Tagore is almost a century-old fixation with the Bengali-speaking world. A continual sprightly stream of books, writings and speeches (as well as films) that started with the great poet winning the Nobel Prize for literature back in 1913 has now formed into a big river that shows no sign of siltation. Every year, as we know, during Tagore’s birth and death anniversaries, there is in fact a proliferation of this. The birth centenary in 1961 and the 150th birth anniversary of 2011 saw an overabundance of Tagore-related production, a tendency that poet Bishnu Dey had once quipped as ‘Rabindra Byabosha.’
Amiya Dev is not one to participate in Tagore-business; and his latest book on Tagore in English, named Rereading Tagore, belongs to a different genre altogether. One can readily find in this book from Niyogi Books of New Delhi published earlier this year an attempt to say something solemn about the great poet; and indeed, it is a testimony to the writer’s life-long endeavour to produce something unique both in style and content.
Apart from the Preface, Dev’s book contains the following fourteen chapters: My Tagore, Power of Tagore’s Words, A Word on ‘The Post Office,’ Muktadhara’s Relevance, Ideal and Waste: ‘Char Adhay’ Reread, Reading ‘Jogajog,’ ‘Gora,’ The ‘Individual’ and The ‘Universe’ in Tagore, ‘If my heart’s doors are ever shut,’ Tagore’s ‘Puja’ songs in the Background of ‘Bhakti,’ Nature in Tagore’s Poetry, Tagore and Sikhism, Tagore’s Travel Writings, and Tagore’s Vision of the East.
This English book along with Dev’s two earlier books on Tagore in Bengali, namely ‘Ki Phul Jharilo’ and ‘Bipul Taranga Re’ forms an interesting trilogy on Tagore. However, the writer says that those who have read his earlier two Bengali books need not read this one. As a not-so-irregular reader of Dev, I, for one, would disagree. His three books on Tagore came out with write-ups that were mostly composed in his seventies; and surely that is a time when serious writers take up issues that are different from even their own earlier creation. As I read the book, I had the feeling that a sage-like anchorite is spreading his life-long message.
I have followed this former professor of comparative literature of Jadavpur University and Vice Chancellor of Vidiyasagar University for nearly the last two decades; and it seems to me that whatever he writes is special discourse. A direct student of two of post-Tagore luminaries, Sudhindra Datta and Buddhadev Basu, at the Jadavpur University, where he studied comparative literature, Dev comes up with issues and themes that send one to reflection, introspection and search. Discussions on ‘Post Office,’ ‘Muktadhra,’ ‘Gora,’ ‘Char Adhay,’ and ‘Jogajog’ are not written for traditional class-room digestion, whose trail would end once the examinations were over. In Gora for instance, he has brought in his friend the Kananda poet Kubempu’s estimation of Tagore’s Gora for discussion and contradicted him by saying that he saw in him the ‘breadth and wholeness’ of Balzac, Tolstoy or Thomas Mann (as seen by Georg Luacs).
Two of the most absorbing pieces of this new book are ‘My Tagore’ and ‘Power of Tagore’s Words.’ In ‘Power of Tagore’s Words,’ Dev has reminded us that ‘Chinnapatra is a treasure-house of images,’ while he mentions Tagore did not have a single masterpiece like Goethe’s Faust, but he had Chinnapatra that can qualify as a classic. He reminds us of the great poet’s strength in imagery and words. His revocation of Buddhadev Bose taking a cue from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity was based on his desire to write about seven stairs of Tagore’s poetry to illustrate the cycle of progress or variety in the great poet’s works. A slightly long quote from the author in ‘Power of Tagore’s Words’ wherein he invokes comments from both Buddhadev Bose and Sudhin Datta about Tagore is as followed:
“Do we know that when we write a sentence today or a paragraph, we are unwittingly following his deeply trenched footsteps? Our Bengali would just have not existed without his Bengali. When Buddhdeva Bose called him a ‘phenomenon,’ he was not exaggerating. Nor was Sudhindranath Datta when he said: “For us, however, he remains the supreme man of letters: in forging our current speech, he remodeled our culture too; and when we meet skeptics, let us remember that reality remains in propositions.”
In ‘My Tagore,’ while referring to Tagore’s path of painting, he mentions his moving away from the ‘Shantiniketan style’ of painting and reaches this non-intriguing observation: “Shantiniketan did not create Tagore, it was Tagore that created Shantiniketan.”
Dev draws our attention to Tagore’s role as a maker of Shantiniketan to not only ‘historians and philosophers of education, but also to environmentalists and lovers of nature.’ In today’s world, where issues relating to nature and environment take on ever greater significance, this role of the great poet appears no less important than his songs.
In writing about Tagore’s life stories, he mentions Tagore’s two autobiographies Jibansmriti and Chelebela, while at the same time reminding us about a brief third one called Atmaparichay, a letter to the assistant editor of the Bengalee magazine in 1910, giving a few bare facts of his life, and an autobiographical talk in China in 1924; besides reminding us about his travels, he talked about his letters, conversation with the world personalities, memoirs of son, nieces, grandson; accounts of literary successors etc.
All this and more is prolegomena to ‘My Tagore,’ as mentioned by the writer. He says he approaches Tagore as a reader, not as a writer and ‘the common recipient of Tagore’s creative arts.’ And if we read this, “Of course the bulk of this reception is to the written word, to how it attains its rhythm and makes metaphoric and metonymic tandem with everyday experience. I am not speaking of verse alone, but of prose as well, the whole variety of it. I am speaking of a ‘language’ where silence and innuendo are as potent as the voice, the oblique as effective as the direct. All this is old hash to the students of style, but having denied Tagore the modernist heights and seeing more pathetic fallacy than synaesthesia in him, maybe a little too long, I have woken up to the power of his words. Better late than never,” we understand why Amiya Dev has become a Tagore-hermit. Although a bit too long, this quotation explains Dev’s ‘My Tagore’ and ‘Power of Tagore’s Words’; and if minded properly, other entries of the book would provide the reader their logical basis.
Two of the bigger pieces on the book are ‘Tagore’s Puja Songs in the Background of ‘Bhakti’’ and ‘Nature in Tagore’s Poetry.’ While the first of these is addressed at the Sixth Srimanta Sankaradeva Lecture at Tezpur University in 2015, the second one is included in 2011: Roddam Narasimha, ed. Nature and Culture, PHSPC, XIV (New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations). The great Assamese saint Sankaradeva’s reference is welcome in the sense that in these days of Assamese-Bengali rift (NRC is a case in point), Dev has been one of the foremost of Bengali writers to show not only his love for the Brahmaputra valley behemoth, who was as great like Chaitanya of Bengal, but has urged fellow Bengalis to learn to love Sankardeva. ‘Tagore and Sikhism’ is another of the long ones.
In ‘Tagore’s Vision of the East,’ we come to know about the poet’s close feeling for Japan and China having a special point in the context of colonialism and the west’s ‘browbeating of Asia.’ In ‘Tagore’s Travel Writings,’ Dev has drawn our attention to the poet’s taking special note of the Chinese dock labourers that reflected the strength of the Chinese people as a whole.
In short, for the non-Bengali lovers of Tagore, Amiya Dev’s book is one of the very best and most comprehensive; and even for the Bengali-speaking world, it would sparkle as a glittering homegrown gem in a market with endless products.
The reviewer is former secretary of the Government of Bangladesh.