Long back, I would often stare at the 27 volumes of Rabindra Rachanabali neatly placed on the bookshelf in our Kolkata apartment living room. In comparison, my four-volume Tell Me Why set that I never managed to finish reading, looked drab and puny. It was as if Tagore was looking at me with a smirk, telling me, "You know nothing."
When I was first reading Tasher Desh (The Land of Cards), a play written by Tagore, my mother, rather discouragingly told me, "You will never be able to finish reading all of Tagore." I took it up as a challenge. Often, me and my mother, would read the lyrics to Tagore's songs from those books and sing. That was my first brush with his music. But, my mother was right. I could not finish reading Tagore. However, I did know that there was a Tagore song for all the heartbreaks, a poem for all the celebrations, and a play to serve as a travel companion, every time.
On Wednesday, a group of Trinamool Congress (TMC) lawmakers wanted to head to the Prime Minister's residence to protest the arrest of their colleague Sudip Bandyopadhyay. While Delhi Police managed to stop them, they also got a taste of the histrionics that Calcuttans are quite used to.
The parliamentarians decided to sit on dharna inside the police station compound and shout slogans. After nearly 40 minutes of slogan shouting, they realized that they were not doing something right.
Inspiration struck and they spontaneously broke into Tagore songs. Together, sitting on the chairs provided by the police, they sang: Jodi tor daak sune keu na aashe tobe ekla chalo re....
This was their way of protesting.
The TMC MPs have taken a leaf out their leader, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's book, who takes Tagore very, very seriously.
Last year, when the Chief Minister was in Rome to attend the canonisation mass that declared Mother Teresa a saint, she walked 6 kilometres from Rome to St Peter's Basilica along with MPs Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Derek O'Brien, singing 'Prano Bhoriye, Trisha Horiye,' another Tagore song. This singing was in celebration.
When Mamata came to power in 2011, she said that her chief focus was to give Kolkata a "London type look". As part of that effort, she decided to play Rabindranath Tagore's songs at traffic signals. Apparently, this was to "reduce stress and tedium of people waiting at signals."
Two years after force feeding millions of motorists Rabindra sangeet, the chief minister also ensured that the Nobel laureate's songs played at the ten crematoria run by the city's civic body.
That was not all. Tagore's songs were also dragged into West Bengal's high decibel election campaign last year, with BJP President Amit Shah and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee crossing swords.
Firing a salvo at the Trinamool Congress over its five-year rule in the state, Shah told a press meet in Kolkata, "Only the bomb making industry has come up in West Bengal in the last five years. And the sound of Rabindra Sangeet is getting suppressed because of those bomb blasts."
Shah's comment sounded less like an insult to Tagore and more of a dig at Mamata for allowing criminal activities to flourish under her watch, but the chief minister was quite upset.
Shah's comment set the chief minister on a war-path. "I heard (Amit Shah) has said something about Rabindranath... People of Bengal do not forgive anyone who insults great poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam," she declared at an election rally.
She also utilised the opportunity to berate the Communist Party of India-Marxist for "disrespecting" Tagore and then "suffering" for it. Perhaps Mamata felt that the Left's 34-year rule in West Bengal came to an end because they did not play enough Tagore songs.
In Bengal's political dictionary, Rabindra Sangeet is also a very, very important phrase. In case you didn't know, "No Rabindra Sangeet" is a code for "let's beat them up." It came into vogue after Mamata Banerjee, following her historic win in 2011, told her party workers not to hold victory rallies but stay home and listen to Rabindra Sangeet.
When her men are spoiling for a fight, they use the code word Didi taught them, "No Rabindra Sangeet please."
During the 2015 election campaign, TMC lawmaker Kalyan Banerjee said at a rally in Bankura: "Didi, please don't ask us to listen to Rabindra Sangeet after this poll." Madan Mitra, also from TMC, went a step further and said, "Didi, no Rabindra Sangeet this time. Maybe Bhojpuri songs. Also very popular."
Bengalis are known for their 'baro mashe tairo parbon' phenomenon. Just as on every month, we have a festival and then one more, we have a song for it too. And it won't do if it's not a Tagore song. Often, at weddings you will hear a Tagore rendition instead of the usual shehnai, NEVER 'Kala chashma'.
And if you are in Kolkata and playing antakshari with a bunch of Bengalis, don't be surprised if they break into Mamo ChitteNite Nritye instead of Mahi re mahi munder pe teri bol raha hai kagha. Because that's how we are. We have woven Rabindra Sangeet into the fabric of our lives. If Tagore's songs could be compared to food, it would be Chilli Chicken. From birthdays to weddings, you will find it just about everywhere.
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