We have made Rabindranath Tagore the very thing he stood against
The contribution of the first non-European Nobel laureate is way more than just to incite the customary birth anniversary articles and shares of 'Where The Mind Is Without Fear'. But realise that we first need to understand how Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, polymath and philosopher, has been made to stand for what he vehemently opposed.
It was a particularly cold Calcutta evening on 13th January 2016. I remember, because that was perhaps the first time I felt such chill in the air, as well as an unnerving chilling sensation down my spine.
Our erstwhile theatre company, Mad About Drama was staging a ‘re-imagination’ of Rabindranath Tagore’s Bisharjan (The Sacrifice) at the ICCR Kolkata auditorium. Our play reinterpreted the text of Bisharjan (1890), which was an adaptation of Rajarshi, an earlier novella Tagore had written; while the primary symbols of idolatry, cruelty and iconoclasm remained same as they featured in the original text, the characters were transposed into an anachronistic fictional world, with hues of a post postmodern present.
But the moment causing the chill down my spine came a little after one and a half hours into the play. By then Jaysingha (the character I was playing) had made the sacrifice of his own life, leading to the repentance of the head-priest Raghupati, and his revolutionary ‘throwing away’ of the ‘blood-thirsty’ idol; but applying Bertol Brecht’s alienation technique, we constantly discouraged the audience to get involved in the illusory narrative world and broke the illusion by exposing the characters as actors playing the characters.
In the climax the actor playing Raghupati in the play broke Tagore’s framed picture and walked on it. Which was our comment and interpretation of the display of iconoclasm by Raghupati. We wanted to point out how Rabindranath Tagore has become the icon no one is ready to criticise, question or comment on, in other words- how Tagore has himself become a deity, and not anymore literary figure who, himself was an iconoclast.
With the breaking of the glass frame, sudden murmurs started buzzing across the auditorium; after all the the biggest Bengali icon had just been trampled on. Murmurs grew stronger and stronger, until the curtains fell down and the cast and crew entered the stage. And then there was an outburst. Several audience-members stood up in ovation, clapping hard for the show, but some stood up with blind anger in their eyes.
They were unhappy, and rather mad with Rabindranath Tagore’s picture being trampled on. They were agitated because apparently we disrespected the Bishwakabi with the statement, and more so, because we defiled a modern deity. That was the first time I felt that way, and ‘intolerance’ was yet to become a buzzword.
Today the country is facing a future, where it’s democratic values face a threat of extinction at the hands of a majoritarian, insecure government, which openly hounds intellectuals, and facilitate lynch mobs killing people on suspicion of eating a particular food-item.
One wonders, if Tagore lived and wrote today, whether the bullets of fundamentalist forces in the country, would have found themselves in his body or not. We can all very well imagine what reactions Tagore’s critique of Nationalism and would have drawn in the polarised and intolerant political climate of today.
Much has been written about Tagore's idea of an Asian universalism and how he was a powerful critic of worshipping the Nation as God and was horrified by the crimes committed by modern nation-states. Yet, Historian Professor Sugata Bose notes, "he loved the land that had nurtured him and never abandoned a basic anti-colonial stance. He simply did not want Indian patriots to imitate European nationalists. It is not without reason that Mahatma Gandhi in his obituary comment on Rabindranath Tagore in 1941 lauded the poet as 'an ardent nationalist'."
This debate takes up a large portion of contemporary thinking of Tagore. But Tagore's thoughts about religion and more essentially a religious state is often overlooked.
Tagore, Bisharjan and the Importance of Reason
In Bisharjan (The Sacrfice) itself we find how vehemently he stood against idolatory and religious fanaticism. Written in 1890, the play is set in an fictional land modelled on the state of Tripura, where deadly ritualistic notions of animal sacrifice and a subsequent ban on the same by the ruler gives rise to a rift between the state and religion. Religion, signified by the high priest of the kingdom believes that the authority of king does not and cannot fall upon the temple and its ways.
This clash between state and religion is reminiscent of much of European history of the Middle Ages. And just like Martin Luther of the 16th century, the character of Jaysingha clearly challenges the ritualistic extravaganza that was defining his own religion. Just like Luther, Jaysingha too tries to bring about a change through an idelogical battle in the play.
The essence of the play, though, lies it its subtext. Bisharjan (The Sacrifice) was written after Tagore was extensively exposed to Occidental ideas of philosophy and religion from his stint in England between 1877 and 1880. Thus, one won't surprised to find themes of Reformation in the play. While there is a binary of King Govindmanikya as the state and head priest Rahupati as Church, Jaysingha stands for the man, the sinner who questions these established orders.
The questions he asks are also Lutherian in nature. Lutherian thoughts tell us how 'Man' is endowed with reason and knowledge to progress, Tagore's Jaysingha too is guided by reason to find the pointlessness in ritualistic sacrifice.
It's as if Tagore, through Jaysingha is talking to his society, which is ridden with Brahminical rituals and puts rituals above the essence of faith. At some point Jaysingha, Luther and Tagore become all the same. A heretic, a sinner, a Kafir.
Baandh Bhenge Dao (Break Open the Shackles)
The irony is when we find how Tagore has become that God in the cultural context, and high priests of Bengali culture have hegemonised and restricted the gates of culture using Tagore. Whenver anyone tries to analyse or question Tagore's writings or thoughts in a way that rattle the culture vultures, they are met with extreme ostracisation and antagonism.
This way the Renaissance man has been restricted to just being that photo frame that you'd find in most middle-class Bengali houses. Beyond question and reason, a static impression of a dynamic and subversive personality who held free thinking above all.
So, when part of the crowd in ICCR erupted against our alleged defiling of Tagore, we were actually happy. We knew that we were at least questioning the comfortable and hegemonised Bengali 'culture' that is more of a burden than an asset.
Maybe Tagore too, would have smashed his own photo frame today, just to expose the hollowness of our culture high priests and awaken the youth to ask questions, take risks and find new paradigms.
Remembering the 'Kabiguru' on his 159th birth anniversary.