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Tagores and Indigenous Modernity in Bengal

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

Tagores before Tagore: A Screenplay by Sibaji Bandopadhyay, translated from Bengali by Maharghya Chakraborty,India: OUP, 2018; pp xxxiv + 192,695.


Contemporary public intellectuals have thrown down the gauntlet to their Bengali counterparts by challenging to liberate Rabindranath Tagore from the thralldom of provincial admiration. This has been an interesting development with the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Tagore having kicked off a minor industry in his work and life in the English-speaking world of scholarship. In this context, Sibaji Bandopadhyay’s Tagores before Tagore engages in a parallel—if not more radical—act of deliverance. The work achieves—or nearly accomplishes—the removal of the Tagore family from the biography of Rabindranath Tagore that normally overwhelms the story of the clan. It gives to the Tagore family an independent salience in plotting out the distinctive modernity of 19th century urban Bengal.

The name of Sibaji Bandopadhyay is no stranger to anyone interested in Bengali literature and cultural thought. Recipient of many awards, Bandopadhyay has a distinguished career in teaching, and is revered as an original thinker and a creative presence in writing and performance. It is only lately that some of his work has started being translated in English, beginning with his pioneering work on children’s literature. Tagores before Tagore belongs to the oeuvre of his freshly translated works. It was published in Bengali in 2013 as a screenplay for a film project by Rituparno Ghosh, which was stalled by Ghosh’s untimely demise. But, the screenplay is interesting in its own right, for it showcases the writer’s unusual perspective.

Presences Conspicuous by Absence

Somewhere in the middle of the book is a painting by Gaganendranath Tagore, a nephew of Rabindranath. Titled The Inner Apartment, it is rendered in a cubist style and features a room that looks like a stage. It is a room that has no walls but consists of screen-like structures. The painting pulls the eye into its recessed interiors, which consists of more openings into staircases and corridors. The apartment is devoid of any living figure, an absence that is underlined by the source of light located somewhere in the recessed background. It makes the viewer expect a living presence, which is not there.

Is the spectral apartment a representation of time? Is it about a time that constructs walls and corridors, divisions and passages, none of which are stable when seen from outside its frame? Is the apartment absent or present or is there a constant attempt to tease our thoughts about what is absent when we see what is present before us? In many ways the provocations of this painting are a visual version of some of the key concerns of the screenplay. Tagores before Tagore conjures up the presence of the historical past even while underlining its literal absence by telling us the story of the past in different ways. There are three histories of the absent past. Two of these—the foreword and the afterword—have been written in English by Bandopadhyay himself, for this volume. The addition of these sections actually changes the very design of the “original” play.

Seen as a play of absences and presences, the foreword is actually an integral part of the screenplay. It is a cherished story of the writer’s friendship with the deceased film-maker Rituparno Ghosh, with whom he had collaborated to write this screenplay. Ghosh died before the film could be made. The absence of the living relationship provokes the retrospect of their friendship and collaboration. Bandopadhyay spins out a story of the serendipity of the first meeting, the progress of the relationship through its angularities, subtle bouts of competitiveness together with mutual respect, warmth and the ache of loss, all of which make up the fabric of intimacy. Indeed, the death of that intimacy and its unfulfilled project makes the foreword a slice of contemporary, personal history. The paradox is that the personal history enables the histories of the 19th century to emerge in the form of a book that is independent from the film—an absent film to which it remains tied and indebted.

The past that Bandopadhyay conjures up in his screenplay is historical. Written as a family history, it opens up to the buried elements of the social context that inform and interpenetrate with the family history—as if it were that backlit apartment of Gaganendranath’s painting which leads into other spaces. If one is to borrow an analogy from Western theatre, the script is something like an Ibsen play about the implosive heart of domestic life but rendered in the expansive manner of epic theatre that continuously leaks the individual stories into the histories of the past and the present.

Verities of Elitist Asceticism

The screenplay is composed of many strands, as if it were a deck of cards from which different cards fall randomly. Indeed, one of the Brechtian devices that the screenplay uses is that of announcing each scene by a distinctive card. The entry of the Tagores is marked by the splendid consumption of Dwarakanath Tagore, Rabindranath’s grandfather. He spends so munificently in his visit to Europe that it grabs the admiration of the King of France and the acerbic resentment of Charles Dickens, even as the extravagant expenditure is incurred at the expense of his many debtors in India.

But, the main character of the play is his son Debendranath. In sharp contrast with his father, Debendranath Tagore portrayed himself—and is popularly acclaimed—as one who conducted himself according to strict ascetic rules. The play reverses the self-image. Debendranath’s renunciation of worldly possessions and his commitment to repay all of his father’s debts, is mocked at by the raucous Rabelaisian humour of other characters. The play undercuts Debendranath’s claim to produce an original Brahmo text by revealing Debendranath’s selectiveness in mixing and matching different citations of Hindu classics. These moves are seen as interchangeable with the work of the trickster. At the same time, Debendranath is shown as executing crafty strategies to pursue inheritance disputes.

The initial scenes that announce the death of Dwarakanath destabilise the gravitas of the Tagore legend. The first one features the large bellied Jaganmohan Gangopadhyay, a relative of Debendranath and the official “foodie” of the Tagore household. Jaganmohan entertains his young nephews with a display of the exquisite discrimination of his taste buds that can detect a sweet which is stale even by a day. The other scene features a boat that carries Debendranath and Rajnarayan Basu, his intellectual companion. The latter’s invocations of Shakespeare are cut short by a storm, from which they are rescued by the labour and skill of the boatmen. It is a multiple materialist perspective.

The screenplay arguably provides a focal point from which to grasp the rich subjectivities of the 19th century. There is, for instance, the double engraving in the rings of the Brahmo Samaj stalwarts. The rings carry the words Aum as well as the Persian epigraph, E Ham Nakhahad Mand, glossed as “This too shall pass.” The syncretic double engraving goes to the heart of the world of the play. On the one hand it captures the sense of emptiness of presence, of the experience of life’s insubstantiality even as it is lived. It is this sense that motivates and sanctions the ascetic renunciation of Debendranath. On the other hand, the transient emptiness of life defines the absolute substantiality of the Brahman embodied in the Aum. By an ironic trick of devotion, the singular and ultimate presence of the Brahman becomes identified with the self of Debendranath and his strong interest in material investments that sits easily with his publicly displayed indifference to the concerns of life.

There is an interesting scene in which Akshay Kumar Datta, a critical contributor to the Tattwabodhini Patrika, the journal of the Brahmo Samaj, raises questions about the condition of the indigo cultivators who were the mainstay of the Tagore estate and who had come into conflict with Dwarakanath, their landlord. For Debendranath, the material basis of his wealth does not matter since, as he airily puts it, the only reality is that of the Brahman. The capacity of the belief in Brahman to insulate the individual self from the demands of others, is nowhere more evident than in the way in which it allows Debendranath to ignore the sensibilities of the women of the household, But, when they take recourse to the law in order to demand their share of the inheritance, Debendranath’s skill in bargaining and protecting his property is wonderfully brought out to reveal the other side of the asceticism of the elite.

Plural Narratives of the Past

Let me put in a line of warning. My intention here is not to provide an authoritative gloss on the play. Instead it is simply to show the many ways in which this text allows itself to be traversed. What I have in mind is the multiplicity of the texts that open up different perspectives on Debendranath, but equally, through him, on the culture of a class caught in the splintered effects of time. This brings me to the third story of the past that is included in the English translation and the one with which it ends. This is the afterword in which the author provides us a more orthodox historical narrative on which this play is based. The narrative is not just a chronicle but provides an interpretative grid based on archival material. In this form it inserts the play and its characters into the institutional, social and textual world of their times—thereby exposing us to yet another narrative of the past. This effort also raises the question of genre, one that goes to the heart of historical narrative and historical fiction. Is the past that we know, dependent on the form we choose to narrate it? The screenplay and the archival reconstruction makes the two pasts of their respective representations overlap with each other, even as they provide different experiences of it and pose separate issues. But, there is also the question of the orders of the past. How do the hauntings of our contemporary lives, of the absence of intimacies of friendships that is now the past of our own lives, shape the way we look at the distant past that we have never lived?

Let me say that while this screenplay is conceived in an ironic mode, that is, as one that seeks to destabilise the conventional cultural verities of the Bengal “Renaissance,” it nevertheless carries with it a sense of excess. There is an enormous vitality that fills up the many worlds of the screenplay. What it bears, despite its politically correct and justified anti-colonial perspectives, is the sense of exuberance that the colonial encounter generated. There is a cultural excess of forms, of the various and intricate combinations of life and ideas and texts. Seen from this perspective Debendranath is not just a textual trickster, but something more, one who combines and improvises, thereby opening out new versions of ideas contained in “ancient” texts. He leads, at this level, a life that is as much excessive as the conspicuous consumption of his father that fatuously earns him the title of Prince Dwarakanath Tagore. Through them are shown a welter of self-generating energies thrown by the cultural, social and material turmoils of that period. It introduces a silent question with the entry of Rabindranath towards the end of the screenplay, an entry that is light but legible. What is the mode of excess represented by the cultural phenomenon of Rabindranath, in relationship to the life of the 19th century bhadralok? Does it represent a break? And how does Rabindranath overwrite and shape the popular imagination of the long 19th century in our lives today?


Updated On : 1st Mar, 2019


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