Our greatest man of letters was a real public intellectual

Our greatest man of letters was a real public intellectual

By VINEET GILL | | 14 November, 2015
(From left to right) Samuel Berthet, Sharmila Tagore and Radha Chakravarty at the book launch in Delhi.

Rabindranath Tagore still can mean many things to many people. His great corpus of poetry, of course, is right up there in his roster of achievements, and it is indeed as a vishwa kobi or world poet — the celebrated winner of the Nobel Prize in literature — that we best know him. But there’s much more than poetic genius that underlay Tagore’s personality.

He was a musician of boundless originality and talent, who left a lasting impact on the way melodies were composed in his time, founding a whole new genre of the classical form called Rabindra Sangeet, which you can hear reverberating even today on the streets of Calcutta. Besides this, Tagore’s work as a painter influenced generations to come — the contemporary artist Manu Parekh calls Tagore’s landscapes his biggest inspiration yet.

This much for Tagore’s contributions to the creative space. What makes the man more of an enigma was his energetic and pioneering presence in fields away from the humanities — fields like politics, philanthropy, education and social welfare. He was, for example, thinking of alternative schooling, while setting up Santiniketan, before anyone anywhere else was. And, as Samuel Berthet, a Tagore scholar who teaches at the Shiv Nadar University, tells us: Tagore had launched a collateral-free microcredit scheme for farmers in Bengal decades before the Bangladeshi activist Muhammad Yunus, another Nobel laureate, did the same to international acclaim.

Rabindranath TagoreIt’s best, then, to avoid tags like artist, activist or social entrepreneur for Tagore and simply to see  him as a highly conscientious and responsible public intellectual. Perhaps even the very first well-rounded public intellectual in the history of our country. It’s also important, when considering Tagore’s achievement of a whole lifetime, to bear in mind the different roles he could so effortlessly portray in his personal and social capacities. In Shades of Difference: Selected Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, the editor Radha Chakravarty has focussed on this multifaceted image of Tagore that is so often obscured by his world-historical reputation, by the  Tagore stereotypes that abound in university departments and publishing houses.  

“It’s very important to look beyond the stereotypes when it comes to Tagore,” said Chakravarty at the launch of her book, held this Thursday at the Institut Français en Inde  in Delhi. “He has been seen for too long in the West as a mystic and a prophet. And in India, he has been appropriated by the Bengali literary establishment, which has idolised him as a ‘gurudev’. So they have not really seen Tagore as a real person. A person who belongs to the world and not to one place; and a person who had this amazing ability to embrace the other.”

This new collection of Tagore’s writings adds to the already flourishing genre of what we may now call Tagore studies the world over. Academics and scholars already have whole rafts of published works to take into account before considering writing something of their own on Tagore. Such level of popularity in university circles has made the Bengali writer perhaps the most researched figure in Indian history, besides earning Tagore a sort of worldwide literary celebrity. But on the flipside, it has also shut off the “real” Tagore, as Chakravarty put i, from the general gaze of the lay reader.

 Shades of Difference comes across as, among other things, an attempt to recontextualise Tagore — taking him away from mere academic discourse — by presenting him as a complex thinker who was always engaged with the problems and pains of the world around him. “The world has kissed by soul with its pain,” he wrote in his 1916 poem Stray Birds, reproduced in this volume, “asking for its return in songs.”

That the book carries an accompanying DVD, with audio-visual material, paintings and music connected to Tagore, only goes to show the intent of the publishers — the very-academic sounding Social Science Press — to go beyond that niche readership of scholars and students and towards common readers looking to be introduced to the works and thoughts of Tagore.

There are snatches of Tagore’s poetry, short stories, travel writings and letters (from Russia and Persia) in this volume, as well as some of the more popular “dialogues” he held with western intellectuals like H.G. Wells and Albert Einstein on his travels abroad. “This book brings out the fact that Tagore was a person of world stature who was constantly aware of difference, of contraries both within himself and in the world around him,” Chakravarty said.

Complementing the easy-going and informal tone of the book, the launch event for Shades of Difference in Delhi was attended by, among others, the film actress Sharmila Tagore, who went on to relate some of her family anecdotes involving the great writer. “My mother had these wonderful books which were signed by Tagore,” she said. “And once, as a kid, in an attempt to show off, I took these to my school and lost them. One of them was Gora. First edition! Can you imagine?”

Every nation has its greats: England has Shakespeare and Germany Goethe. To say that India has Tagore would be of course adequate on one level, but a slight misrepresentation of truth on another. That’s because Tagore, as we were told by Chakravarty earlier, belonged not just to India but to the world, just as much as the world belonged to him. In Shades of Difference we get to see those elements of a true cosmopolitanism that we ought to identify as integral to our greatest public intellectual.  

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