Bengalis in middle- and upper-class homes in Kolkata grow up with an inescapable, and sometimes irritating, familiarity with Rabindranath Tagore. More than 75 years after his death, Tagore continues to dominate urban middle-class cultural life in West Bengal. Even for those who hardly, if ever, dip into Tagore’s prose, or spend time with his poems, Rabindrasangeet (as his songs are lovingly called) breathes life into all life events of educated Bengalis and forms the background music in almost all public functions.
On the other side of the international border that now divides what was once undivided Bengal, Tagore straddles Bangladesh’s deepest political divide and is iconic of the shift from a religious national identity to a linguistic one that formed the background to the 1971 Liberation War. However, Tagore was not always the household name that he has now become in Bangladesh. The fascinating story of how this came about was the subject of Dr Ghulam Murshid’s lecture at Kolkata’s Tagore Research Institute on February 7.
Murshid is a well-known scholar from Bangladesh who divides his time between Dhaka and London, having migrated to the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. His wide-ranging research in Bengali language and literature has given us many books of critical acclaim. Less well-known in West Bengal, but perhaps as important, is his 2010 book on the 1971 war, Muktijuddha O Tarpor: Ekti Nirdoliyo Itihas (The Liberation War and Thereafter: A non-partisan history). On the subject of the evening’s lecture, Murshid has a book, Rabindramanas O Stristikorme Purbabanga (East Bengal in Tagore’s Intellectual and Creative Life), which grew out of his 1973 Vidyasagar lectures in Calcutta University.
Murshid had divided his lecture into two parts, with a short interval in between. The first part dealt with the history of Bengali Muslims, and the second traced the story of Tagore’s reception in eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh. The story of Bengali Muslims and the growth of a Muslim middle class in East Pakistan after 1947 is key to understanding the story of Tagore’s changing fortunes there.
How Muslims came to form the majority of the Bengali-speaking population is one of the abiding mysteries of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The most widely accepted theory on the subject has been offered by the historian Richard Eaton, who links the large-scale conversions to Islam in Bengal to the expanding agricultural frontiers of the province under the rule of Muslim overlords in Delhi and their representatives in the province. The first Census of 1872, and especially the subsequent one of 1881, sprang a surprise on the Bengali Hindu bhadralok by revealing for the first time that Muslims were the majority in Bengal. The majority of Bengali Muslims, the Atrafs (as opposed to the elite Ashrafs), were peasants, tailors, weavers and craftsmen, held in servitude to a largely Hindu landowning class. This class divide was one that could easily turn into a fault line of religious polarisation: This was exactly what began to happen from the latter part of the 19th century and culminated in the partition of 1947.
The Hindu revivalism of the late 19th century, followed by the colonial administration’s reverse discrimination favouring Muslims from the early 20th century, created a cultural atmosphere that drew its passionate edge from religious animosity. The novels of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a socially modernising influence on Hindu society in many ways, especially in the way it viewed women, unfortunately reinforced these animosities by their not-very-subtle anti-Muslim bias and their harking back to a past of Muslim domination and profligacy.
The divide was further sharpened in an economic environment where Hindus, by and large, embraced Western education and thrived, though for a relatively brief period, under the colonial administration. The majority of the Muslims, on the other hand, fell back on traditional and inherited trades and livelihoods and viewed the new regime and its intellectual offerings with suspicion.
The animosities between the two communities persisted even after Bengali Muslims woke up to a new dawn in the early 20th century and began to make quick, long strides in embracing modern education and the new opportunities it offered.
‘Poet of the Hindus’
In this context, as Murshid explained in his lecture, it is not surprising that Muslims viewed Tagore with suspicion. Tagore was the poet of the Hindus. His language, beautiful as it was, drew more on the Sanskritic linguistic tradition than on the Arabic and Farsi influences that Bengali had imbibed over the centuries.
As his father’s chosen supervisor for their family’s large landed estates in East Bengal, Tagore was also obliged to function as a rent-collecting landlord. His striking physical beauty, commented on by people all over the world, may not have helped to raise his stock among Bengali Muslims, either. The tall bearded poet in his long flowing robes was surrounded by people who seemed to worship him in ways that could not but bear resonances of the Hindu tradition of idol worship.
This suspicion of Tagore was, of course, ironic in more ways than one. In the first years of the 20th century, Tagore, grieving as he was following a string of bereavements—having lost his wife, his father and his second daughter in quick succession—plunged into the movement against the 1905 partition of Bengal. The songs that he wrote for this movement are among his best remembered patriotic compositions. Yet, he was one of the first to see the conflict of interests between the Hindu landowning class that led the movement and the Muslim masses who populated the East Bengal countryside. (He developed this theme in his 1916 novel Ghare Baire, The Home and the World , which Satyajit Ray later turned into a movie.) He also saw through the hypocrisy of Hindu leaders (more often than not with landed interests in East Bengal but with residences in Calcutta, now Kolkata) who were suddenly keen to find allies among the Muslim masses whom they had hitherto held in barely disguised contempt. He was one of the few intellectuals of that time who did not hesitate to voice his prescient doubts, provoking stinging attacks from nationalist leaders who advised him to stick to writing poems. Disenchanted and disillusioned, Tagore retreated from politics and returned to his writing career and his duties as landlord. In this latter capacity, too, Tagore’s role was anything but communal. His efforts to retrieve his peasants from the never-ending cycle of indebtedness to private lenders, his founding of what is recognised as the first rural bank of the subcontinent, his work on rural reconstruction in western Bengal, and his anguished interrogation of his family’s history of drawing its income from its zamindari estates are well documented. Yet, right up to the time of Partition, Tagore continued to represent the “other” for the majority of Bengali Muslims.
This situation began to change rapidly almost immediately after 1947. Chafing at the colonial fetters imposed by West Pakistan and bridling at the regime’s officially sanctioned linguistic chauvinism, the Bengalis of East Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims alike, began to carve out a new linguistic nationalism. Tagore and his songs became iconic of this struggle, as did the work of some other well-known Bengali Hindu poets such as Atul Prasad Sen. The passions of the language movement of 1952, which resisted the government’s attempt to impose Urdu as the official language, created for Tagore a permanent home in the hearts of Bengali Muslims that he has not lost since. He became, said Murshid in his lecture, “a partner in our struggle”. Throughout the 1960s, every time the government tried to stop Tagore birth anniversary programmes on state-sponsored media, or tried to thwart the singing of Tagore songs, there was a backlash that eventually forced the administration to retreat.
Closely linked to this history of the poet’s reception in East Pakistan is the history of the growth of an educated Bengali Muslim middle class and intelligentsia there. Hindus, who had been in a minority in the eastern part of undivided Bengal, had dominated the administration, the judicial apparatus and the educational institutions before 1947. When Partition became inevitable, most educated Hindus from eastern Bengal decided to cut their losses and move to Calcutta and other parts of western Bengal. This large-scale migration caused an emptying out of teaching staff in schools and colleges, judicial officers in courts and officials in government departments. Bengali Muslim society had no choice but to rise to the occasion and step in to fill the vacancies, making the best use of existing intellectual skills and acquiring more along the way. It was this newly vibrant society that embraced the legacy of Tagore and made it its own.
Time, however, does not stand still, and the reception of Tagore has inevitably evolved and changed in independent Bangladesh. Murshid pointed out that in a sovereign nation that had no need to prove a point to anyone, which installed Bengali as the official state language, and which embraced a Tagore song as its national anthem, there was no longer any urgency to flaunt the poet as an aggressive cultural symbol. Tagore gradually became in Bangladesh a subject of research and intellectual interrogation, as he is in West Bengal. Murshid, forever systematic and meticulous in his approach, listed in his lecture the scholarly, and not-so-scholarly, publications on Tagore that have been produced in Bangladesh in the last 50 years. It was a formidable list, an eloquent testimony to the way Bangladesh has staked its claim to a composite Bengali literary culture. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that Lysa Ahmed Lysa and Aditi Mohsin, both from Bangladesh, are now recognised as the foremost exponents of Rabindrasangeet.) The love of Tagore remains one of the chief cultural unifiers between the two Bengals; so does the love of the Bengali language, as Tagore had predicted that it would. In both Bengals, Tagore, many-splendoured genius that he was, remains best loved for his songs.
Yet, love is a curious thing and sometimes works in ways that make old habits die hard. West Bengal, which has had a healthy tradition of critical engagement with Tagore for the past 30 years at least, owing not a little to the strong Left-leaning intellectual traditions of the State, paradoxically retains some of the old unquestioning reverence for the poet.
Reviled and misunderstood as he was in his lifetime for many of his views, Tagore had undoubtedly become a living institution, especially after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and attracted around him a devoted circle of friends and followers who hung on to every word that he spoke. There is something quaintly affectionate in the way he was addressed as “Gurudeb” in the university that he founded. Going by the accounts left by writers and teachers who made a home in Santiniketan during his lifetime, it reflected the joyous love that he inspired on the campus. It is, however, also faintly disturbing in its suggestion of a refusal to interrogate critically the poet’s life and work. A refusal to criticise and question eventually leads to a flawed understanding of any poet’s legacy, which, by its very nature, is almost always conflicted and complicated.
It was curious to observe how the well-meaning Tagore Research Institute replicated modes of (Hindu) worship at the function it had organised for Murshid’s lecture. The programme started with the blowing of conch shells and the offering of floral tributes to an invisible presence, presumably Tagore’s. Was it a coincidence that the ladies in the audience, all except the guests from Dhaka, were dressed in white sarees with red borders, the kind that Bengali women usually wear for pujas? An evening that might have been stimulating, given the excellence of Murshid’s lecture, was slightly dampened by a depressing lack of irreverence. Without irreverence, there is, perhaps, no humour. Murshid, known for his witty style, was trying his best to make his audience laugh, but in vain. When one after another his jokes, delivered in his deadpan style, fell flat on a grave and attentive audience, Murshid finally started laughing and urged his audience to laugh along with him.