Many more people like to refer to India’s greatest poet by the moniker Gurudev than by the name that his parents had given him at birth, the name that appears on his Nobel medallion. Politicians and industry barons, intellectuals as much as mafia dons, dyed-in-the-wool liberals no less than right-of-right creationists: they all love to pay obeisance to their Gurudev in equal measure.
At the first hint of an opportunity, people trot out one of the three pieces of Rabindranath Tagore’s work that everyone seems to be familiar with – Jadi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re (“If no one heeds your call, you must walk alone”) being the universal favourite. Even though some of the more patriotic specimens of our political class have been known to fumble when asked to recite the national anthem, nobody fails to roundly condemn a laggard who rises late to the same anthem when it plays out in a movie theatre’s sound system. And, recently, even one of our most intrepid mainstream journalists felt encouraged to pen verses patterned on ‘Where the mind is without fear’
Tagore is everybody’s favourite for several reasons. First, we are a nation of guru-bhakts, congenitally programmed to idolise every Baba and every Ma (guruwad being sex-blind), and of course every godman with a double-barrelled honorific adorning his name. To be fair to the poet, he does indeed fit the bill rather well – what with his fine, flowing beard, his aquiline nose and high forehead, his long and colourful robes, and of course the ashram that he, so faithful to our hallowed tradition, set up and nurtured.
Then again, ‘Gurudev’ is so convenient. He is always there, like the Himalayas or the Vedas or the six seasons of Bengal, and so nobody needs to take the trouble to study or explore his work again, for don’t we already know what there is to know about, say, the vedas? (So, those three nuggets from the Gurudev’s cannon will do very well for us, thank you.)
Most importantly, however, the virtues of a Gurudev lie in the sanitised, aseptic image of such an exalted being. He is above everything mundane or worldly. Ordinary human emotions and passions, anxieties and predilections are entirely alien to him. And he always symbolises stability and continuity. Change is anathema to his character. Also, no question troubles him, because he, the true sage, already knows every answer.
But does he? Was Tagore immune to all questions and doubts, or is the image of the Gurudev a convenient, and also clever, construct, but only a construct, no more? Was the poet a status quoist in the hoary ‘Indian’ tradition?
Beyond the perceived ‘Gurudev’
The other day, an old and very dear friend, with very cultivated tastes in literature and art, happened to ask me an innocuous question: is it true that Tagore had composed ‘Jana gana mana’ by way of salutation to a visiting British prince when India was still several decades away from her independence? When I said, in jest, that this is what many people believe, his next question was equally innocuous: why then do we happen to celebrate the same verses as our national anthem? A little prodding revealed that my (non-Bengali-speaking) friend had recently been made aware of Tagore’s critique of nationalism, and probably found it extraordinary that a person with such subversive views about good old nationalism could be accorded the honour of crafting ‘Mother India’s’ national anthem. I should add that my friend’s political/social sympathies have long been broadly aligned with the Sangh Parivar’s. But – and this is more significant than anything else – he represents the most perceptive strand of saffron thinking.
Some other friends, this time from Kolkata, tell me how in recent months, there have been social media storms over Tagore’s ‘anti-national’ leanings. Apparently, patriotic Bengali literati are up in arms against the ‘deification’ of Tagore, proposing that Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who has gifted ‘Vande Mataram’ to India, be adopted as nationalist India’s guardian angel instead. It is safe to assume that these social media warriors are content with the precious nuggets of wisdom that (what one TV personality memorably calls) ‘The WhatsApp University’ so generously dispenses. Imagine what consternation the following lines would have created otherwise:
The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation….Its one wish is to trade on the feebleness of the rest of the world, like some insects that are bred in the paralysed flesh of victims…
If this was not scandalous enough, consider the poet’s view that
When this organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all-powerful….., then it is an evil day for humanity …..When it allows itself to be turned into a perfect organisation of power, then there are few crimes it is unable to perpetrate.
“There are few crimes it (the Nation) is unable to perpetrate”. How extraordinary that one of the truest symbols of Indian nationalism – or so we are tutored to believe – can rail thus against the very idea of the nation! But the Gurudev really lets us down when he goes on to address – presciently, it would appear – an issue that has often taken centre-stage in the last four years:
The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life our fellow beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to … result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the very sign of life.
Gandhi and Tagore
Historian Ramchandra Guha recently suggested that if he was alive today, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi might have found it hard to escape India’s patriotic prisons. It would be interesting to know how highly Guha rates Tagore’s chances on this count, because the poet was clearly somewhat more ‘radical’ than Gandhi on many questions of the social and political organisation of human society.
For example, Tagore strongly, and openly, disapproved of Gandhi’s unwillingness to draw a clear line between politics and religion. Both men were deeply spiritual in their different ways, but while Tagore firmly believed that religion belonged in the individual’s private world, Gandhi was not always above invoking religious faith for furthering what he – often rightly – felt to be a noble cause.
In 1934, Bihar was ravaged by a fierce earthquake and suffered humongous loss of life and property. The anguished Gandhi said it was god’s vengeance visited upon a state that still practised untouchability, “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we call Harijans”. Rabindranath was shocked. On February 6, 1934, he responded with great passion that
We, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing, by his wonderworking inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasise the elements of unreason in those very minds – an unreason which is a source of all blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect.
Even more stingingly, he went on to remind the man he so warmly admired that
If we associate ethical principles with cosmic phenomenon, we shall have to admit that human nature is superior to Providence that preaches its lessons in good through orgies of the worst behaviour possible.
The poet’s strong reservations about swadeshi and even the charkha (or, the apotheosis of the charkha) are also too well-known to bear repetition here. Therefore, if the cultural godfathers of our great Bharat were to get wind of Tagore’s heretical views on many matters of state, it is extremely unlikely that he would still figure in the pantheon of our great women and men. How lucky for him that India knows only those three items from his oeuvre!
Explosive at the best of times
Indeed, the many tens of thousands of printed pages that Tagore’s pen helped fill are replete with material that would be deemed explosive at the best of times. Any unequal society – and ours is much more unequal today than it was even thirty years ago – will resent being reminded that
Those that you have left behind
Are pulling you back, steadily, all the time.
When lynch brigades mete out mob justice to those who bear the stigma of the infidel or the moral delinquent, and we ‘decent folk’ stand by and watch – if, that is, we are not busy shooting a video which we will cheerfully share with friends afterwards – who would like to recall the monumental passion that animates verses such as these:
Upon everyone who commits a wrong
And everyone who stands by and watches,
May your wrath rain down on them all, my Lord,
And sear them, like forest fire burning grass.
As we knock on the gate to paradise even as the Indian economy muscles its way past the land of Napoleon’s, who would not consider as misplaced the sentiments that the following lines encapsulate:
Come, you poet of faceless men,
You of muted voices.
Touch anguished souls, and hear their cries –
In this lifeless land where songs rise only to die,
And contempt singes hearts, and a pitiless desert
Spreads out far on every side,
Bring joy here, and cheer, and wake us all to life.
As incredible as it may appear, this saintly poet was not averse even to a call to arms:
Serpents are breathing out their venom all around us,
Paeans of peace will sound now like a sad joke.
Let me then, as I bid goodbye,
Call upon those who, in countless homes,
Are readying to join battle
With the ugly monster that is glowering at us.
If this is not subversive poetry, what is? People have been jailed for far less explicit calls to action, surely. The Nobel regardless, no one can stop the state from branding the irreverent writer of such stuff as an ‘urban Naxal’, not today, not in 21st century Bharat.
It is best, then, that Tagore stays on as Gurudev. No one needs to worry their head over what he wrote and said – he did write and say far too much, really – and we will all have done our duty to him by invoking his name while flagging off a new train or cutting down an old forest, as long as, on every Pochise Baisakh (the 25th day of the month of Baisakh, by the Bengali calendar), we remember to retrieve his framed photograph from the loft, dust it, and set it up amidst loads of garlands and incense sticks. And long live those three all-season poems/songs written by the Gurudev!
Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org