Amid much seemingly casual chatter on private Indian TV channels, a piece of truth is revealed. It is from the low-key regional language quiz shows. “Who is the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize?” Gandhi, Nehru, Abdul Kalam feature in the answers. A feeble voice says C.V. Raman. “Can you tell us for what he won the prize?” No answer. It is possible that they haven’t even heard of Rabindranath Tagore. In a matter of 60 years, the name of the creator of Gitanjali and scores of other works of great literary and humanitarian value did not even occur to the contestants, who are a representative cross-section of 21st century Indians.
Students from southern India, studying for competitive examinations, memorise the names Rabindranath Tagore and Gitanjali.
For most, their curiosity ends here. But has it been so always? No. Thirty years ago, my eldest son Ravi, then studying in class VI, needed a story to narrate in his class. I told him of a great man in Bengal, who in the guise of addressing grown ups, wrote stories that any child would cherish. Then I told him the story of ‘Kabuliwalla’. By the time I finished, he was sobbing. Next day, after narrating it in class, he told me, “When I finished the story, I couldn’t control my tears. Many students were in tears too.”
This took me farther back to the 1940s when I was a school student.
Our English text-book was a selection of prose and poetry pieces, mostly of British origin but there were a few like ‘The Hero’ of Rabindranath Tagore and ‘Transcience’ by Sarojini Naidu. ‘The Hero’ was my first conscious experience of Tagore. I had seen the bearded face of Tagore a couple of years ago in a Tamil book called Kumudhini . Almost on the same day I saw another photograph of the face in the Tamil weekly. It was in August 1941. Tagore passed away on August 7, 1941. Three years later was the year of ‘The Hero’. It took me a few more years to be able to penetrate into the world of Rabindranath Tagore. His plays were a little puzzling but there was no barrier between us and his prose pieces. Gora gave us a glimpse of the spiritual movements taking place in Bengal in the second half of the 19th century.
When I became a resident of Madras (which is now Chennai), in 1952, I found quite a number of people familiar with Tagore’s writings. Not only Tagore but Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Tarashankar Banerjee and an odd writer by name Rakhaldas Bandhopadhyay. Many of Tagore’s works were then available freely in Tamil Nadu as translations. For the few avid readers of serious writing, translations from Bengali authors were among their first choices.
Later I learnt that two brothers, T.N. Kumaraswamy and T.N. Senapathi, lived in Bengal and learnt the language to be able to read Tagore’s work in the original and then translate them into Tamil.
Another dedicated translator from other Indian languages to Tamil was Shanmugasundaram.
There was a spell of artistic rivalry between Tagore and the great luminary of Tamil literary renaissance, Subramania Bharati. The two poets resembled each other in their poetic fervour and their love for the land. In affirming the glory of the heritage, in giving form to visions of the future, Bharati and Tagore were so alike. Each was passionately attached to his own language. Both drew immense sustenance from the realm of spirituality. Tagore’s was tenderness, equanimity and a silent tear here and there. Bharati’s was turbulent, indignant and demanding. Despite its magnificence, Tamil did not have the national and international recognition and exposure as Bengali. Bharati may have felt that circumstances conspired to restrict his luminosity to his own region and language yet, to him, Tagore was a precious aspect of India’s genius. He translated stories of Tagore’s into Tamil lovingly. Not many today know that he also translated Bankim’s ‘Vande Mataram’.
The Tagorean influence in Tamil writing was pronounced in the pre-Independence years. Apart from the Kumaraswamy brothers, a number of people took to translating Tagore into Tamil and, by 1947, almost all his fiction and his essential poetry had been rendered into Tamil and, more importantly, the books were in print. Recalling the little I read in those days and currently rummaging the works of Tamil writers from 1925 onwards, I am struck by the subtle manner the Tagorean spirit had overtaken their minds. Tagore’s creations were springboards for literary discussions and Naa Pichamurthy, a short story writer and poet, even grew a beard to resemble Tagore closely. The greatest contribution of Tagore to Indian thought and new Indian writing is probably the legitmisation of the use of child characters as valid components of writing for adults.
As had happened in the case of many an artist, after the first spell of acclaim and adulation, there was a period of reaction — all-round criticism and even condemnation of Tagore. Humanity takes a vicarious delight in crowning someone and dethroning the same person later. In Tagore’s lifetime, he experienced it when the Nobel Award was announced in 1913. In a letter to Sir William Rothenstein, who first introduced him to the West, Tagore wrote: “I am smothered with telegrams and letters… and those who had no friendly feelings to my work are the loudest.” This was to change, of course. He was a much revered figure not only for his writings but also for his message of a universal man. In Tamil, his story Vision was first enacted as a play and, in 1953, and made into a film ( Kangal) . But the great cinematic successes were south Indian film versions of his Wreck and Ardhangi . Interestingly both were made in Telugu and then in Tamil. Another piece of irony is that the Tamil version formed the basis for a Hindi film Ghunghat .
All this was over by the 1960s, when the rising tide of regionalism swept away memories of the extraordinary contributions of Tagore. Tamils sought new gods, so it appeared.
For one who lived through the 1930s and 1940s, the present lukewarm interest of regional language writers and readers towards Tagore is saddening. The irony is that there is at least one poem by Tagore in all high school English textbooks. If a student manages to reach the final high school class, he just cannot avoid encountering Where the mind is without fear . Are these words taught as they should be? Where is the failure — with the mentors or the young ones?
Perhaps one shouldn’t see too much into this. Just as Presidents and Prime Ministers change, so do spiritual and artistic icons. With or without Tagore’s works being available, at least for a few more years there will be someone in some ‘dark corner of the temple’ cherishing the memory of a man who never shunned leadership in times of adversity and hostility. There will always be a parent narrating the story of a Kabuliwalla to his child. In Tamil Nadu as well as in Andhra, the kabuliwallas were not thought of kindly. But Tagore, by the magic of his fiction, turned the hateful image into one of warmth and compassion. ‘One touch of nature turns the whole world kin’. This 400-year-old line of Shakespeare is as true for another as great as he!