True confession: As a Bong born and raised in Kolkata, I never ever visited Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home until last month. And that was only because a friend from Paris was visiting and I needed to show him something. Agra has the Taj Mahal, Delhi has the Red Fort and we have, well, Tagore.
Tagore probably qualifies as an industry in West Bengal especially since most other industries have fled the state. He is certainly embedded in our cultural DNA. I actually love Rabindrasangeet but I just cannot get terribly excited about his 150th birth anniversary. Here are five reasons why:
• It’s as ridiculous as celebrating Mother’s Day in Bengal. If you look at the average Bengali son, you’ll know that everyday is really mother’s day here anyway. Every week is Tagore week here. There’s always someone on television mournfully singing one of his songs. The biggest Bengali middle-class hit serial of the year, Gaaner Oparey, was all about a fight over who “owns” Rabindrasangeet. As our economy tanks, we sing louder, punching on that harmonium with greater vehemence.
• The first Bengali poem I ever learned was of course, by him. It was about a date palm tree standing on one leg, its head above every other tree around him. Tagore, sadly, is our date palm tree, head and shoulders above everyone else. And every time we make a new fuss about him it just draws more attention to the fact that every thing since then feels like a copy of Tagore or a reaction to Tagore. It’s as if we have been on a cultural downslide since he died in 1941 with just the Satyajit Ray blip in the middle.
• We make a fuss about Tagore but we don’t actually read him. Just like Bill Clinton and marijuana, we smoke him but we don’t inhale. The old man had many interesting things to say, for example in his arguments with Gandhi, about civil society vs political freedom that are really relevant right now as West Bengal is on the cusp of historic political change. But all of that has been overwhelmed by Rabindrasangeet. And unlike his poems and songs, his other writings, his essays actually translate well.
• The Bengali diaspora has ruined Tagore. I think there should be a moratorium on Rabindrasangeet sessions at Banga Sammelans in San Jose and Atlantic City. It’s Bengali culture by intravenous drip for the second generation. It traps Tagore in the sickly sweet amber of endless Rabindrasangeet sessions inside conference center auditoriums but rarely have programs to talk about what he means, what he said, how he is relevant today. Someone please rescue Tagore from the overseas Bengali associations.
• We have been entirely unimaginative about how we have preserved his legacy. And this was a Renaissance man, who was truly imaginative. Tagore’s ancestral home is respectfully preserved but utterly dull. Rows of black and white photographs line the wall not inviting anyone but the most die-hard Tagore lover to peruse them. If you do, you’ll find delightful things, a little postcard to his wife from Paris at the turn of the century, portraits with a who’s who of the early 20th century. This was a remarkable life, a restless mind that has now become a bureaucrat’s preserve – safe, solid, boring, steering clear of any controversy.
But there is another Tagore out there. In a column in the Hindustan Times Indrajit Hazra includes some of his most surreal writing which I never knew about.
“The Octherloney monument was near at hand; our goalkeeper started to lick it from the bottom up, all the way to the top. Badaruddin Mian, who was mending shoes in the Senate Hall, rushed up at full speed and cried, “You’re a learned man, so well-versed in scriptures! How could you defile this huge things with your licks?”
Really? That’s the same Rabindranath Tagore we read in school?
On his 150th birth anniversary it would be a good idea to find that Tagore – the playful one, the irreverent one, the one who talked through a spirit medium with his dead sister-in-law, not just the one who gave us “where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high.”
Otherwise we might as well give up. As we were putting on our shoes after our hushed tour of Tagore’s house, a Bengali tourist came up to my French friend. “Did you enjoy it?” he asked him anxiously. “Interesting,” my friend replied politely. Then he turned around and told me sotto voce “It would actually make a wonderful heritage hotel.”