Muse or Guardian? A Tagorean Catharsis on his Birth Anniversary
On the morning of Rabindranath’s birthday this year, something propelled me over to the Upasana Griha, commonly referred to as Mandir by those associated with Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan. Relative respite snatched from the usually endless chain of academic chores could have been a factor, as also my circumstantial immersion in his mind and art over the past months.
I cannot remember when I had been there last on 25-e Boisakh since 2011, Rabindranath’s hundred and fiftieth year. On that day that year, sitting on one of those consecrated concrete benches around the Uttarayan complex while the PA system played his songs and recitations in his own voice, I had felt overwhelmed by the air of hushed grandeur about the place and time. It was as though the awe of arithmetic had made all the difference to the degree and pitch of individual and collective reception of that landmark. As it is, the word jayanti is redolent with a sense of triumph over time, a continued victory march, an annual re-ascension not quite as grandly captured in ‘anniversary’. Given our implicit pride in the antiquity of our land, it is natural, I suppose, for Indians to appreciate the gravity of the last zero, the null, at the end of a number, particularly a three-digit number and upwards.
This time, though, it was just another Rabindra Jayanti, and the sublime solemnity of the occasion was manageably muted. Come to think of it, that is possibly what drew me to the Mandir in the first place: a deep wish to look for ‘him’ amidst expected expressions of quiet, unostentatious attachment. I must have wished, especially, to hear the live rendition of his songs in the quintessentially un-flamboyant, minimalist Santiniketan style. The Santiniketan gharana of Rabindrasangeet allows the feelingly unhurried vocalisation of notes to convey the meaning and mood, instead of accenting the words over and above the musical structure in which they are already evocatively embedded.
On such occasions, even familiar songs take on new import when interspersed with Upanishadic chants and the head of the institution’s address. The last is usually, and inevitably, illustrated with long excerpts from the poet’s non-fiction; so that the merit of a particular address derives largely from the combined appositeness and novelty of that set of quotations. Given the staggeringly all-encompassing nature of the poet’s oeuvre of words and works, one actually comes away feeling more overawed than ever, more enmeshed in the dense web of pronouncements converging from across their discrete historical and biographical contexts.
In Bangla, there is an idiomatic expression that translates as ‘frying fish in its own fat.’ The problem with Rabindranath is that he relentlessly, almost mischievously, compels us to do that practically every moment of our public and private lives. I have been listening since morning to a song that at one point goes: ‘magana hou sudhasagare’ (‘immerse yourself in the sea of nectar’). ‘Magnata’ or immersion, a word I have used earlier, is something that Rabindranath teases out of us. What this produces at its best is a curiously selfless solipsism; and at worst, a dangerous disconnect from the flawed ordinariness that surrounds us. There is a resultant risk, with everything we say or do, of finding ourselves either citing him consciously or alluding to him unwittingly. In fact, I am not sure these ruminations of mine are not doing precisely that. Being in Rabindranath, then, is the ultimate Orwellian experience. We are all like the blind men trying to size up an elephant. The problem is, if we did choose to give up everything for a state of permanent submergence in his oceanic corpus, we might lose our autonomy of perception and expression altogether and, like the possessed rhapsode in Plato’s Ion, be reduced to ventriloquising him.
One could well argue that an identical crisis is likely to engulf a devotee of Shakespeare. After all, as dramatist, Shakespeare is likely to present a much richer array of human characters to alternately feel kinship with. When seen level-headedly, however, the difference is in the poly-generic versatility of form in Tagore, and his colossal straddling of the worlds of creative and polemical expression and practice. It lies also in his chameleon-like ability to redefine, reinvent and reengage himself in the current of life and thought around him with a motivation that was both frenetic and disciplined. Shakespeare’s ‘negative capability’ implies that he distributes himself among a Hamlet, a Lear, a Falstaff or a Portia. He is ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’ and ‘we’. Even the intense ‘I’ of the sonnets has a situational singularity. With Rabindranath, not only does the ‘I’ permeate the ‘him’ and the ‘her’ and the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ all, it is the ‘I’ itself that is tantalisingly irreducible to the Keatsian paradigm of ‘egotistical sublime’. Rabindranath is not a Wordsworth, not always oppressively sublime, and not always egotistical either.
Besides, one must at least love words to love Shakespeare. The Tagorean onslaught, on the other hand, is total war: if you do not want to read his poetry, there is the intricately iconoclastic, breathtakingly variegated fabric of his lyrical work; if you do not want just that, there is the primal pull of his paintings, the mix of abstraction and energy that his plays exude, or the delicacy of the dance-form that evolved under his auspices; if not that, then his life’s work: his Santiniketan, his Sriniketan.
The difference also lies in the unapologetic worldliness of Shakespearean wisdom. When it comes to Rabindranath, one can never tell. It is not a choice between clarity and mystery, between articulation and prevarication, between disclosure and concealment. It is not the kind of rich openness to innumerable humans’ innumerable meaning-making that the Shakespearean word unleashes. It is a far more frighteningly conflicted mode of invited participation: at once lucid and abstruse, spontaneous and constrained, concrete and diffuse, direct and evasive. There was a time when I argued with my father over their relative greatness – he placing Rabindranath far above while I shook my head in solidarity with Shakespeare. Today, twenty years on, I am not sure. I cannot choose. And Rabindranath does not ask one to choose; nor does he not. To put the matter in his own words from Gitanjali:
Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
The terrible beauty of the stranglehold also stems from the fact that it does not allow one to compartmentalise spheres of being and doing and neatly circumscribe his influence within any one of these domains – aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, moral, interpersonal, social, ecological, or political. Hence the almost insurmountable challenge of separating his kind of right living from his kind of right thinking. The utopian fragility of Santiniketan, the unfeasibility of sustaining its pristine shape and character through time might thus be said to stem from just such an inspired tangle. How can we humans born in lesser times, individually and collectively, continue to be and do that which is frightfully difficult precisely because it is so frightfully elementary?
To extend the paradox, for the particularly Tagorean utopia to last through time, it must keep pace with changing times, ie it must change. Yet, if it must change, where will it hold its original, historical form, if not in that same physical space called Santiniketan? What then must the role of Santiniketan be? To change in order to evolve and pursue the Tagorean course of perfectibility, or to remain in perpetuity a museum, a frozen time capsule, as it were, of what it had been in its past perfection? This is the profound dilemma that swamps me every time I watch a musical or a theatrical performance under Visva-Bharati’s aegis. Frankly, as we pass from one annual production to another of this or that dance-drama or opera, we note only subtle changes, if at all, in dramaturgy and performance practices. Yet, wonder of wonders! Most of those who have grown up watching them do not seem to mind the artistic stasis! One is driven to speculate with a touch of indulgence whether the stasis itself affords a strange tranquillity, a welcome relief from the meretriciousness of more self-consciously progressive cultural exertions. Perhaps, what it allows is a sense, however deluded, of an organic rootedness of the art in the life around. By contrast, however well-meaning urban productions might be, however sincerely synced to the bygone essence, they always bear the stamp of a struggle with the brutal crassness closing in from all sides. No wonder then that people from the city come over to soak under sensibilities that the city has putatively forced them to shed. No wonder either that people from the West and the Far East come to experience what they perceive to be the continued promise of meaningful alterity in an otherwise homogeneously dystopian global village.
Which of these is Santiniketan’s calling? Whither point its poet’s invisible though intensely present hands and eyes? Can it manage to be both: a space that is peculiarly porous and impervious, cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time? Can it possibly remain more and more the same the more and more it changes from within by absorbing more and more of what the changing world has to offer? Now, that is an Ovidian question. That is also a Tagorean oxymoron. I do not know whom I am reading into whom. Rabindranath would not mind.
Let me return to my self-directed inquest as to the point of seeking him in actual physical spaces which he had inhabited, but which I do not necessarily frequent on a daily basis. The Mandir’s stained glass and wrought iron structure in white, the contrasting rusty red of the grounds, the sombre green of the surrounding trees, the stately Santiniketan house in yellow and green recessed slightly to the right of the visible perimeter, all seem to hold out the promise of comfort, rest and peace, of answers to ‘overwhelming questions’, of epiphany. In the light of Rabindranath’s characteristically slanted utterances, however, it should have seemed a fundamental error. If he has indeed become seemar majhey aseem – ‘the unbounded within bounds’ – then he should be here, there and everywhere: as much in Bolpur as in the ashrama precincts of Santiniketan, as much in, say, Burkina Faso as in Bengal.
I do not think I went there entirely looking for ‘him’, even his invisible spirit – something like the Christian Holy Ghost or God the Father. There are several framed photographs of him around our apartment – hung on the wall in deference to the adopted family tradition. I have never wanted reproduced plates of his paintings on the walls. That would be too facetious; cause for inward embarrassment. Who am I to appropriate the stark abandon of his pen and paintbrush into the carefully contrived homeliness of the nuclear home? Indeed, his paintings, more than any other collectivity of his artistic expression, more than even his great slow sad songs of soul-stirring desolation, have the capacity to shake us out of the torpor of quotidian complacency, to shatter the veneer of blithe domesticity, to make us clutch our heads in agony and anguish like Blake’s Cain. They present a cross between the sighing melancholy of Virgilian katabasis and the wrenching laughter of Ovidian cornucopia. Confronting them turns one into a Dante – not sure whether to let oneself get drawn and sucked into the abyss or to shrink and recoil in sympathetic self-loathing.
Let me come back to the photographs and the comparison between looking for truth in those deep, burning and sad eyes of his, and looking for it in the sights and sounds of the actual physical spaces he once inhabited. In fact, over the years I seem to have instinctively picked up the habit of silently seeking his blessings alongside my father’s on the way out. On my son’s birthday this year, I did not hesitate to garland him along with the two grandfathers. It seemed an appropriate ritual, a somewhat necessary settling into ritualised remembrance that is not altogether without its virtues and moral boons. It could be seen as a way of making him a guardian of our daily lives, not just the muse of our higher thoughts. Such assimilation could seem particularly dutiful and responsible, in view of my life and livelihood being directly tied to the poet’s labour of love – that essentially borderless but now largely walled up learning space which one wishes one did not have to reduce to the lexical capsule called ‘university’. Such near-bardolatry, of the kind captured by Rituparno Ghosh in his adaptation of Noukadubi (The Boat-wreck), could also be seen as a desperate effort on my part, an immigrant in Santiniketan, to gate crash into that apparently open-access but viscerally guarded community of asramiks.
In fact, I found myself seated on the fairly capacious fence sill at the meditations, shoulder to shoulder with several revered asramiks, all of us presenting the very picture of white sanctimony. Come to think of it: what did our whites actually mean? Do we not use electric kettles at home? Do we not look at ourselves in the mirror to check how pure and stately and imperious we are looking? Do we not get our whites washed and ironed for money by the sizeable reserve of willing manual labour around this fragile Arcadia of ours? As Shylock asked Salarino rhetorically:
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we do, and if we indeed, in all humility and compunction, keep returning to the poet to re-fuel our tank of self-knowledge (and I am being self-consciously Tagorean in my irreverent choice of analogy), do our whites connote attainment, aspiration or abnegation? The most exasperating conundrum lies in the fact that the poet demolishes the borders even among these ontological categories. In the bold obliqueness of his thinking aloud, abnegation becomes attainment, and immersion abnegation. One is supposed to be both within the world and without, self-aware but not self-absorbed, hedonistic and austere, committed and detached, moral and amoral. One must let go and hold in. Now how are we going to do that, day in and day out, without slipping, without erring, without wishing to fool ourselves? Rabindranath is an impossible role model: the metaphysical horizon that disappears just when we think we have got to it.
Not all members of Visva-Bharati’s substantial working community manage to attend Mandir on 25e Boisakh, or indeed the all-the-year-round calendar of collective communitarian rites and activities. Such presence would be undoubtedly constructive for the Visva-Bharati fraternity, in view of the peculiar physical and social disconnect that ordinarily obtains among us. However, regular presence has been made practically unfeasible in view of the institution’s increasingly punctilious deference to conventional parameters of quantifiable progress. The consequent burden of conformity to the mesh of work that Rabindranath would have found disturbingly mechanistic and hence dis-organic generates another dilemma for aspirant asramiks. How does one serve Visva-Bharati best: by working for its present with an unfettered, uncluttered autonomy of outlook, if that is possible, or in reverential adherence to the normative memory of its past? Who are more committed to the poet: those who daily read and rehearse him, or those who, unknowingly, unaware or unwilling to be aware, go about their seemingly un-Tagorean grind? Is it essential to know Rabindranath to do him?
To return to the call of the Mandir, those who do manage to turn up at the right place at the right time pass a kind of rite of initiation and induction. They and the veterans become the ashrama for the duration of the event, before dispersing and dissipating back into their mundane and often muddled worlds of existence. For the length of the programme, then, while the magical spell of borrowed words and notes lasts, this unspoken bonding implicitly confers not just a passing consolidation of values, but also the corresponding prerogative of silently excluding, othering those evidently different.
If I may dare say so, the political dynamics of exclusion and inclusion, essential to all utopian enterprises, is no different between a nation and a nationalism-defying, self-deludedly elitist pastoral community. The difference, if at all, lies in the crudeness or relative sophistication of these discriminating criteria and in the relative brashness or succinctness with which these are applied. I could see the drama unfolding right there in front of me and was startled at my own neophyte-like complicity in it. Crucially, much of this cultural politics was being played out in terms of the sartorial and the elocutionary code, though it is important to add that commitment to such cultural protocol, typically, takes on a sort of moralist fervour. Urbanity of accent and austerity of attire are communal registers as deeply entrenched in Santiniketan as they would have been in Britain not too long ago, if not even now.
Every time somebody mispronounced a Tagorean word, the ladies next to me exchanged glances of bemused censure. Every time I looked around to find visitors milling around the site in jeans, trousers or their variants, every time I looked about to see young women vainly posing for the camera in their appropriated asramik ensemble outfit complete with flowers in the hair, I winced inwardly. Yet why should I have reacted thus? If breaking out of the mould is the Rabindrik philosophy of culture, ought one to sneer at casually mis-dressed outsiders? As to the disproportionate desire to photograph and be photographed, why, thereby hangs a paradox too! How is one to spread the spirit of Santiniketan around peoples and places today except through the truly borderless, compulsively visual space of virtual social networking?
While I sighed in my favourite words from Ecclesiastes, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, should I not have acknowledged the folly of deeming myself morally and culturally superior to those I deigned to judge? As I and those around me silently scoured the scene for jarring dissonances of verbal and corporeal language, exactly what degree of humbling interiority could we claim to have achieved? Did we not implicate ourselves in the words of one of the songs emanating from within the chamber?
Tomar katha hetha keho to bole na, kare shudhu michhe kolahol
Sudhasagarero tirete boshiya, pan kare shudhu halahal
(Of you here none speak, (they) only make empty chatter/ Seated on the fringe of the sea of elixir, (they) but drink up venom.)
There is, admittedly, a telling contradiction in turning thus to his words to rue the inescapability of doing so. Did I see a glint in his eyes?