Thoughts on Tagore

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 10, 2010

All romantics, political or otherwise, should read Rabindranath Tagore. I finished reading a selection of Tagore’s short stories (Oxford) some days back… I should say that they had some of the finest pieces of literature I’ve come across. What a style the man has! I can understand why he was considered a ‘giant’ in his age. Poet, novelist, painter, philosopher, composer, phew! One talented chap!

The beauty of Tagore’s writing lies in its simplicity. In fact it is so simple that it is complex. His short stories read like children’s tales. Yet, they are a reflection of socio-political life in colonial Bengal, the complex realities of identity, class, caste, gender and colonialism. Tagore’s way with words is brilliant. He uses it to the greatest effect to evoke strong emotions in the reader. I loved the way Tagore writes on love, the tragic aspect of his love stories making them all the more appealing. (I think it is a general human perversion that people are more attracted to tragedies than tales of complete joy). Consider the following lines from The Haldar Family:

“The summer breeze still blew, the rain still thrilled the monsoon nights, and the pain of unrequited love wandered weeping through the passages of a desolate heart.”

Can anyone who is/has been in love fail to get stirred by these lines? Also, the manner in which Tagore invokes nature in his stories adds to their beauty. You can actually feel it, the summer breeze, the monsoon rains, the smell of the morning dew, the chill of the night – and you can feel it in tune with your emotions while you are reading the book. That’s what makes a good tale. Not only should it make you feel, it should relate to what you are feeling. Tagore’s stories hit you both hard and soft at the same time.

I really liked the women in Tagore’s stories. His women are full of strength, strength in simplicity and simple complexity. The characters in The Wife’s Letter, Woman Unknown, The Laboratory, The Story of a Mussalmani are not exactly superwomen. But their reaction to circumstances, their refusal to remain passive objects and their little rebellions against the established order are provoking. In fact, even when portrayed as weak and helpless, as in Subha, there is so much strength in the portrayal of their weakness that it moves the strongest heart.

I do have strong differences with Tagore’s political opinions. He is too much of an idealist and jumps into metaphysics often. His invocation of god every now and then gets annoying. Take his views on nationalism. He makes no difference between the nationalism of the oppressor and that of the oppressed, rejecting both. While his criticism of the ‘Indian nation’ is valid in that no Indian nation exists, his relapsing into nostalgia of a glorious past of the Indian civilization borders on the absurd considering that such a glorious past never existed.

However, the thing about Tagore’s views is that they might be erroneous but they are not venomous. Tagore neither claims monopoly over the truth nor performs theatrics if his views are opposed like Mr. MK Gandhi. It can be argued that Tagore’s political views are more suited for discussions in upper middle class tea parties than for revolutionary social change among the masses. This argument can be extended to his literature as well. While that might be true, his views, fluid as they are, aren’t an impediment to social change either. One can say that in his stories Tagore is only hitting out at this or that flaw in the social/political system and not attacking it in toto, but I think he should be spared this criticism for the sheer beauty of the texts and for the fact that many of his stories do kindle strong emotions in a passionate reader – emotions that can be channelised for constructive work.

It is true, just as religion is the opiate of the masses, literature is the opiate of the elites, more exquisite though. Yet, a work of beauty cannot be condemned just because it accessible to a few. That is the nature of beauty – it is exclusive. Then, it is not the literature that has to be berated but rather the masses who have to elevated to the level of critical perception. It is pure philistinism to reject a work of beauty on arguments of relevance or utility. The cultured one appreciates beauty in the form it comes to her/him regardless of its source. Beauty is in perception. Perception. Experience. Feeling. Good literature should be read to perceive its beauty, experience its depth and feel its exotic effect. And this is something people, especially activists, must do. After all, won’t a person who feels better be a better rebel?

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