Life & Letters

From Tagore to Thakur

Sumana Roy is the author of Missing: A Novel
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Durga puja pandals have clay figurines of Tagore. As do Saraswati puja ceremonies. Parents buy their kids Tagore dolls. In a state where the Left dismissed him as too elitist, Sumana Roy observes the canonisation of the poet-educationist

“Which God did you see?” I asked my five-year-old nephew as he emerged with a toy pistol in hand from a Durga puja pandal in Siliguri, a small town in Himalayan Bengal. My question was in Bangla, where the word for god is ‘thakur’. Prompt came Tanoy’s reply: “Rabindranath Thakur.” I hadn’t gone inside the pandal, put off by a woman who’d stamped on my right foot with her new stilettos. I thought the little boy’s response was a joke, so I asked again. This time he added one more god to the pantheon: “Durga thakur and Rabindranath thakur.”

Thakur is a gender-neutral word in Bangla. In the many pandals where he found both together, he came back to the car and whispered, “Rabindranath thakur is an old man, has a dirty, long beard. Durga thakur is more beautiful than him.” I did not doubt the five-year-old’s aesthetic judgment, but was at a loss when he asked me this question: “Biswakarma has an elephant, Ganesh a mouse, Durga a lion ... what is Rabindranath Thakur’s conveyance?” I pulled a bluff: “Ship,” I said, thinking about Tagore’s travels around the world. Fortunately, the next pandal found Tagore perched on one end of a rudderless and oar-less boat, a framed photo of a young Swami Vivekananda at the other end, so it seemed like a trompe-loeil in the midnight dark of Saptami: two dead Bengali men, now canonised as neo-saints in the cultural imagination, playing see-saw outside a Durga puja pandal.

I was, therefore, almost prepared for a slice of Rabindranath to come my way the next day, this apart from the most popular Rabindrasangeet (his songs), mostly in Kishore Kumar’s voice, that connected Durga puja to Tagore. I opened the morning newspaper to discover an English translation (by Rosinka Chaudhuri) of two letters by Tagore on the subject of Durga puja. It seemed to be, as the colloquial goes, a ‘puja bonus’ for readers of Bengal’s ‘highest selling English newspaper’.

The letters were from early October  1894. The Durga puja would be taken up for analysis by sociologists later, but it is interesting to see how Tagore anticipates the heterotopic dimensions that Durga puja would take, especially in organisers’ investments in ‘theme-based pujas’ a century later. ‘I was looking at the images of Durga, ten hands aloft, that were being built on the dalaans (courtyards) of almost every mansion—and all around them, all the boys of the house had become very restive. Watching this, I thought how both the young and old in the country become like children for a few days and all begin to play with dolls on a very large scale. If you think hard about it, all the higher pleasures are comparable to doll-playing, in the sense that there is no ambition or profit in it—if you look at it from the outside it seems like a sheer waste of time. But something that brings a feeling of joy to the people of the entire country, a huge enthusiasm, can never be entirely barren or insignificant,’ writes Tagore.

This ability of the goddess, not as belief but as a doll of clay, to make children of men, which at other times would be dismissed as chheley-manushi, in Bangla both childlikeness and childishness, is held up by Tagore as worthy of admiration. Tagore also says something interesting in the same letter regarding the ‘effect’ the puja has on men: ‘Surely this deluge of feeling every year humanises men to a large extent; for a few days it engenders a feeling of such empathy and softness in the mind that love, affection and pity can easily germinate there.’ What exactly did Tagore mean by ‘humanises’? And is it this impulse that has made Durga Puja organisers conflate ‘humanise’ with the ‘Humanities’ in their desire to make children of men?

For the last two years, in Kolkata and small towns in Bengal, also in probashi (non-resident Bengali) Durga puja celebrations in Europe and America, Rabindranath has been a presiding deity. He plays the time-perfected role of the Bard in them, words from his poems and child rhymes are turned into light installations by craftsmen from Chandernagore, his songs play from loud speakers, his paintings serve as models for variations of the Durga idol. There is nothing epiphanous about that. What is worth observing is how Tagore is increasingly coming to be represented not through his writing, but through his other work, one that is more material: Santiniketan.

There’s a Hotel Santiniketan to be found in every small town in Bengal, usually a budget hotel that is not even a bonsai ashram. What is repeatedly fetishised in such nomenclature is an idea of freedom, utopian undoubtedly, but also rooted in reality. It’s like a bird creating a nest with fences, and hence, the name Santiniketan that many walled communities have given to their apartment complexes in Bengal. Santiniketan, in the popular cultural imagination, is a structure akin to a park, a version of nature ordered for human consumption. ‘The abode of peace’, as its name means, holds a nest-cage bind like no other space: ‘The nest is simple. It has an easy relationship with the sky; the cage is complex and costly, it is too much itself, excommunicating whatever lies outside.’ This is one set of metaphors that Tagore employs most often to talk about education; the other is the boat. In Durga puja pandals, both make their appearance: Tagore is boatman in a pandal where Vivekananda sits on the other side.

‘By the bank of the river Padma, in Shilaidaha, I lived a quiet life amidst my literary pursuits,’ writes Tagore in A Poet’s School. “With a mission to create, I came to Santiniketan.’ In the case of the pandal creators, it is an urge to escape—the touristy ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’—that gives birth to the re-creation of a similar aesthetic. Two things come together in this formula: the invocation of a school inspector-like figure of Tagore and an uncritical nostalgia for one’s childhood. The adult becomes a proxy for Tagore in this assemblage. The poet writes that he sought to ‘live in the lives of other boys, and to build its missing paradise with ingredients which may not have any orthodox material, prescribed measure, or standard value’. The viewer of these puja pandals is asked to do the same.

What is being re-created in front of our eyes is the architecture of a Tagorean childhood that holds contraries: freedom and its limits, closed space and boundlessness. A viewer of such pandals is imagined to be an Amal-like figure in Tagore’s play The Post Office, a boy who imagines the world from his little room, speaks to nature as it were, and whose life is enveloped in a tragic beauty of stillness. In a Bengal that aspires to be urban with a vengeance, such a momentary possibility is offered as a cure. This becomes the equivalent of the moneyed class’ moving out of town or vacationing at a resort. For, there is very little difference between the pandal and a budget hotel resort where nature is sold in instalments of trees, light breezes, water bodies and thatched roof houses.

Tagore, who studied at Oriental Seminary, Normal School, Bengal Academy and St Xavier’s, rebelled against the Victorian school. Home-schooled, his is a fascinating example of how an educationist can successfully create the idea of an educational institution as a free space. Needless to say, it was his child rhymes that gave birth to such myths:

Ma go, aamaye chhooti ditey bawl, / Shawkaal thekey porechhi je mela, / Aekhon aami tomar gharey boshey / Korbo shudhu pawra-pawra khela...’

says the student in Tagore’s poem Proshno (Question). The young boy pleads to be released from his books for having studied the entire morning. The Rabindranath mannequin—a bit of a cross between a sage and a stern school master—in the puja pandals is playing the role of a benevolent and sympathetic schoolmaster. He is called upon to forgive all lapses and praise all efforts of students who lead insect-like lives of collection and deposition of learning. And grant holidays, like Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee did to celebrate Tagore’s birth and death anniversaries.

What is also an important ally in this is the aestheticisation of poverty. It’s on display everywhere, as if highlighting the traumas of poor school goers: barefeet children, the Patha Bhavan uniform on clay statues of students, chalk-and-slate tools of writing. The differences between displays of Tagore’s Santiniketan and Goddess Durga are amusing. Tagore was adamant about not calling his educational institution vidyalaya (‘school’); they were all ‘bhavans’ for him: Vidya Bhavan, Patha Bhavan, Kala Bhavan. The pandal designers stick to the boxed label: vidyalaya. With walls painted—sponsored—in praise of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, there is no other choice. One of the student mannequins is shown holding an English primer by Pietersen while an oblivious Tagore statue reads from his Gitanjali: is this Santiniketan, Version 2.0?

This everyday Santiniketan, turned into a sensibility that has come to be called rabindrik, is visible all around: in terracotta murals, earrings, stoles, saris, wall hangings, sandals, so much so that Bolpur has become a secular pilgrimage site for many tourists. Farmhouses in the suburbs of this small university town look like pandals themselves, with their curation of clay houses, lotus ponds and palm trees. The pandal designers have readymade models to imitate. In them is this recent investment of an education trope: Sahaj Paath, the education primer that Tagore wrote for students of his school, Patha Bhavan, is anthologised in clay installations with select words from the book. The figures are, of course, derivatives of Nandalal Bose’s illustrations from the book. The dissemination of such tropes, albeit only in a certain loop of tokenism, comes at a moment in history that coincides with the impulses of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Right to Education Act. And hence, this co-option of the secular space: religion in the age of education. Tagore is god and educator. And a grand artefact.

This Basant Panchami, the day Bengalis worship Goddess Saraswati while other communities in the country celebrate the arrival of spring, I noticed a continuation of the pattern. In Netaji Boys’ High School, a Bengali medium school for boys in a locality called Subhashpally in this small town in Himalayan Bengal, a laminated, framed photo of Tagore sat at the feet of Saraswati. Two marigold flowers and belpata (leaves of the wood apple tree), without which the worship of the goddess is said to be incomplete, sat in front of the photo: Rabindranath had been worshipped too, with Saraswati’s swan. A drive back into town took us to a tiny installation pandal near Vivekananda High School. It was a white-thread spire, on top of which stood a tiny cardboard Tagore. He looked like a cross between the Statue of Liberty and Jesus on the Cross, I told my mother. She, the school teacher in her surfacing as always, corrected me: “More like the angel on a Christmas tree.” Four little boys stood near the pandal, eating the fruit that had been offered to the goddess. It was ‘their’ puja, they emphasised, telling me how a boy’s father had helped them make that ‘toy pandal’. I was worried for the paper Tagore fighting the cold January wind. The last Saraswati puja we saw was a few yards from where we lived, opposite Sister Nivedita Margaret High School. I mention the names of these schools—Netaji, Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita—just to underline the pantheon that Tagore is now expected to join. What we are perhaps witnessing is a process of canonisation that, having turned Narendranath Dutt into Swami Vivekananda and Margaret Elizabeth Noble to Sister Nivedita (both figures having become secular-sacred educationist figures), is now set to transform Rabindranath. Tagore, ignored as an elitist propagator of class divisions by the Left that ruled West Bengal for 34 years, is being turned into a religious icon in this second coming.

Last Christmas, I noticed a familiar looking Santa Claus outside a church in Jalpaiguri, another small town in Bengal. “Don’t you want to buy a Santa Claus mask for your son?” I asked my driver. His answer was prompt: “He has quite a few Rabindranath thakur dolls already. What’s the use of buying him another?” The facial resemblance that I had missed had come to the young man, uneducated in Tagore, so naturally. Can a civic employee of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation then really be blamed for tearing off a poster of Tagore mistaking it for Santa Claus, as happened last Christmas? Christ’s Academy, an English medium school at Noukaghat near Siliguri, seems to have used Rabindranath as its model for the Jesus Christ figure that stands guard outside its compound. I shall not be surprised if I happen to find some school called St Tagore High School. In a humour-laced leap of what Rabindranath, in a different context, called ‘surplus’, Tagore has, at last, become Thakur: this is ‘the religion of the artist’.