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Tagore at Home in the World
by Prof. Dr. Narasingha Sil Bookmark and Share

Sanjukta Dasgupta and Chinmoy Guha, eds. Tagore at Home in the World. New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2013. $ 26.00

The book under review, an anthology of twenty-two articles derived from a conference proceedings marking Rabindranath Tagore’s sesquicentennial birth anniversary in 2011, contains a variety of perspectives, quite apposite for a subject like the “myriad-minded” poet, but, by the same token, it is also a mixed bag—some intellectually inspiring and challenging and a few apparently hastily conceived and composed and hence marginal—albeit nearly every one of them attempting to present an original view without, as can be found in Kolkata’s book market, rehashing the clichéd paean for the Poet Laureate of the World in mellifluous prose. The first essay by Udaya Narayana Singh “Tagore Redrawing the Boundaries: In Other Words, Crossing the Limits of Language,” and those under Part III: “Discovering the Unknown” and Part IV: “Nation, ‘No-Nation’ and Beyond Nationalism” are quite engaging and illuminating, especially the ones by Amrit Sen and Ramakrishna Bhattacharya. In his concise critique of Tagore’s concerns for silence and communications through language Singh refers to the poet’s putative influence on Ludwig Wittgenstein and his effort to effect a synthesis of “Oriental knowledge system…and the Western thought” (10). As he concludes, Rabindranath’s literary, philosophical, spiritual, educational, and aesthetic repertoire furnish a rich reserve of wisdom and inspiration for “the beginning of global modernity (10). Sen’s close reading of Tagore’s texts—prose as well as poetry—to explicate the latter’s understanding of travel as pilgrimage [tirtha ] is a model of “glossing” reminiscent of the scholarly enterprises by the literati of the Italian Renaissance. Bhattacharya’s illuminating demonstration of Tagore’s transition from the popularly acclaimed upholder of Indian ascetic tradition and values to the harbinger of secular modernism during his Persian travels and not just following his sojourn to the Soviet Union is of signal importance for Tagore scholars and students.

Subhoranjan Dasgupta’s excellent critique of Tagore’s ideas of nationalism yet falls short of being critical. His reading of Tagore’s novel Gora (1910) prompts him to conclude that “there is no contradiction between condemnation of nationalism and [an] ardent expression of love for one’s own country” (101). It is of course well known that the poet’s patriotism attaches itself to people and their social relationships rather than the territory. But Dasgupta does not interrogate Tagore’s skewed understanding of nation state or state as such. Tagore overlooked the existence of state [rastra] and rule of law [dandaniti] in ancient India that constituted the subject matter of Kautilya’s (c. 350-275 BCE) Arthashastra. Tagore further ignored the contribution of European nation states to art, culture, economy, and social development. The quintessential humanist in him felt outraged by the barbarism of his contemporary Europe. [1] Nevertheless, Dasgupta’s concluding suggestion for a “simultaneous reading of [Rabindranath’s] texts Nationalism and Gora with a view to appreciating the “adequate point counterpoint” in his nationalism-patriotism conundrum is judiciously made.

By the same token, Indra Nath Choudhuri’s painstaking analysis of Tagore’s concept of universal nationalism or universal humanism compels attention even when it does not, indeed cannot, command wholesale endorsement. Unfortunately, there are serious lapses in Choudhuri’s otherwise densely referenced essay: lamentable neglect of a number of insightful works on Tagore’s universalism in Bengali as well as in English and his erratic referencing. For example, Jean Paul Sartre, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Mann, Diogenes (not Diagenes, as printed), Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, or Edmund Husserl are named, and even some of them briefly discussed, in the article (but not listed in the Bibliography), though with startling results. Diogenes, who is credited with coining the term cosmopolites, is mentioned having “said in 421 BC [italics mine], ‘I am a citizen of the world’” (107) nearly a decade before he is supposed to have been born (either 412 or 404 BC). Then, George Steiner’s quotes from his Errata: An Examined Life are referenced as Claude Steiner and Paul Perry, Achieving Emotional Literacy (124). Next, his use of the phrase vasudhaiva kutamvakam as Vedic wisdom is confusing at best. It occurs in the Mahopanisad attached to the Samaveda (sometimes referenced as attached to the Atharvaveda, which is likely a confusion at best or mistake at worst), but Choudhuri’s nebulous “Vedic discourse” is somewhat misleading. Surprisingly, Choudhuri never bothers to examine the spiritual font of Tagore’s concept of Bishvajiban. [2] Yet I must consider Choudhuri’s work as a scholarly critique by an insider (“emic” cf. Thomas Newland et al., eds. Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage Publications, 1990).

Anna Jelnikar argues persuasively that Tagore’s idea of universalism achieves two objectives: “deconstruct the dominant binary logic of modernities so as to reposition India and the individual in a global framework” (292) and transform the “the historical fact of colonial rule and its injustices” and use the latter “creatively to the long-term advantage of the Indian people” (291). This is what Jelnikar labels, a la Ernesto Laclau, “the new universal,” which she discovers in Rabindranath’s enigmatic poem Sonar Tari by means of her insightful hermeneutics (301). Complementing this essay, there is an interesting perspective on Tagore’s being “at home in the world” through place/space dynamics provided by Debarati Bandyopadhyay’s intelligently and imaginatively argued and crafted contribution “Tagore, Environment and Ecology: A Place-Space Dynamics” (305-16).

Amartya Mukhopadhyay’s essay, despite an impressive array of citations from (mostly) European and (a few) Asian scholars, arrives at a simple, albeit commonsensical, conclusion that Tagore’s praise for “’the differences of arrangements in Japanese and British ships,’ so that in the former ‘there was a space for the flow of humanity through even the rules of work’” as “a celebration of ‘bhinnat?’ or cultural pluralism, and the key to Tagore’s search for the ’emic’ [sic] nation” (149) is pretty obscure, even obfuscating. Then, “Nation of the West” meaning Pax Britannica [borrowed from Edward Gibbon’s Pax Romana designating the period of relative calm and peace in the Mediterranean world during the reign of the first emperor Caesar Augustus], is not quite meaningful (129). Mukhopadhyay’s another perplexing expression verging on the oxymoron is “Tagore’s profoundly anti-national nationalism” (148).

The anthology’s four carefully argued and written chapters include Sudeshna Chakravarti’s “Rabindranath and the Bengal Partition of 1905: Community, Class and Gender,” Sanjukta Dasgupta’s “Bengali at Home, English in the World,” Uma Dasgupta’s “Rabindranath’s Experiments with Education, Community and Nation at His Santiniketan Institutions,” and Tutun Mukherjee’s “Rabindranath Tagore and the Uncanny.” Chakravarti provides an analysis of Ghare Baire and its historical setting the Svadeshi movement a la the Partition of Bengal free from theories—postcolonial, postmodern, or subaltern. Her narrative flows easily in her flawless prose that is at once clear, cogent, and concise. Dasgupta demonstrates Tagore’s agency in translating his work and his disarming admission (a definitive mark of his personal integrity and sincerity) to his own limitations in this respect in his letter to James Cousins (176-77). Nevertheless, Tagore’s command of the language of the metropolitan master is gloriously manifest in his celebrated missive to Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India, conveying a dignified surrender of his “foreign shine” [3]with what Dasgupta wittily interjects, “a Parthian shot” at the end (182). Uma Dasgupta’s piece is based partly on her well-known earlier studies and thus carries all the qualities and insights of her prodigious research. However, she has not taken into consideration, with the sole exception of Michael Collins’s fine work (284-85), a number of studies on the theme of Tagore’s ideas of education too numerous to mention here. Apart from the format of her paper still retaining its “conference presentation” mode (not her fault), it is insightful and helpful for an appreciation of Tagore’s ideas of universalism that undergirds his concept of vishvabharati. Mukherjee expertly delineates the European Enlightenment’s tension between scientific-utilitarian reason and Romantic “unreason” and finds similar dialectics being played out in colonial Bengal that served as springboard for Tagore’s short stories of the uncanny. Her concluding remarks on Tagore’s use of language to describe the fantastic elucidate the significance of his oeuvre of this genre: “Tagore very deliberately builds a narrative and rhetorical structure whose logical coherence is continuously dismantled by ambiguous situations, equivocal utterances and manifestation of the subliminal, indicating the limits of ordinary language which tries to structure an extraordinary, incomparable and ungraspable experience” (64).

Similarly, Martin Kämpchen’s “Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: An Overview” (15-24), Imre Bangha’s “Tagore’s Reception and His Translations in Hungary” (25-37), and Blanka Knotková-Capková’s “Studying Rabindranath Thakur within the Czech Bengali Studies” (215-29) are informative and helpful in appreciating Rabindranath’s connection with and influence on the Central and East Central Europeans. It is amusing, albeit aggravating, to note how an intellectual like Thomas Mann could be reminded of a “fine old English lady” (23)—not very complimentary for the elderly English women either—upon beholding the tall Indian bard sporting a flowing white beard of a Biblical Methuselah or the God of Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel. It is also revealing to note how in Eastern Europe this “fine old English lady” became “the living representative of the ancient Orient…an old man, a symbol of timeless East” (33). Knotková-Capkova’s magisterial feminist interpretation of Rabindranath’s poem “Vairagya” in Chaitali (1896) is not only a model of exercise in linguistics (219-25) but also an unmistakable legacy of the pioneering Tagore scholar Professor Vincenc Lesny, who was a personal friend of Tagore. However, as we learn from Moon Moon Mazumdar’s “Tagore and Shillong: Between the Lines” (230-50), the poet did not have much of an enthusiastic reception nearer home, Assam, where he experienced some embarrassment with respect to his putative Assamese origin, though Mazumdar’s desultory details fail to provide a cogent, clear, and analytical narrative.

The editors’ reminder in the concluding paragraph of the Introduction (xix) helps readers to figure out the causes for the truncated size of a few entries in the collection such as those by Reba Som, Chinmoy Guha, and Malashri Lal. Som, arguably a distinguished specialist in Rabindrasangit, provides what may be considered a preview or summary of her much acclaimed work Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (2009), but as a discreet scholarly article (262-75) it falls short of the genre. This is not to debunk or dismiss her essay (minus the eight colored pictures that add little that is meaningful except appearing as “padding”) but to underscore its inadequacy as a piece of discourse comparable to other contributions that are fuller and richer in their contents and contentions.

Guha’s bane is, unfortunately, the paucity of evidence for what he wishes to posit as “the hysterically beautiful” (whatever that means) Countess Anna’s erotic overture to Tagore compared to Victoria Ocampo’s a few years earlier (39). The problem is the author furnishes virtually nothing as evidence except de Noailles’s address to Tagore on the brochure describing his paintings exhibited at Galerie Pigalle, Paris in May 1930. Apparently she writes in the concluding section of this address to Tagore: “I love you and have more admiration for you.” But far from what Guha surmises as her erotic attraction for Rabindranath, this appears to be a purposive compensatory compliment, as it were, after she had inflicted some sharp and patently unsavory reaction at his paintings: “Why has Tagore, the great mystic, suddenly without knowing, set at liberty that which in him scoffs, banters and perhaps despises?” She also adds that the poet’s “silent feet, on the gravel,” made her think of her “imaginary” sins and of his “sublime innocence.” The latent message of these sentences seems to underscore the “fact” that her sins were imaginary, that is, not real, but his “innocence” (sounds like “naiveté”) was (41)!

Guha cites a stanza from Anna’s poem “Hymns for Persephone” (without attribution) followed by five stanzas from another piece “Different Kinds of Paradise,” insinuating a connection with Tagore. After these enigmatic citations he writes “Anna’s bag was full with greats”—as if de Noailles was some kind of a body snatcher or body catcher somewhat akin to a chheledhara (42). And finally Guha quotes a line from still another poem of Anna’s “in silence we recline, not understanding why…” and claims “That’s what she admitted to Tagore,” and concludes that “Her personal homage of love has remained immortal in those illuminating words on Tagore’s paintings” (43). Actually this line occurs in her poem “Aftermath” and its subject matter is lovemaking in which two lovers are experiencing orgasmic little death or jouissance. It will take a quantum leap of imagination to think of the pretty Anna fantasizing the old bearded Bengali bard making love to her and thereafter lying with her “in silence,” thereby lighting up the Countess’s soul (43). As for the soul, Anna does not seem to care for it much as per her poem “The Soul and the Body”: “The soul was first conceived in order to demean/the body, the domain of dream and reasoning…./For when it stops, it marks the close of everything./....For I declare…that once our blood is cold it is the end of all.”[4] It would have been much better and safer for the author to have attempted an account of Tagore’s experience in France of which the encounter with the Countess is really no more than a footnote. It is also a pity that Professor Guha, a distinguished prize-winning Gallic expert, does not choose to use the insights of his senior Bengali counterpart Prithwindra Mukherjee, scholar, author and prize-winning translator. [5]

Malashri Lal’s “Tagore and the ‘Feminine’: Impossible Loves and Possible Ideals,” apart from its incomprehensible subtitle, has also the word feminine in quotes, apparently to no purpose. Lal’s prose calls for both editorial and copy-editorial attention of which it was unfortunately deprived. In page 207, the author uses what is supposed to be a Latin phrase “in Media Res” (207). Actually the entire phrase should be italicized including “in.” However, Lal transforms “medias” into “Media” whereas the expression should be “in medias res. Kadambari the natun bouthan becomes mejobou [Jnanadanandini, wife of Rabindranath’s mejda’’ Satyendranath] (212). The Rumanian-French Comtesse [Countess] Anna de Noailles is transformed into “Duchess” Anna de Noailles (210). The prose of this piece shows warps and colloquialisms with remarkable nonchalance such as “The sheaf of letters exchanged between Rabindranath and Victoria would be a Freudian psychologist’s delight but I am not quite into that arena” (208; emphasis mine) or “The chair took on surreal and amorous identities on canvas, Tagore occasionally showing shadowy human figures of unidentified gender resting on it. Over to Freudian psychologists again!” (211; emphasis mine).

Probal Dasgupta’s impassioned rhetoric communicating complicated and wordy arguments for rescuing Tagore’s Naibedya collection of poems from our “critical and commentarial neglect because we have allowed certain irresolutions to hold us hostage” (the hostage taker here is that veritable terrorist “nebulous awareness”) misses out on the simple basics. The meaning of naibedya, a tatsama Bengali word, means “offerings” or “anjali” or “arghya”—no doubt often a holy food or worshipful offerings for the gods—but not “consecration” which implies a process of sacralization. Tagore’s naibedya is not wafer and wine, the sacramental host of the Christian Mass (186) possessing a salvific effect for the worshiper. Second, the author alleges a non-existent (or nebulous) lack of scholarly interest for Tagore’s oeuvre of this category (Dasgupta’s “cycle”). But what does he do to fill this “lamentable” gap? He emphasizes what he calls “the theme of seeing a specific way of seeing” and interprets the line of poem 16 “bhakta karichhe prabhur charane/ jibansamarpan/Ore din, tui jodkare/ kar taha darashan” [O the wretched one, fold your hands (in reverence) and behold the devotee dedicate himself (his life) at the Lord’s feet] as “the ideal devotee’s self-dedication (that) involves beholding his lord with a pure gaze” (188). In fact Dasgupta makes a great deal of gaze, “gazing at the pure gaze” and then brings in Grice’s (that is, Paul Grice, presumably) concept of “hermeneutic circle,” but Dasgupta neither supplies the full name of Grice nor references his work (189). Why not Martin Heidegger?

Amidst a string of quotations from the Naibedya, the author concludes that “the fundamental theological problem Tagore sets out to solve in the book of consecration is that of reconciling his own democratic, anti-authoritarian convictions with the ‘fear of God’ motif he inherits from his dualist father” (197). The author does not provide any clue to Maharsi Debendranath’s theology of fear or to his so-called “dualism”. He does not use his Atmacharit nor his illustrious son’s Chhelebela, Atmaparichay, or Jibansmriti. It is also not clear why foreign philosophers or scholars not connected with Tagore or his work should be invoked to understand the beauty or insights of Tagore’s mystical musings. Did the internationally educated distinguished linguist author prepare his presentation for European, especially German, audience? (vide his citing of passages in German after having referenced them in English translation). In any case, the puzzling features of his presentation as printed are three: it remains to be transformed into an impersonal discourse from the lecture format where the speaker begins with a rhetorical remark to the audience or puts a rhetorical question to them. Second, the author’s sentences and vocabulary are somewhat stilted. For example, he uses “nebulous” for the more direct and simple “vague,” “reticence” for “unwillingness” or “deliberate silence,” or “indifference,” “intervention” (not clear what the author is “intervening” in and what is this action), “civilian space” (why this unnecessary term of the barrack?), “thinking person” (suspiciously implying “homo sapiens but apparently indicating “intellectuals” or “intelligentsia”) et cetera.

Third and most important, the author shows absolutely no sensitivity toward the basic minimum rules of transliteration from Bengali or toward honoring the integrity of Bengali orthography. It appears his transliteration is not accidental but deliberate, in which case, he (or the editors) ought to have provided a key in the Notes. Let me cite some examples: nirx [nid], sangshay txutxiyaa [sangshay tutiya], nitto [nitya], monushshomarjaadaagarbo [manusyamaryadagarba], shomaan [saman], khetre [ksetre], shangshaare more raakhiaacho [samsare more rakhiachha]. The author seems to be impervious to the differences between, hrasva-i and dirgha-i, ‘a’ (always replaced with ‘o’ understandably in consonance with the phonetics but totally violating the orthography) and ‘a’ (long a), murdhanya-na (cerebral) and dantya-na (dental), murdhanya-sa (sibilant), dantya-sa (dental), and talabya-sha (palatal) and several others. His transliteration is sure to appear as garbled at best and gibberish at worst to the uninitiated and the unwary. However, in fairness to him, it must be conceded that the fault lies really with the editors, who, when preparing the manuscript for the press, looked the other way, or may not have bothered to look at all.

Amita Dutt Mookerjee’s excellent but sadly truncated analysis of Tagore’s song and dance needed more documentation of what and how he borrowed from Western dance style; we of course know about the influence of European Romanticism on his lyrics and poetry. She only discusses Tagore’s borrowings from the classical Kathak dance while making a passing reference to Manipuri style. But these two instances demonstrate Tagore’s use of dance style from outside of Bengal, albeit within his own country, far from the West. Shoma Chatterji’s paper is a laundry list of Tagore songs in films having no thesis or argument. She, however, interjects a non sequitur paragraph on “Tagore, Mozart and Charulata.” (259-60). It should also be noted, pace Ms. Chatterji (253), that Tagore delivered the Hibbert Lectures (not Hebart Lecture) at Oxford (not London) in 1930 (not 1933).

This reviewer has a few suggestions for the next edition, if any. The editors must formulate and follow rigorously a uniform referencing style for all entries and provide a theoretical discussion on the phrase “at home in the world” in the Introduction. Timothy Brennan’s fine monograph At Home in the World published by Harvard University Press (1997) should make a helpful start for such a discussion, which is necessary for avoiding a possible confusion with Tagore’s well-known novel Home and the World (Ghare Baire). Also, scholars in India ought to recognize and reckon with works on similar theme done by their counterparts in India as well as in the diaspora. I thus find the puzzling absence, inter alia, of Swarupa Gupta’s “Religious Rendezvous: Encounters between Bengali Travellers and South East Asians, c. 1916-1927” (Encounters, 2011) and Sugata Bose’s article in The Indian Express (2010), “Rabindranath Tagore: At Home in the World,” or his earlier acclaimed study A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Harvard University Press, 2006) together with its review by Rajat K. Ray in Economic and Political Weekly ( 2006).

[1] Narasingha P. Sil, “Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalist Thought: A Retrospect” in Mohammad A. Quayum, ed., The Poet and His World: Critical Essays on Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: Orient Blackburn, 2011), 168-84, here at 175-76.
[2] See, especially, Niharranjan Ray, “Rabindranath o Bishvajiban” in idem, Bharatiya Aitiihya o Rabindranath, 2vols. (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2004), II: 31-59. For an abridged English translation see Narasingha P. Sil, “Rabindranath and World-Life,” Parabaas, Webzine for the Study of the Cultural Heritage of Bengal, New Jersey (August 2007). http://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pNiharranjan.html (accessed July 10, 2013). See also Arabinda Poddar, Rabindra Manas (1957. Second ed. Kolkata: Pratyay, 1960) for an erudite and elegant critique of Tagore’s reliance on Upanisadic insights and ultramundane spiritual and aesthetic realization.
[3] I borrow this phrase from Somjit Dutt, “A Foreign Shine and Assumed Gestures: The Ersatz Tagore of the West,” Parabaas (2001). http://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/article (accessed July 10, 2013).
[4]Anna de Noailles’s Blog:Eight Poems trans. by Sebastian Hayes. http://annadenoailles.com/category/philosophy (accessed July 7, 2013).
[5]See his Vishvera Chokhe Rabindranath: Tributes to the Poet (Kolkata: Rupa & Co., 1991). This is the revised and enlarged version of his Farasider Chokhe Rabindranath (Kolkata: Rupa & Co., 1991).

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