Two-thirds of the way through Kolaveri Di, Dhanush sings a few words which you notice if you are the kind who listens to the lyrics of song very carefully. He sings “cow-cow holy cow, I want to hear now”.
These few words can be used to best describe the situation which prevails after Girish Karnad said “Tagore was a great poet but a mediocre and second-rate playwright.”
Not surprisingly the Bengali bhadralok are up in arms. There are five holy cows that the bhadralok have and it’s best that people stay away from criticising or critiquing them. Here is the list.
Mohun Bagan is the best football club: This is not much of a holy cow now but in the eighties and till the mid nineties any criticism of this football club could have got you lynched. Then came ESPN-Star Sports and Bengal realised that their football is a slow motion version of the real football played in Europe.
Rossogulla/Sondesh is the best sweet: This can lead to minor battles especially if you have a bong girlfriend who loves her food. She will never come around to appreciating the pleasures of eating Mysore Pak. Another version of this debate is whether the Hilsa is the best mach i.e. fish in the world?
Sourav Ganguly is the best cricketer: I realised how strong this holy cow was when in the late nineties India was struggling to find a good wicket keeper and a Bengali colleague of my father suggested that “Sourav se wicket keeping kyon nahi karata hai?(why don’t we get Sourav to keep wickets?” In a land of few heroes Sourav could do no wrong.
Manika Da is the best director: Manik Da was the daak naam or nickname of the great Satyajit Ray. I have watched almost all of what Ray directed and watching his movies has been a brilliant experience. But Pather Panchali isn’t my favourite Ray movie (Now did I do a Karnad here?).
In fact I loved the sequels Aparjito and Apur Sansar much more. My favourite Ray movies are the ones he made in the seventies. The Calcutta trilogy of Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) remain perennial favourites. And I can watch Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) over and over again.
Ray was a rare director whose movies were much better than the books and stories he based them on. Anyone who has read Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Pratidwandi and Aranyer Din Ratri and watched Ray’s movies based on the books would realise that. The same is true for Sankar’s Seemabadha and Jana Aranya, and Prem Chand’s short story Shatranj ke Khiladi. Also I am not getting into the debate of whether Ray’s Charulata was better than the original novel written by Rabindranath Tagore.
Nevertheless, a lot of what Ray directed after Hirok Rajar Deshe in 1980 was very mediocre and nowhere near his best. But I wouldn’t recommend you say anything like that in and around Kolkata.
Rabindranath Tagore is the foremost intellectual: This is the holiest of holy cows for the Bengali bhadralok. Tagore cannot be criticised. Any criticism of Tagore, reasonable and unreasonable, is totally unwelcome. Girish Karnad is finding that out now. A stream of Bengali intellectuals and politicians have queued up to criticise Karnad. The basic argument is that what does Karnad know of Bengal? Even the criticism on Twitter and Facebook has been scathing.
A struggling actor who happens to be a Bengali had this to say on his Facebook page “Karnad calls The tagore a second rate playwright!!coming from a mediocre actor and a boring playwright..I have said it..!moving on..”
Another interesting comment that I came across on my Facebook page was “Even Poonam Pandey and Sherlyn Chopra know how to seek attention. Girish Karnad would do better in taking a lesson from them.”
The backlash on Karnad’s comments raises several questions. Is any creative person above criticism? Even Tagore. Also Tagore was not a one dimensional intellectual. He was a poet. A novelist. A playwright. A musician and even a painter. His interests were not limited to one particular domain. But that does not mean he was the best at all the things he did. And that’s precisely the point that Karnad was trying to make.
As he said, “He was a great poet certainly, one of our greatest. And he got the Nobel Prize in 1913 when most of our modern literature was still in the state of formation. His greatness as a poet is there, his greatness as a thinker is there... he wrote plays, he certainly was a pioneer in breaking away from the unexciting commercial plays...he didn't direct great plays. The point is he was a mediocre playwright.”
And Karnad does know a thing or two about writing plays, having written several plays himself. He also won the Jnanpith award in 1998, which is the highest literary award conferred in India.
Tagore was a great poet. But whether he was a great musician, painter or playwright remains debatable. And this debate or discussion one cannot have with the Bengali bhadralok. As George Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity states “People’s understanding is inherently imperfect because they are a part of reality and a part cannot fully comprehend the whole.”
Given this it is highly unlikely that the Bengali bhadralok will ever be able to look at Tagore objectively enough. But why blame only the Bengalis. India as a nation is full of holy cows who cannot be critiqued. And here are some of the bigger holy cows whose criticism can get you into trouble.