Bard and listeners – a tribute to Rabindranath Tagore.

We live in troubled times. Violence from both man and nature has left us exhausted this last month. Nature vented its fury in the form of a massive earthquake in Nepal on 25th April, killing at least 8000 people and leaving millions of others homeless. Yesterday, not even a month later, the earth shook again, and we are still waiting for the official reports of death & destruction. On 12th April, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who was a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, sustained injuries following his arrest by policemen. He died six days later from his injuries. The city of Baltimore erupted in protest and witnessed widespread violence for several days. Targeted violence continues in Somalia, more than 300 000 Yemenis have been affected by the Saudi Arabia led invasion of Yemen. Europe witnessed the worst disaster involving migrants seeking a safe haven in Europe killing an estimated 700 people – men women & children – just off the coast of Libya.

Yet we dedicate this issue to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore. We celebrated his 154th birth anniversary on 9th May, but it may be legitimate to ask if that is a sufficiently important reason. Rabindranath Tagore is probably the greatest and best known Indian poet & philosopher – a brilliant man coming from an extraordinary family in Bengal. The first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Rabindranath completely reshaped Bengali literature, music and art. His influence on the Bengali psyche, culture, literature and education is immense and does not seem to have waned in the last century. His thoughts, his ideas, his dreams are strangely contemporary and relevant even today in all contexts – personal, political, religious, societal. A veritable polymath, Tagore wrote abundantly on a wide variety of subjects – his essays and travelogues, less known to the general readers, illustrate the width and depth of his genius.

One can’t write about Tagore without talking about the huge influence he has both in West Bengal in India and in Bangladesh, the erstwhile East-Pakistan of independent India. India’s independence was bloody and painful – a country carved out artificially based on religion, to pander to the personal ambitions of a few. But that is not the subject of this editorial. Bengalis grow up with Rabindranath – at home, at school, and later in all walks of the cultural life. We start reading with Rabindranath’s Sahaj Path, we learn his poems by heart, we sing his songs at home and in school. The seeds of his poetry are sown into us at a very young age. As we grow up, we either continue our discovery of this extraordinary talent, or we don’t – whatever the choice, there is no avoiding Tagore if you are a Bengali. No matter where you are born or where you grow up, Tagore will be a part of you.

Why does Rabindranath remain so important even today? Is it because of the beauty of his language? Because of his deep sympathy and understanding of human nature? Because he, like no one before or after him, has spoken about the whole gamut of human emotions? For he cried out against everything that is evil and unholy – religious bigotry and superstitions, discriminations, injustice in any form? Or is it simply because we have been programmed to have him as our primary reference since a very early age? I do not know; I only that I borrow his voice in sorrow and in joy, in death and in birth, in pain and in happiness, in doubt and in conviction, in mundane and in sacred, in anger and in peace. Words written in a different century, in a society and culture very different from ours. Yet they ring out true and clear today – the sheer timelessness of his creation never ceases to amaze.

Volumes have been written about Tagore’s works, about its merits and demerits, about its relevance and irrelevance, about his ideas and convictions. There was a time when the majority of the Bengali literati rejected Tagore and everything he represented that resulted in revolutionizing contemporary Bengali literature. For a time, Rabindranath Tagore ceased to be important. Or did he? Didn’t these brilliant poets and writers, in rejecting their legacy, actually served to popularize his works and creating a clear divide between Tagore and post-Tagore? These are questions only serious scholars can answer. But it seems that the great poet and philosopher continue to be important even today, to a large number of people.

I am not talking about the one day fervor that grips Bengal collectively on his birth and death anniversaries. Nor about the controversy that rages around the rendition of his songs by different artists. Or about the pundits who seem to own him. I am talking about the ordinary people like me. We are publishing 14 interviews on Tagore this month where each person talks about his personal communion with the great poet, about his influence on their everyday lives, emotions, joys and sorrows. How we discover and rediscover him throughout our ordinary lives. We have also included his entire lectures on NATIONALISM in our LAST PAGE segment!

How many amongst us, other than scholars, have read his complete works? Have gone beyond the popular poems and songs to appreciate his versatile genius? We are still in the process of finding out. The three essays we have published in our ‘Last page’ section prove the point. We sincerely hope that you will find time to read them.

I started the editorial on a pessimistic note. Times are indeed troubled. The world we know is changing fast, the unholy and the evil seem to be taking over our lives. There is a need to fight a collective war against these forces, all over the world. We need to be strong, individually and conjointly; we need to understand, to tolerate, to inspire. I firmly believe that Rabindranath can still lead us from darkness to light. 



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