BoiTHEK is a bookstore in Bangalore that caters exclusively to Bengali readers in the city. The place also transforms itself into a cultural cafe encouraging many forms of art like music, dance and theatre. When a friend approached Bookstalkist to conduct a Yard of the Bard event in BoiTHEK, the first thought that flashed across our minds was Tagore. I have three copies of Gitanjali with me. One of them, I bought for myself and the other two of were gifted by Bengali friends, indeed.Thanks to my interactions with friends from West Bengal, I did know how Tagore, Gitanjali, and Rabindra Sangeet were celebrated by the Bengali speaking lot. However, being someone who weeps over Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah, I had to discuss the other aspects of Tagore’s mastery as well. So, we decided to discuss Tagore beyond his much revered Gitanjali and ask all those questions that have been lingering in our heads for long.
We began with “How do you connect with Tagore? ” The answer was almost unanimous – Rabindra Sangeet, except probably one who connects through his paintings. But just as we had feared not many of them had experienced Tagore beyond his songs. Interestingly, some of them had hated Tagore and his songs as a child and some of them learnt Tagore’s verses only to impress a girlfriend or partner. However, as they grew up they have come to look up to his songs as a panacea for all sorts of troubles in their lives. An important observation while discussing why Tagore was not read as much was that although Tagore never created for the galleries, the custodians of Tagore’s art seemed to have continued an ‘elitist’ approach and denied the masses an easier access to his works for a long time. Only in recent times have they opened it up for the public at large. While the statement might need to be validated with a larger audience, it was intriguing nonetheless. The above scenario also seemed to have paved way for people to appreciate writers like Satyajit Ray who came after Tagore. However irrespective of how much they had read of Tagore everyone clearly revered Tagore because he was the pride of Bengal.
The session was split into two parts. During the first part of the session we discussed the short stories of Tagore. When we introduced some of the short stories, some faces lit up in recognition. They had read a couple of them as a part of their curriculum and the group had the opportunity to go down the memory lane with those stories. Not only did we discuss the stories but also the hidden metaphors and messages that Tagore was leaving for his readers.Some of the stories that were discussed include The Cabulliwallah, Subha, Homecoming, The Child’s return, The Postmaster, Master Mashai etc. The group also dwelled briefly upon Gora and Chokher Bali. The short stories set the platform to discuss Tagore’s take on a lot of societal issues including women’s role in the society.
The second part of the session was designed to introduce the audience to the non-fictions of Tagore. Since it is impossible to talk of his works in entirety in an hour, we decided to focus on his collection of essays and lectures titled Nationalism. If there is one work of Tagore which need to be read thoroughly at this juncture of heightened nationalism and anti-nationalism, it must be ‘Nationalism’. We quoted for the audience few gems from the book. Some those quotes did leave the audience unsettled despite their adulation for Tagore. Nevertheless, we did have a bunch of open minded audience and the ideas from Tagore did leave them with something to ponder over. We hope that this pondering will help build a better society.
While the audience thought that they had not read much of Tagore, in reality they did start their first lessons in Bengali from Tagore. Even as we talk, Tagore’s Sahaj Path continues to be the first classroom for any beginner in Bengali. As we walked out of the discussion that evening, we knew for sure that at least some of them would take home a little more of Tagore to keep them company.