“Did Rabindranath like to take part in adda?”, asks a character played by the actor Robi Ghosh in Satyajit Ray’s film, Agantuk. The answer to this question must be an emphatic “yes”.
Few of us remember that Tagore was a brilliant conversationalist whose penchant for meaningful conversation was rooted in his faith in friendship, rational arguments and dialogue.
It is hardly necessary to explain that in common Bengali parlance words like adda and majlis denote the practice of engaging in long, informal conversations with friends. Adda, as practised by Tagore, was nothing less than a form of art, an exquisite expression of wit, intellectual profundity and humanity.
In My Reminiscences (1917), the English version of his Bengali memoir Jibansmriti (1912), Tagore tells us that he grew up during an era when “majlis was a necessity, and those who could contribute to it were in much demand”.
My Reminiscences provides a lively account of how, during those formative years of Tagore’s life, conversations with his brother Jyotirindranath, sister-in-law Kadambari Devi, and family friends such as the poet Biharilal Chakravarti helped shape his literary creativity.
He nostalgically revisits his memories of the jovial sociability that characterised that milieu ~ “What comings and goings we used to see: how merry were the rooms and verandahs with the hum of conversation and the snatches of laughter!”
Significantly, his evocation of that era is prompted by the awareness that such sociability has become a thing of the past. He mourns the decline of that social ethos which, he points out, has been replaced by a utilitarian outlook ~ “We no longer have the thing called a majlis. We still meet for business or for politics but never for the pleasure of simply being together I can imagine few things more ugly than this social miserliness.” This awareness was linked to his belief that in India colonial rule had introduced an urban modernity dominated by greed and selfishness.
The informal clubs established by Tagore and other members of his family served as social spaces where friends could gather and talk. In his memoir On the Edges of Time (1958) Tagore’s son Rathindranath writes that at the dinner parties hosted by the Kham-Kheyali Sabha “what was most enjoyable was the brilliant and witty conversation that took place”.
Tagore often read out his recent writings to the members of the Kham-Kheyali group which included Jagadish Chandra Bose, Chittaranjan Das, D.L. Roy, Pramatha Chaudhuri and Atul Prasad Sen. In his memoir Rathindranath speaks of the long conversations his father had with his scientist friend, Jagadish Chandra Bose: “They would constantly exchange ideas. One would talk of the next story to be written and the other of the remarkable results obtained from experiments carried on in his laboratory. They would not only appreciate each other’s criticisms but derive inspiration from their discussions.”
Interestingly, Rathindranath writes that “in his happiest moods” his father “could mix with children as though he were one of them.” Pramathanath Bisi who studied at Rabindranath’s school in Santiniketan describes how the poet used adda as a pedagogic tool. In the evenings when his pupils gathered around him, he invented word-games and literary exercises to stimulate their capacity for improvisation. Often he would begin to tell a story and ask them to join in.
Tagore’s writings brought about a radical transformation of the Bengali literary idiom. Not surprisingly, as the practitioner of a unique form of adda, he evolved a style of speaking that had an identity of its own. We can experience it through the memoirs where we find detailed accounts of his interactions with his friends and associates.
Its distinctiveness can be attributed to his ability to change usual syntactic patterns, his deft use of rhetorical devises like metaphor and pun and to the presence of a keen sense of humour that he retained even in moments of pain.
Tagore’s English friend Leonard Knight Elmhirst speaks of the element of mischief that often animated his interactions with his friends: “How mischievous could be his sense of fun, but never cruel or unkind.” He enjoyed the moments of friendly banter when he playfully teased his companions, cracked jokes and recounted humorous anecdotes.
Tagore’s biographer Krishna Kripalani’s account of the poet’s final days is also worth quoting ~ “His fortitude and his kindly sense of humour remained with him till the end. Those who attended on his sick-bed treasured as their greatest reward the pleasantries and witticisms he constantly exchanged with them.”
The memoirs reveal the diversity of the themes Tagore could touch upon during a conversation. In his memoir Shab Peyechhir Deshe (1941) the poet Buddhadeva Bose, who had long conversations with Tagore during the final months of his life, describes his mode of speaking as a continuous flow of beautiful words seamlessly moving from one topic to another.
Like his letters, the conversations recorded by Tagore’s close associates such as Rani Chanda and Maitreyi Devi offer us an opportunity to know him intimately, a chance to know him not just as a creative genius but also as a charismatic and compassionate human being. He was not only a brilliant talker but also a patient and sympathetic listener.
In her memoir Gurudeb (1962) Rani Chanda tells us that he loved to listen to her stories about her ancestral village in East Bengal. The memoirs have captured the moments when he talked candidly about his memories and his deepest thoughts on art, politics, social debates and his institution in Santiniketan.
Interestingly, sometimes it seems as if we hear the voice of a man who is conversing not only with others but also with himself. Through conversations with others Tagore often examined and re-examined his own ideas and ideals.
A firm believer in freedom of the mind, Tagore rejected processes of homogenization and argued in favour of heterogeneity of ideas, opinions and cultures. He was always willing to let others speak and to take part in debates by which divergent points of view could be explored.
It is interesting to note how he evoked this principle in his works of fiction. In his novel Gora, contemporary social and religious issues are debated through extensive dialogues which juxtapose a number of mutually opposed voices and perspectives.
The conversation Tagore had with Albert Einstein in Germany on 14 July 1930 focused on a philosophical debate on the nature of reality. Einstein’s contention was that “truth must be conceived as a truth that is valid independent of humanity”.
Tagore countered Einstein’s view of truth by arguing that “what we call truth” is rendered knowable by human perception. He pointed out that “if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely nonexisting”.
Dmitri Marianoff, a journalist who was present during the conversation, later remarked: “Neither sought to press his opinion. They simply exchanged ideas. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat.”
Tagore’s idea of meaningful conversation continues to be relevant in today’s world, a fragmented world where individuals and collectivities are increasingly becoming alienated from one another and illiberal ideologies are preaching intolerance. The imperative now is to reaffirm our faith in friendship, sociality and constructive dialogue.
The writer is Assistant Professor of English, Gushkara College in West Bengal.