Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Tagore continues to sparkle with relevance
The first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore, through his lyrical poetry, revealed the mysticism and beauty of Indian culture to western eyes for the first time. While he is best known for his poetry, the variety and quality of Tagore’s creative work is amazing. A prolific literary giant, Tagore composed over a 1000 poems, eight short story collections, nearly a dozen plays, eight novels, and several volumes of writing on religion, education, philosophy and subjects of social relevance. An eminent educationist and upholder of social reforms, Tagore also painted and composed the lyrics for his own songs.
The man who holds the rare distinction of having composed the national anthems of two nations, India and Bangladesh, Tagore combined the best of Eastern traditions and modern Western ideas. The collection, Nationalism, is based on Tagore’s lectures during World War I. Ramachandra Guha’s excellent introduction is all the guidance today’s readers will need to fully appreciate these lucid and thought-provoking essays. Tagore’s ideas continue to sparkle with relevance in today’s strife-torn, terror infested world.
An early supporter of India’s freedom movement, he surrendered his knighthood as a protest against the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. Much of Tagore’s ideology is influenced by the teaching of the Upanishads and from his own beliefs that God can be found through personal purity and service to others. He stressed the need for a new world order based on the ‘unity consciousness’, values and ideas transcending narrow bounds of religion, race, country or language. Tagore was a supporter of Gandhi, but warned of the dangers of narrow nationalistic thought, of “carnivorous and cannibalistic exclusiveness,” which tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries.
As a world traveller, he visited not just western countries, but also Japan, China, Iran, Latin America and Indo-China, reaching out and connecting with fellow human beings from other cultures. As a terrible war raged worldwide, Tagore urged his audiences in the USA and Japan to discard political aggressiveness and cultural arrogance. As Guha points out, it was by interacting with Tagore and absorbing his ideals, that Gandhiji and Nehru developed a more inclusive theory of nationalism as a basis for founding modern day India.
In Gora, he brings to life through creative fiction, his ideas and ideals on nationalism, religion, and myriad other intellectual factor shaping the Bengal and India of his times. This novel is not an antiquated curiosity, but of special relevance today when religious fundamentalism and divisive communal forces are tearing at India’s nationhood. Gora ushered in a new trend in Bengali literature, a novel of ideas where characters live out and discuss at length the internal conflicts within late 19th century Bengal society.
Read along with the non-fiction collection Nationalism, Gora brings to vivid life the intellectual milieu of days gone by, of the ideas that have made India what she is today. “Nationalism forms an important aspect of the historical context of Gora,” says translator Radha Chakravarty, “but instead of focussing solely on Indo-British relations, the text lends greater prominence to Hindu-Brahmo tensions.”
As Bengalis realised that a Western style education and exposure to Western ideals, while having intrinsic benefits, did not automatically make Indians the intellectual equals of Westerners, Bengal’s social reform movements were challenged by a surge of Hindu conservatism. Tagore masterfully portrays these conflicts, weaving them into an engrossing story played out by multi-dimensional, lifelike characters.
The protagonist, Gora, derives his name from his astonishingly fair complexion. He is a fiercely orthodox Hindu nationalist who resents the reformist Brahmo Samaj only to fall in love with Sucharita, a Brahmo girl. Ironically, Gora finally learns that he was not born a Hindu, but is the orphaned son of an Irishman killed during the 1857 uprising.
The vast body of Tagore’s works can be compared in variety and brilliance with the work of European greats like Goethe or Shakespeare. Why then, is Tagore not as popular worldwide today as he should be? It is only when high quality translations are made widely available, that readers everywhere can appreciate these wonderful works.
(book reviews published in Deccan Herald Nov 2009