March 08, 2021
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The Sport Of Berating Tagore

Yes, Girish Karnad is certainly entitled to his views about Rabindranath Tagore being a second-rate playwright. He is certainly not alone, nor this the first time he has said something like this...

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The Sport Of Berating Tagore


So, one Mr Girish Karnad, an eminent playwright by some counts, thinks Rabindranath Tagore is a second-rate playwright? Mr Karnad is indeed entitled to such an opinion. But I cannot quite fathom why this makes evening news. I am sure there are many who think Mr Karnad is not a great playwright either. If they are not on your TV screen to voice their two cents, I am not sure why he should be. Ironically (for Mr Karnad) it is evening news because the target is Tagore….

Be that as it may, I want to use this occasion to talk about a sport I have been watching intently of late: the sport of berating Tagore. Mr Karnad is a somewhat atypical player of this sport, in that he is unabashedly flippant. Most are somewhat more nuanced, but not necessarily any more informed or substantive in their reflections.

Let me begin with a question to Mr Karnad. How many of Tagore’s plays has he read, and how many in the original language, Bengali? I think Mr Karnad, more than many others, owes us an answer to this one. To many of us, he has shown the importance of local language for the art of playwriting, especially in a country like India. I am sure Karnad will agree that language is not simply a medium in this context, but a system of meaning where real, lived human experiences and social relations unfold. Surely, he cannot assess Tagore, or any playwright, in a manner that is worthy of our consideration, without a proper reading of Tagore’s texts, which must involve some familiarity with the original prose or a serious engagement with the best of available translations.

Anyone with a preliminary knowledge of Tagore would know that there are huge deficiencies in the translation of Tagore’s work. There are, however, some stellar translations of his work, and there has long existed a serious body of Tagore scholarship in English. I would love to know the extent of Mr Karnad’s engagement with these bodies of work.

Much before the recent storm in a tea-cup, in Toronto, I had the pleasure of hearing Mr Karnad voice this very opinion in person, along with another characteristically-augustly-delivered comment that Tagore’s birthday celebrations were a waste of money. I had asked him, too politely in hindsight, which of Tagore’s plays he had in mind when he assessed Tagore. I do not recall getting a clear answer. Referring to Shombhu Mitra’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders), Mr Karnad said it was great theatre but it took someone like Mitra to have rendered it so (the point I presume: it was Shombhu Mitra who made Raktakarabi what it had become on stage, not Tagore). It still wasn’t clear to me how Karnad would know. But I let go. After all, it was his opinion and nothing more.

Mr Karnad is only one member of a club of intellectuals for whom berating Tagore is a favourite sport. It is ill-informed and mindless— just as mindless as some of the adulation of us Bengalis. What is most unfortunate, for a thinker as vast and complex as Tagore, is that he is caught in this binary between adulation and dismissal— and deprived— throughout the length of an entire century— the respect of critical engagement.

Again, I do not speak here of the excellent tradition of Tagore scholarship which I hold in utmost respect and on which I depend. But somewhere we have failed— are failing— to bring this scholarship to permeate and inform understandings of Tagore.

The issue is not only of language or translations. Tagore continues to overcome both these barriers. Post Office, for instance was broadcast on Radio France in the June of 1940— on the night before the fall of Paris; as well, it was performed in the Warsaw Ghetto, in an orphanage headed by writer Janusz Korczak (Korczak, along with the children of the orphanage, was taken to Treblinka in 1942 and gassed shortly after). More recently, Post Office was performed in the Philippines, in Thailand, in Toronto and elsewhere. Ishwar Mooljee, a Toronto-based actor, narrated to me the story of performing Red Oleanders in South Africa in 1961. In those days of apartheid, multi-racial audiences were not allowed in most theatres except one, the university theatre. Mooljee and his colleagues performed there in front of a multi-racial audience of 3000, with a multi-racial caste and a white director who was part of the anti-apartheid movement. The play, both in its content and rendition, thus blended seamlessly into the ethos of the movement.

But in India, there is a growing fashion of berating Tagore, particularly amongst intellectuals. For non-Bengalis he is an over-rated ‘sacred cow’ whose songs only Bengalis can tolerate. As well, for Bengalis of a certain generation and inclination, it has become more important to dismiss Tagore than to engage with him. The strongest allegation seems to be that his work has no contemporary relevance or significance that deserves our attention. It is to this theme of relevance and context that I want to speak.

Relevance to what? And for whom?

During the last three years I had the opportunity to travel in Kerala. I was studying a farming experiment led by women below the poverty line. And through my conversations with them, it was as if I discovered Tagore anew. The women I met were most often housewives, farmers or agricultural labourers (and yet, because this is Kerala everyone has had some years of formal schooling). Often she travelled a long distance to meet with me, sometimes with a small child in her arms. 

‘You are from Bengal— from the land of Tagore!’, was often the first greeting I received.

‘Yes, I am indeed from the land of Tagore’, I tell her.

‘I read Tagore in school’, she says. ‘Not a lot, but I loved it’.

By that time, several others would join in— to recollect the various occasions on which they might have read him. Someone would invariably remember a few lines and recite it for me— albeit in Malayalam. The exact words would escape me, but the emotions made their way somehow.

Alas, I did not have the time to dwell on Tagore. We had to move on to other things: How has the yield been? Did it rain enough? Did the sudden cyclone hurt her corps? Did the bank finally give her the loan? 

In a couple of hours, I learnt about their life, their aspirations, their incredible victories in struggles I can hardly imagine, their crystal-clear understanding of the structures that oppress them, and above all their indomitable human spirit and dignity which the million struggles failed to diminish.

Every time I packed my bags and took their leave, my mind struggled between their reality and the realities in my much-loved volumes of Tagore. He seemed almost eerily relevant, 150 years later, in such a different time and place. Perhaps all great writers are. But surely, this eerie relevance is not something we can attribute solely to Tagore’s ‘timelessness’ or universality. Surely, it tells us something about the horrible continuities in the lives of ordinary people, then and now.

I narrate this story at some length to make a simple point: creative work should never be separated from the social, human and political context in which it is created. Neither should it be assessed without reference to that context. I would be very surprised if Mr Karnad and his fellow members of the berate-Tagore club disagree with me on this. And this is where— those of us who love Tagore and have the privilege of reading Tagore in text and context— are failing. It is not that the analyses do not exist, but they need to be brought into much greater interaction with the popular understandings of Tagore. In those perceptions, he remains a soppy romantic songwriter, perhaps an acceptable poet, a confused nationalist and landlord, and so on.

Not everyone can be charmed by Tagore's work. That is perfectly acceptable. So is criticism. What is not acceptable, are assessments that show little knowledge or understanding of the social context and compulsions which shaped his work. It is not by accident that Tagore chose the themes of his plays and dance-dramas: the inevitability of death at the time of the war (Post Office); the instrumentalisation of education (Land of Cards); the hope in Buddhism for those tyrannised by untouchability (Chandalika); the objectification of women (Chitra); the oppression of ritualistic Bramhinical Hinduism (Bisarjan); the oppression of workers and the promise of popular revolt, led by a woman (Red Oleanders) to name just a few. It would seem silly, to say the least, to think he would write plays on these themes just ‘for his family’, as Mr Karnad alleges.

Yes, Tagore had many of these performed by members of his family. Why? In having his family, in particular the women of his family perform in public, Tagore’s intent was to bring middle class women into the public realm— to experience the joy of creative self-expression that was denied to them— and even more— to confront the social stigma that was associated with women performing in public. How do we know this? From the various diaries and letters and testimonials of women who actually experienced this. This was no mean endeavour in and of itself, given how commercial theatre at that time in Bengal had become so strongly associated with decadent, patriarchal cultural norms.

Before I conclude, I must mention just one more popular line of assault on Tagore. Many see him as a landlord who tried naively to overcome his social location by ‘romanticising’ the ‘poor and the underprivileged’. The one single example that is cited over and over again as the evidence for this charge is the character of Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire (Home and the World). This comes most often from post-colonial critics obsessed with deconstructing the category of ‘bhadralok’. I have never for once heard a serious (or any) discussion of the thousands of essays and letters in which Tagore articulates his trenchant critiques of the ‘bhadralok’ and their attitude towards the poor. Tagore has an almost obsessive concern about the unbridgeable divide between India’s bhadralok and the millions of its ‘real people’. He was writing at a time when to get the ‘bhadralok’ class to even romanticize the poor seemed like a luxury: they were either completely ignored or patronized or humiliated (humiliation is a recurrent theme in Tagore, and refers to the collective experience of entire social classes whose fundamental human dignity is continuously violated).

If we are to assess Tagore today, let us do it with a broader understanding of the social context in which his work evolved, and the realities he hoped to change. In a remarkable phrase in an essay yet-to-be translated, Tagore speaks of a ‘civilization anchored in inequality’. What were the markers of such a civilization? The arrogance of elites, the abuse of power, the injustice of caste, violence against women, the dispossession of millions of small farmers, the commodification of land and food, and gross violations of the fundamental equality of human beings, all camouflaged within an exclusionary discourse of ‘progress’. The agony of inhabiting such a civilization and the hope for an alternative was a major source of inspiration for Tagore’s work. 

I do not say this to appeal for redemption. We need not ask that Tagore’s ‘second-rate’ creations be ‘overvalued’ because of the social context they reflect. But let us ask, especially of those who claim that creative work and social reality must be strongly connected, that they also assess Tagore’s work in this way. Let us reject the ad hoc and ill-informed tirades that forcibly separate his creative work from the histories, the realities and the worldviews in which they are embedded.

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is Professor of Political Science and Development Studies at York University, Toronto. Her latest book Human Development and Social Power: Perspectives from South Asia is published by Routledge (London and New York, 2008).

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