Rabindranath Tagore goes on occupying a very large segment of our collective literary consciousness. And as Bengali-speaking people in Bangladesh, in West Bengal, indeed all across the Bengali diaspora observe today the anniversary of the birth of the poet, it is fair to suggest that the pre-eminent niche he holds in our collective life is not likely to be moved or shaken any time soon. In considerably more ways than one, Rabindranath embodies the psyche of his people. In a larger sense, from the perspective of history, he speaks of India as it used to be . . . or perhaps as it always has been in time.
For Bangladesh, the struggle for Rabindranath, in defence of the ethos he represents, has always meant a battle against the forces of untruth and anti-culture. It was the Pakistani establishment that sought to de-emphasise his place in Bengali literature in the hundredth year of his birth. And that was in 1961, when a brave band of Bengalis came together in defiance of the regime. Later in that turbulent decade, when the rulers of Pakistan decided that one surefire way of keeping the faith was through clamping a ban on Tagore songs in East Bengal, resistance once more became the weapon of the Bengali.
The years have moved on. Rabindranath stirred our political sensibilities in 1971 when Amar Shonar Bangla took pride of place in the pantheon of music adding substance to the struggle for freedom. And since then, despite every odd and every quibble placed in our way by quarters uncomfortable with him, we have held on to him. Our minds have been without fear, our heads have been held high, our knowledge has flowed in the happiness of freedom. Rabindranath’s songs have underpinned our collective societal being, encompassing as they do the purely romantic, the essentially religious, the patently political and the cheeringly humanistic.
Rabindranath’s invocations to the Creator have served as potent reminders of the cultural heritage this nation is heir to; and in the songs of love have come that old message of the bonding between man and woman. Rabindranath speaks of the land, of the fecundity of life and ideas its rivers and fields and skies have consistently put forth as metaphors of purposeful existence. There is a charming combination of the patriotic and the divine in O amar desher maati tomar pore thekaai matha. The soul is all in the poet. Feel, in the silence of the nocturnal hours, the yearning for God in aaji nahi nahi nidra ankhi paate, in amaro praane gobhiro gopon moha apon shey ki. Experience too the heartbreak which comes with parting in amar praaner pore chole gelo ke boshonter batash tukur moto.
In Rabindranath we hear the myriad voices of the generations. He was a good deal more than a poet. There was the mystic in him; and in him there was the internationalist who took Bengalis to the centre of global interaction. He visited countries, lectured on issues stretching beyond the time-constrained and he conversed on poetic principles with the likes of Victoria Ocampo and W.B. Yeats and Romain Rolland. His fascination with science came alive in his interaction with Albert Einstein. He sought to delineate the frontiers of nationalistic politics through his conversations with Gandhi.
A hundred and fifty eight years after his birth, Rabindranath Tagore goes on lighting our path through the dense woods. He sang for us once. We sing in homage to him this morning.