Tuesday, May 11, 2010

‘Nothing but a poet’

On the Mount Rushmore of Indian nationalist iconography, we can expect to see, as we pass by in an aeroplane, Gandhi’s and Nehru’s faces carved into the stone. The third face is a blur — but the myopic likeness is of course Ambedkar’s. The fourth visage just may be Tagore’s.

And this, you feel, is largely the company Tagore will keep in the days leading to his 150th birth anniversary: Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar. I repeat this litany verbatim from an article by Ramachandra Guha, who, reassessing Tagore, considers him eligible for a place in the constellation of India’s founding fathers. “If Tagore had merely been a ‘creative artist’,” Guha says, “perhaps one would not have found him fit to rank alongside those other builders of modern India.” Of course, Tagore was much more, as famous poets of colonised nations were especially doomed to be. WB Yeats, in ‘Among School Children’, describes his public role thus: “The children learn to cipher and to sing,/ To study reading — books and histories,/ To cut and sew, be neat in everything/ In the best modern way — the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” The children are learning to be citizens; they are perhaps also being civilised “in the best modern way”. (If anything, the Irish, as a subject race, had worse opprobrium heaped upon them by the English than the Indians did.) But Yeats’s sparse diction and his unobtrusive line-endings hint that, in the midst of the citizen-making, the intruder has been identified as both a diversion and a fake; the children, with their staring eyes and ‘momentary wonder’, have found him out: and we, like Yeats himself, are estranged from the public persona. Later in the poem, Yeats lets on that he knows perfectly what he is at 60: “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” and “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. Outside of the “momentary wonder” and the stares, to be an ageing poet, a mere “creative artist”, is to be nothing at all.

Full report here Hindustan Times

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