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Rabindranath Tagore's 159th anniversary: Why Bengal prays to a poet

For Bengalis, Tagore's birth date in the Western calendar shifts every year, just like it does for holy festivals—the poet is celebrated like a god

This year, we celebrate Tagore’s 159th birth anniversary
This year, we celebrate Tagore’s 159th birth anniversary

A Goan Catholic friend who graduated from JNU’s English department had a recurring quip about her Bengali classmates. “I cannot understand a group of people who can break into song at the slightest provocation." The prompts could be anything: a hot plate of food, the first drop of rain, a fluttering leaf. “They are always talking to each other in Bengali. And they all know the same songs!"

Indeed, the Bengalis, they know the same songs. It’s a shared register of largely Tagore songs, with a sprinkling of some adhunik (contemporary) songs and some by Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. You would be hard-pressed to find any bhadralok home without a copy of Gitabitan, a compilation of roughly 2,300 Tagore songs, organized by theme.

My Goan friend is not an exception. The rest of India has had enough of Bengali cultural chauvinism. It is possibly the only linguistic group that has a word for the “other"—the world is divided into bangali and abangali. Even within ourselves, there’s ghoti and bangal to denote those who hail from West and East Bengal, both derisive depending on who is talking. Then there’s the ingenious term probashi for the Bengalis who left Bengal. The list of casually offensive terms for those from Bihar, Odisha and even Sylhet is, let’s say, rather offensive.

So now it is the current fashion to be scornful of the Bengali devotion to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray—incidentally, both born in the first week of May.

Devotion is the right word. The homes of relatives I would visit during summer vacations in Kolkata would have framed portraits of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo on the walls. They would also have Tagore. My maternal grandmother, who was called Gita, would always tell people she was named after the book of poetry, not the book of god.

On a recent trip to Portugal, I was impressed by the grand statues of Luís de Camões, considered Portugal’s greatest poet, in public squares in Lisbon. In 2011, state chief minister Mamata Banerjee did install speakers playing Tagore songs at Kolkata's traffic lights. But the Bengali devotion to Tagore is private as much as it is public—It is on bedroom walls and in bathroom songs, on wedding invitations and in funereal notes. It is an intimate and lived devotion, modified to suit your age, gender and station. In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European, and remains the only Indian, to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali. While Rabindra sangeet is most known, Tagore also invented a dance style called Rabindra nritya. Abritti, or dramatic recitation, is another way to engage with his poetry. Through his body of work, he continues to give people ample fodder to deify him.

Born on the 7th of May, Tagore celebrated his birthday on the 25th day of Baisakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar (a complicated lunisolar system that Amartya Sen has written about in The Argumentative Indian). It is a practice that continues even today. For Bengalis, the corresponding date for celebrations in the Western calendar flits every year, just like it does for holy festivals—I have realized only now that Bengalis literally celebrate the poet like a god. There are those who won’t take his name, calling him Gurudeb, Biswakabi, Kobi guru and Kobi thakur instead. The last has some allegiance to his family name, but also translates to poet-god.

This year, as we celebrate Tagore’s 159th birth anniversary, my parents’ Bengali association in suburban Mumbai is unable to put together a full-blown cultural programme dedicated to his poetry, music and dance (there are always food stalls with fish fry and mutton rolls, of course), as it usually does. But even as the association has diverted Durga Puja funds to covid-19 relief for front-line workers, the lockdown hasn’t dampened the spirit of piety towards Tagore. The Powai Bengali Welfare Association is taking its Tagore obeisance to YouTube, with digital contributions, this year.

In a country of a million idols and temples—including those for movie stars; a country where taxpayer money is spent on giant statues to politicians—there is something to be said about a culture that bows to a poet. Tagore was a philosopher and a polymath, a nationalist and a political ideologue, an artist and an educationist, but above all, he was a poet. And in celebrating him, we celebrate the spirit of poetry.

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