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Rabindranath’s Praxis

Perspectives on Remaking the Social

Pradip Kumar Datta (pradip.pk@gmail.com) teaches at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Bhikhu Parekh observed that a possible reason why Gandhi perennially addressed Rabindranath Tagore as “The Poet” was that it implicitly classified him (and marginalised his many critical observations) as an impractical person of the imagination. Rabindranath’s reputation has had to bear this burden for a long time. It is difficult to recognise the Rabindranath who, in many places, stated bluntly that ideas can lead to a cul-de-sac unless they are given shape by work and achieve an external manifestation. Tagore’s practical imaginaries tend to be underrated, if not overlooked.

Bhikhu Parekh observed that a possible reason why Gandhi perennially addressed Rabindranath Tagore as “The Poet” was that it implicitly classified him (and marginalised his many critical observations) as an impractical person of the imagination. Rabindranath’s reputation has had to bear this burden for a long time. It is difficult to recognise the Rabindranath who, in many places, stated bluntly that ideas can lead to a cul-de-sac unless they are given shape by work and achieve an external manifestation. Tagore’s practical imaginaries tend to be underrated, if not overlooked.

The anniversary edition of Tagore brought out by the Sahitya Akademi in 1961, for instance, has a large range of essays covering his cultural achievements, his personality, philosophy and international influence, among other things. But it does not have a single essay on his institution-making, leave aside his practical experiments with agrarian communities. While there were pioneering essays on Tagore’s rural development programmes, it is his 150th anniversary that has seen the arrival of more daring publications that, among other things, range from rousing calls to liberate his reputation from Bengal to those that critically explore the categories of his thought in a global context—to exhaustive monographs on his institutions and its practices. The present collection is a part of this new generation of work on Tagore. It covers the less familiar area of Sriniketan, the rural development wing of the global pedagogic institution that Tagore called Visva–Bharati. At the same time, this collection does not leave out the more familiar world of Santiniketan, but views it from the perspective of materialist aesthetic practices, a way of looking at Rabindranath’s works with which we are normally unacquainted.

The idea of society, or more appropriately samaj, has been an important preoccupation with Rabindranath and these papers are united by this concern. The notion of samaj as envisioned in his famous Swadeshi Samaj essay remains at the background, either explicitly or as trace. But these papers really explore the general assumptions of the social in Rabindranath and tend to concentrate more on the later conception of society developed in conjunction with the establishment of Visva–Bharati. Swadeshi Samaj conceptualised an all India society that would be village based, decentralised and organic. Rabindranath’s later conception may more properly be called social since it consists of a set of different institutional practices that are developed over continuous experiments in Visva–Bharati (and in his estates); further, instead of imagining a social structure for the country, the Visva–Bharati phase prefers to experiment with a relatively small—although expanding—area in the hope that it would set an example to the rest of the country—and provide a platform of global interactions.

Three Distinct Elements

The papers here are shaped by this later trajectory: they frame the exploration of the social by the idea of praxis, rather than define society/samaj as a concept. The notion of praxis, specifically social praxis, is used here as a phrase that pulls together three distinct elements. First, these are the areas of practices—relating to work carried out in his institutions; second, that of the categories that underline and are embodied in these practices; finally, the futural element, of what is made or sought to be made from these. Let me add that this is a grid in which the papers may be located. They do not individually follow a single method nor do they all strictly address the three elements of praxis in equal or even integrated, measure. But they do, in their different ways and to separate degrees, fill in aspects of the grid.

Let me elaborate a little, even at the cost of mechanically separating out the components of praxis. A key mode of practical work is that of cooperation which at least three contributors elaborate. But there are other means that are dwelt upon: dance performances conducted for both aesthetic and financial reasons; environments and habitations that are refashioned by the making of Visva–Bharati itself. The sphere of practices intersects with those of the concepts that either underline these or are embedded in them. Mohinder Singh’s paper (p 46) on the human anthropology of Tagore dwells on the idea of surplus, something that philosophically defines the underlying dynamic that makes Tagore’s career one of incessant practical activity. Shukla Sawant’s paper (p 57), on the other hand, examines the visual framing of the landscape and its people, resulting in the material reinscription of the place that was to be called Visva–Bharati. Rimli Bhattacharya (p 64) addresses the gender codes that are destabilised by dance performances in tandem with the ethical conceptions of finance that are a necessary part of this enterprise. Tagore’s notion of the self, work and its theological bearings are explored by Pradip Kumar Datta’s paper (p 40), while the other two contributors provide a global frame of concepts to understand Rabindranath’s institutions. Anup Dhar and Anjan Chakrabarti (p 53) explore the idea of the samaj as one based on a revised notion of dharma that finds a counterpoint in Ambedkar’s critique of rural life. Asok Sen’s essay (p 71) brushes Rabindranath’s conceptions of cooperation against the insights of Marx and Foucault on power. Finally, the futural: Sawant points to a critique of the future that was actually instituted by Visva–Bharati while Datta and Dhar point to some dilemmas that Rabindranath poses for himself and for our futures. Sen raises the possibility of deploying Tagorean practices and institutions to resolve the problem of locating the sites from which to resist the depredations and penetrations of power.

The collection is dedicated to the memory of Asok Sen who, after suffering the usual hopes and disappointments of a politically and socially engaged thinker, spent the last years of his life in the excitement of rediscovering another Rabindranath, one whose social thought could be made to address the problems of our future. Other scholars can only envy this fate.

 

Updated On : 12th May, 2017

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