As Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary became a trending topic on Twitter, the social media site, it seemed like a good time to ask which Tagore we were celebrating. (Sticklers will point out that we’re celebrating a year early — technically, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and prolific writer would have turned 149, not 150, today. Try telling them that in Shantiniketan.)
There are really three Tagores who have emerged over the last century. The first, Rabi Thakur, is venerated — almost literally — by the Bengalis. The entire Rabindra Rachanabali, his collected works, is still a prized wedding gift, the potters of Chitpur and Kumartuli do a thriving trade in Tagore busts, his poems and songs are the background to the bustle of any Bengali household, and children still perform his play, Tasher Desh (The Kingdom of Cards) in schools. (His non-fiction — the essays, letters and criticism — remains largely unread, even among this group.)
Rabi Thakur is a living figure in this tradition, celebrated the most for his songs, and even the generation that grew up distanced from their language will know at least the Satyajit Ray films based on his works, Charulata and Ghare-Baire among them. The Bengali worship of Rabi Thakur can strain the patience of some, as Vikram Seth noted in A Suitable Boy, where Kakoli scandalises her mother by warbling, “Rabi Thakur, R Tagore/ Ohe what a bore!” But Kakoli represents a relatively tiny fraction of apostates among the vast majority of the devout, in India and in Bangladesh.
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