Novelist Tagore: Rediscovering the bold and beautiful in Tagore

Filmmakers bring alive his stories. Rock bands experiment with his music. From poets to politicians, everyone loves to quote him. So what is it that makes Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore relevant even in the 21st century?

Perhaps a vision that was modern, yet unique. One need only delve into his novels to discover how Tagore, writing almost 100 years ago in colonial India, made bold statements on themes like women, sexuality, caste and nationalism.

He produced an astounding range of works, be it poems, plays, essays, paintings or songs. But less known is his stature as a novelist. It is this aspect of his oeuvre that academic Radha Chakravarty highlights in "Novelist Tagore" (Routledge).

At a time when the world is showing renewed interest in the bard of Bengal after his 150th birth anniversary celebrations, the book uses gender and modernity as yardsticks to discuss Tagore the novelist.

Be it "Chokher Bali" and "The Home and the World" - both of which have inspired films - or "Gora" - which was serialized for TV - the book takes up several stories.

We learn that Tagore`s views on gender and modernity neither conformed to Western stereotypes nor succumbed to deep-set Indian traditions.

Consider the monumental work "Gora", written in 1910. Chakravarty says it articulated the need to construct an alternative modernity that could include features of both Western and Indian culture. Set at a time when the role of women was confined to the home, "Gora" also recognised that any future vision of India would need to give them a decisive place in it.

Another work, "Chaturanga", questioned the institution of marriage. In it, a woman enjoys conjugal bliss with a man while still in love with another as she is free of the conventional restraints of marriage.

In Tagore`s novels, "physical desire is not condemned or rejected. In place of the conventional objectification of women as targets of male desire, his novels also present women as desiring subject", says the book.

Citing "Nashtanir" - turned into the film "Charulata" by Satyajit Ray - Chakravarty says in Tagore`s later writings it is "through the expression of her sexuality that woman articulates her revolt".

"Novelist Tagore" may not be a book for the lay reader, as too many cross references render it more of an academic text. But researchers, teachers and students - whom the book essentially targets - will find it of immense help.

Here`s to discovering more to the man who continues to loom over the literary and cultural firmament of Bengal, and indeed India, even 152 years after his birth.

IANS/By Paloma Ganguly