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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

* Tagore: Place and Space

Dear Professor Sanjukta Dasgupta,

I know that you are expecting a blog post from me about the International Conference on “Tagore: At Home in the World” organized by the Department of English (DRS SAP – III, Phase – II) and Rabindranath Tagore Centre for Human Development Studies from 10th to 12th February 2011 held at CSSH Hall, Alipore Campus. During those three days of the conference you and your team created in that place a space, which was not confined to just listening to paper presentation. In fact being ten floors above the earthly moorings the participants were, in a rather primitive sense, in space. The place / space dynamics is quite interesting as Dr. Debarati Bandyopadhyay pointed out with reference to Tagore’s poem ‘Tal Gach”. The tree’s place is the earth (“Ma je hoy mati tar”) but its space is created by its aspirations ("Moner shad”). The place of the conference had an address but the space of the conference was the conjunction of minds from a diversity of nations, professions, and affiliations. Differences of being presenters, professors, researchers, and students were perceived as sameness under the label of “participants”. You said in your first day’s address that Tagore had anticipated such postmodern dualities and the discourses during the conference amply displayed that. No doubt even UNESCO is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore.

Professor Ana Jelnikar spoke of the Tagore’s universalism in a world of particulars as the moment of becoming indifferent to difference, where all individuals fill the Golden Boat (“Sonar Tari”) with their harvest but themselves stand outside it because the boat is symbolic of the world and life but not the individual. Professor Indranath Choudhuri contended that in Tagore often the self and the universe becomes one. It is perhaps this that helped Tagore, as Professor Krishna Sen argued, to look at the Europeans as people like him and not exactly the other way round. One of the important points of Professor Sen’s paper was that the non-metropolitan locations of Tagore’s writings destabilize postcolonial binaries. She explained that it is more important to study how Tagore looked at the world and theorized it than how the world looked at Tagore and theorized him because Tagore was not just responsive to modernity but constitutive of it. Her comparison of Tagore and Fanon was very interesting because it starkly delineated the West’s distinctive relationships with India and Africa. For Tagore true freedom lay in the freedom of the mind and it is nowhere more apparent that in his signing of the the “Declaration of the Independence of the Mind” charter at Romain Rolland’s invitation, as Professor Chinmoy Guha pointed out. Professor Choudhuri also stated that Tagore understood the fundamental difference between the West and India – the West develops through substitution whereas India develops through accommodation. It was this non-parochial and inclusive notion of nationalism of Tagore that was in disjoint with the prevalent Swadeshi views and the concept of ethnic nationalism. It made Tagore declare, rather rhetorically, that he was not a patriot since he sought his compatriots all over the world. Professor Amartya Mukhopadhyay countered that Tagore was a patriot with a difference because he did not recognize the nation with its impersonality as in the European sense. Instead Tagore’s love for his country was equivalent to his love for his country people, as Professor Subhoranjan Dasgupta emphasized.

Tagore’s inconsistencies are said to be his weakest points but these are not inconsistencies of irrationality but of creativity, and hence are in a sense his strongest points too. Professor Tutun Mukherjee showed how Tagore explored the uncanny in his ghost stories and through his experimentation with planchet. It was Tagore’s creative way of probing the dimensions of reality. Another point of contention was Tagore’s attitude towards gender issues. Professor Sudeshna Chakravarti demonstrated this through Tagore’s debates with his contemporaries like Chandranath Basu. Professor Blanka Knotkova-Capkova too took up the gender question in illustrating how spiritual principles are gendered in Tagore’s poem “Bairagya”. Professor Jharna Sanyal indicated that the irony of hailing Tagore as Bengal’s Ibsen and his “Streer Patra” as the Indian version of The Doll’s House lay in the fact that Tagore always put aesthetics over theory whereas Ibsen did just the opposite.

It is poignant to note that in Germany and East Central Europe Tagore’s reception, though did not have any colonial context, was still mired by his wise man image. Professor Martin Kampchen exquisitely explained through the anecdote of a Gurkha soldier keeping his faith on a German soldier (or was it the other way round) on hearing Tagore’s name on his lips during the First World War. But the mystic East was to fade soon from their imagination and along with it Tagore too. Professor Imre Bangha showed how Hungarian attitude to Asian literature was shaped by the translations of classic Chinese poetry (of poets long dead) juxtaposed with the translations of Tagore (who was still living), thereby pushing Tagore into the tradition of the past.

Professor Uma Dasgupta’s paper was an exposition on Tagore’s conception of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Tagore wanted to bring about a fruitful conjugation of the urban and the rural. But what came as an inadvertent hindrance towards the realization of his dream was the lack of state support and paradoxically his own high culture. Dr. Amrit Sen in exploring the recurrence of the word “tirtha” as a motif in Tagore’s travelogues could also equate Visva Bharati as Tgore’s “tirtha”. Professor Ramkrishna Bhattacharya observed that Tagore’s later travelogues became a cross between diary and philosophical notes (often written in epistolary form). It was the transcendent aspect of “tirtha” which formulated Tagore’s Santiniketan as “Bhraman Vidyalaya” (travel school). Tagore took as his inspiration the forests schools of the Upanishads. Professor Udaya Narayana Singh in his address made an interesting comparison that in India civilization grew up in nature unlike in the West where civilization grew up within fortified cities. Ramkumar Mukhopadhyay lamented that post the theft of Tagore’s Nobel medallion walls are being erected around Santiniketan. Tagore’s vision of a space for imparting knowledge will now confine itself into a walled place. 

Tagore was against imperialism and all forms of injustice. That is why, as Professor Amiya Bagchi said in the inaugural session, he was not at home in the world he was in. Tagore gave away his knighthood in protest against the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. Tagore refused to go to Canada because of Canadian government’s discriminatory policy towards the immigrants. Professor Bagchi referred to Dr. Binayak Sen’s case to remind us how Tagore’s speech in Town Hall where he said that the strong thinks that the weak has no rights is relevant even today. Professor Probal Dasgupta, in his address on “Tagore’s Book of Consecration, Naibedya”, posited that Tagore reconciled his democratic and anti-authoritarian ideals through his devotion to god. This thesis was also apparent in Professor Madakranta Bose’s beautiful presentation where she showed how Tagore transformed Jayadeva’s divine figures into unambiguous human figures, shifting them form the religious to the secular sphere, without diminishing the aesthetics of Bhakti. 
And when Professor Amita Dutt (Mookherjee) and her disciples employed the dance form to explore Tagore’s songs it became almost divine – a completion of an aesthetic spiritual circle. Professor Moon Moon Majumdar in her paper on Tagore’s Shillong trips had spoken of Tagore’s fascination with Manipuri dance. Dr. Shoma A. Chatterjee too had shown the Manipuri dance form in her presentation on the usage of Tagore’s songs in films. So when Professor Dutt made a fusion of classic dance tradition of Manipur with the folk tradition of Gujarat it came out admirably in the performance with cymbals by her two disciples to the tune of “Dui hate kaler mandira”. It was followed by Professor Dutt’s own performance to ‘Marana re tuhu mama Shyama samana” where she revelled in the “abhinaya” aspect of Kathak. And there was another performance by one of her disciples to the song “Nupura beje jai rini rini”, which came a as  pleasant bonus at the end. I remember Professor Dutt’s performance in the 2006 DRS seminar at Derozio Hall where there was a proper stage but this time round she did not have that advantage. Yet, as she herself said, one should not assume that the viewer lacks imagination. I could not help but compliment her when I met her in the tea lounge.
Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta with Prof. Amita Dutt

So far I have been telling you what happened officially at the conference, which you already know, and recording these here is my act of minimizing the probability of forgetting them. But there were voices on the sidelines too, which you may not have heard, and I put those too on record. I was strolling in the passage between the lounge and the seminar hall on the third day after lunch.  When Sahila looked at me askance, I told her a half-truth that I was just waiting for the post-lunch session to start. The other half of the truth was that my waiting had become coterminous with watching and listening at the margins. I heard voices that berated that Tagore could never accept Islam as a religion of India; how when Tagore heard that Oxford University Press was going to publish some criticism of his work, he used his stature and his influence to stall such a publication; and how Tagore wrote in pseudonym to newspapers castigating those who criticized him. It was then that I understood how Tagore could return the gaze to the West, which had conveniently put him on a pedestal and as conveniently shoved him into oblivion. It was then that I realized that Tagore could afford to be inconsistent without any loss to his status. That was the human Tagore.

On the sidelines something else too happened. I met for the first time in person Professor Sandipan Sen and Professor Siddhartha Biswas, both of whom I had known for a number of years but only online. [By the way I am now an associate member of Pegasus journal and my page at the journal’s website can be accessed here.] Now if you are wondering why I have employed the epistolary form for this blog post then the blame should squarely fall on Professor Chinmoy Guha anchored and Ladly Mukhopadhyay directed excellent documentary on the letters of Rabindranath Tagore, which implanted the germ in my mind as soon as it was shown in the final session of the conference.

And you don’t have to remind me of your impromptu transformation of the valedictory session into a photo-op for all the volunteers and faculty members who helped to organize the three-day conference so successfully. Your gesture was highly commendable. I can still visualize Saptarshi handing over the conference kit, Sanghita calling for tea, Prasita distributing the participation certificates, and the rest of your team who by their efforts made the participants feel at home during the conference. I personally thank them all. And a special thank goes to you.

Amit Shankar Saha