What Tagore believed about the role of joy in an unequal world

The Dancing Poet: Rabindranath Tagore and the Choreographies of Participation by Rimli Bhattacharya shows the poet as a seeker of diversity and equality, even as he is aware of, and grapples with, the limits posed by his position in society

In the concluding part of this book under review, Rimli Bhattacharya writes about a letter Rabindranath Tagore wrote to the painter Nandalal Bose in the 1930s. He talks of preserving all that is beautiful in the past, even if that past was oppressive. For what “was the preserve of the few, reserved for an elite…could be open to all”. That, indeed, was the abiding concern of the poet, and many of his contemporaries. Sociological concepts like “modernisation of tradition” do not do justice to the creativity of this endeavour. Scholar Rimli Bhattacharya’s The Dancing Poet, Rabindranath Tagore and Choreographies of Participation is a more expansive exploration of the poet’s quest, one that tries to engage with the diversity of Tagore’s experiences, his predicaments, the contemporary cultural and political milieu and his constant search for the links between pedagogy and performance.

Central to the poet’s endeavour was the pursuit of joy, or ananda, not as a hedonist, but as a seeker for whom utsav, or celebration, was fundamental to life. She writes: “While affirming Gandhi’s emphasis on ensuring that every Indian should have enough by the way of food, clothing, shelter, access to education and other essentials, Rabindranath would continue to insist that anna (basic food) was not enough. Life was full of ananda, joy, something that could not be legislated by any state — colonial or otherwise”.

But the poet was also aware of the material impoverishment of the country, its glaring inequalities, the constant famines that ravaged it – Bhattacharya, in fact, has a moving prelude on Tagore’s moral dilemmas as a scion of one of Bengal’s premier zamindar families. Ananda had to be sought amidst the vicissitudes of life. As the poet wrote after his wife Mrinalini Devi’s death: Aache dukkho, aache mrityu, birahodahano lage/Tobuo shaanti, tobu anando, tobu ananto jaage (There’s sorrow, there’s death, there are pangs of separation. Yet there’s peace, joy, and life flows towards eternity”).

Bhattacharya nudges us to accompany the poet as he engages in some of the debates of the time — the limits on the actor’s role, masculinity and femininity in performance. Should art be caparisoned within the norms of “classical” and “folk”. What about art and the national movement? Such engagements inevitably drew, and were informed by, Tagore’s interactions with political and intellectual figures of the time — Gandhi, Anna Pavlova, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ramkinkar Baij and many more. It shows the poet as a seeker of diversity and equality, even as he is aware of, and grapples with, the limits posed by his position in society as a landholder, a bhadralok.

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