse.

I’d like to end with a reference to our national anthem. Do you think there can be any better poem that covers the diversity of India?

Jana Gana Mana Adhinaayaka Jaya He
Bhaarat Bhaagya Vidhaataa
Punjab Sindh Gujaraat Marathaa
Dravida Utkala Banga
Vindhya Himachal Yamunaa Gangaa
Ucchala Jaladhi Taranga
Tava Shubha Naame Jage
Tava Shubha Aashisha Maage
Gaahe Tava Jaya Gaathaa
Jan Gan Mangaldayak Jay He
Bharat Bhaagya Vidhaataa                                                          
Jaye He ! Jaye He ! Jaye He !Jaye,Jaye,Jaye,Jaye He

A good site for the works and life of Tagore is:

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