“আজি হতে শতবর্ষ পরে কে তুমি পড়িছ বসি আমার কবিতাখানি কৌতুহল ভরে?”
The greater part of my existence as a Bengali has been ruled by my indomitable Bengali chromosome, forever. I proudly possess Kantha and Dhakai sarees, terracotta artifacts that still smell of Bankura and Bishnupur, my great grandmother’s silver hair pins, old notebooks full of ‘authentic’ Bengali recipes passed down through generations, and among other such things typically Bengali, a bookcase that boasts of Parashuram, Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Abanindra Nath Thakur, Mahashweta Devi, Sukumar Roy and Satyajit Roy. Strange though it may seem to the uninitiated, the pride of place in the bookcase is occupied by none of these; that place is clearly reserved for a set of sixteen beige, hard-bound volumes of Rabindra Rachanabali (The complete works of Rabindranath Thakur) with his signature, printed boldly in maroon, on the cover.
I had already read most of the Bard’s work from the collection that adorned my father’s book case much before I had reached my prime. But while moving out of Kolkata several years later, my Bengali core wanted to take with me, among other things Bengali, a new set of Rabindra Rachanabali, to increase the ” intellectual quotient” of my life away from home. Please understand that in spite of having such treasures in my possession, I do not consider myself an expert on Tagore, but a mere Tagore enthusiast perhaps.
Over the years, I have taken pleasure in attending most of the ‘Probasi’ Rabindra Jayanti evenings that I have been invited to; I have joined others gathered around a harmonium on many a sunny afternoon and sweltering evening; I have even given a patient hearing to various renditions of Rabindrasangeet sung at various decibels and scales and have sat through countless recitals and performances of Rabindra Nritya Natyas. Though I do not find myself among the “thus rendered proud by Rabindranath” Bengali mothers who seek out Probasi(non-resident) experts on Rabindrasangeet and Rabindranath to tutor their brood, perfect their pronunciation and recitation skills as well as hone them in the nuances of the Prem, Prakriti and Puja songs, even in a distant land, I have for the last eight or nine years encouraged my daughter to participate in Ponchishe Boishakh celebrations in all he cities we have found ourselves in.
But of late, after eighteen years of experiencing Tagore the probasi way, I have started to ask myself several questions. ‘Is Rabindranath really relevant in our lives any more? Do we really need him? Or is it that we have held on to him for too long? Is it time to move on?’ These questions had quietly crept into my thoughts when I spent a summer translating a book on Rabindranath Tagore’s later life, about three years ago. The story starts at a later stage of his life, after the Nobel Prize had been conferred upon him and he had set up the Vishwa Bharati University. His life was on the wane, his responsibilities as a father, as the patriarch, as the Zamindar, as the head of his university were weighing him down – at such a juncture of his life, he set upon a journey to distant Argentina. The story narrates how the ailing Tagore “lands on the shores of Argentina and conquers Victoria’s heart”, and how the two, Rabindranath and Victoria Ocampo, meet in the end by the river, Rio de la Plata, thus “bridging the chasm of a long wait”. I finished translating the book and it was duly published the same year and yet the questions continued to plague me. ‘Perhaps the way the writer has treated his life hasn’t gone down well with me?’ I wanted to reason with my thoughts.
But my last few visits to Calcutta only made me ask myself the same questions over and over again. It has been close to seventy years since his demise, and all that seem to remain of him in his city are microphones blaring his songs at busy cross sections. ‘Isn’t he being trivialized?’ I ask again. To make matters worse I find his songs being sung to Pop tunes, his plays being made a travesty in new age cinema, his stories revamped and made modern-age-ready scripts for main stream cinema and cheap, shoddy translations of his great body of work flooding bookstores to bring him closer to the new generation. ‘All in the name of ‘popularizing’ the Bengali ‘icon’ Rabindranath?’ I wonder.
I turn my gaze at my prized possession, at the neat row of much thumbed Rabindra Rachanbali proudly lining my bookshelf. There is Rabindranath as we know him, printed in offset, covered in hard bound, his knowledge, his philosophy, his art, his prose and his poetry meticulously divided into sections, years, seasons and moods. But this collection of books is now known more for increasing the ‘aantel or intellectual’ value of many a Bengali drawing room. To my mind, though he has been translated into most leading Indian languages, he seems to have remained the “Inescapable Icon” of Bengal alone. So long he had been forgotten there, among the petty parochial boundaries, on the bookshelves of most Bengalis, as an identity that was seen as an albatross around most Bengali necks. But five years ago as the world awakened to his 150th year of birth, a lot of us awakened to him again. But entirely for a different reason.
This time, some of us wanted a share of him more than a mere appreciation of his poems and songs from a distance. Now was the time to cash in on what was perhaps one of the last few reasons to feel proud as a Bengali. And how does one cash in on Rabindranath? Bring him up to speed, make him mass and especially youth-ready and give his work a makeover so that they sell well. I was aghast to hear Rabindrasangeet sung in RAP style and believe me when I say that such travesties exist. Couple of years ago, I was invited for the promotion of a film where I discovered that the much acclaimed Tagore play Tasher Desh has been remade in Bengali. So far so good, but imagine the new age Tasher Desh in an experimental form, shot in jump cuts, actors in neon costumes and the dialogues, a smatter of Bengali, Hindi and English? And I asked again, ‘has the Bard lost his relevance completely amongst this mediocre, materialistic milieu? Why else would anyone want to distort the works of one of the greatest poets of all times?’ I could not accept this effort to desecrate Tagore and his genius for personal gains and fifteen minutes of fame.
Later the same year I was sitting in at the practice session of a dance recital choreographed on songs from Tagore’s Nritya natyas. The programme was to be staged during the Durga Pujas. Honed singers, harmonium and tabla lent music to the choreography. And the late September rain outside added to the mood. Like every other year, my little girl was a part of the dance recital, too. I sat there wondering, ‘How I wish I was a little more Bengali. How I wish I had sat patiently through those Rabindrasangeet classes my mother used to line up for me, in the hope that someday I’ll feature in para programmes like these.’ I was happy that the little girl has turned out much better than me at 15. And that’s when the answer came to me. Rabindranath is immortal. He is timeless. He will continue to be relevant to the Bengali and to all those who embrace him. We do not need to impose him on the new generation, but take them by their hands and lead them to him, make them love his words, his music, his lyrics. He is much more than the shrill rendition blaring from speakers in an attempt to teach culture. His work is far superior than the travesties that people have made in trying to make poor copies out of. Mediocrity cannot touch him. He will forever continue to hold that prime place in Bengali literature, but in his entirety, with all his complexities, his moods, his philosophy and his devotion. And that is how the new generation should be taught to accept and appreciate him and not in ‘popular’, simplified, ‘popcized’ version.