In Part 1 of this series, I had discussed instances that showed how wonder-struck a young Ravindranatha Thakoor was in the company of mother nature. In Part 2, I discuss his views on poetry, language, and education, as retold by him in Reminiscences (1912).
Human beings are born imitators and as children we learn by imitating our parents and older friends. I strongly believe that learning by imitation is a life-long process and it does not stop at some adolescent age. Of all literary genres, poetry is the most susceptible to imitation and also the most difficult to plagiarise. Poets, howsoever great they are, would have learnt their ropes by imitating other poets they admire. Thakoor was a child prodigy in writing verse it appears. He was trying to write complex verse even without knowing the meanings of the words quite early in his life. His writing was influenced by many interesting people (retold in the book) either directly or indirectly. He acknowledges that he tried to imitate poets he knew and learnt to appreciate poetry and literature from his tutors and cousins.
Thakoor’s views on poetry and poems are interesting and but not well-thought out must I add. I am not sure whether he acquired those views late in his life or always held those views unchanged. In an amusing instance, Thakoor thinks that mishandling of poor quality poetry by an ordinary poet is similar to rough-handling of an ordinary thief caught red-handed by a hard-nosed security guard! Thakoor’s main thesis about poetry is typical of any poet struggling to differentiate the lyrical from the verbal. Simply put in his own words
“to employ an epic to teach a language is like using a sword to shave with- Sad for the sword, bad for the chin…A poem should be taught from the emotional viewpoint (p57)…the less a song is burdened with words the better…I have often felt this while composing my songs (p206)”.
His notion of poetry and song writing is confused at worse, conflicted at best. For someone who cannot read Thakoor’s poems in Bengali (and have not read much in English either), I am not in a position to comment on how successful or unsuccessful he was at rescuing himself from such dilemmas.I have come to understand, perhaps through imitation, consultation and self-realization (voila!), that poetry is not song writing and song writing is not poetry. Thakoor probably had come to similar conclusions but it appears he struggled with the idea even into his 50s.
An important aspect of Thakoor’s formative years was his access to free reading, learning, and experimenting at home. He was in a home filled with people who were formally educated, frequented by the rich and privileged, judges and professors, musicians and politicians. Thakoor’s sister-in-laws were his reading partners. They read novels and magazines competitively. They had the means and ran their own home journals and published their own articles. Ravindranatha Thakoor’s father Devendranatha Thakoor was a big influence. The biggest chapter of the book is dedicated to Thakoor’s fond memories of his father [p67-100] and how he was guided by his father without ever being hand-held and handled. Thakoor’s father was an important personality of his times, a co-founder of Brahmo Samaja with reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Devendranatha, as Thakoor recollects, was not deterred by the danger of Thakoor making mistakes, and he was not alarmed at the prospect of Thakoor (a privileged kid) encountering sorrow [p96].
Thakoor’s view on education is equally fascinating considering he was not formally educated. He tried to go to a school and a college but did not get much of it. His visits to England are narrated at length and his failure to pursue university education is dealt with rather softly. Again, I was reminded of his privileged existence in a world where most of his fellow countrymen (Bengalis for him and rightly so) had very little to cheer about. People often cite the example, and I too remember reading in my high school history text book that Ravindranatha Thakoor returned his knighthood to the Imperial establishment protesting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. It was probably a powerful gesture because it came from someone like Thakoor, a nativist but not an anti-West thinker. Thakoor was and is a great man because he was aware of his privileged existence. It appears that he always contemplated the pros and cons of him being a secure financial elite in his society. It is a different matter that Thakoor became an intellectual elite for his contemporaries and more so for the generations that came after. Whilst we are on education, I must also mention Thakoor’s views on education in one’s own mother tongue. This is another topic that is close to my heart. I quote him [p58-59]
“…because we were taught in our own language that our minds quickened. Learning should as far as possible follow the process of eating. When the taste begins from the first bite, the stomach is awakened to its function before it is loaded, so that its digestive juices get full play. Nothing like this happens when a [Kannada] Bengali boy is taught in English…while one is choking and spluttering over the spelling and grammar, the inside remains starved, and when at length the taste is felt, the appetite has vanished. If the whole mind does not work from the beginning its full powers remain undeveloped to the end. While all around was the cry for English teaching, my third brother was brave enough to keep us to our Bengali… To him in heaven my grateful reverence”.
I pity the young parents in Karnataka, who send their children to privately run English medium schools. They are alienating their children in their own backyard and ruining the lives of our future generation, a bewildered, disconnected, and transfixed lot. Most of the current socioeconomic elite (sadly not intellectual elites like Thakoor) are promoting education in English as the pathway to better life chances. The poor and lower-middle class (learning by imitation) are blindly following the messed up socioeconomic elite. Imitation is fine but imitation alone did not make Ravindranatha Thakoor who he became. One doesn’t need English or Hindi to lead a purposeful and productive life in Karnataka. Education in English does not teach you how to think and how to live. Primary education in Kannada can in Karnataka. The English language may help you in some situations if you already know how to live. Don’t get me started with the complaints about poor quality in government-run Kannada schools. I know I am a hypocrite because I do not use government services in every walk of my life citing access and corruption issues. Often, I am forced not to use public services. But, I have not given up. I continue to support government involvement where it should perform the role of the primary care giver. I will not support any move that intends to kill an ailing ideal of a strong and universal public system of primary health and primary education. God help me, please.
Next week, more on Thakoor’s Reminiscences in a third and final part.
[End of Part 2]