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Bob Dylan\'s Nobel: Heralding a new cultural era?

Shihab Sarkar | Thursday, 20 October 2016


Bob Dylan's had been a popular name among the country's young pop music lovers all through the 1970s, the 80s and the 90s. The popularity stemmed largely from the rock star's being part of the group which performed in the historic Concert for Bangladesh at New York's Madison Square on August 01, 1971. The concert was organised to mobilise world opinion in favour of the Bangladesh Liberation War and raise funds for the refugees sheltering in India. In the later years, too, Dylan's regal position in the hearts of the rock music lovers in Bangladesh had remained undiminished. Even after the emergence of newer pop icons in the following decades, his mesmerising performance and the songs' lyrics carved out a distinctive place for Bob Dylan in the world music landscape including Bangladesh.
However, few pop music lovers in the country and elsewhere had ever thought in their wildest imagination that one day this lyricist-singer would be honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature. To the great amazement of majority of the literary circles around the world, that's what the Nobel Prize Committee came up with in 2016. To add to their surprise, the name of Bob Dylan, now 75, is said to have been under the consideration of the Swedish Academy for the last few years. The international music fraternities welcomed generously this year's Nobel Literature Prize, the highest literary award in the present world, going to Bob Dylan. So have a handful of writers. But many reacted to the decision sharply, some saying another Grammy award for lifetime achievement of the lyricist-singer would have been befitting to him. American novelist Norman Mailer has turned quite sarcastic. He said if a literature prize could go to Dylan, then surely he was eligible for a best basket ball player's award. 
With most of the internationally famed authors maintaining an uneasy silence over the prize, the Nobel Committee is apparently nonchalant. During their surprise announcement of the honour for Bob Dylan, the committee officials took the scholarly attempt to trace poetry to its origin in Greece. In ancient Greece, poetry used to be performed as songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments. While picking singer Bob Dylan as the recipient of the Nobel Prize, the committee had obviously banked on this largely-forgotten poetic tradition. It was not only Greece, great bards and troubadours living during ancient and medieval times in other lands would present their poetic creations mainly as songs. 
The awarding of the Nobel Literature Prize to Bob Dylan has triggered the age-old debate: Is poetry essentially dependent on music, or should it thrive on its own 'music' created by the interplay of its meticulously chosen words and metres? By the time John Milton emerged on the poetic scene, poetry had already said goodbye to its earlier musical form. As time wore on, poetry had found itself being fast dissociated from its musical traditions. Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Charles Baudelaire et al helped the later poets discover the beauty of plain words --- written or recited. The post-World War-I era saw the complete detachment of poetry from music. Thanks to the modernist poetry movement led by Stephane Mallarme in France and TS Eliot in Britain, world poetry from then on followed a distinctive course of its own. Conventional music had no place in it.
Apparently to justify their choice of Bob Dylan, the Swedish Academy has tried to invoke the musical past of poetry, and stress their interdependence. Being a brilliant composer of songs' lyrics and an enchanting performer, who else other than Bob Dylan can meet this criterion? As the Nobel Committee members have observed, Bob Dylan has been awarded the prize for "creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." 
 That Bob Dylan is an extraordinarily gifted lyricist is beyond an iota of doubt. Many of his lyrics can be passed as fine pieces of poetry. Bangladeshi poet Shahid Qadri, back in the mid-1970s came up as an ardent admirer of Dylan's songs and lyrics. On hearing some popular songs by the American pop artiste, he had disclosed to this writer that he believed Dylan had better remained focused on poetry only. But in the following decades, the singer's fame as a stage performer kept surpassing his poetic identity.
Many, however, do not consider Bob Dylan as a poet. They cite Rabindranath Tagore's Geetanjali lyrics as true poetry which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The Nobel Prize nominators had discovered a hitherto unknown temperament, the Eastern mysticism, in Tagore's poetry. But what had amazed them were the superb lyrical qualities of his poetry. Many of these lyrics were later put to tunes and became immortal as songs. In those days of the Nobel Literature Prize, writers of mere lyrics, composed exclusively for songs, may have been considered as literary pariahs. Had not poets like WB Yeats and others pointed out the mystic nature of Tagore's poetry, the coveted prize might have eluded the great Bengalee poet. The Swedish Academy did not announce any prize in the following year, 1914, due to the outbreak of the First World War. From that year on, the world scenario kept changing radically. Tagore's British and Irish well-wishers, too, reportedly changed their views on Tagore's poems.
Awarding Nobel Literature Prize to Bob Dylan will go down in history as an extraordinary event in the modern world's evolution of culture. Moreover, the event also points to the changes being made to the original principles and criteria for the prize. According to the 1895 will of Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Literature Prize will honour those "who have produced, in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." This emphasis on idealism barred many all-time great writers from joining the exclusive Nobel Prize club. They include James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Henry James, Graham Greene and many others. In the later decades, the 'liberal application' of idealism let many obscure and minor authors get the prize. The allegations of 'politicisation and skewed judgement' also began surfacing. Despite their being on shortlists year after year, many potential poets and novelists have not been awarded the prize.
With controversies raging across the world over the Bob Dylan award, lots of people have agreed on a thorny point: this prize has eluded a number of deserving authors of the honour long due to them. Apart from the Western developed countries, these writers and poets belong to the continents of Africa and Asia. South American countries, though under-represented, saw a handful of its poets and novelists get the award. Omissions are there, but they are not as glaring as in either Asia or Africa. The name of Syrian poet Adonis, the Japanese Haruki Murakami, Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o were tipped this year to be favourites for the prize. That the Nobel Prize Committee could not honour Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has considerably detracted from its reputation. Although the prize went to a handful of Chinese writers, the Swedish Academy has kept mum on the Korean Peninsula and authors from Southeast Asia.  With the mainland Russia or former Soviet Union receiving its last Literature prize in 1970 (Alexander Solzhenitsyn), no remarkable writer from the country could draw the attention of the Nobel Committee. The 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is chiefly an investigative journalist and non-fiction writer. The uncomfortable picture emerging from Russia, as viewed by many, seems stemming from the post-Cold War international politics. The earlier bipolar world order has apparently made its impact on the global arts as well, as has been seen during the Cold War era. Meanwhile, the Third World has kept suffering, since it has been out of both the Western and the Soviet alliances.
The Cold War has long been a thing of the past. Newer equations have taken its place. Thanks to it, globally operating institutions and entities find themselves being shaped by the unique realities of the 21st century. Bob Dylan's greatness would not have been belittled even a bit without the literature prize. But the Swedish Academy's over-liberal judgement may have disillusioned many literary greats on the shortlist. The Nobel Literature Prize may not be the same from this year on.
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