The two Gurudevs

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There is a stark difference in the way India and Bangladesh view Rabindranath Tagore today: one, a wizened sage and the other, in all his youth and flair

Aguner Poroshmoni is a Tagore song I associate with moments of great sadness, with funerals in the family.

“Purify my life/ with the purging touch of fire/ Purify my life/ With your blessings of searing pain/ Make it pure like the gold/That passes the test of fire,” reads a translation of the first verse.

In March 2013, I heard the song in Dhaka, but in an entirely different context. I was there to cover the India-Bangladesh celebrations to mark Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, part of a journalists’ delegation accompanying President Pranab Mukherjee, who was India’s representative at the event. But I did not hear Aguner Poroshmoni at one of the commemorative events — I heard it at Shahbag less than a five minute walk away from my hotel on a stretch of road that was witnessing possibly the country’s biggest protest movement since the Bangladesh Liberation War.

For those who had been gathering there every day at what had been named the Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Crossing), it was not just about demanding capital punishment for those who had committed crimes against humanity during the Liberation War — it was a battle for, as its protagonists put it, “the soul of Bangladesh”, a nation whose basis was not just the Bengali language and culture but also secularism.

A boy waves a Bangladesh national flag as he chants a slogan before a mass funeral as the body of Rajib Haider, an architect and blogger who was a key figure in organising demonstrations, arrives at Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka February 16, 2013.

The youthful leaders of the Shahbag movement, many medical doctors and IT professionals, told me that, for them, Aguner Poroshmoni was an inspirational song that strengthened their resolve to fight on to preserve the pluralist fabric of Bangladesh: the song spoke to them of being strengthened through the fires of tribulations. Its last verse, more hymn than song, translated, reads: “Let my vision be cleansed from all darkness/ Whither alights my gaze may it see the light/ Let my pain be ablaze and rise above despair.”

Tagore’s many patriotic songs — including Aamar Shonar Bangla that became Bangladesh’s national anthem — were written at the height of the Indian freedom struggle. Decades later, they powered the Liberation War in 1971, “the soundtrack of a revolution’’, as Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam phrased it. If Mahatma Gandhi had drawn sustenance during a difficult phase in his life from Tagore’s " Jodi tor dak shuney keu na ashey, aikla cholo re ”, years later, as the Mukti Bahini marched through East Pakistan, it was one of the many Tagore songs that rang through its streets.

For me, the importance of Tagore in contemporary Bangladesh was a revelation. My earliest association with the poet is a memory of my maternal grandmother singing or humming his songs. As I grew up, Tagore became an integral part of my life, in great part, perhaps, because my mother’s side of the family belonged to the Brahmo Samaj. Rabindrasangeet was, therefore, sung on every possible occasion, at births, funerals, housewarmings, indeed, any celebration, and of course, at weddings. As a ten year old, I recall the moving sight of my grandmother, then dying of cancer, rising early each morning, sitting upright in her bed, eyes closed, singing Tagore’s songs, that gave her both spiritual solace and acted as an anaesthetic against the unbearable pain.

Over the years, as I began to travel as a journalist in West Bengal, I discovered, to my surprise, that only the educated middle class there was familiar with Tagore, that while he was a cult figure at Visvabharati — the university he had founded — he was seen largely as an emblem of high culture, to be remembered only on his birth and death anniversaries.

The Left Front, after it came to power in 1977, scrapped the classic primer — Sahaj Path —Tagore had written for school children, dismissing him as a bourgeois landlord. Thirty four years later, former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made an eloquent admission of the CPI-M’s failure to understand Tagore. Delivering a lecture on the occasion of the poet’s 150th birth anniversary, he described Left-leaning writers who had denigrated Tagore as intellectual dwarves. “If we the communists brand him merely as an ‘anandabadi kabi’ (poet who celebrated joy), we would be making a mistake,” he said, stressing, “His views on the social fabric, the world, the nation and the orient are still relevant and will continue to be so.”

The Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Bannerjee went to the other extreme: as chief minister, she insisted that Rabindrasangeet be played at all traffic signals, annoying even ardent admirers of the poet. In 2011, on August 8 — Tagore’s death anniversary — Ms Bannerjee, who is known to break into Rabindrasangeet on political platforms, led a five kilometre long procession through torrential rain to mark the day. At Trinamool offices, “Tagore Year” was observed: party flags fluttered above the poet’s portraits and public address systems played his songs round the clock.

It was only when I went to Dhaka in 2013, that it struck me that what was for me personal was political in Bangladesh in a way that Ms Bannerjee would never comprehend. Bangladesh and West Bengal — not to mention the rest of India — viewed Tagore very differently. It was reflected even in the posters the two countries chose for the 150th birth anniversary event. India picked a photograph taken in Tagore’s last years, slightly stooping, the portrait of a sage; Bangladesh chose one of a handsome, vital 19-year-old Tagore striking a dramatic pose as a character in his play, Vamiki-Pratibha.

Tagore is part of the consciousness of those who created Bangladesh, an essential part of Bangla identity unlike in West Bengal, possibly because of the different political trajectories the two halves took after 1947.

Large number of young people are enrolling in the Mukti Bahini to fight for the liberation of Bangladesh in the 1970s. | Photo: The Hindu Archives

The earlier Pakistan government believed Tagore’s works were an obstacle to the unity of a religion-based Muslim nation, part of an Indian conspiracy to divide the country. On February 21, 1952, the Pakistan government used force to impose Urdu as the only state language; in the melee that followed, many students and bystanders were killed. This became the trigger for the movement to establish Bengali as one of Pakistan’s state languages and as it gathered momentum, it led eventually to the break-up of the country.

As the architect of modern Bengali, Tagore, whose songs were banned on Radio Pakistan, became a key rallying point for the movement. The Pakistan government’s repeated attempts to diminish his influence in its eastern province met with vigorous resistance. Those leading the movement created in the early 1960s a cultural organisation, Chhayanaut, to popularise the singing of Rabindrasangeet across the country, in the most areas, even holding frequent competitions, in the process, mobilising support for a Bengali nation.

This became a binding force during the Bangladesh Liberation War, with Tagore’s words helping both to cement the emotional connect with the land as well as providing the strength to battle the Pakistani forces. The result: today, unlike in West Bengal, across Bangladesh, from its far flung villages to the upper echelons of Dhaka society, indeed, cutting across the class divide, Tagore is a living presence.

Even today, the poet figures in the battle between the ruling Awami League (which brought independence to the country) and the Islamists (represented by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamait e Islami).

In Ms Anam’s novel, “The good Muslim”, a young woman whose brother is gradually becoming a religious fundamentalist tries to remind him of his life before he found his faith. Finally, as he begins to pack away his western clothes and books, she begins to sing to him the Tagore songs they have loved since childhood. Referring to this novel, Ms Anam, wrote in an article, “She holds up those words — patriotic, pastoral, devotional — against the narrowing of his mind. And that, ultimately, is Tagore's lasting legacy: a raised hand against all forms of rigidity, a love of country that is born out of its landscape and seasons; and a spiritual universe that encompasses a plurality of forms.”

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