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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 5/15/2015 |




The world recently observed the one hundred fifty-fourth birth anniversary of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. This multi-faceted personality has curved out his own place in the annals of history by the virtue of his sheer influence on humankind. However, successive generations may disagree on the extent of that influence as relatively fewer people are engaging in studying the vast body of work that he has left behind. To many, Rabindranath may represent a different, perhaps bygone, era. A nearly seventy-four years of absence from life is a long time to re-evaluate his relevance to our increasingly dynamic and complex world.

Rabindranath enjoyed a legendary reputation in his lifetime and in the twentieth century. However, public opinion has grown more complex since his passing. We have heard sharply critical voices that have sought to distance themselves from him or emerge from under his shadow. On the other hand, adulatory phrases and images have stereotyped him into obsolescence. New national and global concerns have emerged since his lifetime, which seek solutions based on a context of thinking that has developed its own categories and constellations.

One hundred and fifty four years since his birth, does Rabindranath have any relevance to the postmodern and postcolonial discourse in the twenty-first century? Or does he belong merely to a moment in history fated to be a fossilized relic in an archive of cultural rituals?

Interestingly, Springer has recently come out with an anthology titled “Rabindranath Tagore in the 21st Century: Theoretical Renewals.”  This critical volume addresses the question of Rabindranath Tagore's relevance for this postmodern and postcolonial discourse. The volume includes contributions by leading contemporary scholars on Rabindranath and analyses his literature, music, theatre, aesthetics, politics and art against contemporary theoretical developments in postcolonial literature and social theory.

The authors take up themes as varied as the implications of Rabindranath’s educational vision for contemporary India; new theoretical interpretations of gender, queer elements, feminism and subalternism in Rabindranath’s literary and social expressions; his language use as a vehicle for a dialogue between positivism, Orientalism and other constructs in the ongoing process of globalization; the nature of the influence of Rabindranath’s music and literature on national and cultural identity formation, particularly in West Bengal and Bangladesh; and intersubjectivity and critical modernity in Rabindranath’s art. This volume opens up a space for Rabindranath’s critique and his creative innovations in present theoretical engagements.

As the twenty-first century draws us into an increasingly interdependent age, perhaps a new history of exchanges and negotiations is in the making. As an agent circulating within such transitional webs, Rabindranath embodies an internal dialog of local, regional, national and international concerns of cultures and their histories, and the fashioning of new ethics and aesthetics.

An index of his significance may be seen in the aporia surrounding the two major representations through which he comes to the public mind of our times – a dimly remembered Oriental sage in a sepia-colored page from the album of early twentieth century Nobel awardees; and a hugely adulated divine icon whose portrait continues to be endlessly reproduced and whose songs are incessantly played and learnt in almost every Bengali home.

The first of these comprises the global reputation of Rabindranath, which rose and fell on the wave of his own English translation of Gitanjali (‘The Song Offerings’). Translations have a life of their own, and Rabindranath’s translated work has long been distanced by the Anglophone modernist tradition. However, wherever sensibilities have kept alive an ear for large cosmic themes and rhythms, such as in Latin America, Rabindranath continues to be appreciated in translation among readers of poetry. With the lapse of the copyright on Rabindranath’s texts, a variety of new translations of Rabindranath are appearing in English and other languages, providing new vehicles for a pluralistic rebirth of Rabindranath in our times.

In his native Bengal, Rabindranath remains immortal, a phenomenon of divinity and enduring superstar magnitude far beyond possible acclaim, the very opposite of the peripheral significance of his global image. Apart from the simulacrum put to use in regional and national identity politics, this tells us of the cultural history of Bengal and the invocative and evocative powers of Rabindranath’s texts. Rabindranath’s contribution to the modern Bengali language remains undiminished and is, in fact, intimately linked to his international persona.

For Bengali as a language aspiring to embody a distinct modern subjectivity, Rabindranath, with his superhuman output in every genre – over one thousand poems; two thousand songs; eight volumes of short stories; two dozen plays; eight novels; and many books and essays on philosophy, religion, education, and social topics – stands out as an avatar of literature. Irrespective of their qualitative difference, all of these must be taken integrally, each illuminating and being illuminated by all the others. Thus, we find that whether through affective invocations to nature, man, woman or God, or critical responses to the problems of modernity or nation, the psychodrama of social archetypes, or the participative text of the educational and creative community of Shantiniketan, Rabindranath prepares a universal and integral humanism, preserving the marks of singularity yet reaching beyond the human.

Attentive to the empirical reality of humanity and modern ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Rabindranath nevertheless refused any bounded essence for the human. Drawing on Upanishadic intuitions, his thinking of the human privileged becoming, thus converging with the open horizon of phenomenology and existentialism, and crossing the human/anti-humanist divide. Yet such a becoming is not a mysticism which seeks its fulfillment in historical isolation in Rabindranath; its contemporaneity lies in his thinking through the possibilities of self-exceeding as a human problematic at our peculiar cusp of world history. The notion of this ‘overman’ (visva manav) champions a plural cosmopolitanism and forms the cornerstone of an alternative understanding of world literature.

To arrive at a cosmopolitan and egalitarian world, free of biases and oppressions of race, ethnicity, class, or gender, in which such exchanges based on autonomy, singularity, and creativity become possible, constitutes the ethics of Rabindranath, an ethics whose activism is enacted not in the streets but in the hearts of humans, through the psychology and aesthetics of subject formation.

Rabindranath’s unconventional social status, cultural exposure and formal discipline of varied kinds, provided the impetus to a rich and wide-ranging creative exploration of home and world, rooted in native culture and language. The replication of these conditions at an institutional level served as the basis of Rabindranath’s educational aims, a personal creative project with the production of creativity as its goals. He worked tirelessly for the furtherance of the national/regional cultural text through the insistent privileging of mother tongue. Although the implementation of his ideas was limited, his work in education opens up ideals for the future and also experimental practices which others continue to attempt to establish institutionally.

Rabindranath’s critical and creative texts engage extensively with the question of the space and subjectivity of woman in the nascent emerging nation. Particularly in his fictional works involving human relations – his novels, short stories, plays, and dance dramas – the negotiations between tradition and modernity centering on woman develop a complex and nuanced unsettled repertory. Although it has been pointed out that in several instances his female characters were compromised for the prevailing patriarchy, the radical possibilities of female emancipation in his texts should not be overlooked.

Rabindranath constructed a regional modern Bengali subject thought the hybrid discourses he brought into engagement in the poetry and music of his songs in the form now known as Rabindrasangeet. Classical ragas, a variety of regional and national folk idioms and Western musical forms, were braided to create a community address whose locus was a new urban vernacular identity, braiding elite, subaltern, and cosmopolitan subjectivities. In the present times, we do find critical and creative function of Rabindrasangeet in autonomous projects of soul-making.

Rabindranath inherited the Vedantic lineage from his father to which he belonged as a Brahmo. That lineage kept its intimate closeness to the Vaishnav theism which formed his earlier family heritage. This granted coherence to the world and to the invocatory power of language as expressions of the god-in-life, jibandebata, that he related to all his life. In his last years, his philosophy took an Advaitic turn in which words and images lost their significance, instead becoming merely indicative of transcendence and utter non-duality. This is a final refusal of representation, a post-human border-crossing, whose implications are yet to be fully articulated or understood.

A century after receiving the Nobel Prize, Rabindranath Tagore’s significance continues as a beacon in the milieus of his reception at home and in the world and as a subjectivity which escapes definition.

[SUBHODEV DAS]

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