Arts and culture

The Poet and the Prophet or How ‘Tagore Brings Out Gandhi’?

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Akeel Bilgrami and Anmol Vellani played Gandhi and Tagore

13 February 2017| 5:00 PM: The play ‘The Poet and the Prophet’ was performed at JNU Convention Centre on 13th of February at 5 PM. Directed by Anmol Vellani, the play puts together the letters exchanged between Gandhi and Tagore along with some essays which they wrote debating the major national issues of the time. Akeel Bilgrami and Anmol Vellani played Gandhi and Tagore respectively. The intellectual exchange between the two begins in 1914-15, when Gandhi along with the students of his Phoenix School in South Africa visits Tagore’s Santiniketan. Gandhi recalls later in the play, ‘It was here that the members of my South African family found warm hospitality in 1914, pending my arrival from England, and I too found shelter here for nearly a month.’ The discourse between the ‘the Poet and the Prophet’ moves forward in a chronological framework. Starting from the visit of Gandhi’s South African students to Santiniketan, the conversation goes on to debate the pressing issues of the time. From the subject of making Hindi the national language of India to nationalism itself, they discuss at length all that they can find under the sun, only stopping after the demise of Tagore in 1941.

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Gandhi and Tagore discuss at length all that they can find under the sun, only stopping after the demise of Tagore in 1941.

The play was 1 hour 40 minutes long. The static background and the prolonged acts added to the already long- winded tête-à-têtes in the play. It was Akeel Bilgrami’s portrayal of Gandhi which saved the day for the audience. As mentioned in the posters, the actors in their portrayal of Gandhi and Tagore didn’t try to emulate the voices of the characters, which made it difficult for one to relate to the dialogues of the persons on stage. But as they say, ‘all’s well that ends well.’ The evening culminated with an intellectually enriching panel discussion. The panelists were Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, and Prof. Akeel Bilgrami.

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It was an insight into how the two historical figures thought and reacted

It was Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya who began the discussion. During his address, he highlighted the three major differences between Gandhi and Tagore. The first difference he talked about was their different take on the idea of ‘truth.’‘To Tagore’, he said, ‘there are truths of two different domains and values- moral and immoral. But for Gandhi, truth only has moral value.’ In support of his argument, he cited the different perspectives of the two on Bihar earthquake of 1934. The second difference he talked about was the difference over the vision of ‘role of intellectuals in a society.’ Gandhi, on one hand, demanded complete commitment on the part of intellectuals, whereas Tagore on the other, emphasized on creating Swaraj in one’s own domain.

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The panelists were Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, and Prof. Akeel Bilgrami

Prof. Bhattacharya went on to quote Tagore- ‘Swaraj is the state of mind.’ He then talked about the different styles of their thinking. Tagore, as a poet, had a very humanist, bookish approach to reason, whereas Gandhi, as a national leader, had a pragmatic one. But to assess the relationship between Gandhi and Tagore only through the prism of their differences will be looking at only one side of the coin, for the other side reflects the congruence of their ideas. The two such congruencies Prof. Bhattacharya emphasized upon were the following-

  1. Skepticism over the use of technology.
  2. Rejection of the gospel of nationalism developed in Europe.

He then finished his address saying, ‘These days there is a tendency of the mind to recall nationalism in a very parochial manner. It is prudent for us to recall how Gandhi and Tagore saw nationalism.’

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Tagore brings out Gandhi

It was now Prof. Prabhat Patnaik’s turn to speak. He began his discourse with the following words- ‘I think of Gandhi as an insightful thinker on colonialism.’ He then discussed at length about Gandhi’s role as an anticolonial thinker. He drew a parallel between the anti-colonial discourse of Franz Fanon and Gandhi. ‘Tagore brings [out] Gandhi’, he said during the discourse.

Abhishek Kumar (BA, CFFS) works for The Informer. Pictures are by Sunaina Dular (PhD, SIS).

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