Amit Chaudhuri’s essays on Rabindranath Tagore delineate the former’s intimate relationship with an iconic poet and intellectual whose life and works have (and continue to) inspire generations of scholars and readers
Book Review: Non-fiction/On Tagore: Reading the poet today by Amit Chaudhuri, Penguin/2012, 178 pp; Rs399 (Hardback)
The beauty of Amit Chaudhuri’s essays on Rabindranath Tagore lies in how they allow the reader a tantalising glimpse into the rich textures that construct the broad views that have governed the works of one of the world’s most celebrated thinking men. This volume leaves an overarching effect in clearing the fog about how Tagore was great in many spheres. Not due to his plutocratic background and plumy exposures — a fact corroborated by Job Charnok’s foundation of the city of Calcutta — during the peak of colonialism, but because his writing can be seen intricately, through different prisms without ever deviating from his core belief which was imbibed in universalism. This wistful thinking is probably the centre of all under and over stated freestyle views on the life and literature of Tagore.
Even if one has, perchance, encountered one or all five essays in the collection independently, reading them in sequence helps the reader savour and recuperate the ‘essential’ Tagore. An eminent literary scholar, critic and musician of high senses, Amit Chaudhuri’s ideas on the writer should be treated as his subjective point of view; an independent observation on Tagore as opposed to any discourse on interventionist blocks active in propagating alternative vision on Bengal’s renaissance and India’s decisive struggle against the colonial rule. Chaudhuri has promptly confessed, in the foreword of this book, how carefully his relationship with Tagore began: First by listening to the renditions of rabindra sangeet by great vocalists such as Subina Roy and his mother Bijoya Chaudhuri and it was later that he becoming serious about Tagore’s literary works. For long, however, W.B. Yeats has remained his favourite poet and in Bengali, it has been Jibanananda Das (not Tagore); something that has remained a subject of sublime argument between Chaudhuri and his uncle, as it apparent through the former’s essays.
The first essay, ‘The Anniversary Begins,’ first published in The Guardian/2011 , strengthens Chaudhuri’s stand that a writer is not essentially attracted to another writer of great merit out of populist fascination; rather it is the importance of his work that brings them closer. His honest perspectives on Tagore’s persona and overall presence within the Bengali psyche is (slightly less but still) very much affiliated with Universalists without any boundaries. This essay therefore espouses the boundary less emotion associated with Rabi Thakur/Tagore and what his 150th anniversary meant for the world.
The Nature Of Poetics
The oldest essay of this collection, ‘The Flute of Modernity’, first appeared in The New Republic in 1998. It overtly explores Tagore through his personal quest during the process of writing Gitanjjali while elaborating on his intellectual on impact British artists and writers such as William Rothenstein and W. B. Yeats. As a poet who achieved unprecedented heights in the history of mankind, Tagore emphatically shaped a new overview about the wisdom of the East. Chaudhuri opines that, “Tagore’s poem is an implicit tribute to an intellectual ambience and the possibilities it created; and it also a tribute to the secular, silent act of reading, which, in that culture, had become a significant activity whereby old texts, and the printed page, were being placed in new contexts, and reassessed and reimagined”.
The next essay solves the puzzles surrounding what inspired Tagore to be close to nature and verses so keenly? In his formative stages, especially around the time he composed the Bhanusingher Padabali, the music of medieval Bengali poet Chandidas and Maithili-Bengali poet Vidyapati charmed him immensely. But it’s also equally true that Tagore lived and observed modernism from close quarter and this way; his concern proliferated in diverse dimensions of life. Leading social historian In Ram Chandra Guha’s view on Tagore, “If Tagore had merely been a ‘creative artist’; perhaps one would not have found him put to rank alongside those other builders of modern India”, draws his unique persona in terms of the multiple efforts he had relentlessly made in his lifetime. Tagore’s humbleness always exposed him as a creative artist in consistent effort contrasted him from his very early acceptance into a worldwide figure.
‘A Pact with Nature’ was earlier published in The London Review of Books in 2006 and examines Tagore’s leaning towards nature as a close part of his action whose impact is visible in his works of literature, art, institution making and as well as his life. This essay has a very wide canvass that sufficiently absorbs the thematic debates from oriental lingual emancipation to the profoundness of the Upanishads as a distinct source for knowing India’s past. Also, this work focuses on the mystery about Tagore’s decision to translate Gitanjali into English, which he only used with a degree of insecurity in his own confession. Though Ezra Pound’s slapping of “boomed by the pious non-conformist” for Tagore’s Nobel Prize in literature was the height of enthusiasm and insecurity among the figures of literary London towards the arrival of a man outside of Occidental terrains. This essay is very relevant for understanding the cultural whims and fancies between the East and West, and lastly the synthesis compromised across different periods.
The fourth piece of the volume, ’Poetry As Polemic’ was first written as the foreword for Harvard University Press and later for Vishva Bharati’s Essential Tagore in 2011. Tagore’s drive for experiment was relentless and many conclusions inundated through those painstaking actions were simply turned down by the poet himself as transitory accomplishments. Hence, his works are hard to be seen only in bounded framework, rather they must be reckoned with consideration of a “larger interest”, evident in Tagore’s all work. Bengalis seldom admire both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak at the same time but the influence of Tagore is common on both and they have cinematised it well in their immortal works. Ray adaptation of Tagore’s novels such as Ghare Baire, and novella, Nashtanirh (Ray’s Charulata) among others and celebrated worldwide, while Tagore’s poetry influences a number of Ghatak’s movies. Infact, he immortalised Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Covered Star) through portraying amazing landscape and multi-vocal, performing entity actively indulge in the desire of existence at the end of cinema. That sense was drawn from Tagore which denies “landscape” only as serene, indifferent, permanent background to human endeavour. This essay is short, lucid and worth of calling essential reading on Tagore.
Tagore always enjoyed the intrinsic struggle of art very intimately and entwined those conflicts into different realms of life. Amit Chaudhuri’s elaborates that “Tagore knew this, and it’s from his intimacy with solitariness and secrecy that his extraordinary language and his transformative vision of the world emerged — he often seems to make this solitary self an interlocutor, in a tone at once self-flagellating and accusatory; in India, Tagore is viewed as a sort of Guinness Book of World Record holder” The last essay of the book, ‘Nothing But A Poet’, first published in The Hindustan Times, 2010, tries to deciphers the versatility of this unparalleled man.
Legacy Of Thought
We Indians seem to have a masterly command in forgetting our own traditions and being part of them. Tagore’s criticism also suffered similar flaws both at home and abroad. Amit Chaudhuri’s voices the concern that, “from Vidyapati (great Maithili poet of14th century AD, of whose songs Tagore once composed a pastiche) to Tagore, there’s an immense movement; but of what kind?” This brilliantly covers the historical series of negligence towards the discipline of literature.
At this eventful juncture of modernity, India needs to look back towards its own thinkers rather than surmising on absentee philosophers from different geographies of the world. The time is ripe for taking Tagore’s vision in completeness and expelling all virulent perceptual divisions. These five essays stand to make a huge difference in high standard debates on Tagore. As always, Amit Chaudhuri’s contribution in literature is path breaking and challenges the occupied territory of (many) stubborn self styled experts.
Atul Kumar Thakur
April 29, 2012, Sunday, New Delhi
(Published in Business World, April17, 2012)