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Rabindranath - A Liberal Humanist Fallen among Bigoted Bhadraloks

The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore this year is an occasion for reviewing the poet's estimation of his Bengali audience and the latter's attitude towards him. The relationship can be situated within the wider framework of an unstable structure (the Bengali bhadralok society in this case) and a multifaceted agency (the individual Rabindranath who inhabited that society), and the complementary role of the two in responding to and affecting on each other. Over a span of almost a century, Rabindranath played a twin role - one, as a creative artist, and the other, what we today define as a "public intellectual". During this period, he was pulled apart by bhadralok denigrators and hagiographers, and the reactions ranged from scorn to deification. This history of the contradictory reconstruction of Rabindranath's image by the Bengali bhadralok society reflects the social conflicts, intellectual debates and political pulls and pressures that had churned up and transformed that society during the last century - traversing great historical events like the anti-colonial national movement in India and the two world wars.

SPECIAL ARTICLE

Rabindranath – A Liberal Humanist Fallen among Bigoted Bhadraloks

Sumanta Banerjee

The 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore this year is an occasion for reviewing the poet’s estimation of his Bengali audience and the latter’s attitude towards him. The relationship can be situated within the wider framework of an unstable structure (the Bengali bhadralok society in this case) and a multifaceted agency (the individual Rabindranath who inhabited that society), and the complementary role of the two in responding to and affecting on each other. Over a span of almost a century, Rabindranath played a twin role – one, as a creative artist, and the other, what we today define as a “public intellectual”. During this period, he was pulled apart by bhadralok denigrators and hagiographers, and the reactions ranged from scorn to deification. This history of the contradictory reconstruction of Rabindranath’s image by the Bengali bhadralok society reflects the social conflicts, intellectual debates and political pulls and pressures that had churned up and transformed that society during the last century – traversing great historical events like the anti-colonial national movement in India and the two world wars.

The title of this article is a paraphrase of Lenin’s reported description of George Bernard Shaw as a “Good Man Fallen among Fabians!” This article is a slightly expanded version of my presentation made at the international seminar, “Many Rabindranaths: Across Space and Time”, organised by the Department of History and Rabindranath Studies Centre of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, from 28-30 March 2011.

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is a political commentator who is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India.

L
et me begin by quoting a few lines from a poem by Rabindranath, which summed up his views about the Bengalis. More than a hundred years ago, when he was in his 30s, he mocked at “Mother Bengal” in these words: Sat-koti santanarey, he mugdha janani Rekhechho Bangali kore, manush karoni. (Mother – besotted with your seven crore children, you have left them as mere Bengalis, and failed to bring them up as fit human beings.)1

Till the end of his life, Rabindranath remained sceptical about Bengal’s unfit bhadralok politicians. As he wrote in a letter to a friend: “The different parties (in Bengal) want to carve me up into slices to serve their respective interests…You won’t find such narrow-mindedness in any other place except Bengal”.2 It might appear paradoxical. Here was a personality who, towards the end of his life, was worshipped as an icon by all the Bengali bhadraloks, but the icon himself was suspicious of the worshippers.

The Rise of the Bhadraloks

But before that, I should explain the unsettled structure of the Bengali bhadralok society. By the time the young Rabindranath arrived on the Bengali cultural scene at the fag end of the 19th century, the class character of the hegemonic segment of Bengali Hindu society had changed. The earlier generation of urban Bengali gentry which thrived as agents of the colonial rulers as banians, dewans and zamindars in the 18th century, were known as the abhijata or rich respectable families. They set the norms of socio-cultural behaviour, which were primarily determined by their money-power gained from proximity to the rulers (which again aided even some from the depressed castes to buy their way into the upper caste-based Bengali social order that laid down the rules). By the middle of the 19th century however, they were succeeded by a new community of English-educated professionals – teachers, lawyers, civil servants, employees in commercial firms and government offices. They became the opinion-makers in Bengali society. From amidst them came social reformers like Vidyasagar and politicians like Bipin Pal and Surendranath Banerjee. This community also threw up the first generation of modern Bengali literati – poets like Madhusudan Dutta, novelists like Bankim Chattopadhyay. During this period, descendants of the older orthodox Hindu abhijata gentry and members of this new middle class, through debates and discussions on social reforms and western education, worked out a compromise to hold together the Bengali society in the face of new challenges like the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement from within it, as well as the Christian evangelical mission from outside. They

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evolved certain common standards of behaviour and cultural norms which could bind together Bengali orthodox Hindu, reformist Brahmo and converted Christian educated classes into one fold – that marked them out as a distinct group known as bhadraloks. The external manifestations of this group, which were made possible by a basic standard of income, were (1) residence in a pucca house, either through ownership or renting;

  • (2) attention to one’s sartorial attire and use of a uniform style of chaste Bengali in public that separated them from the Bengali plebs, who were looked down upon as itar or lower in status;
  • (3) a demonstrable knowledge of English language and manners; and at the same time, (4) adherence to certain traditional Hindu religious norms during wedding ceremonies and funerals (allowed to be modified by the Brahmo Samajists); caste-based arrangement of marriages (even followed by the converted Christians from the upper castes); and obsession with pollution that led to their discriminating against dalits and Muslims in their day-today behaviour.
  • The bhadralok society was thus born of a compromise between the western-educated Hindu middle classes and the traditional orthodox brahminical order. A modern historian of 19th century Bengal, the late Pradip Sinha described the compromise in succinct terms: “…a combination of (James) Mill and Manu...While the English utilitarian afforded a tool of intellectual analysis, the Hindu sage offered a key to social cohesion.”3 It was a rather uneasy compromise that left the Bengali bhadralok society perpetually ambivalent – hovering between the Manu-ist orthodox beliefs and practices on the one hand, and the Mill-ist, and later Marxist, efforts at an intellectual analysis on the other. It had always been half-imprisoned, half-winged. Even today, it remains imprisoned in the cage of conservative religious faith and customs, and yet, beats its feeble wings to fly into the modern western world to taste its honey. Efforts at independent thinking founder on the tradition of prudence and trepidation, dithering and fear.

    This ambivalence of the Bengali bhadralok community was further compounded by the heterogeneity of its composition. It was fragmented along class lines – as well as an urban/rural disjuncture. There was the Bengali upper crust which consisted of (1) descendants of the old zamindari clan which continued to depen d on its dwindling income from the rural estates, like Rabindranath’s family; (2) a new group of urban-based professionals, like lawyers who were called to the bar in England (a typical representative of which was barrister Pramatha Chowdhury, a leading progressive writer who was close to the Tagore family);

  • (3) bureaucrats who came back after passing the civil service examination in England and later drifted to nationalist politics (like Romesh Chandra Dutta and Surendranath Banerjee);
  • (4) academics occupying senior positions as professors in the Calcutta University and other institutions (like the historian Dines h Chandra Sen and the scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray); and
  • (5) a few entrepreneurs in business (e g, Rajen Mukherjee, Nalini Sarkar) who for a brief while dangled the hope of Bengal’s commercial revival. Down below this crust, there was a vast layer of Bengali bhadraloks who could be categorised as middle- and lower-middle class – madhyabitto and nimno-madhyabitto (in
  • Bengali terms). They consisted of school and college teachers, lawyers and physicians practising in urban and rural areas, clerks in government and commercial establishments, small traders running local groceries.

    The Bhadralok Response to Rabindranath’s Early Works

    Although in his early years (during the last quarter of the 19th century), Rabindranath failed to gain a readership in this wide layer of the bhadralok public,4 he established his reputation as a rising poet among the Bengali upper class bhadralok cognoscenti. When at the age of 20, he composed the musical drama Balmiki-Pratibha which was performed in March 1881 at his ancestral house in Jorasanko in north Calcutta, with himself acting in the leading role, it won plaudits from the cream of the Bengali bhadraloks – the alumni of Hindu College and Presidency College, and no less a person than Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Young Rabindranath also endeared himself to the contemporary Bengali bhadralok nationalists by setting to tune and singing the first stanza of Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram at an Indian Congress session, and by composing poems celebrating the exploits of Rajput and Sikh warriors against Muslim rulers – a trend influenced by the surrounding atmosphere of Hindu revivalism that marked Bengali bhadralok nationalism in those days.5

    By the turn of the 20th century, Rabindranath was already being recognised by these bhadralok intellectuals as a versatile peer to reckon with – not only as a poet, but also a composer of songs, a playwright, a novelist and short story writer, an essayist and a political commentator. But at the same time, he faced extreme hostility from the powerful conservative section of the bhadralok literati, because of his empathy with the cause of women’s emancipation, and his outspoken criticism of the opportunism of the bhadralok political leadership – which indicated a departure from his earlier identification with the Bengali Hindu nationalist stance of this section. When his novel Chokher Bali began to be serialised in the journal Bangadarshan in 1901, Sureshchandra Samajpati (who wielded considerable power among literary circles in those days) attacked it in the columns of his journal Sahitya, on the grounds of “obscenity”. In the novel, Rabindranath described the emotional and physical passion of a young widow caught up in the conflict between her love with a married man, and courtship by his bachelor friend, and how the impossibility of asserting her preference in the orthodox social surroundings, forced her to escape to Benaras – the only refuge of Bengali widows in those days. However, even this conservative denouement did not please Sureshchandra Samajpati. Ironically enough, Samajpati happened to be the grandson of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the champion of widow remarriage. One would have expected him to sympathise with the widow Binodini in Rabindranath’s novel in her fight for emancipation! That indicates to what extent orthodox Hindu prejudices dominated bhadralok society even after attempted social reforms by Rammohan and Vidyasagar. Manu continued to prevail over Mill!

    In fact, all through his literary career, Rabindranath had to contend with Bengali conservative bhadralok critics – beginning with Sureshchandra Samajpati to Mohitlal Majumdar and Sajanikanta Das at the end. Even those bhadralok Bengali politicians known

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    for their radical views like Bipin Pal, Chittaranjan Das, or innovative poets like Dwijendralal Roy, seemed to resent Rabindranath’s intrusion into what they felt were their respective exclusive reserves, in the early years of the 20th century. For a long time, they tended to dismiss him as one enjoying hype because of his being the grandson of the legendary aristocrat Dwarkanath Tagore. Rabindranath himself was fully aware of these tensions between the tradition-bound middle and upper class bhadraloks and his own liberal-minded family. To quote him: “When I was born, our family had already cut loose its social moorings and floated away from…the common Hindu tradition of numerous rituals and ceremonials, and the worship of gods and goddesses had left only faint traces in our house…We were utterly unlike the other Bengali families and had our own peculiar spirit and tradition…we lived, remote and apart, like an island cut off from the mainland”.6

    The Bengali middle class bhadralok society, therefore, even those who hesitantly admired his new literary style, suffered from a sense of inferiority complex and distance from his family lifestyle. They felt that his experimentations (like the staging of musical drama, or innovative teaching methods in his school in Bolepur) were made possible by the resources from his ancestral zamindari (which these middle class Bengalis lacked). Women from the Brahmo Samaj, to which Rabindranath’s family belonged, in particular became targets of these sections of the bhadraloks. The sartorial habits of these women (the manner of wearing sari and blouse – which incidentally was to become the modern Bengali female dressing style), and their educational qualifications that helped them to move around freely along with males, evoked both jealousy and intolerance among the patriarchal orthodox segments of the bhadralok society. Their reaction came out clearly in the farces written by the contemporary popular dramatist Amritalal Bose and poetasters who lampooned the progressive habits of Brahmo Samajist women. In such a social scenario, Rabindranath was caught up between the legacy of a worn-out zamindari of the past with dwindling income on the one hand, and the urge to spread the universalist values and norms of a modern age on the other. As he once confessed in a letter written from his zamindari estate in Nadia in 1911: “…I want to tear out from the net of my relatives, domesticity and the thousands of gross and petty fogging societal habits, and to enlist myself instead into the crowd of the common people”. He then added: “I don’t want to be known at the end only as a Bengali who was born in the Tagore family”.7

    Rabindranath as the Hero – and the Villain – of the Bhadraloks

    As his reputation kept fluctuating among the upper sections of the bhadralok society, Rabindranath, however, gained popularity among the wider Bengali bhadralok public at the turn of the 20th century. This was through a historically fortuitous event. In 1905, Lord Curzon proposed to divide Bengal. It evoked widespread oppo sition from among the Bengalis and led to organised resistance. It provided the 44-year old Rabindranath a space for voicing his political views. He joined the movement and led demonstrations of the middle class bhadralok youth in the streets of Calcutta.

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    He became their hero with his patriotic songs, his lectures at meetings, and his attempts to transform the ritual of rakhibandhan (tying a piece of thread around the wrist) into a symbol of brotherhood among all Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims.

    But this honeymoon with the bhadraloks was very brief. Rabindranath soon realised to his disappointment that the swadeshi movement for national self-determination was being driven into what he thought were dangerously narrow alleys. First, he resented the way the political leaders were trying to divert the anti-partition movement along the sectarian tracks of Hindu nationalism which antagonised the Bengali Muslim masses; second, he opposed the manner in which this bhadralok leadership was transforming the popular anti-colonial resentment into hatred of everything foreign – including the best values of western enlightenment; third, he was disturbed by the propensity among the young middle class Bengali nationalists to resort to the tactics of revolutionary violence. All these trends alienated the liberal humanist in Rabindranath. While gradually withdrawing from direct participation in the movement, he wrote essays criticising the political leadership for its limited vision of a religion-based revivalist programme, and its inability to rise above personal recriminations. He held up instead an alternative vision of creative and constructive nationalism, and formulated a scheme for a total reorganisation of Indian society that he had earlier explained in his book Swadeshi Samaj (1904). But his views were dismissed by the then Bengali Congress leaders. To quote Rabindranath himself:

    …when I wrote Swadeshi Samaj, the contemporary Congresswallas were very angry with me. According to them, the salvation of the Indian people depended through their interminable and eternal negotiations and compromises with the foreign government. Scorning my arguments, they said that due to my ignorance, I was not aware of the opinions on the importance of the state expressed by experts like Bentham. And because of this ignorance, I was capable of uttering the blasphemy that the subjects themselves have the right to construct their own model of governance.8

    It is this dichotomy between the statist model followed by the bhadralok politicians and the alternative model of grassrootsbased reconstruction proposed by Rabindranath (and carried out in his educational innovations in Santiniketan and rural experiments in Sriniketan) that set him apart from the dominant trends in contemporary Bengali politics and society. The other issue which put Rabindranath at loggerheads with these politicians was his refusal to dismiss the entire western liberal humanitarian tradition in the name of fighting British imperialism. Sections of the Bengali bhadraloks mistook his respect for western values of secularism and democracy as his craving for recognition in Europe. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1913, these people spread the canard that he had managed to obtain it through his manipulative skills in befriending European personalities. They even went to the extent of suspecting that his English writings that had won respect abroad might have been written by some Englishman.9

    After the rather unhappy experience with direct participation in bhadralok-sponsored mass agitations during the anti-Bengal partition, Rabindranath kept himself aloof from such political movements. But the Jallianwallabagh massacre of 13 April 1919, and the non-cooperation movement that followed again brought Rabindranath back to the forefront of political debates. And here again, there followed another phase of differences and disillusionment with the nationalist politicians. Soon after hearing about the Jallianwallabagh events, Rabindranath sent Charles Andrews to Gandhi with a proposal. At that time, Punjab was under martial law. Rabindranath requested Gandhi to accompany him in a joint mission to Punjab, defy martial law and court arrest there, so that it would make international news, and thus expose the barbarity of the British rulers. Gandhi’s reply, sent through Andrews, was: “I do not want to embarrass the government now”. Shocked by his response, Rabindranath then went to Chittaranjan Das, the then leader of the Bengal Congress. He requested him to organise a public meeting in protest, where he himself was willing to speak. Chittaranjan hemmed and hawed and then suggested that Rabindranath himself call the meeting. Commenting on these disappointing encounters of his, Rabindranath was to say later: “I realised that nothing could be gained from them…If it was left to myself alone, what was the need for assembling the public? It’s better to express my protest in my own way…”10 He then announced his return of the knighthood that was bestowed upon him by the British government in 1914.

    Interestingly, unlike the 1905 swadeshi movement which Rabindranath initially supported, the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s earned his displeasure right from the beginning. While remaining steadfast in his opposition to British rule, in his writings during this period (Shikshar Milan – The Meeting of Cultures, and Satyer Ahavan – The Call of Truth) he repeatedly warned against the negative aspects of the movement – Gandhi’s tendency to belittle science and the thoughts and ideas of the enlightenment; call for total rejection of western educational and cultural institutions; and his conservative and revivalist outlook on social and cultural matters. Predictably, this stand of his created tensions between him and the Bengali leaders of the noncooperation movement. They reflected the basic conflict between Rabindranath’s wider universalist liberal values and the restricted nationalist interests (often incorporating traditional orthodoxy) that the Gandhian movement was concerned with.

    The Last Decades – Tragedy of a Liberal Intellectual

    Rabindranath’s relationship with the Bengali bhadralok society underwent an interesting change during the 1930-40 period. This was a time when this society was going through a radical transformation – both in politics and the literary scene. Its upper layer of opinion-makers (like the anglicised barristers, civil servants, absentee landlords) was on its way out, giving way to a new generation that was coming up from the lower strata – the middle and lower middle classes. In the political scene, there were three main factors that led to this radicalisation. First, the emergence of a Leftist intelligentsia from among this class from the end of the 1920s, and the active participation of communists from the bhadralok society in working class and peasant movements; two, the revival of the armed militant nationalist movement in the 1930s – but this time freed from the backward-looking Hindu revivalist impulses, and inspired instead by the progressive ideology of socialism (e g, Jatin Das of Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Army; Surya Sen and his comrades of the famous Chittagong Armoury Raid – many from among the survivors of which later joining the Communist Party); and three, the emergence of the Soviet Union in the international scene as a champion of the anti-imperialist struggle and the rights of the oppressed.

    Rabindranath, in his role as a public intellectual, could not remain indifferent to these exciting political developments. He visited the Soviet Union in 1930, and described the trip as his life’s pilgrimage. It left a lasting impression which further sensitised him to the rights and struggles of the dispossessed. Soon after this, the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany, the Spanish civil war, fascist Italy’s attack on Abyssinia, and the ominous clouds of the approaching world war, aroused his political sensibilities and the deep sense of solidarity with the cause of humanism all over the world that had always inspired him. All these drew him nearer to the younger generation of Bengali Marxist intellectuals. He welcomed their efforts to form the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936, and joined them in sending a message to the World Peace Congress that was held under Romain Rolland’s auspices in Brussels in the first week of September that year.

    At the same time, the brutal manifestation of the predatory instincts of modern western powers in world politics, and the unrelenting oppressive policies of the British colonial rulers in India, shook his life-long faith in the sincerity of the liberal institutions of western democracy to preserve global peace and ensure the right of self-determination of the colonised people. In one of his last essays, written two months before his death, he bemoaned: “I had at one time believed that the springs of civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe. But when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether…As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilisation strewn like a vast heap of futility.”11 He, however, refused to either ascend an ivory tower of spiritual indifference, or descend to the abyss of utter opportunism – the options selected by some among the liberal intellectuals in those days of crisis. Instead, he chose to extend his support to those fighting fascism at the outbreak of the second world war. From his death bed, in 1941, he wished the Red Army success in defeating the Nazi aggressors, and agreed to be the patron of the newly founded organisation “Friends of the Soviet Union” in Calcutta.

    Rabindranath’s anti-Nazi stand was, however, at cross purposes with the position taken by one section of the Bengali bhadralok intellectuals. In their rather simplistic and naïve anti-imperialist vision, they welcomed Hitler as a hero who would defeat Britain and bring about the independence of India. Among them were the leading Bengali poet Mohitlal Majumdar, and newspapers and journals like Anandabazar Patrika (which in an editorial of 25 March 1933 hoped that Nazi Germany would give the British a severe jolt) and Desh of 24 November 1933 (which felt that India had a lot to learn from the Nazi phase of German history)!12

    The Cultural Encounter

    In the Bengali cultural arena, there was an equally radical change during this period. A new generation of young educated bhad ralok writers emerged from among the middle and lower-middle classes, who were influenced both by the domestic political

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    trends, and the contemporary European sociocultural and political ideas. They generally gravitated towards two literary centres. One was the magazine Kallol, which was mainly influenced by Freud, Knut Hamsun and Eliotian and Joycian literary experiments. The other was represented by the magazines Pragati, Arani and Porichoy, which primarily drew inspiration from Marxism and the socialist experiments in the Soviet Union. Rabindranath’s encounter with these two new groups of bhadralok literati took curious turns.

    As for the Kallol group, in some of their new-fangled literary experiments Rabindranath detected signs of imitation of the west and attempts to strike a pose of modernism. It was their propensity towards sexual explicitness (considered kindergarten stuff by today’s standards!) that shocked Rabindranath most, given the conservative norms about sexuality with which he grew up. It posed a challenge to his support of women’s emancipation that stopped short of individual sexual freedom. But he was also quick to discern in their popularity among the Bengali young middle class readership, symptoms of a desire for fresh literary innovations. To meet this desire in a more imaginative and creative way, Rabindranath began to make daring experiments in versification (like prose poems in Shesh Shaptak in 1935); took up in his novels the complexities of love and relationships in the contemporary metropolitan bhadralok society (first in Shesher Kobita in 1929, and later in Char Adhyaya in 1934); the eternal triangle of love in modern settings (in Dui Bon and Malancha in 1935); and – most importantly – he plunged into a new area of artistic creativity: painting.

    In his intervention in this sphere, Rabindranath challenged a symbol of conventional bhadralok culture – the Bengal School of Painting. This school had earlier appealed to the nationalist sentiment of pride in a rich Indian cultural tradition (by reviving interest in the Ajanta cave paintings and Rajput and Moghul miniatures

    – from which it derived its style – as opposed to the prevailing training in the European academic style). But by the 1930s it had degenerated into a pale shadow of its past by repeating sentimental versions of the same old melodramatic themes. In reaction to this, Rabindranath invented his own distinct style – shockingly unconventional in his use of subjects, lines and colour. As with his earlier poetry, his initial experiments in painting also drew sneers from contemporary Bengali bhadralok experts. In December 1931, his paintings were exhibited for the first time in the Calcutta Town Hall. The popular magazine Shonibarer Chithi (edited by Sajanikanta Das) came out with the following review:

    Many of these paintings look like moss, fungus, skin freckles. Some others swarm with creeping lines that resemble worms….Rabindranath suggests that these paintings have emerged from his subconscious. If that is so, they should be included in the medical science of mental disorder instead of the fine arts.13

    But within a decade or so, the same paintings drew appreciation from leading bhadralok art critics like Ordhendu Coomar Ganguly, who praised them as “suggestive of some profound significance… and…masterpieces which tempt us into regions of dream very far from our mundane existence”.14 Some years later, the same Shonibarer Chithi which abused him earlier, came out with an article, which found in him all the qualities of the best painters!15

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    To get back to the contemporary bhadralok literary scene, the Kallol group and a few other poets and writers were trying to break out from the overpowering shadow of Rabindranath that loomed large on the cultural scene of the 1930s. But their claim to be “Rabindrottar” (post-Rabindranath), however, often turned into “Rabindra-dhuttor” (dismiss Rabindranath) – the popular joke in Calcutta in those days! As for the Marxists, they were divided in their approach to Rabindranath. Writers like Hiren Mukherjee (who was to become a leading Communist MP), the poet Bishnu Dey and others felt themselves to be closer to Rabindranath’s internationalism and humanist values than the other group of Marxist intellectuals like Saroj Dutta (who in the 1970s was to become a leading Naxalite ideologue) and Benoy Ghosh who tended to dismiss him as a “bourgeois idealist, indulging in vapoury internationalism and fashionable literary experiments”.16

    In relation to these two distinct bhadralok cultural trends – the Kallol and the Marxist – Rabindranath made clear his position in a letter to Amiya Chakravarty. He located the Kallol group as occupying a peculiar stage in the development of Bengali literature. He compared their craze for fast graduation to western modernism with the impatience of adolescent boys for the growth of a moustache! He felt that instead of fast-forwarding, they should wait for the natural development of sources from within the indigenous soil. As for the Marxist bhadraloks, he thought that they manifested another form of craze by borrowing Bolshevik norms from the Soviet Union which divided writers and their readers on the lines of “bourgeois versus proletariat class differences”. Ridiculing such artificial differences, Rabindranath narrated his own experience. When he first read a collection of folk songs of Mymensingh (of north Bengal), he felt elated. Recalling that moment, he said in the letter:

    These songs could be designated as proletariat by the ‘Sreniwallas’ (adherents of class differences). But though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool bourgeois, it didn’t prevent me from loving them.17

    In their response to these criticisms, the two groups of bhadralok intellectuals reacted in different ways. As for the Kallol group, as an eminent Bengali critic was to observe a decade later: “The revolt of the Kallolians was an expression of youthful exuberance and temerity; as they passed their adolescence, most of the prodigals returned to the old moorings”.18 They thus lived up to Rabindranath’s assessment of them. But the bhadralok Marxist intellectuals continued to have an uneasy and painful liaison with Rabindranath, even after his death in 1941.

    Rabindranath’s Posthumous Relationship with the Bhadraloks

    By the time India gained Independence in 1947, Rabindranath had become a national icon. The appellation Gurudev given to him by Gandhi (and accepted by Rabindranath despite his differences with the Mahatma) was adopted by his Bengali bhadralok followers. His song was chosen as the national anthem – thus boosting their pride. His one-time critics from both the orthodox Right and the radical Left converged on accepting him as the sacred symbol of Bengali culture.

    But very soon, Rabindranath was to fall foul of the Bengali Marxist bhadraloks again. Their problems emanated from the new political strategy and tactics adopted by the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1948. It rejected the 1947 independence as jhuta (fake) and called for an armed uprising against the Indian state. (This was in the background of the new state’s actions like suppression of peasants’ uprisings in Telangana and elsewhere, and an industrial plan welcoming foreign investors without any restriction on the transfer of profits abroad.) When implementing this new political line in the cultural field in West Bengal, the CPI’s ideologues in one sweeping gesture traced the political lapses of the prevalent ruling powers to the cultural roots of their ancestors among the 19th century Bengali intelligentsia. They held that the latter were a product of the colonial educational system and had always been antagonistic towards the anti-colonial movements of the poor peasantry. From this followed the party’s dismissal of the litterateurs and social reformers of Bengal from the 19th century onwards as agents of the colonial rulers. Soon after this, a section of the Bengali communist intellectuals brought out a journal called Marxbadi. In its columns, the veteran CPI leader Bhowani Sen, under the pseudonym Rabindra Gupta (curiously enough, he chose the name Rabindra to attack Rabindranath!) wrote a series of articles, denouncing Rabindranath as a follower of the “reactionary” tradition of Rammohan, Vivekananda and other 19th century Bengali personalities. But amidst this feverish scene of anti-Rabindranath campaign in communist circles, a small section of Marxist bhadraloks who did not subscribe to the official CPI line continued to defend Rabindranath in the magazine Porichoy.19

    The tirade against Rabindranath by the Bengali cultural commissars of the CPI, however, lasted for a brief while. In 1951, their leaders adopted a new programme, gave up armed struggle and decided to participate in parliamentary elections. A parallel change followed in their cultural policy. The campaign against Rabindranth was abandoned. Bhowani Sen went through the Communist Party ritual of self-criticism, and regretted his “Left sectarian’ errors in denouncing Rabindranath. These bhadralok communist ideologues fit into the role of OM (the derogatory term invented by the eminent Marxist intellectual D D Kosambi for “Official Marxists” – recalling the sacred religious mantra!), who were “indescribable because of rapidly shifting views and even more rapid political permutations and combinations”.20 During the 1950-60 period, in the new strategy of building a united front with liberal bourgeois humanists in the world peace movement against the United States imperialism, the Bengali communists re-established Rabindranath as a symbol of peace and humanism. His bourgeois-aristocratic class origins were now relegated to the background in favour of his world outlook of universal humanism

    – the need of the hour. As if in a re-enactment of the Marxist friendship with Rabindranath in 1936, under the aegis of the Progressive Writers’ Association, the communists came forward to celebrate his 100th birth anniversary in 1961 by organising the Tagore Centenary Peace Festival on a massive scale in Calcutta’s Park Circus Maidan. As in the 1930s, this time also they could bring together on their cultural platform artistes from all sections of the Bengali society – as well as from other parts of India – on the common theme of world peace, an issue that was dear to Rabindranath’s heart till the end of his life.

    The 1970s

    Rabindranath, however, reappeared as a villain in the Bengali militant Left bhadralok psyche in the 1970s. This decade constituted another watershed in West Bengal’s socio-political history. These were the days of the Naxalite movement. Peasant uprisings in different parts of the state under the leadership of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) churned up the bhadralok society. Its followers among the youth left their studies and went to the villages to join the struggle. Those who remained in Calcutta and the cities were inspired by an iconoclastic seal shaped by the CPI(M-L) cultural ideologue – Saroj Dutta. Writing under the nom de plume “Shashanka” in the columns of the party journal Deshabrati, and addressing meetings of students, he urged them to destroy the symbols of the bourgeois liberal reformist Bengali leaders of the past.

    In a replication of the 1948-50 phase of anti-Rabindranath campaign, in the 1970s Saroj Dutta repeated the same arguments that Bhowani Sen used in the journal Marxbadi against the Bengali bhadralok reformers and writers of the past, including Rabindranath. He tarred them all as “reactionaries”, who according to his party, by operating within the colonial administrative structure had acted as collaborators with the British colonial rulers, and had thereby tried to stem the popular peasant rebellions that aimed at the overthrowing of the colonial system. His followers, the young rebels went on a rampage, destroying statues of Vidyasagar and Gandhi and burning books of Rabindranath. But, as in the 1948-50 period again, not all communist intellectuals in the movement of the 1970s shared Saroj Dutta’s views. Sushital Ray Chowdhury, who was the secretary of the West Bengal state committee of the CPI(M-L), came out with a document under the pseudonym of “Purna” in the autumn of 1970. He felt that some sort of distinction should be made between conservative politicians like Gandhi, who subscribed to orthodox religious values and norms of a feudal past on the one hand, and progressive social reformers and writers like Rammohan Ray, Vidyasagar and Rabindranath, who in his opinion, were intellectuals of the bourgeois democratic phase, on the other. Ray Chowdhury, who opposed the Naxalite offensive against Rabindranath, was reviled by the party leaders, and he died in political isolation in 1971.21

    As in the past again, the anti-Rabindranath orgy of the Naxalites soon ebbed away. After the 1977 elections, following which the Left Front came to power in West Bengal, most of the Naxalite rebels from the bhadralok society joined the political mainstream. Their cultural activists returned to their old roots – where singing of Rabindranath’s songs and staging of his plays, celebrating his birth anniversary at Nandan (the cultural complex in Kolkata) are an essential part of the bhadralok culture. But unlike the CPI leader Bhowani Sen, who under the changed party policy in 1951, retracted his anti-Rabindranath comments, Saroj Dutta of the CPI(M-L) did not have a chance of either reiterating, or retracting his views on Rabindranath. He was killed by the police in the Calcutta Maidan in the midnight of 4-5 August 1971.

    Saroj Dutta – The Tragedy of a Communist Intellectual

    All through this political ebb and tide, Saroj Dutta remains a typical representative of the split soul of the Left bhadralok intellectuals – fluctuating between tradition and modernity; suffering

    june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

    from a guilt complex about belonging to a privileged educated class surrounded by vast masses of Bengali rural and urban poor; and a propensity towards self-flagellation by denouncing their feudal/bourgeois class ancestry. But these contradictions also co-existed with a wistful affection for the bourgeois liberal humanist cultural values of the west – in which these bhadraloks were educated – and which were upheld by their mentor Marx in his literary criticism. Rabindranath creatively reinterpreted these values in his works. Yet, he was perceived, according to the “party line”, as belonging to the very class against which these bhadralok communists were required to fight in the political arena. The dilemma turned the bhadralok into an intellectually inconsistent entity. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that the same Saroj Dutta who in the 1970s was ranting against Rabindranath, once composed this tribute to him (possibly in the late 1930s when Rabindranath was facing attacks from different critics), beginning with the lines:

    If the seeds of your poetry...fall on roads, and are trampled under the feet of pedestrians, or nibbled at by birds,/or if someone throws away your precious saplings along with the weeds – the fault lies with those who stand on the earth and yet neglect its soil…/In our feverish delirium we cannot recognise you, we abuse you, we ridicule you./You laugh and tell us: ‘If you want, throw away my works….’/…

    and then, Saroj Dutta ended with the words:

    I do not know today how you will survive,/ surrounded by what aroma and glory,/ which flower of yours will blossom into a fruit/…But what use of such speculations? What purpose will they serve?/…As for me, I believe in the only one duty which is my last resort – “I have to save you !”22

    Was there anyone around Saroj Dutta during those heady days of the Naxalite movement of the 1970s to remind him of these lines that he composed some 40 years ago?

    But then, why blame Saroj Dutta alone for betraying his onetime pledge to “save” Rabindranath? His political guru, another Bengali bhadralok communist – Charu Mazumdar himself – suffered from the same dichotomy in relation to the poet. In 1967, soon after the outbreak of the Naxalbari peasant rebellion, a reporter from the Hindi magazine Dharmayug, among many other journalists from both the Indian and international press, arrived at Mazumdar’s home in Siliguri (in north Bengal, from where he was reported to be providing the ideological impulse behind the rebellion). When interviewing him, this reporter pointed out at a picture of Rabindranath’s hanging on the wall of his room, and asked him whether he accepted the poet. Mazumdar’s reply was: “It’s not a question of accepting or rejecting. It’s the question of looking at the positive aspects of a great artist”, and he then recited his favourite poem of Rabindranath’s called Mrityunjay, composed in 1932, where the poet challenged the enemy of mankind as a power with clay feet, who would have to submit to death, while the poet would always remain above him by embracing death.23 Yet, the same Charu Mazumdar in the 1970s,

    Economic & Political Weekly

    EPW
    june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

    went the whole hog in leading the campaign against Rabindranath! Was it the “feverish delirium” of a political movement that had gone awry?

    The Bhadralok Contest over Rabindranath – From Marxist Bigotry to Visva-Bharati Oligarchy

    In Bengal, Rabindranath’s impact was confined to the bhadralok society only, to the exclusion of the wider Bengali masses – a fact acknowledged by the poet himself in his last days. Describing the gap between the lifestyle of “the peasants who plough their fields, the weavers spinning their looms, the fishermen spreading their nets…” and the “narrow window of the higher platform of society” from within which he watched them, Rabindranath confessed that he did not have the “courage to enter their arena”. He then bemoaned:

    My poetry, I know, Traversed diverse paths, But could not reach every corner.24

    Despite this acknowledgement of the limitations of a bourgeois liberal humanist, the bhadralok communists wanted Rabindranath to live up to their expectation of him as a “revolutionary” intellectual. Disappointed by his refusal to join their ranks, they suffered from a love-hate relationship with him – as described earlier in this essay. Ironically, this ambivalent relationship stemmed from the same class-related problems that they accused Rabindranath of. Trying to declass themselves – according to the requirements of their programme – these middle class communists often bent over backwards to identify with the working class and the peasantry, and in an effort to distance themselves from the bourgeois liberal intelligentsia, they often viewed Rabindranath with communist bigotry. But one cannot integrate with the poor by exchanging clothes. The bhadralok attempts to merge with them seldom led to a perceptive and deeper understanding of their culture, and often ended up with the imposition of their own Communist Party agitprop messages on their songs. It was Rabindranath again who warned them against such ersatz reproductions of proletariat culture: “Counterfeit novelty can be easily detected and traced to the shop from which it is sold. For, when the customs and gestures that are peculiar to certain people are imitated by others, they can be recognised as the actors’ dress used on the stage of modernism”.25 In one of his last poems, he admonished them: “Let not mere postures deceive us…Sham, fancy proletarianism can never be good…”26

    Interestingly enough, Rabindranath’s legacy had to suffer not only from the political bigotry of the bhadralok Marxists, but also from the cultural orthodoxy of the bhadralok oligarchy who ruled Visva-Bharati, the institution that he created, and to which he bequeathed his entire cultural output. Till very recently – when the period of copyright over Rabindranath’s works lapsed – Visva -Bharati held the monopoly over the distribution and reproduction of his writings, songs, paintings and other products. This, indeed, prevented the pirating and plagiarising of his literary works, and indiscriminate rendering of his songs that could err on the side of distortion. But at the same time, such a monopoly often acted as a constraint on the creativity of performers who sought to interpret Rabindranath’s songs and plays in an innovative way. Even a leading exponent of his songs like the late Debabrata Biswas, was dismissed as an outcast (bratya – the term used by Biswas to express his plight of being ostracised) by the musical dons of Visva-Bharati, who accused him of deviating from the notations as codified by them.27 Since these dons, fortunately enough, did not enjoy the right to ban his public performances, in the 1950-60 period, Biswas with his powerful voice and rendition, rescued Rabindranath’s songs from the dainty and melodramatic style of singing that often characterised presentations by Visva-Bharati.

    But in the case of Rabindranath’s writings, till recently Visva-Bharati had been the sole custodian to permit or deny their reproduction or translation. This often prevented the wider non-Bengali readership, both Indian and foreign, from access to his literature – as happened during the 1961 centenary celebrations. The All-India Committee of the Tagore Centenary Peace Festival, planning to bring out a selection of Rabindranath’s writings in an English version (described by the organisers as “some of the most vital writings of Rabindranath, as yet untranslated”), submitted their translations for approval by Visva-Bharati. It refused permission to use them, in spite of their being translated among others by leading Bengali poets like Bishnu Dey and Samar Sen (who were deemed close by Rabindranath in his later days). It is significant that both these particular writings of Rabindranath and those who translated them shared a common area of radicalism. For instance, the pieces which were refused permission for translation into English included Rabindranath’s address to students in 1905, defending their participation in political struggle; a passage on labour unrest in an essay written in 1914; critical views on the Gandhian non-cooperation movement in an article written in 1921; and several letters from Russia in 1930.28 Can we trace Visva-Bharati’s refusal to grant permission for the publication of these translations at that time, to its anti-Left prejudices?

    The debate over Rabindranath in bhadralok society thus reflected the tussle among one trend which wanted to use him as a symbol for homogenisation of Bengali culture under his hegemonic name; another which sought his exclusion from that culture (represented by both extreme Right and Left viewpoints); and yet another which recognised him, albeit critically, not only as a lasting source of inspiration in Bengali culture and society, but also as a major partner of contemporary world intellectuals in their struggle against fascism and for world peace.

    The Modern Bhadralok and Rabindranath

    After having gone through all the historical vicissitudes, Rabindranath today has been incorporated as an icon by the modern Bengali bhadralok in their list of emblems to suit their own selective interests. Bengali bhadralok religious and political beliefs had always been personality-centred – following the feudal tradition of guru-worship. The 19th century bhadraloks found their guru in Ramakrishna. In the 20th century, the political

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    june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

    gurus changed from Gandhi, Subhas Bose to Stalin, Mao, Charu When visiting Kolkata, I watch Bengali bhadraloks who mouth Mazumdar. Today, they have been replaced by a variety of god-Leftist slogans at public meetings, and yet carefully nurse the bimen in the socio-religious sphere, and charlatans in the political padtarini band tied around their wrists (a superstitious custom arena. In their cultural terrain, the bhadraloks have adopted supposed to save them from bipad – danger) and display the vari-Rabindranath as their guru, making him rub shoulders with the ous rings around their fingers (again adopted as protective measreligious and political quacks in their iconography. They sing his ures recommended by astrologers). songs, observe his birth anniversary by enacting his plays, and While these people continue to juggle with Manu and Marx, a advertise him in the west – all to promote the Bengali cultural serious and intellectually inclined section of the same bhadralok identity. But in their social beliefs and habits, these same Hindu society is engaged in a critical revaluation of Rabindranath’s conbhadralok families continue to adhere to the old feudal values tributions to culture and society, in innovative experimentations and customs against which Rabindranath raised his voice. Even with his musical legacy, and in vindication of some of his views sections of the Bengali Left, which swear by Rabindranath, go in and programmes which could be relevant in the modern context for caste-based matrimonial alliances, discriminate against dal-of environmental concerns, feminist rights and pedagogical exits and adivasis (although staging Rabindranath’s Chandalika – a periments among other issues. This constitutes yet another condance drama upholding the cause of the outcasts); and demon-tested terrain in the map of Rabindranath’s changing relationship strate blind devotion to godmen and superstitious customs. with bhadraloks, which awaits further investigation.29

    Notes (were silent)…”, quoted in Jayanti Sanyal, op cit, 25 Letter to Amiya Chakravary, 17 March, 1939, op cit.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Rabindranath Tagore (1895), Bangamata; included in the collection Sanchaita (1982) (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati), p 284. Letter to Hemantabala Debi, 16 October 1931, quoted in Jayanti Sanyal (2003), Anukta Rabindranath (Calcutta), p 65. Pradip Sinha (1965), Nineteenth Century Bengal: Aspects of Social History, (Calcutta), p 109. In the mid-1880s, a common joke in Calcutta was that his books were sold as wastepaper by his publisher Gurudas Chattopadhyaya! Re: Anathnath Das (2002), “Rabindragrantha Prakash”, Desh, 4 May. Rabindranath Tagore (1887-89), Katha. The Hind u Bengali nationalist bhadralok writers of the late 19th century were mainly government servants, or dependent on official patronage. Afraid to take on the British rulers directly, they often used the past Muslim rulers as surrogate enemies to express their patriotic feelings. They borrowed stories of anti-Mughal resistance by Rajputs, Sikhs and Marhattas, from books by contemporary British historians like James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, and James Grant Duff’s History of the Marhattas, and reconstructed them in their novels and poetry in their nationalist attempts to rouse the spirit of patriotic heroism primarily among the Hindu bhadraloks. The best representatives of this literary genre are the long poem Padmini Upakhyan (1858) by Rangalal Bandyopadhyay, and the two novels Maharashtra Jeevanprabhat (1878) and Rajput Jeevansandhya (1879) by Ramesh Chandra Dutt, who as a member of the Indian civil service served the British colonial regime, but later joined nationalist politics to become the president of the Indian National Congress.Reply to Students’ Address at the Septuagenarian Celebrations – 1931; quoted in Niharranjan Ray (1967), An Artist in Life: A Commentary on the Life and Works of Rabindranath Tagore (Trivandrum: University of Kerala), p 33. The letter was published several years later in Prabashi (Magh, 1334/1927), Vol 27 (Calcutta), p 449, quoted in Manashi Das Gupta (1997), Rabindranath: Ek Asamapta Dwanda, Dhaka. Letter to Hemantabala Debi, 21 October 1932, quoted in Jayanti Sanyal, op cit p 65. Letter to Hemantabala Debi, Kartik 4, 1338 (1931), quoted in Jayanti Sanyal, op cit, p 36. Amal Home (1961), Purushottam Rabindranath. Quoted in Bangadarshan, February 2001 (Naihati, West Bengal), p 248. See also Rabindranath’s letter to Hemantabala Debi, 21 October 1932, where he complained: “…when during the Jallianwallabagh 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 p 66. Rabindranath Tagore (1941), Sabhyatar Sankat (Crisis in Civilisation), quoted in Niharranjan Ray, op cit, p 429. Amit Gupta (2009), Crisis and Creativities: The Middle Class Bhadralok in Bengal, 1939-52 (Delhi: Orient Blackswan). Shonibarer Chithi (Magh, 1338/1931), Calcutta. Modern Review, December 1940, Calcutta. Sunil Kumar Pal (1946), “Chitrakar Rabindranath” in Shonibarer Chithi, Jaishtha, 1353, Calcutta. Dhananjoy Das (1991) “Banglar Sanskritite Marxbadi Chetonar Suchona O Sangathita Andoloner Adiparba” in Anushtup, Vol IV, Calcutta. Letter to Amiya Chakravarty, 17 March 1939 published in Prabashi (Baishakh, 1346-1939). (Calcutta). His letters to Amiya Chakravarty on the eve of the world war reveal a dichotomy regarding the Soviet Union and its experiments in socialism. On the one hand, he admired its egalitarian system that led him to lend his support from his deathbed to its resistance to Nazi Germany and hope for its triumph. On the other hand, he strongly objected to its authoritarian system and sectarian policies in the cultural field. Sibnarayan Ray (1948-49), Review of “An Acre of Green Grass by Buddhadeva Bose” in The Marxian Way, Vol III, No 3, 1948-49 (Calcutta). These young writers met Rabindranath at his ancestral Jorasanko house to sort out the issues of dispute – particularly on the controversy over obscenity – and ended up in expressing their loyalty to him! For an excellent documented history of the Bengali Marxist theoretical oscillation between admiration and denunciation of Rabindranath in the 1940-50 period, interested readers should read Dhananjoy Das (1980) (ed.), Marxbadi Sahitya-Bitarka, Vols I-III (Calcutta). D D Kosambi (1986), Introduction (written in 1957) in Exasperating Essays (Pune), p 3. Readers interested in following the debate over Rabindranath in the Naxalite movement may consult: Saroj Dutta (1970), “In Defence of Iconoclasm” in the CPI(M-L) journal Deshabrati; and Sumanta Banerjee (2008), In the Wake of Naxalbari (Calcutta) where the controversy between Sushital Ray Chowdhury and Charu Mazumdar is recorded. Rabindranath in Saroj Dutta’r Kobita Sangraha (1979), (Hooghly), pp 19-20. Re: Debashish Chakrbarty: Charu-da in the journal Ebong Jalarka (October 2009-March 2010) (Calcutta), p 107. 26 27 28 29 Rabindanath Tagore (1941), Oikatan, op cit. Towards the end of his life, Biswas wrote his autobiography entitled Bratyajaner Ruddha Sangeet (The Stifled Music of an Outcast) where he narrated his bitter experiences with the cultural dictators of the Visva-Bharati Musical Board. Interestingly enough, while composing his songs, Rabindranath never wrote down notations. It was mainly his nephew Dinendranath Tagore and niece Indira Debi Choudhurani who formatted most of them into musical transcription. During his lifetime, Rabindranath was flexible enough in appreciating the rendering of his songs in a variety of ways – while adhering to their basic musical structure – by exponents who ranged from the Bengali, Sahana Debi (trained in the north Indian classical tradition) to the south Indian, Savitri Devi Krishnan (who brought in the Karnatak classical touch in her rendition of his songs). Re: Publisher’s Note in Tagore and Man (1961), Tagore Centenary Peace Festival, All-India Committee, Calcutta. I refer in this connection to the presentations made at the 29-30 March 2006 conference on “Tagore’s Philosophy of Education” at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata, and the 28-30 March 2011 International Seminar on “Many Rabindranaths: Across Space and Time” in the Jadavpur Unversity. I should also mention here Saila Ghosh’s (2004) Rabindranather Rajnoitik Chintar Koekti Swalpalochito Dik in Rabindra-Bhabna, Vol 18, No 3 (Calcutta); Sankha Ghosh’s (2009) Bhinno Ruchir Adhikar (Calcutta) and Ranajit Guha’s (2009) Kabir Nam O Sarbanam (Calcutta). As for attempts to relocate Rabindranath in the post-modernist discourse of the anti-Hegelian grand narrative and its privileging of fragmentation, by quoting Rabindranath’s preference for pluralism, Saranindranath Tagore’s (2008) Tagore’s Conception of Cosmopolitanism: A Reconstruction in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol 77, No 4 takes a critical look at such endeavours. The post-modernist critics of Rabindranath display the usual tendency to banish the author from the text and to proceed to deconstruct him, eventually ending up in a fog of convoluted rhetoric. Postmodernism which thrived on the academia’s disillusionment with Marxian socialist systems in the 1980s, drew both pedants and dilettantes through its appeal to its seeming novelty and highfalutin jargon. But it has turned out to be a fad in Bengal and is on its way out – following the same doomed trajectory that was foreseen
    events, everyone remained silent except me – even 24 Rabindranath Tagore (1941), Oikatan in Sanchayita by Rabindranath for the earlier generation of
    Deshbandhu (Chittaranjan Das) and Mahatmaji (1982) (Calcutta), pp 824-25. Kallol writers.
    Economic Political Weekly EPW june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24 59

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