What is Biswa-Kobi?

Amitava Sen

What does the word Biswa-kobi mean? Poet laureate of the world, World-class poet, Universal poet? Bengalees use this honorific or title in referring to Rabindranath Thakur. I have always wondered about it as I have as to why the championship of baseball is called World Series. How does a tournament of game played by less than 5 % of the world population even after keeping other baseball playing nations such as Japan or Cuba out, claim to be a world event? Likewise, the “World” cup for the game of cricket played mostly by a few third world countries raises the same question.
Americans are prone to use hyperbole in describing whatever comes their way and they get away with it because coming from the most overpowering nation, the rest of the world accepts it with awe. Neither can their claim to the world title be dismissed as the arrogance of the novaeu rich; for record the winner of the game played between just two teams as back as in 1884 was crowned as the “Champion of the world”. (And it continues to the day). For Americans the world stops at their shore and what the humanity beyond their world think does not count and realistically speaking, does not matter.
On the other hand, a game of cricket can claim the distinction of most man-hours spent by the viewing public in days’ long game. (Man-hours in this instance mean, number of people multiplied by the number of hours spent watching a game). And I can understand that this number is unsurpassed by any other game in the world. The most countries playing cricket have an inexhaustible supply of unemployed and bored flocks attending the games lasting ten to forty hours. But should not the cricket championship be more appropriately called Third-World Cup?
But for me Biswa-Kobi still continues to be a riddle. Rabindranath have written profoundly of upper and middle class Bengalee society, with deep Hindu spirituality and mysticism, but universal he is not by any measure. His sonorous lyrics and songs are hugely popular in Bengal, both east and west. But universally he has failed the test of time. He is largely forgotten in the west and the rest of the world. During Tagore’s life time Graham Greene famously wrote “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I can not believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously.” I wonder how many amongst the erudite lot in Bengalee Diaspora know Rabindranath beyond his songs and dances.
However, evaluating Rabindranath and his works is not the point of this piece, easily carried-away and irrationally exuberant Bengali emotion is. In order to call someone our own great, we tend to canonize the person, we turn them into icons, more to be garlanded and worshipped than understood. English speaking world did not call Shakespeare the “World-playwright.
Someone at some point of time must have bestowed on Rabindranath the title of “Biswa-Kobi” or anointed him to the position of Poet Laureate of the world. Recognizing Rabindranath’s proclivity for self-aggrandizement it is not inconceivable that he himself may have done so. He was not shy about heralding his birth as a momentous event for the human kind (Hey Nutan Dekhadik Arbar Janmero Prothomo Subhakhan) or proclaiming his super-human stature (Oi Mahamanaba Ashe) and then staking his claim for a place among the greats (Ami Jodi Janma Nitem Kalidasher Kale, Hotem Tobe Dasham Ratna Naba Ratna Male).
It would be interesting to find out where and when did Rabindranath referred to himself as Biswa-kobi. If he did not, who did?

Amitava Sen

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