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Amrit Sen : Behind the Veil &Tagore and Modernity

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Book Reviews

Rajat Kanta Ray (Introduced by)
Behind the Veil: Paintings of Rabindranath Reminiscent of Jivandevata: 
Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2010: Pp.151, Price - Rs.750.

Krishna Sen and Tapati Gupta (Editors)
Tagore and Modernity (Collection of Essays)
Kolkata: Dasgupta and Co., 2006. Pp. 250, Price - Rs.300.

Behind the Veil attempts to trace the concept of jivandevata as a continued leitmotif in Tagore’s poetry and paintings. This beautifully produced book is enriched by an insightful introduction to Tagore’s notion of the jivandevata and its moorings in his relationship with three women in his life.

Ray’s introduction draws attention to the elusive, dark and mysterious presence of jivandevata who exists on the boundaries of life and death and who perpetually calls out to the poet. Ray distinguishes between Tagore’s ‘Lord of all Beings out in the world’ (imagined in terms of the male God) and the veiled God Head (imagined as the mysterious feminine). The two presences seem to be interwined in his major poetry. For Ray jivandevata is a collage of three women who inspired Rabindranath – his sister in law Kadambari Devi (Srimati of his writings, committed suicide in 1884), his wife Mrinalini Devi (died of illness in 1902), and Victoria Ocampo (his companion in Argentina, Tagore’s ‘Vijaya’ whom he met in 1924 and 1930). The poems that explore the figure of the jivandevata use the erotic and the secular to bring out their presences.

The paintings hauntingly bring out another issue that Ray raises in this volume – the strange sense of melancholia and death. Ray locates this in the motif of loss that Rabindranath encountered throughout his life. The ovoid faces, the shades of grey and black in most of his paintings and Tagore’s references to Kadambari Devi as a subject of his paintings, give us an insight into the poet’s creative subconscious. What it also alerts us to, is the seamless movement of Tagore between the various forms of creative artistry.

This is a volume that will raise numerous questions and leads for Tagore scholars. Is Tagore’s notion of jivandevata indeed the most dominant and longstanding motif as Ray claims? How does it interact with Tagore’s major ideas on internationalism, ecology and rural reconstruction? Is it possible to read into the sadness of his paintings his lingering frustration with nationalism and the blatant exploitation of the earth? There are plates for example that juxtapose the figure of the woman and nature (see plate , 39).

The book does not specify the order in which the paintings are arranged. Given the fact that Tagore did not mention the date of his paintings, one can understand the randomness. One serious problem for readers not familiar with Rabindranath’s Bengali writings is the absence of translations of the key texts that Ray mentions. This book would have benefited from an appendix that includes translations of at least the poems that Ray cites in the introduction. This would have helped the reader to explore the interaction between the poetry and the paintings.

The delicate nuances of the erotic, the secular and the mystical and the haunting visual appeal of the figure is sure to excite discovering readers of Rabindranath.The production with its glossy plates remains a feast for the eyes. Most volumes on Tagore’s paintings attempt a panoramic glimpse of his painting. This is a volume that focuses on one suggesting aspect of his creative process.

Beyond the Veil remains a volume of considerable importance in raising the concept of jivandevata as a point of entry into Rabindranath’s creative repertoire. The interplay between idea, poetry and painting remains an issue that needs to be tapped into. This is a book that resonates like the elusive jivandevata of Rabindranath – loaded with mysteries and suggestions. 

Tagore and Modernity brings out the proceedings of the UGC SAP Seminar as part of the exploration of the literary and cultural interface between Bengal and Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This collection of essays attempts to locate Tagore’s radical engagements with Western modernity across history, philosophy, education and music. The scope of the essays raises interesting aspects about Tagore’s receptivity to ideas across the globe. Uma Dasgupta’s introductory essay sets the tone where Dasgupta highlights Tagore’s culture of appreciation that seeks unification, consolidation and organization. It is in this context that Tagore would have looked at nationalism as a great menace. Saradindranath Tagore’s densely theoretical essay interrogates the Hegelian statist ontology of history and argues about Tagore’s rejection of it to embrace the individual and creative in the alternative records of Pratyahik Sukhdukha (daily tribulations and sorrows). Within this structure Saradindranath locates the combination of the modernist desire of unity and the postmodern appreciation of plurality within Tagore. How Saradindranath works out Tagore’s response to the Upanishadic Godhead remains unanswered though. Swapan Majumdar finely nuanced essay locates Tagore’s modernity not as a device or style but a freedom of choice in the view of life. This he feels results in creation of alternate spaces, an ideal that he contextualises in the process of exchange in his childhood. Majumdar’s rich essay also outlines Tagore’s penchant for inconsistency and revision within this continuous process of exchange and engagement. Frank J. Korom’s essay locates the presence of folklore in Rabindranath’s creative process while Sudeshna Chakraborty’s essay draws upon Tagore’s sense of history. Krishna Sen’s interesting essay explores Tagore’s response to Sakuntala and The Tempest within two visions of life-Prakash (self-realisation) and Pratap (self-aggrandizement) while Chinmoy Guha traces the relationship between Tagore and St. John Perse. Especially significant is Sanjukta Dasgupta’s essay on the depiction of women in Rabindranath’s short stories where Dasgupta argues that Rabindranath scripts transgression and debunks the abject subjecthood of Indian women. Rabindranath’s experimentations in his paintings is analysed by Tapati Gupta while Sudhir Chakraborty’s interesting essay looks at the modernist urge for experimentation in Rabindrasangeet. Shoma Mukherjee analyses the presentation of Tagore on celluloid and the volume ends with a transcript of a panel discussion on translating Tagore.

The strength of this volume lies in foregrounding the breadth of Tagore’s willingness to appreciate, absorb and experiment with the various aspects of western modernity. One only feels that the volume would have benefitted from a more detailed analysis of Tagore’s cosmopolitanism and its links with contemporary western ideas. Another problem is a lack of engagement with Tagore’s ideas on science and his interactions with the leading personalities of the period. A more glaring omission is an entry on Tagore’s own reactions to literary modernism and his experiments in Punascha. The response to Tagore by the Bengali modernists is another untapped area. However it is probably unfair to expect such a wide range of contributions in a single volume. This is a rich engagement with Tagore’s interactions with modernity and will surely enrich and stimulate researchers on Tagore.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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