Like most communities anywhere, Bengalis are also touchy about their national icons. For a people reputed to be indolent, they always go that extra mile to protect the sanctity of their idols. But they are especially sensitive about two of their icons: Rabindranath Tagore, the first Nobel Laureate for literature from India in 1913 and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the great leaders of the Indian independence, born in 1897 and still believed by some to be alive until proven dead.
While conspiracy theories about Bose's mysterious disappearance (and continued existence) are still alive and kicking in the 21st century, Tagore has left his ardent fans and protectors in a lurch. Not for a fault of his own, of course, but due to a law that enabled the copyright over his work to expire over a decade ago.
Since then, his songs, a staple in many middle-class Bengali households and educational institutions, have met with a fate worse than chocolate flavoured sandesh or fat-free egg rolls for the health conscious. The famous Pagla-hawar badal diney, for instance, was reincarnated in a remixed version in the movie, Bong Connection, after the song came out of the control of the approval committee at Visva-Bharati, the university Tagore founded in Santiniketan, Bolpur, in Birbhum district of West Bengal.
Now, after years of suffering the alleged desecration of Tagore's songs and novels, Visva-Bharati is again faced with a quandary, involving none other than Priyanka Chopra. Yes, you heard that right.
Purple Pebbles Pictures, Chopra's production house, is planning a Marathi-Bengali feature film, a biopic to be precise, based on Tagore's relationship with Annapurna Turkhud, who gave English lessons to the poet before he left for England for the first time at the age of 22. The news has, understandably, got the Visva-Bharati into a tizzy. A committee has been set up, after a few weeks of deliberation, to ensure that the final cut doesn't have any "objectionable scene" or anything that compromises the dignity of the Bard of Bengal.
While the director of the proposed venture, Ujjwal Chatterjee, has ensured the movie will be based on the "platonic relationship" between Tagore and Annapurna, there's never too much caution when something as precious (and presumably fragile) as culture is at stake. Tagore, who openly spoke of his fondness for Annapurna, or Ana as she was called, may not have made too much fuss over the movie, but the later-day inheritors of his legacy are not as sure.
As the Viva-Bharati committee sits on judgement over the permissible limits of intimacy to be shown in the movie, here's what we know of the facts.
Young Tagore was sent to Bombay in August 1878, to the home of Dr Atmaram Pandurang Turkhud, enlightened physician and founder of the reformist Prarthana Samaj. The plan was to get Rabi, as he was called by his family, up to speed with conversational English with daily lessons from Ana, who was three years his senior and had just come back after a stay in Britain.
For two months, the shy pupil and his teacher met for these lessons and in the course of these encounters, they did seem to grow affectionate towards each other. Though nothing serious ever came of the relationship, Tagore did write several poems addressed to Annapurna, calling her Nalini, a name she would cherish and use for the remaining of her short life of 33 years. She even went on to name a nephew of hers after the poet.
It was not unusual for Rabi to feel emotionally attached to an older woman. His emotionally-charged relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, is much written about. An ostensibly maternal figure in the motherless Rabi's early life, she became his muse, almost a figure of infatuation over the years, and her death, allegedly by suicide, left him deeply shattered.
After Rabi went off to England to study, Dr Turkhud visited Tagore's father Debendranath in Kolkata. It is speculated that a proposal for marriage between Rabi and Ana was mooted by the good doctor, but vetoed by the elder Tagore. Eventually, Ana went on to marry a Scottish man, who was an academic in Vadodara (then Baroda), and died in Edinburgh in 1891.
Clearly, Tagore held her memories close to his heart, often speaking of Nalini in his songs or otherwise, but he didn't honour the one request she had made to him: not to ever let the beauty of his visage be effaced by a beard.
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