Tagore, Poetry, Serial Killers: Unlocking Modern Bengal

Abheek Barman discusses the massive influence that ‘Gurudeb’ still has on West Bengal. 

3 min read

<!--StartFragment-->An Indian street vendor sells photographs of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore on a pavement during celebrations of his 145th birth anniversary in Kolkata May 9, 2006.<!--EndFragment-->

Like it or love it, all Bengalis of a certain time and class, grew up with Rabindranath Tagore. Actually, the whole world was enriched by him. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, in 1913. He’s the only guy to have his poetry adapted as the national anthems of two nations: India and Bangladesh, but I don’t think he could have cared less if it weren’t so.

Because he was a formidable man.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Three days ago, all Bangla-speaking people, more than 3% of the world’s population, the sixth most-spoken language in the world, after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese, celebrated his 154th birth anniversary.

For many, it’s a habit – people like my mother can quote Tagore any minute to identify or reject some major or tiny aspect of our lives.

I am less literate in the works of Gurudeb, as he is called, but I admire his fine lyrics, paintings and above everything, his essays. And of course, I am convinced that ‘Charulata’, a 1964 film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a Tagore story called ‘Nashtanir’, is perhaps the greatest film ever made.

We can discuss this later, over a couple of drinks, and so on. But back to Tagore.

The Unforgotten Poet

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

The old man had a sharp eye. In 1934, when he saw a slip of a girl called Indira, tiny, with a worried face, in Shantiniketan, he immediately ordered her to practice Manipuri classical dance. He knew the girl was distressed, because her father Jawaharlal was constantly in prison and her mother was unwell. Hence, physical activity, Manipuri dance, to – as they say now – work out your worries.

Four years earlier, in 1930, Tagore had visited Russia and in those pre-internet days, penned a series of letters back home. His ‘Letters from Russia’ or ‘Russia’r Chithi’, as we read in Bangla, are a tutorial in investigative journalism.

As a state guest, under Stalin, he was kept under high security in the most posh hotel suite that the Soviet Union could then afford and guided to tours and sights by officials.

But the old guy could not be fooled: he’d grown up with money and noticed the shabby furnishing around him. He wrote with grace about the commitment of Soviet people to their nation and their work.

But his last letter was devastating: it argued that a society that treated its people like robots or cattle, would inevitably sink into something like fascism, which was rearing its head in Europe and of which he was aware.

The deaths of poets go by unremembered – after all, you have to Google to get the day Shakespeare, Keats or Eliot died. But Bengalis are, well, weird.

The 22nd day of the month of Shrabon, roughly August 7, 1941, was the day Tagore died, and that too, is remembered. And, well, Bongs are crazy about their poets – even given that we have so many of them.

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

In 2011, the highest-grossing Bangla film was called ‘Baishey Shrabon’ Tagore’s death anniversary, directed by Srijit Mukherjee. It featured a serial killer, who would leave behind scraps of poetry with his victim.

The logic, as it unwinds, is that he strikes on the death anniversaries of poets he admires.

Once this becomes clear, it is easy to deduce that the next killing would be on June 29, when Michael Madhusudhan Dutt passed. And of course, the grisly climax had to be played out on baishey shrabon, the 22nd day, when Tagore left us. Tagore, poetry, films and violence – it’s a strange mix – but it defines what Bengal stands for today.

(Abheek Barman is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

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