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Many Representations

Rakhshanda Jalil

Edited by Malashri Lal
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 332, Rs. 995.00


Walt Whitman, the American poet, essayist and humanist, had famously declared, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ Indeed it takes a brave man, and a wise one too, to not merely concede but celebrate the contradictions within himself. In India we tend to be apologetic about contradictions, especially among those we revere. And in the case of the much loved Bard of India, Rabindranath Tagore, the contradictions become problematic, to say the least. For far too long scholars have skirted around the problem areas and instead focused on those qualities of Tagore’s vast and varied ouvre that present no, or little, cause for dissent, namely his music, his aesthetics and his language. But those other areas, such as Tagore’s views on modernity, nationalism and most notably his views on gender have continued to pose several problems and have remained largely beyond the pale of sustained academic scrutiny. Tagore’s 150th birth year celebrations followed by centenary celebrations of his winning the Nobel Prize occasioned some attempts to look at Tagore critically and comprehensively and to include within the ambit of analysis and pedagogy every bit of his immense corpus. Some attempts have also been made to deal with the ambivalences that an earlier generation of researchers had noted but refrained from elaborating given the near-iconic status enjoyed by ‘Gurudev’. Malashri Lal, Dean of Colleges and the Dean, Academic Activities and Projects at the University of Delhi and a renowned scholar of gender studies looks at a range of Tagore’s works to bring out his conception of the feminine. The opening line of her ‘Acknowledgements’ reads, ‘I came close to Rabindranath Tagore more through feminist theory than through my Bengali heritage.’ She goes on to elaborate that while she has many memories of her mother, aunts and grandmother reading out Tagore’s stories, as a probashi (non-resident) Bengali her approach to Tagore was ‘mediated by multiculturalism’ and her understanding ‘mingled with worries about Indian feminism’. Tagore’s engagement—to use a modern expression—with the feminine as well as his portrayal of women is fraught with perils. If in one place he makes the following cringe-worthy statement, ‘There are two kinds of women, or so I have heard some pundits say. One is mostly maternal. The other is the lover.’ Elsewhere, he can also say, ‘Our nature holds ...

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