Remembering Rabindranath: Then and Now
Every year the first week of May awakens an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, sweet reminiscences of moments of excitement, anticipation, tension, even the recalling of incidents of intense rivalry and competition that in retrospect seems only amusing and juvenile.
In every middle class locality a Rabindra Birth Anniversary Celebration Committee would swing into action every year, sometimes the choice of office bearers would become so politicized that one almost felt that soon the CRPF may have to be called to restore peace among the community members. The poet’s birthday on 8th or sometimes 9th May was commonly referred to as Pochishey Baishak, a birth date precious in the calendar of every culture-sensitive Bengali. It is after all the birthday of an individual who has inspired generations by winning their hearts and minds with the magical mystique of beautiful words powerfully strung together resonating with the mellifluous music that is known as Rabindrasangeet.
Many will recall those endless rehearsals each year in the month of April, the frenzied bid to memorize dialogues from Tagore’s plays, desperately memorizing long poems like Debatar Gras or Bharat tirtha, looking for selfless prompters from the wings, singing songs, dancing either with the slow soulful tunes or the sprightly lyrics about being strange and restless messengers of a new spirit of youth-amra nutan joubaneri doot
Rabindranath seemed to be the invisible compelling presence that kept entire neighbourhoods engrossed with the selection of plays and songs to stage that particular year. Schools, colleges and many localities observed that day with songs, dances, plays and talks. Among the events the speeches delivered mostly by elderly men seemed quite insufferable and yet inevitable. When the long, scholarly, boring speeches were delivered it was a trying time for the organizers to keep the children from screaming and the adults from chatting. They just couldn’t wait to watch Lakhir Poriksha, Natir Puja, Bisarjan, Tasher Desh, Shyama, depending on the play chosen by the Rabindra committee of the locality for that particular year.
It was with such remarkable gusto and passion that we sang the birthday song- Hey Nutan- welcoming the forever new- the twenty-fifth day of Baishak. The fierce parental rivalry regarding the children selected for solo performances or lead roles were an unfailing annual event too. Rabindranath could bring out the worst in some and unmask many too, it seemed. I remember how mothers strutted about like proud penguins and flashed menacing looks at competitors who till then were probably their offspring’s best friends. I fondly remember how I enjoyed my role as the adventurous and liberated prince in Tasher Desh. The primary reason for being selected for the role was that I was much taller than most of the others who were short-listed that year for acting in Tasher Desh and the director of the play did not want a midget prince. Someone even sarcastically remarked that the giraffe of the para had bagged the lead role.
We just loved Rabindranath and considered it a blasphemy if ever someone did not agree. It was a spirit of mass hero worship and quite surreptitiously along with all that singing and reciting one suddenly realized that to be steeped in the words of the poet was such a refreshing way of learning the Bengali language. Learning not by force but through spontaneous surrender to the intoxication of words and musical notes.
I recall hearing stories of how my young widowed maternal grandmother used to play the esraj and sing Tagore songs with tears streaming down her youthful cheeks. On the birthday of the bard, my father would recite from the Sanchaita and my mother would sing song after song as she played the harmonium. She had astonishing memory for words and notations. But my parents were not alone- in our neighbourhood most parents could sing or recite from Tagore’s songs and poems, it seemed to be the most natural thing to do.
Has something changed now?
This time the first Rabindra birth anniversary celebration I attended happened before the birthday, but one could argue it was the birthday week. The programme was held in a club and the club President even informed the audience that the Tagore family owned a house where the present clubhouse is situated. That evening, after a very sultry, hot and humid day, people had just settled in their seats on the club lawn when the sportive nor’wester, the celebrated Kaal baishakhi that has inspired so many Tagore songs, rushed wildly through the pandal constructed for the occasion, causing great consternation and sophisticated cries of alarm, as the fans overhead dangled menacingly. The efficient organizers soon engaged ground staff who took down the fans with surprising speed and skill. It seemed rather ironic that the first to fall flat on the dais was a diminutive cutout of a standing Rabindranath that was pinned to the backdrop. It was pinned back in place with alacrity. The solo performance of a very well known senior artist was well appreciated, though it was strange that the change in the weather, from sultry to stormy to breezy had very little influence on the selection of songs. Interesting too was the fact that the audience, including myself, was all about mellow and middle-aged women and men, many among them were very senior citizens. As a result most of the heads were sprinkled with snowflakes, here I am borrowing a remarkable image for grey hair, used by Maitreyi Devi in her writings.
Has Rabindranath then become dated and generational, I wondered. The poet would himself have been appalled by this attitudinal shift, as he was a committed messenger of change and youthfulness of spirit. Someone also said that it was in Bangladesh that Rabindranath still holds the erstwhile mesmeric spell.
Where are the young lovers of Rabindranath? My cheeky son once said that Rabindranath had no confidence in us, so he had composed his own birthday song. He also hinted at the bard’s self-conceit for which he was of course severely reprimanded. It seems youngsters who are besotted by rock and shock music, the darde disco dancers, consider Rabindrasangeet to be slow if not boring. One young person said the songs were brilliant poetry but did not have much music or rhythm of the type they admired. Implying again, that if you did not know Bengali, Rabindrasangeet would not be your type of music as it more about word power.
A research scholar however gave a very positive spin to my feeling of loss and resignation, “Nowadays, Tagore is no longer about mass hype. Tagore aficionados try to specialize and excel in Tagore studies that include his entire oeuvre of songs, poetry and other writings. After all, as far as I know Rabindranath is the only poet who had translated an unconventional dream into reality by setting up a university that radicalized the traditional educational system. Instead of mass euphoria it is now about serious engagement with the literary legacy of multi-faceted Rabindranath. You will notice that the present generation of Rabindrasangeet singers are often teachers and researchers of Rabindrasangeet, their selections of songs are based on their areas of research interest, it can be about Western or classical or folk music influences on Tagore’s own musical compositions or about the poet’s own experiments and techniques”.
Irrefutable logic that- and difficult to disagree. New generations have re-invented Rabindranath according to the demands of the changing times, and as he was a poet with a liberated mind who had given a clarion call to demolish all dams that harnessed the spirit of adventure and inquiry, the youth of the present century can well carry forward his message of breaking free from the moribund morass of rituals and conventions, deliberately stepping out of comfort zones, rejecting the insularity of the well-frog. It was Satyajit Ray and later Amartya Sen, who reminded us about the powerful Sanskrit word we have for this condition of cultural myopia - kupamanduk . Incidentally, even the MNC ads are telling us not to remain “santoosht” though their urging implies an invidious agenda of compulsive consumerism.
So will it now be much more than lip service when one joins in a chorus singing a Tagore song about a spirited rejection of the cultural lines of control, will it truly be about raising a voice for the rejuvenation of the wasteland by demolishing the dams- “badh bhenge dao”?
That is a story only time will tell.