Rabindranath Tagore’s reaction to Partition of Bengal in 1905 – that is, the splitting up of Bengal into two separate administrative units – manifested in the form of a novel called Ghare Baire, serialised in 1914 and published in 1915.
The details of the said Partition (as featured in Amrit Bazaar Patrika) point out that Lord Curzon felt that “Bengal was antiquated, illogical and productive of inefficiency.” This was made public on 19 July 1905 whereas the official effect of the decree came on 16 October 1905.
It was in keeping with the colonial divide-and-rule policy of the British rulers knowing that this would create an artificial weakening of the existing bond between the Hindus and the Muslims.
The large-scale protests by the middle class intelligentsia finally led to explosive violence. This protest against British-made goods sold in the local markets at a much lower price than locally-produced goods giving a boost to the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal.
Tagore’s Sharp Criticism of Jingoistic Nationalism
Ghare Baire, which Tagore himself translated as The Home and the World, depicts the revolution at two levels – socially, within the home, and politically, in the world outside. But, as in real human situations, where the lines between the home and the world get inevitably blurred, in this too, there is considerable overlapping between the two worlds, the one constantly influencing or being influenced by the other.
It is perhaps the best-known of Tagore’s novels outside Bengal, and received a lot of attention in Europe, particularly following the publication of its English translation, mainly due to the wide readership Tagore had gained in the wake of his Nobel award.
The story coincides with the National Independence Movement taking place in the country at the time sparked by the Indian National Congress.
The controversial nature of the subject matter, in which Tagore takes the opportunity to launch his fiercest attack yet against the ideology of nationalism, contrary to its rising popularity both in India and the West, was also a reason it drew attention from readers both in and outside Bengal, mostly in the form of reprobation and scorn.
Fostering a ‘New Spirit’
There were various national and regional campaigns of both militant and non-violent ideas which all had the common goal of ending the British colonial rule. Militant nationalism had a strong showing in the early part of the 20th century, especially during the World War I.
During this period, Tagore composed many songs for the cause. Sandip Mukherjee, the main antagonist of the novel, sings one such in Satyajit Ray’s film adaptation.
The film stresses that social defiance is not always intrinsically revolutionary, that is, its arguments and logic are not necessarily expounded to challenge and transform existing structures of authority.
Ghare Baire tells the story of Bimala, married to Nikhilesh, the landlord of Sukhsayar in North Bengal (now in Bangladesh). Bimala is the central character as she represents the ‘home’ and with the help and persuasion of her husband, steps into a ‘world’ she did not know of or about.
Sandip Mukherjee, a leader of a political movement known as Swadeshi, comes to Sukhsayar, the estate of his friend Nikhilesh Choudhury, to spend a night before proceeding to Rangpur, a neighbouring town where he has a mission to spread his gospel of Swadeshi perpetuated with the continuous chant of Bande Mataram – Hail My Motherland.
Bimala learns to use this chant from Sandip. She tells him how she had goosebumps when she heard the chorus in the crowd rise to chant Bande Mataram at the first public speech Sandip made in the courtyard. When she is initiated first into this chant by Sandip, she repeats it after him, responding to his welcome.
Nikhilesh does not take to Curzon’s policy and does not believe in the counter movement that hinges on the boycott of British goods. He feels that this will place the poor subjects of his land, Hindus and Muslims, farmers, fishermen, grocers, and hawkers at a financial disadvantage and this would go against his responsibility as the rajah of his subjects.
Political Relevance in India Today
“The Home and the World is a triangular love story. The husband is really Tagore. There are essays by Tagore on this terrorist movement, and some of the things he wrote, even exact sentences, are put into the mouth of the main character, Nikhilesh, who represents Tagore’s attitude against the terrorist movement and its ultimate futility. It is a valid and rational viewpoint,” Ray said in an interview with Derek Malcolm, a famous British film critic for The Guardian who passed away recently at the age of 92.
"It was a middle-class movement with no connection with the lower strata at all. So ultimately, it just fizzled out, and in other cases, it turned into very violent riots between Hindus and Muslims. Tagore withdrew from the movement and came out with the essays and then, four or five years later, in 1912, he produced this novel."Satyajit Ray
In specific historical situations such as in Ghare Baire, such defiance might produce the language and the metaphors for rebellion, but in itself it provides only a critical perspective on authority and helps in some way to deconstruct it.
When questioned about its contemporary political relevance, Ray said, “These were Hindu landlords in a predominately Muslim area, and the political leader, Sandip, unlike the zamindar, does not think Muslims are part of India. He is fomenting trouble between the two communities. But more than that, he is calling for a nationalist movement that would react against the British. It was primarily a movement based on the middle classes and calling for such things as the wearing of specifically Indian clothes, which was absurd because there was often no substitute in the shops. It was bound first to cause trouble and then to peter out.”
Overall, it is a unique cinematic experience that is a beautiful amalgam of Tagore’s genius and the genius of Ray who filmed the classic several decades after it was first published in serial form in Sabuj Patra, a Bengali magazine over 10 months. Ray uses the upswing in Bengali national sentiment against British colonial rule in the early part of the 20th century as a backdrop for this tale of politics, love, and betrayal.
(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)