Rabindranath Tagore is in the headlines quite out of the blue and for the most unusual reasons. This time, Union Minister Subhas Sarkar has controversially commented on the Nobel laureate's complexion and has suggested that his mother treated him differently because of it.
During a visit to Visva Bharati University that was founded by Tagore, Mr Sarkar said that the Nobel laureate's mother discriminated against him because he was "dark". The colour of his skin, the minister added, was a "darker, more reddish shade of fair than the rest of the family".
"Tagore's mother and some other relatives would not hold him in their arms because he was 'dark-skinned'," the minister claimed.
"There are two types of fair skinned people. One that are very fair with a yellowish hue and those who are fair but with a reddish tinge. Kabiguru belonged to the second category," he was quoted as saying by news agency PTI.
The comments - made while the minister was touring the university set up by Tagore at Shantiniken in Bengal's Bolpur district - have triggered an uproar from experts and admirers of Tagore, and also rival politicians who labelled the education minister illiterate.
"No idea on what basis the Hon'ble minister made such comments. Don't know if he has read biographies of Tagore thoroughly or whether he understood the spirit of these writings properly. Tagore was not of dark complexion though people like his elder sister had described him as Rabi, our dark-complexioned boy. This was an exaggeration. Did the minister mean to say Rabindranath was as dark as Africans? Or he meant he had a complexion that was somewhat between fair and dark," former Rabindra Bharati University Vice-Chancellor Pabitra Sarkar said.
The Trinamool Congress reacted angrily, accusing him of insulting the icons of Bengal. "Subhas Sarkar is not aware of history. By all accounts, it is well known that Rabindranath Tagore was fair skinned. This is a racist comment (by the minister) and an insult to the icons of Bengal. Subhas Sarkar should not be allowed to enter Viswa-Bharati ever again," senior TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee said.
Echoing him, CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty said such comments only reflect the "racist and anti-Bengali mindset of the BJP".
The university students have also criticised Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty who was part of the event.
However, the BJP stood by the union minister and said his comments were taken out of context. "Subhas Sarkar has neither said anything against Rabindranath Tagore nor his family. He has spoken against discrimination on the basis of the colour of skin. His comments were not at all intended to insult anyone. The TMC should stop politicising just everything," state BJP spokesperson Shamik Bhattacharya said.
With inputs from PTI