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Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Vicious 5-Letter Word

Economic Times

Last week, INTACH screened a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore made in 1961 by Satyajit Ray for Films Division of India. A brilliant scion of a prominent family essaying a cinematic portrait of a brilliant scion of another prominent family got me thinking. Had Tagore been born in 1961 rather than 1861, would he have been allowed to become a phenomenon ?

Today, ‘elite’ has become a vicious five-letter word. Those who have the misfortune to be born with silver spoons in their mouths now – as Tagore and Ray were in their day – are mostly written off as dilettantes , well-meaning maybe, but lightweight and “unrepresentative” of society at large. If they aspire for literary or artistic credibility, criticism becomes even more vocal. Tagore, after all, did not forsake privilege as, say, the princes Vardhamana and Siddhartha did before gaining enlightenment as Mahavira and the Buddha, respectively.

No, the grandson of ‘Prince” Dwarkanath Tagore (whose businesses included exporting opium to China) lived in mansions , married into his own class and tended the family estates even as he spun out a vast body of literary and artistic work. Alison Light’s 2007 book Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service posited an interesting theory – without servants to take care of quotidian concerns, Virginia Woolf may never have become a writer.

To a large extent , this theory can be extended to include all of us and the hobbies and interests we pursue thanks to ‘spare time’ . Inherited family wealth, as seen through the example of Tagore, can therefore be seen in a positive light. For it freed his mind for greater things; there was no real adversity to kill his artistic impulses. Maybe , that is why his criticism was sans cynicism, his voice for change was not raised in anger, vengefulness or envy. Yet, no one can say he lacked depth or sincerity.

Had Tagore been forced to eke out a living, his oeuvre may never have been so lyrical, freespirited , wide-ranging and born of deep reflection – a state that is aided by freedom from pecuniary concerns. Even Satyajit Ray’s cinematic legacy bears out the fact that being well-born is not a hobbling factor when it comes to sensitivity . Ditto Bimal Roy. The caveat, of course, is that wealth should not become a cocoon that shuts out the world and inures the rich from reacting and feeling. That, in part, could be why resistance has built up against the privileged when it comes to talent. Too many of them are cut off from reality and do not turn their privilege into a tool for social change and enlightenment .

That said, the few privileged people who do have the same stirrings as Tagore and Ray did, should not shy away from putting their talent out there. Sooner or later, society at large – angst-ridden as it is – will have to admit that both the privileged and the marginalised have an equal right to literary and artistic validation.

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