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Tagore as a soft target

Publication Date : 08-08-2014


 The sniping was started by the practitioners of the same craft and in the same language of generation next.  Over time, it assumed various forms. One form is exemplified by the statement, ‘Know this - there is more to say beyond what you have left written’ (Diptendra Sanyal in  Achal Patra).

There were Anglophiles who were uncomfortable with what they called the quaint, dated English of his translations. They felt that it needed be modernised (e.g. Buddhadeb Bosu) for the benefit of contemporary readers. Some even proclaimed that their literature does not owe anything to him (e.g. Sunil Gangopadhaya). The second group had subsequently acknowledged that nobody writing in the same language could come out of Tagore’s influence.

Alas, the inability to question his genius did not stop the darts that were targeted  at him. A new front was opened. In the guise of conducting research on his life, some started exposing the alleged warts in his character. 

The latest entrant in this debunking exercise is a columnist of a  Kolkata newspaper. He has asserted that a “certain Kota Shivaram Karanth is as great an Indian as Rabindranath Tagore”. Some time back he returned to the same topic in the same daily. He wrote that he now views Tagore as a Bengali Karanth. 

In the process, he has exposed his inadequate scholarship on Tagore and is no les ridiculous on that account. It also raises doubts about his assessments of other Indian greats.

Karanth might have been a remarkably talented person who has enriched Kannada, indeed Indian, culture in many diverse ways. A multitude of languages stands in the way of our appreciation of the richness of cultures other than that of our own language group. But that does not extenuate the extreme childishness of the amusing comparisons.

He lists the similarity between the various activities of Tagore and Karanth but ignores the basic difference in the scale and grade of the fields in which they operated. Tagore became a global figure whereas Karanth was, at best, a regional personality. Moreover Tagore was basically a poet; his activities outside literature or the arts were embedded in his sense of duty towards society at large.

His unpleasant experience with our education system made him embark on an experiment with his own children, which gradually flowered into the unique Santiniketan school.  Considering the backdated cultivation practised in our country, he sent his son abroad to study scientific agriculture and opened a school, Sriniketan, to propagate modern farming practices. When the colonial rulers wanted to dismember Bengal and thereby weaken the freedom movement, he plunged into politics.  He withdrew from politics when the non-cooperation movement went against the interests of the poor.

The paper’s columnist begins his arguments by comparing the physical persona of the two, in the manner of children who relate seniority with height. Then he asserts  that “Karanth could give speeches in more languages than Tagore; he could hold a note as well as him; and he could dance too”.  Such a comparison and assessment reeks of contempt towards almost everything that is Bengali.

Tagore’s lectures in English had once enthralled the people of every country that he visited.  He is known to have delivered speeches in Hindi too. He was highly regarded as a singer. He is not known to have danced himself, but his love of this performing art inspired him to evolve a new dance form, one that was graceful, simple and aesthetic - an amalgam of Manipuri and South-east Asian dance traditions.

Of Karanth’s multifarious creative activities,  he is said to have revived and modernised the Yakshagana, a traditional form of dance-drama of Karnataka. Tagore, on the other hand, had created quite a few dance-dramas out of episodes from Buddhist chronicles and Hindu epics.

Karanth’s admirers have lauded his work and influence on he environmental movement in Karnataka and beyond, but are ignorant of Tagore’s awareness of and concern over conserving nature ~ in his writings as well as in practice in the ambience of Santiniketan.  He has been credited with “his transformative influence on Kannada literature”.

The admirers of Karanth are unaware that Tagore had a profound influence on contemporary Indian literature,  including that of the South, through translations of his works.  It has been claimed that Karanth’s love of nature was exceeded only by “his love of children”. Tagore’s creations exude his deep bonding with nature. As for affection towards children, his poems are a testimony to his immense empathy with young minds.

Karanth’s admirers refer to the range of complimentary messages on his 60th birthday. He seems to be unaware of the Golden Book of Tagore, a collection of tributes on the poet’s 70th birthday from the best brains of the world ~ pre-eminently Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Helen Keller, Romaine Rolland et al as well as Nehru and Radhakrishnan.

Tagore composed music, ninety per cent of them original, for more than 2000 of his lyrics. He had a profound influence on the great Indians of his time ~ Mahatma Gandhi (who is credited with addressing him as Gurudev), Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, to name but a few.

It has been argued by Karanth’s admirers “that a fruitful way to reckon with Rabindranath Tagore’s genius is to view him as the Bengali Karanth”.  This is like saying  that “a fruitful way to reckon with Himalaya’s greatness is to view it as North Indian Nilgiris”. It reminds one of Tagore’s words - Hai Gagan Na Holey Tomarey Dhoribey Keba (Alas, who can contain you but for the sky!).

A speaker at the Kolkata Literary Meet 2014 claimed that Gandhi was “a more prolific writer than Tagore by a factor of five”. Even if true it is an awful travesty of logic to measure creative literature against political essays. It also reinforces the popular perception that most examiners (including those for doctoral theses) evaluate scripts by their weight.

The exercise in debunking Tagore is as distressing as it is frivolous. And acutely so on Baishe Sravan - the poet’s death anniversary.

(The writer is a meteorologist)


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