Gazing at the Sun: Bangladeshi Poets and Rabindranath Tagore

William Radice


This is the first of perhaps five papers which together will grapple with the question, ‘What is Bangladeshi poetry?’ I am aware that in Bangladesh itself such a question is likely to raise some controversy, for the term ‘Bangladeshi’ as a descriptive term for the people, culture and literature of Bangladesh is associated with General Ziaur Rahman and the Bangladesh National Party that he founded; there are others in the country who still prefer to speak of themselves as ‘Bengali’ rather than ‘Bangladeshi’. Many though not all of these are supporters of the Awami League, the party that fought for Bangladesh’s independence on the basis of a Bengali identity that overrode the Muslim identity that was the basis of Pakistan. The poetry of Bangladesh, however, can be distinguished, in a number of ways, from the poetry of post-Partition West Bengal and from the commonly shared poetic tradition that preceded Partition. I wish to understand what, precisely, distinguishes it. In Bengali, the controversy about terms can be avoided by asking, Bangladesher kabita ki? (‘What is the poetry of Bangladesh?’) instead of Bangladeshi kabita ki? (‘What is Bangladeshi poetry?’); but in English this seems pedantic and unnecessary. My question is really just akin to asking, ‘What is Australian poetry?’ i.e. What distinguishes Australian poetry from English poetry written in other countries?

I cannot answer the question in a hurry, for it is linked to the slow compilation of an anthology of Bengali poetry of the last 200 years that I began some time ago but is not yet complete. The anthology aims at a selection that will be satisfactory to ‘both Bengals’: a difficult and delicate task, given the depth of the political and religious partition that has cut into the linguistic and geographical unity of the region. I continue to believe that the task is possible, and the contents of the present paper will perhaps indicate why. But an article on the stated aims and method of the anthology by the well-known Bangladeshi poet and playwright Syed Shamsul Haq, published in the newspaper Sangbad at the end of 1995, gives me warning of what I am up against. From the data gathered from questionnaires I had already sent out to a large number of helpers in both parts of Bengal, Shamsul concluded that there would be a bias against Bangladeshi poets. Several eminent names, he said, among the contemporary poets of Bangladesh, were missing. Selina Hossain, another well-known writer, now Director of the Bangla Academy in Dhaka, sent the article to me with a letter suggesting that poems from Bangladesh should be considered ‘as a separate entity’ in the anthology. About a year later I received an even sterner warning from the other side of the border - not from West Bengal but from an anonymous reader consulted by the Sahitya Akademi in Delhi. (I had written to see if the Akademi might be interested in co-publishing the anthology.) My critic wrote:

First of all I do not see eye to eye with his surrogate European ‘idealistic purpose’ of drawing the ‘two Bengals’ together. The partition is a political and social reality and religion is a strong base for cultural development. Any attempt to wish these facts away is bound to be counterproductive.

Even though I myself remain firmly resistant to so communal an attitude, and believe that no Bengali poet of any distinction from either side of the border would endorse it, clearly I must tackle it head on in my introduction to the anthology as well as in its selection and arrangement.

The obvious way to start answering the question would be to look at the history and character of Bangladeshi nationalism: at its origins in the Language Movement of the 1950s, with its fierce resistance to the imposition by the Pakistani regime of Urdu as the national language of the whole of Pakistan. Writers and poets played a leading role in the movement, and its martyrs - the students who died on ‘Ekushey’ - 21 February, 1952 - live as strongly in Bangladeshi consciousness as the millions who died in the Liberation War of 1971. The ceremonies and functions associated with ‘Ekushey’ in Bangladesh every year are dominated by poets and their public recitations, and many visitors to Bangladesh who witness such gatherings then and on many other occasions throughout the year form the impression that this is a country obsessed with poetry, and that nationalism is Bangladeshi poetry’s heart and soul.

The first part of that impression may well be true: there can be few countries in the world where the writing, reading and recitation of poetry are so pervasive, where despite the inroads of television and film such large numbers of people - of all ages - know so much poetry by heart. The second notion - that Bangladeshi poetry is essentially nationalistic - may not be quite as true as is suggested by those Ekushey gatherings, or by a volume like the Bangla Academy’s bilingual collection, Ekusher kabita/Poems on 21st , published in 1983 in memory of the martyrs of the language movement.

As a step towards assessing the extent and nature of nationalism in Bangladeshi poetry, I want to begin not with that volume but with another published in the same year, also by the Bangla Academy. It is a book of poems by 41 different poets, all dedicated to and concerned with Rabindranath Tagore (Rabindranathke nibedita kabitaguccha - ‘A bundle of poems offered to Rabindranath’).[1] The quality of the poems - from an English perspective - is surprisingly high. Suppose one asked 41 contemporary English poets to write poems about Shakespeare: just imagine how dire the results would be! That is not because Shakespeare’s standing has slipped, but because most English poets do not any more live, breathe and feel Shakespeare. If one takes - as I do - the essentially romantic view that for good poems to emerge, on any subject, they have to stem from ‘influxes of feeling...modified and directed by our thoughts’,[2] then it seems undeniable that Shakespeare does not now live in the minds and feelings of most living English poets at a level deep enough to produce good poetry. That does not seem to be so with Bangladeshi poets and Rabindranath. As a Bangladeshi friend of mine said when I discussed the poems with him, it seems, judging from this volume, that the better the Bengali poet, the deeper his or her feelings about Rabindranath will be and the stronger the poem.

Is Rabindranath a Bangladeshi poet? The question sounds silly, given that he died in 1941, well before the Partition of India, let alone the break-up of Pakistan. There are some books on Bangladesh that define everything that belongs to Bangladesh’s cultural inheritance as ‘Bangladeshi’. For example, James J. Novak’s Bangladesh: Reflections on Water (Indiana, 1993), opened almost at random, produces a sentence such as ‘As for the Buddha’s influence on Bangladesh, it is believed that he may have visited Mahasthan or Gaud, as they were readily accessible down the Ganges from Bihar.' This surely does not make sense, and it is perhaps simplest to describe as `Bangladeshi' only that poetry which has been written since Bangladesh was created, or which is closely associated with the nationalist movement from which Bangladesh sprang. On the other hand, most Bangladeshis would not go as far as a contributor to a book I saw once in Chittagong, which contained answers from various poets to questions about their literary tastes.[3] In response to the question, ‘Who is your favourite foreign [bideshI] poet?’, the contributor put ‘Rabindranath’. Very few Bangladeshis - and especially the contributors to the volume I want to examine - would regard as ‘foreign’ the poet who spent his most formative creative years (the 1890s) in the Padma river region of East Bengal, and whose song Amar Sonar Bangla was adopted by the Awami League government as the National Anthem of Bangladesh.

So Rabindranath may not be a Bangladeshi poet but he is unquestionably THE dominant, all-embracing, all-pervasive Bengali poet: the figure to whom all Bengali or Bangladeshi poets have to relate and orientate themselves.

I have not got space to describe all the poems in Rabindranathke nibedita kabitaguccha, and for my present purpose I shall pick out ten (a quarter of the book). But even from these, something very remarkable - and representative of the book as a whole - emerges.

The first poem in the book is by Sufia Kamal, Bangladesh’s foremost woman poet, old enough to have been adult when Rabindranath himself was still alive. Her poem is called Panchishe baishakh, the twenty-fifth of the month of Baishakh being Tagore’s birthday and an annual day of celebration throughout Bengal. Baishakh (mid-April to mid-May, the first month in the Bengali calendar) is generally thought of as the first month of summer, but Sufia Kamal sees the day as a festival of Spring. The earth with her fertility and bounty is offering obeisance (pranam) to the sun; the poet wants her own obeisance to ‘Rabi’ (= Rabindranath but also of course the sun) to be equally joyous and powerful. The sun inspires worship because it keeps on rising every morning: it is an eternal force. Rabindranath likewise keeps on returning, to provide perpetual sustenance:

          ...srijiyachha ki ye abhinaba
                 bhangur matir patre ki amrita!

             (You have created in such new cups of fragile earth such nectar!)
Rabindranath is identified with the power of Nature herself, and the poet wishes to honour him with the same fecundity that the earth offers to the sun at spring.

The second poem in the book, by Ahsan Habib, is also called Panchishe Baishakh. It speaks of an expansion that has taken place in human consciousness: of encircling walls that have been broken down by an elomelo haowa (unruly wind); of windows that have been flung open to reveal the whole colourful mela of humanity. A mantra has been released into the world that is inspiring human beings to greater and greater contact with each other; modern poetry has been enriched by a spirit of union between man and nature. He does not mention Rabindranath by name, but it is clear from the poem’s title and content that he is giving chief credit for this expansion to Rabindranath: ‘In poems and songs and pictures, with what amazing skill [dakshata ] and ease a colourful garden has been created, in whose flowers and fruits thirsty humanity "will drink nectar in joy for ever".’ The last phrase is a quotation from the invocation that opens Michael Madhusudan Datta’s epic poem of the 1860s, Meghnad-badh kabya, in which he calls on his ‘honey-making Imagination’ to ‘make a honey-comb from the honey of the flowering wood of the poet’s mind from which the people of Gaur [Bengal] will drink nectar in joy for ever’. Whatever Madhusudan’s own achievement, it is in Rabindranath’s works that Ahsan Habib finds that nectar here.

A shorter poem by Ataur Rahman is entitled Rabindra-abhisar (‘Tryst with Rabindranath’). A rough translation is as follows:

I always go to you
As a man goes to sympathetic hearts at a time of sorrow
Or to give the happy news of a succesful wedding
Or as a sick man looks at his face in a mirror
Or as young men and women (like Narcissus)
Enjoy their own bodies:
With the same desires I go to your creations
And enjoy the essential beauty and love of my own being.

I feel that your poetry
Is like precious kisses of a stolen love:
Thus its attraction
Drives my soul’s hunger all the time,
And my tryst with it on happy days and sad days,
In the darkness of night of the storms of Baishakh,
Or on slippery monsoon paths,
Or at Chaitra noons so hot that my eyes redden,
Is so utterly hard to resist -
However insanely air-raid sirens my sound,
However many murderous mines may be laid by our enemies.

The mystico-erotic nourishment and solace that Rabindranath’s poetry provides is here set against bloodshed and war - as in several of the poems in the book.

A poem by Mazharul Islam takes us to Shelidah, the Tagore house in the Padma river region, preserved now as a museum. It is called Shilaidahe sandhya, ‘Evening at Shelidah’, and some evocative word-painting at the beginning of the poem sets the scene; but then [I summarise], ‘hidden in the evening, a silent call floats from afar, saying: "O suffering humanity, listen, listen - return from bloodshed and war and hatred to where there is peace and shade and love."‘ As the evening thickens, the poet feels ever more strongly a prayer for peace (the peace of Shelidah) emanating from the whole of humanity.

For some poets, contemporary circumstances are so threatening to the values that Rabindranath’s poems and songs express, that they doubt whether those values can survive. Belal Chaudhuri, for example, begins his poem Chiradin tomar akash tomar batas (‘For ever your sky, your air’) by speaking of the energy he gains from those poems and songs, of the thousands of times he breathes in their power, purifying his lungs with them. But now, in his loneliness and distress, the songs have been torn away from him: because of death and hunger Rabindranath’s ‘vocal bird’ (bachanik pakhi) has flown away from his (Belal’s) tongue. Instead of Rabindranath’s inexhaustible vocabulary (bishal shabdarashi ) there is a massed conflagration of noise (rashi rashi shabder agun) all around him. (shabda means both ‘word’ and ‘noise’.) He ends the poem with the question: ‘Can that huge word-wave of yours and the whole heart-melting Gitabitan [Rabindranath’s collected songs] give me the power to resist that wall of fire?’

Even more doubtful - despairing, in fact - is Al Mahmud’s harrowing poem Rabindranath, which in rough translation reads:

How dark and lacking in vitality is this Bangladesh,
As if through a mantra of silence no bird sits any more on the branch.
The rivers are full of sorrow, in the infertile fields are born
Only toadstools, no other kind of greenness.

I do not understand what Rabindranath was thinking of when he expressed
The impossible desire to born in Bangladesh again as a tree.
There are no trees, no rivers, a barren time is flowing,
There is no re-birth, everyone is against birth.

Listen, Rabindranath, if I could plant all your poems
And pour water on them all day and night
My certain conviction is that not a single one would germinate:
Your Bangladesh is so fruitless, Thakur.

There is a treacherous wind, no brilliance of sound,
The couple of birds that are perched on the branch of the fig-tree
Are still conversing as if terrified of the sound of music:
On the silent twenty-five of the rainless month of Baishakh.

Al Mahmud may doubt whether the life-force that is Rabindranath can prevail in contemporary Bangladesh, but he does not question the identification of Rabindranath with that life-force that we find in poem after poem in the collection; and neither does Hasan Hafizur Rahman, who in a poem of only eight lines wryly says that although the death of Rabindranath did not mean that all goodness (svasti) vanished from the earth he is neverthless ‘profoundly opposed to the killing (hatya) of Rabindranath’. No one has the right to stop a life-force at its source. Everyone should hold fast to ‘Rabindric rights’ (rabindrik adhikar). Rabindranath may come to an end, but that does not mean we - our positive endeavours - should come to an end too.

In a characteristically surreal and puzzling poem, simply called Rabindranath, Shahid Qadri implies a ‘mis-match’ between Rabindranath and the preoccupations of a later generation, yet is not finally able to abandon him as a beacon and reference point. (An earlier generation of pre-independence ‘modernist’ Bengali poets struggled with the same sort of dilemma: in the famous words of Buddhadeva Bose, ‘It was impossible not to imitate Rabindranath, and it was impossible to imitate Rabindranath.’) He writes of how Rabindranath is a ‘traffic-island in the stream of our consciousness’, a policeman, or a set of traffic-lights...and asks if in order to get down ‘at a tiny, insignificant station called Bangladesh’ he has to buy a ticket from him. He moves on to images of Rabindranath as a doctor ‘walking silently past with a stethoscope dangling’, or a recipient of letters that young poets might write, or a cabinet of sleeping pills. Nothing is quite clear, but the pervasiveness of Rabindranath is inescapable:

I know you are not a doctor
Or seller of medicines in a drugstore;
At the start of the day
You are mixed in our bodily acidity,
At the end of a sleepless night you are like breakfast laid out on the table,
You are inside our brains, marrows, veins, hearts
     Setting an ambush
     Like a hunting cat:
You have taken all our goldfish and silverfish,
Stolen like Robin Hood
In our confused market-places, our collapsed banks,
And in the crowd of the dispossessed and the poor
In which you distribute all the money again
I - a gleaming coin shed from that crowd -
Am playing like a guitar with a skilful snap of my fingers
You in the park of that night are my ultimate illuminated restaurant.

After a promising literary start, Shahid Qadri disappeared to America and no more poetry by him has appeared. His contemporary Shamsur Rahman continued to write prolifically, and from 1971 on has been recognised throughout Bengal - not just in Bangladesh - as the greatest living Bengali poet. His poem on Rabindranath is called Suryabarta (‘Sun’s rotation’). It begins with a rapturous statement of faith in the poet’s own perceptions and feelings. ‘With the joy of being alive I make flowers bloom daily on the shore of my consciousness; I light temple-lamps (dipabali) in the meditative (dhyani) darkness...I look at this world not with the colourless vision of habit, but with the passion of creativity and with love.’ He moves on to a section typical of his style in its lyrical but unexpected collocation of images, in which he speaks of how the grace (prasad) of the sun spreads through the whole of life, touching a wizened corpse no less than a young girl’s cheeks, ending with a line that makes the sun/Rabindranath analogy that we saw in Sufia Kamal’s poem explicit:

...ebang udar surya upama tomar.
(...and the generous sun is your simile.)

He goes on to say that ‘he has never studied in Nature’s school’ (Shamsur is by origin and temperament an urban poet, and seldom leaves Dhaka), and it is Rabindranath who has taught him to respond to the beauties of Nature: ‘When I feel tired I still go to Creation with a glass of wonder in my hand, still hear in the twilight of flagging consciousness [a quotation, here, from Poem No.9 in Tagore’s book Prantik, 1938[4]] the language of consolation - that, Rabindranath, is your gift.’

Then with a simplicity after so much verbal luxuriance that only a great poet can achieve, Shamsur comes to the heart of his poem,

amake diyecho bhasha, tar dhvani, pratiki hillol
astitver tate ane kato
aishvaryer tari pal-tola, taranger smrti-snata
dipta jalayan.
(You have given me language, its sound and symbolic ebb and flow on the shore of existence bring so many boats of rich merchandise, their sails raised, such shining ships bathed in the memories of waves.)

He repeats the phrase - amake diyecho bhasha - to give it plangent emphasis, and expresses confidence in his own role and power as a poet by saying that he (Shamsur) will take a light from the lamp of Rabindranath’s language to light ‘lamps of language in thousands of lives’. Then, in the final section of the poem, he says that Rabindranath is not ‘limited to panchishe baishakh’: he has a universal reach, like the sun and other powers of nature. In an age in which life seems to be wilting and barbarism threatens, his greatness is still available. He ends:

                            ebang tomar
gane-gane mrityur tuhin shite phote phote
            phote abirata
jibaner parakranta phul.
(And through your songs, in the icy coldness of death, life’s heroic flowers bloom unceasingly.)

Finally, a wry poem by Abu Hena Mustafa Kamal (an alumnus of SOAS who became Director-General of the Bangla Akademy in Dhaka, and died suddenly in his fifties), entitled Esab anyay jaduala (‘All this is unfair, O magician’). The poet speaks of how Rabindranath - the magician - has given him all the responsiveness to language and nature that Shamsur spoke of in his poem. This was really very unfair of him, because he (Mustafa Kamal) was all set to travel serenely along the path of conventional respectability and academic success. ‘Where, O King, have you blown away in your unstoppable breeze a fine array of books, a Vice-Chancellor’s solemn gown, everything?’ Rabindranath has had a subversive, unsettling effect: ‘I hear all around me thousands of rumours that a letter will come from some post office’ [ an allusion here to Tagore’s play The Post Office, in which a dying boy waits for a letter from ‘the King’]. All very unfair. ‘But tell me,’ he ends, ‘how far shall I have to go to successfully throw enchantment in the pupils of her eyes?’ ‘Her’ presumably refers to a beloved: Mustafa Kamal has been bewitched by Rabindranath himself, but lacks the talent to bewitch others with his own poetry.

I have raced through these poems, making little effort to communicate their qualities - which would take longer, of course, and a greater engagement with their varied language, rhythm and style than would be easy to communicate whether through translation or detailed exegesis. But my main point is not so much related to their merits (though I do believe they have many, especially Shamsur Rahman’s noble poem) as to their collective attitude to Rabindranath. In a way, these poems are not about Rabindranath at all. They are certainly not about his life, personality, practical activities, world fame, Nobel Prize and all the rest. They do not address the variety and complexity of his literary works in poetry, song, prose and drama with any real precision. They are about something much more abstract: a ‘spirit’ in his works that is actually identical with the universal creative spirit that was the object of his own religious worship and the inspiration of his own creativity. It is as if this spirit - expressed and manifested in the beauties of Nature (especially in Bengal), in human love, in music, in language, in poetry - has been given to Bengalis by Rabindranath. When they feel in need of solace, spiritual nourishment or consolation, they turn to him. He is, if you like, a kind of religious substitute.

This attitude has become so normal to Bengalis - and becomes so normal to foreigners who involve themselves with Bengali culture - that one needs to step back and remind onself how peculiar it is. Has Shakespeare ever been a religious substitute for the British? Or Dante for the Italians? Maybe Wagner for some Germans has been - but if I mention Wagner this immediately suggests that the worship of Rabindranath is a kind of cult. In West Bengal, one does sometimes feel that it is so, as the adulation can be ritualistic, and Santiniketan can seem like Bayreuth. But I don’t think one can say with any fairness that the poems in the volume under discussion emanate from empty, mindless adulation. They are actually poems of deep feeling. Even those poets who express doubts about the continuing effectiveness or relevance of the Rabindric ideal do not question the ideal itself. There are no blasphemers against it.

Why is it that all these Bangladeshi poets - most of them nominally, at least, Muslims - are so ready to read and praise Rabindranath in such exalted, spiritual terms? Fundamentally because Rabindranath himself, in a vast body of literary work (including his much loved songs), expressed so coherently and indefatiguably an indentification of (a) the poetic with the spiritual (b) poetic, imaginative creativity with the creative energy of Nature herself. Because of his genius and dominance, his conception of poetry has become the way in which Bengalis think of poetry generally. Of course, much twentieth century Bengali poetry has been written that is quite different in style and imagery from Rabindranath’s - and Rabindranath himself went on modernising and refashioning himself throughout his long career. But I doubt if any Bengali poet of any significance has fundamentally rejected the Rabindric ideal, replaced it with a quite different aesthetic. This is because Rabindranath succeeded in making his poetic values so unassailably obvious, self-evident and true. To deny them would be like denying that the earth orbits round the sun (the Rabindric analogy is irrestistible).

To sharpen our sense of the special way in which Bengalis see not only Rabindranath but poetry generally (because of his influence), it is interesting to compare the poems in Rabindranathke nebedita kabitaguccha with certain famous English poems about great poets. Ben Jonson, in his To the Memory of my Beloved Mr. William Shakespeare, makes great claims for Shakespeare’s universality, looking not to great English predecessors (Chaucer, Spenser) for fit comparison but to the ancient poets and dramatists of Greece and Rome: indeed Shakespeare outshines them:

The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
       Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please
But antiquated and deserted lie
       As they were not of Nature’s family.

But he does not then go on to say that Shakespeare is the greatest poet because he was the most natural: he attributes a great deal to Shakespeare’s own art and industry:

Yet must I not give Nature all: thy Art,
       My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter Nature be,
       His Art doth give the fashion. And that he
Who casts to write a living line must sweat,
       (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil: turn the same
       (And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn,
       For a good poet’s made as well as born.
And such wert thou...

This is very different from the Bangladeshi poets’ conception of the relationship between Rabindranath and Nature. Not surprisingly, when Rabindranath himself writes about Shakespeare (in a sonnet published in Balaka, 1916, and in 1996 inscribed in stone under a bust of Tagore at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford), he sees him as an essentially natural force, comparable to the sun:

When far across the sea your fire dawned, World Poet,
England embraced you within her own horizon,
Assumed your riches were hers alone;
Kissed your radiant brow, but kept you entwined for a while
In the branchy arms of her woods; cloaked you in mist
In the flowery, grassy, dew-bright glades
Where her woodsprites danced. Her island groves
Did not at first rise up with hymns of praise
To a Sun Poet. But slowly, hour by hour, century by century,
Silently beckoned by Infinity, you left that horizon’s lap,
Climbed to blazing high noon splendour,
Took your seat at the hub of all skies
To flood with light the mind of the whole world.
See then how, at the turn of an era,
On the shore of India, joy at your glory rings out now
Through the rippling, thickly fronded coconut-groves.[5]

Thomas Carew, in An Elegie upon the Death of the Deane of Pauls, Dr. John Donne, places Donne firmly in his age, in a way that is utterly different from the Bangladeshi attitude to Rabindranath. He sees him as having rescued poetry from decay:

The Muses garden with Pedantique weedes
O’erspread, was purg’d by thee; The lazie seeds
Of servile imitation throwne away,
And fresh invention planted, Thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age...

and he fears it will deteriorate again now that Donne is dead:

But thou art gone, and thy strict lawes will be
Too hard for Libertines in Poetrie.
They will repeale the goodly exil’d traine
Of gods and goddesses, which in thy just raigne
Were banish’d nobler Poems...

His final epitaph would be too worldly for Rabindranath. A King - even a world-ruling King - is still of this world, not the realm of the spirit:

Here lies a King, that rul’d as hee thought fit
The universall Monarchy of wit;
Here lie two Flamens, and both those the best,
Apollo’s first, at last, the true Gods Priest.

With Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton, and the Romantic era in English poetry, we might expect to come closer to the Rabindric ideal, and the sonnet does contain some comparably cosmic rhetoric. But notice that Milton is ‘like a Star’, whereas a Bangladeshi poet would say that Rabindranath is the sun; he would also say that he continues to be present, whereas Wordsworth says with regret that Milton is no longer present, much to England’s loss. At the end of the sonnet (rather a let-down), Milton is seen as humble and human, not godlike but ‘godly’ (pious):

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

The greatest poem on a dead poet in English is Shelley’s Adonais, an allegorical elegy on the death, aged twenty-four, of John Keats. Shelley’s intense, neoplatonic interest in the spirit-world might lead one to expect some affinities with Tagore and the poems about him described above, but again we find a fundamental difference in Shelley’s conception of the relationship between Keats (both alive and dead) and Nature. There is, first of all, the callous way in which natural processes go on despite the death, at so young an age, of a poet who celebrated Nature:

Ah woe is me! Winter is come and gone,
But grief returns with the revolving year;
The airs and streams renew their joyous tone;
The ants, the bees, the swallows reappear...

One emotion that is conspicuously missing from the Bangladeshi poems about Rabindranath is grief. One may say that this is because he died at a ripe old age, so grief would be misplaced: but it must also be because the equation of Tagore with the Spirit implies that he cannot die - so there is no cause for grief. Shelley also sees Keats as absorbed now into a universal spirit, but for him that spirit, by virtue of its very immortality, is removed from the mortal world:

         Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep -
         He hath awakened from the dream of life -
         ’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
         With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
         And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
         Invulnerable nothings. - We decay
         Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
         Convulse us and consume us day by day,
    And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

         He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
         Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
         And that unrest which men miscall delight,
         Can touch him not and torture not again....[6]

Here too we have a fundamental difference: for Rabindranath (and for all the Bangladeshi poets so influenced by him), world and spirit are intertwined. To them, it would be nonsense to say that Rabindranath, in death, has gone to a spirit-world removed from this world: he was fully part of the spirit-world (and the material world) while he was alive, and even in death he remains part of the material world, as well as the spirit-world, because his creativity is associated with the creativity of Nature herself.

Finally, a poem written in 1939, two years before Tagore died: W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats. Perhaps not surprisingly, in view of its historical proximity, we find more points of contact between this and the Bangladeshi poems than in the other English poems I have looked at. The dark imminence of the Second World War casts a shadow comparable to the shadow of war and conflict that the Bangladeshi poets know so well, and for all his dry scepticism and sense of human sinfulness, Auden clings, in his eloquent closing lines, to a conception of poetic value that is essentially romantic and not a million miles away from Tagore:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Yet the preceding, middle section of the poem is much further from Tagore and the poems about him. It would never occur to the Bangladeshi poets to say that Rabindranath, as a man, had weaknesses and foibles; nor do they embrace such an unambitious, private view of poetry’s impact on society:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives.
A way of happening, a mouth.

To return to the poems in Rabindranathke nebedita kabitaguccha, after that long but I hope not unhelpful digression, we need now to consider the relationship between the poems discussed and the Bangladeshi nationalism I referred to at the beginning and which would be considered by most people a more obvious starting- point for an answer the question, ‘What is Bangladeshi poetry?’

Here the weaker poems in the book are instructive. I said earlier that the majority of the poems are sincere and strong in feeling: they are not poems of empty adulation. The poems in the book that do seem more forced are those that identify Rabindranath with the Bangladeshi nationalist struggle itself. For example, a poem by Mahadeb Saha identifies Rabindranath with ‘Ekushey’, with the martyrs and aspirations of the Bengali Language Movement. Tagore was certainly a fighter for the use of Bengali rather than English in education and politics, but the Language Movement, arising in a state that did not exist when he died, was remote from his own historical experience. So the poem’s concluding lines do not seem to me to carry much conviction:

Thus we few young men
When we forget all identity - even forget
Our own names - then we remember
That Rabindranath is our eternal Bangladesh.
Rabindranath is our everlasting 21st of February.

Similarly, a poem by Kaysul Haq called Rabindranath, 1971-e tomar bangladesh (‘Rabindranath, in 1971 your Bangladesh’) ends with the stirring statement that ‘at this astonishing time your lifelong dream has been accomplished’. Rabindranath would in fact have been devastated by the Partition of Bengal, having fought against it in the Swadeshi campaign in the early years of the century; and even though he would also have loathed Pakistani oppression, he would surely never have seen independent Bangladesh’s final confirmation of the Partition as the fulfilment of his lifelong dream.

The reason, however, why a ‘Bangladeshi nationalist’ projection of Rabindranath seems forced does not only derive from his personal commitment to Hindu-Muslim friendship and a united Bengal: it has to do with something much bigger than that - with the fact that his universalism and humanism were incompatible with nationalism per se.[7]

The contributors to Rabindranathke nibedita kabitaguccha admire and love and honour him as their poet, the poet of their land and their language. But more than that they love him as the poet whose poetic genius and aesthetic and religious values go beyond any narrow conception of nation. In answering the question, ‘What is Bangladeshi poetry?’ one may initially want to give a nationalist answer; yet when one reads the poems in this volume, and realizes that Bangladesh is a country that remains not just kabita-pagal (‘poetry-mad’) but Rabindra-pagal (‘Tagore-mad’), one wonders whether the nationalist definition is correct at all.

Does this then mean that any distinction between ‘Bangladeshi poetry’ and ‘Bengali poetry’ evaporates? I think not. A striking feature of many of the poems in the volume is that Rabindranath’s very universalism acquires a special poignancy and significance in the bloody context of Bangladeshi turbulence, war and upheaval. The ‘nectar’ that Rabindranath’s poetry and songs provide is actually a kind of escape or relief from nationalism, war and politics. Devotion to it is also a proud expression of resistance to any attempt to squeeze Tagore out of Bengali culture - as actually happened in 1967 when the Pakistani regime imposed a ban on Tagore’s songs,[8] and which might happen again if Islamic fundamentalist elements, associating Tagore with Hinduism and with India, ever attained ascendancy over the country. This is not a threat that West Bengalis have ever had to face; nor have they endured (at least since the Bengal Famine and the trauma of Partition itself) the turbulence and upheaval and disasters that have made Tagore’s poetry and songs, for Bangladeshis, such a profound source of comfort, reassurance and solace.

I very much hope that they will continue to find them a solace, and to draw moral and spiritual strength from them. Few would deny that Tagore has had a benign and civilizing influence on Bengal - to an extent unique in world literature. Not that benign civilization has won the day completely; nor will it ever do so. But the spirit of Rabindranath - moral yet creative, emotional yet rational, spiritual yet secular - offers the best way forward. Moreover, because that spirit represents an ideal, it is often subversive of orthodoxy and convention (subversive as in Mustafa Kamal’s poem). In a paper of seminal importance entitled ‘Who speaks for the Nation? Nationalist Rhetoric and the Challenge of Cultural Pluralism in Bangladesh’,[9] Willem van Schendel argues that ‘the two heroic master narratives of Bangladeshi history - the Emancipation of the Muslim and the Struggle for Bengali Nationhood - are both insufficient for understanding the formation of contemporary Bangladeshi society.’ He proposes instead a more pluralistic conception of nationhood - one that can embrace Bangladesh’s marginal groups (non-Bengali, non-Muslim). Rabindranath was not directly concerned with these particular marginal groups, but others - especially the Santhals and the Bauls - interested him deeply, and his overall values are surely as pertinent as any to the solution of Bangladesh’s communal problems.

They are also pertinent to the amelioration of the continuing problems of Partition; and they give me hope and faith that my own idealistic project of an anthology of Bengali poetry satisfactory to ‘both Bengals’ can, with sensitivity and patience, be gradually achieved.

I am aware that I may not, in this paper, have conveyed the experience underlying some of my more sweeping statements. In order to give some substance to the specially intense solace and consolation that Bangladeshis find in Rabindranath and in poetry generally (a greater solace, perhaps, because of their experience and circumstances, than West Bengalis may feel) I offer, somewhat audaciously, a poem of my own. It was written soon after a visit to Bangladesh, and belongs to a diary-sequence of short, jotting-like poems which I eventually called The Retreat (published by the University Press Ltd. in Dhaka in 1994). The consolation of poetry is the poem’s obvious theme. Those of us who come from more comfortable societies do not feel or need that consolation so acutely: hence my failure in the poem to make mental peace with the companion from Rajshahi University whose deep love of Rabindranath (as well as Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley) irritated me so shamefully:

I was in Bangladesh,

Fulfilling a long-standing wish

To visit Tagore’s

Estate at Shelidah. A whole day’s

Journey by university jeep, crossing the Padma by ferry.

One of our number recited poems continuously

In English and Bengali:

It drove me crazy.

Just before we parted he said,

Sensing my irritation perhaps, ‘I read

And learn poetry at the end of every

Day; it takes me away from the university

Where my job stinks, it really

Stinks, I tell you. Poetry

Consoles me.’ I felt ashamed, and ever since

Have been meaning to write this poem by way of recompense.

But Irritation, Mortification, Contrition, Rededication

Have not, alas, replaced each other

In my mind; they’re still all there together,

Irritating each other...

Finally, to encapsulate the unassailable, self-evident nature of the Rabindric ideal, here is a short song - which of course needs to be heard as well as read. Notice how the words - and the cosmic reach of the melody - rise above all conception of nation, history (with its miseries of politics and war) or Partition. Pace the Sahitya Akademi’s anonymous reader, poetry in Bangladesh is ultimately blind to the border that gives it such poignant, patriotic significance:

Dubi amrita-pathare- yai bhule charachara,
      milay rabi shashi.
nahi desha, nahi kala, nahi heri sima -
      prema-murati hridaye jage,
              ananda nahi dhare.
(Sinking in a sea of nectar, I forget the world,
             sun and moon disappear.
I see no country, no history, no border -
         an image of love awakes in my heart,
               I cannot contain my joy.) [10]

[1] Another such collection, Rabindra shatabarsha: rabindranathke nibedita kabita, was published by the Information Service of India in Dhaka in 1961 (Tagore’s centenary year). But as this collection of 42 poems was dominated by Indian Bengali poets and pre-dated the liberation of Bangladesh, I shall not consider it here.

[2] Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads 1805 (Preface).

[3] I have now seen the book again, and most useful and interesting it is: an anthology of poems chosen by the poets themselves, with information about their careers. Sisir Datta (ed.), Svanirbachita (Chittagong: Mulyayan, 1994).

[4] Translated in my Selected Poems of Tagore (Penguin, 1985), p.107.

[5] My translation, commissioned by the High Commissioner for India, Dr L. M. Singhvi, but not used, when it was discovered that Tagore himself had translated the poem.

[6] Earl Spencer, in his oration at Princess Diana’s funeral in September 1997, used similar language. If Bengali poems come to be written about Mother Teresa, one might find a similar difference between Western and Eastern perceptions!

[7] Tagore was a patriot, not a nationalist. In his book of English lectures delivered in Japan, Nationalism (1917), and in numerous Bengali essays and speeches, he spoke strongly against militant nationalism. Hence his ambivalence, at times, towards Indian nationalism - though he was never a supporter of British imperialism. See R. K. DasGupta, Our National Anthem (Calcutta: Tagore Research Institute, 1993), Ashis Nandy, The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self (Delhi, 1994), and E. P Thompson’s Introduction to Macmillan’s reprint of Tagore’s Nationalism (1991).

[8] Mahadeb Saha’s poem identifying Tagore with Ekushey is perhaps best undertood in the light of this ban, which made Tagore a kind of posthumous martyr to the Language Movement.

[9] Written for the conference `Bangladesh at 25', Columbia University, New York, December 1996, and published in Willem van Schendel and Erik Jan Zurcher (eds.), Identity Politics in Central Asia and the Muslim World: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Labour in the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), pp. 107-147.

[10] Gitabitan, p.154, no. 372. There is a fine recording by Kanika Bandyopadhyay: HMV STHV 842558 (1994), Side B, No.6.

My thanks are due to the Chairman and members of the Department of Bengali, University of Chittagong, for inviting me to deliver this paper as the Muhammad Shahidullah Memorial Lecture, 11 February 1998; and to Mr Munayem Mayenin in London for reading and discussing with me the Bengali poems described.

The paper was published in Pandulipi, Vol. XVIII, 2000, Journal of the Bangla Sahitya Samiti, Chittagong University, Bangladesh, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.

Illustrated by Amitabha Sen.

Published in Parabaas: September 6, 2003

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