The other side of Rabindranath Tagore ~ Words from Solitude

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The other side of Rabindranath Tagore

A remarkable aspect of Rabindranath Tagore’s life is the way his persona had changed radically from the restricted identity of an oriental romantic-mystic to the wide-ranging identity of a concerned citizen of the world. A poet, who had earlier attempted to blend spiritual and romantic notions in his quest of grasping the mystery surrounding individual human soul and the divine, increasingly began to give voice to the minds of the colonized and oppressed people and expressed his passionate desire to be identified as one of them. This absolutely stunning transformation is manifested in the non-conformist and modernist approach of his later works. Quite obviously, this aspect of his life was somewhat overlooked by his ostensible admirers who has imposed upon him the title “Gurudev” and converted him into a sacred idol. W. B. Yeats, who was primarily responsible for forming the synthetic image of Tagore as a mystic poet in the West found problems with his later works. Amartya Sen in his brilliant essay Tagore and his India, has rightly pointed out that the “neglect and even shrill criticism” that Tagore’s later writings received from these early admirers arose from the “inability of Tagore's many-sided writings to fit into the narrow box” in which they wanted to place and keep him. “To those who do not read Bengali, Tagore is exclusively a literary person or a mystic of sorts,” regrets historian Tapan Roychoudhury. He further clarifies, “The fact that some two-thirds of his writings are serious essays, mostly on political and socio-eco­nomic problems of India and the crisis of civilization has been more or less ignored in Tagore scholarship.” (Source)

The crucial social and political transformations that were taking place all over the world including his own country was clearly the principal reason that had caused Tagore to take on such an inclusive approach. During his later years, his concerned voice was heard loud and clear on every moments of crisis that has taken place on every corner of the globe. Viewing through the “crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility,” he became disillusioned by history but firmly remained a quintessential optimist to declare: “I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man”. Instead of getting dispirited, he became more and more responsive to the great rush of toiling people who works from age to age on the “ruins of hundreds and hundreds of empires”. He had lamented about the “missing notes” of his flute, about his lack of strength to break fences and enter the lives of the peasants, weavers and fisherman. He had also recognized that art becomes fake merchandise if it can’t link life to life. With a candid admission about his own failure in this regard, he had eagerly awaited for the close to the earth poet to give voice to the voiceless hearts. He had intensely aspired for the day when “unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage.” 

The young Zamindar

Tagore was profoundly influenced by the liberal humanistic thoughts of nineteenth-century Bengali intellectuals like Ram Mohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Keshab Chandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda and inherited a rich legacy from them. The seeds of humanitarian concerns were sowed in the mind of a young Tagore when his father Debendranath sent him to live and manage the Tagore family’s rural estates in East Bengal and Orissa. He was then twenty-nine. His stint as a Zamindar (landlord) became a life-transforming experience for him since it was in these rural terrains where for the first time in his life he got the opportunity to observe the socio-economic conditions of his country. While living in the estate buildings of Shilaidaha and Shahzadpur and in the houseboat Padma for a substantial period, he came into direct touch with the existing economic and social wretchedness of the peasants who lived under “the worse indifference of a rigid social orthodoxy and of an alien political rule”. From “a great tenderness for these peasant folk,” he felt a deep urge to extend his aesthetic, philosophic and socio-political ideas beyond its thin intellectual space and started thinking seriously about social reform and reconstruction as the principle means for liberating the people of his country. But he was still skeptical about the shortcomings of his “middle class background” which he thought might stand in his way of doing something for the rural people because, “…whenever the middle class babus intend to do something for the rural people, they show their contempt for them.”

“There he had made two important discoveries,” wrote Tagore’s English colleague Leonard Elmhirst, “first, that the villagers seemed to have lost all ability to help themselves; secondly, that both research and technical assistance would be needed if they were ever to learn how to rescue themselves from their creeping decay.” While travelling all around the vast estate to collect annual rents from the ryots (peasants), Tagore visited villages, conversed with the poor villagers, listened to their problems and also witnessed the worse indifference that affected their lives. Depicting his experiences as the “hideous nightmare of our present time,” an inundated Tagore later wrote, “Our so-called responsible classes live in comfort because the common man has not yet understood his situation. That is why the landlord beats him. The money-lender holds him in his clutches; the foreman abuses him; the policeman fleeces him; the priest exploits him; and the magistrate picks his pocket.” Although at this stage, his attitude towards the impoverished masses was of a romantic onlooker as he was still not well-acquainted with the basic complexities of land relations and the socio-economic rationale behind the privation and helplessness of the subaltern class. But he was definitely trying to understand the prevailing social contradictions through his daily encounters with the rural people.

In the introduction of W. W. Pearson’s book Shantiniketan, Tagore had described how he “woke up to the call of the spirit of my country” and felt the urge to dedicate his life in “furthering the purpose that lies in the heart of her history”. Ideas that had originated in his mind while spending a great part of his youth in the riverside solitude of Shilaidaha become deep rooted in his consciousness. These ideas later developed as a highly original and distinctive vision. From a genuine attempt to understand the problems, he gradually came to realize the necessity of rural reconstruction as the real solution to India’s problems. Instead of idealizing rural life, he started to sense that poverty can be dealt through the spread of basic education, by inducing self-reliance among the peasants, through the application of scientific methods to agriculture, setting up cottage industries and cooperative banks. He came to realize that the greatest enemies of India are not the outsiders but the forces that reside within its borders. In The Future of India he writes, “So long as we, out of personal and collective ignorance, cannot treat our countrymen properly like men, so long as our landlords regard their tenants as a mere part of their property, so long as the strong in our country will consider it the eternal law to trample on the weak, the higher castes despise the lower as worse than beasts, even so long we cannot claim gentlemanly treatment from the English as a matter of right, even so long we shall fail to truly waken the English character, even so long will India continue to be defrauded of her due and humiliated.” To bring his ideas of rural reconstruction into reality, he later went on to establish Sriniketan under the agricultural scientist Leonard Elmhirst.

In 1939, in an address on his last visit to Sriniketan, Tagore spoke about his early Shilaidaha days, “I was filled with eagerness to understand the villagers’ daily routine and the varied pageant of their lives…..Gradually the sorrow and poverty of the villages became clear to me, and I began to grow restless to do something about it. It seemed to me a very shameful thing that I should spend my days as a landlord, concerned only in money making and engrossed with my own profit and loss. From that time onward, I continually endeavored to find out how the villagers’ mind could be aroused, so that they could themselves accept the responsibility for their own lives.”

Fierce critic of Nationalism

Tagore’s antipathy towards the conventional idea of nation and nationalism is legendary. Nationalism, according to Tagore, is not “a spontaneous self-expression of man as social being,” but a great menace which is “supremely dangerous to humanity”. In Tagore’s opinion, the general idea of Nation is a “terrible absurdity” which has aggressively “thriven long upon mutilated humanity”. In one of his controversial lectures Nationalism in the West delivered in America during 1916-17, Tagore launched his fiercest attack against the ideology of nationalism and openly denouncing the “fierce self-idolatry of nation worship”. Criticizing the West for keeping their “neatly compressed bales of humanity…..bound in iron hoops, labeled and separated off with scientific care and precision,” he had argued that the Nation with his “magnificent power and surprising appetite” is nothing but an “organization of politics and commerce” which is “incessantly growing into vast stature, out of proportion to all our needs of society – and the full reality of man is more and more crushed under its weight.” Power, according to Tagore, is a “scientific product made in the political laboratory of the Nation, through the dissolution of personal humanity.” Comparing the world of the Nation with a hydraulic press which can unleash an impersonal but effective pressure, Tagore went on to explain that the “amount of its power may vary in different engines,” but its essential features remain the same – relentlessly lifeless and monotonously accurate to unleash political and commercial aggressiveness, tyranny and injustice on the people causing great suffering to them.

Being a true humanitarian, Tagore had noticed that “the spirit of conflict and conquest is at the origin and in the center of Western nationalism.” He further clarifies that nationalism has enticed the Western nations to create a “continuous and stupendous dead pressure of this unhuman upon the living human under which the modern world is groaning”. Through unforgettable words he warned the people of the West: “…you who live under the delusion that you are free, are everyday sacrificing your freedom and humanity to this fetich of nationalism, living in the dense poisonous atmosphere of world-wide suspicion and greed and panic.” Strongly condemning the Western nations for “fixing its fangs deep into the naked flesh of the world,” Tagore astringently accuses the nations for “systematically petrifying her moral nature in order to lay a solid foundation for her gigantic abstractions of efficiency.” Nations will spread and strengthen its giant power of mechanical organization in all directions but will “never heed the voice of truth and goodness,” he observed with dismay. Despite of these scathing criticisms, Tagore has always kept alive his strong faith that at some point the West has to stand face to face with the tyranny of the Nation it has created. He thus hoped for the new morning when “…man will have his new birth, in the freedom of his individuality, from the enveloping vagueness of abstraction.”

Tagore’s concern about the political and socio-eco­nomic problems of India came out in the open during the Swadeshi movement that broke out in the wake of Bengal’s partition in 1905. This predominantly Hindu movement was led by the wealthy, orthodox and reactionary Bengali middle-class who had little or no connection with the lower strata of the society which included a large number of Muslims. The core agenda was to boycott British goods and encourage the countrymen to buy homemade (swadeshi) substitutes which will make the British to suffer economically. Being actively involved in the movement, Tagore took part in mass rallies, delivered speeches and composed many of his famous songs including Banglar Mati Banglar Jal which he wrote to commemorate the mass event Rakhi Bandhan Day celebrated as a symbolic gesture against the Partition decision. During the day’s event, Hindus tied rakhi in the hand of Muslims as a symbol of brotherhood and communal harmony, negating the social Hindu tradition to look at the Muslims as socially inferior aliens. But Tagore’s enthusiasm soon started to fade out when the movement which was conceived to be a non-violent one turned violent and repulsive. An infuriated Tagore wrote condemning the violence perpetrated by extremist groups, “To light the fire and then complain that it burns is absolutely childish”. Deeply frustrated by the “perpetual contest of lies and deception, cruelties and hypocrisies” of the egoistic and vindictive nationalist leaders, he completely withdrew himself from the movement. Though his withdrawal attracted severe criticism from many of his compatriots, some of whom even ridiculously labeled him as a British collaborator, he was never to be seen associated with any nationalist movement again. Tagore’s critical observation of the Swadeshi movement, its darker complexities, its crushed aspirations and also the heart-breaking tragedies are superbly articulated in the pages of his 1915 novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World).

Ghare Baire is set against the backdrop of the Swadeshi movement. The protagonist Nikhilesh, who obviously represents Tagore, is a magnanimous and progressive Zamindar. He feels deeply for his people, believes in the value of education and is free from any racial, religious or class prejudices. He deeply loves his country, thinks strongly against the British rule and had practiced self reliance and Swadeshi well before it became trendy among the partakers. But at the same time he believes that giving too much emphasis on patriotic pride is morally treacherous and thus do not support the coercive politics of his nationalist hardliner friend Sandip. Rowing against the tide of emotionally charged nationalistic politics of the time, Nikhilesh gets increasingly isolated from the situation and also from his wife Bimala who starts getting attracted by Sandip’s charismatic personality. Nikhilesh takes exception to Sandip when he forces the poor and innocent villagers to buy Swadeshi goods which are expensive and inferior in quality than the goods manufactured in Lancashire and Manchester. However his objection does not prevent Sandip from taking any extreme and atrocious step to accomplish his reckless mission. Instead, he goes ahead to traumatize the poor villagers whom he has professed to lead and even starts seducing his friend’s wife. He does not hesitate to instruct his followers to sink a poor Muslim boatman’s boat since the boatman refused to stop carrying foreign goods from the fear of losing his only source of revenue. Sandip provokes his young followers to accentuate Hindu-Muslim divide and create the conditions for a violent communal riot that eventually kills Nikhilesh when he tries to quell the riot. By creating the one-dimensional characters and pitting a recklessly manipulative, deceitful, selfish and autocratic Sandip against an idealist, liberal, cogent and humane Nikhilesh, Tagore had made his intentions clear. In fact, the isolation of Nikhilesh depicted in the novel reflects Tagore’s own isolation from the upper/middle-class Bengali society. His complete rejection to Sandip’s political methods shows his severe objection to Hindu nationalist politicians who have hard-pressed their politics on the innocent countrymen and completely ignored its corrosive effects on their lives.

Tagore’s experiences in the Swadeshi movement have indisputably played a critical role in his utterly critical outlook on radical nationalism. But at the same time it has never deterred him from protesting against the colonial rule when it turned oppressive and brutal. On 3 June 1919, The Statesman published a famous letter he wrote to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford to repudiate his Knighthood in protest against the massacre of unarmed Indian demonstrators by British troops in Jallianwala Bagh. Tagore deplorably wrote in the letter: “Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is building the noble vision of statesmanship in our Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous, as befitting its physical strength and normal tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Tagore’s political vision was by and large shaped by his colonial experiences. But his intellectual and moral concerns were amazingly free from any parochial sentiments. Instead of acclimatizing the patriotic rhetoric of his time, he had emphasized on the higher ideals of humanity. In a letter he wrote to Charles F Andrews, Tagore had manifested that, “…patriotism dissociates itself from the higher ideal of humanity. It becomes the magnification of self, on a stupendous scale – magnifying our vulgarity, cruelty, greed; dethroning God, to put up this bloated self in its place.” In another letter to Andrews he acridly writes, “Formalism in religion is like nationalism in politics: it breeds sectarian arrogance, mutual misunderstanding and a spirit of persecution”. Tagore’s criticism have emerged from his conviction that patriotism leaves no space for humanity to expand since it induces people to adopt a narrow and constricted loyalty towards their country. Revealing his belief he further writes in his essay Nationalism in India, “…my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity”. In a letter to Jagadish Chandra Bose’s wife Abala Bose, Tagore was more specific. “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live,” he had decisively asserted. His disagreement with Mohandas Gandhi on issues of nationalism and patriotism, on the use of non-cooperation in the political struggle and the boycott of British educational institutions had sprouted up from the same distinctive outlook.

Inspiring Internationalist

A widely traveled man of his day, Tagore was a curious and keen observer of socio-political life in the numerous countries he had travelled from 1916. “He (Tagore) has been India’s internationalist par excellence, believing and working for international co-operation, taking India’s message to other countries and bringing their message to his own people,” lauded Jawaharlal Nehru in his book The Discovery of India. Tagore’s international experiences over a period of years opened his eyes to comprehend the significance of accentuating an intellectual union of world cultures and challenging all sorts of obstacles to cultural integration. His encounters with personalities like Romain Rolland, H. G. Wells, and Albert Einstein had enlarged his vision to take on a more holistic attitude towards understanding the dynamic spirit of his time. Expressing his thoughts of universalism, Tagore wrote in one of his letters, “I love India, but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore, I am not a patriot,” and then pointed out that, “I shall ever seek my compatriots all over the world.”

In the later years of his life, Tagore was increasingly getting anxious and agitated viewing the immense misery faced by the people from a cruel and ruthless lust of arrogant imperialist powers. He began protesting against every war and violence that occurred in place to place and tried to warn the world over and over again about the aggressive spirit of nationalism and imperialism which he considered to be “a menace to the whole world”. While touring America and Japan during the First World War, Tagore has delivered his famous lectures against Nationalism where he strongly voiced his criticism against Western nationalism for its “spirit of conflict and conquest”. The political ideas of Tagore had deeply impressed the French novelist and pacifist Romain Rolland. Rolland translated and republished parts of the lectures and introduced Tagore to the French progressive circles.

Rolland was a well-known figure in the pacifist movement during the First World War. On 26 June 1919, two days ahead of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Rolland published his persuasive manifesto The Declaration of Independence of the Mind in the French Socialist newspaper L'Humanité. Stressing for the intellectual’s right and compulsion to “think, research, write, publish, and communicate honestly,” Rolland’s manifesto had appealed to the “Workers of the Mind, comrades scattered throughout the world” to stand up and unite against all sorts of censorship, nationalism, or political loyalty. “It is for humanity that we work, but for humanity as a whole. We know nothing of peoples. We know the People, unique and universal; the People which suffers, which struggles, which falls and rises to its feet once more, and which continues to advance along the rough road drenched with its sweat and its blood,” acknowledged Rolland’s Declaration. When Tagore received a copy, he responded passionately, “I gladly hasten to accept your invitation to join the ranks of those free souls.”

Romain Rolland is also credited for making Tagore aware about the repressive and destructive aspect of Italian fascism, after he was systematically misled by an insinuating Mussolini and his team of swindlers who had craftily devised Tagore’s two visits to Italy in 1925 and 1926. Tagore had later admitted that he was struck by “a masterful personality” of Mussolini and was deceived by individuals who were “almost unanimous in assuring me that Mussolini had saved Italy from anarchy and utter ruin.” Though Tagore had never praised Mussolini’s fascist ideology at any point of time during his Italian tour, the fascist press distorted Tagore's speeches to make them sound like an ardent admirer of fascism. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935, a dejected and disturbed Tagore wrote to Andrews, “I keenly feel the absurdity of raising my voice against any act of virulence of unscrupulous imperialism when it is pitifully feeble against all cases that vitally concern us”. In 1937 he responded against the invasion with his remarkable anti-colonial poem Africa:

They came with iron handcuffs
Those whose claws are sharper than your wolves’:
Man-trappers came,
Blinder in their arrogance than your sunless forests.
The savage greed of the civilized
Laid bare its shameless inhumanity.
In your forest paths vaporous with wordless weeping,
The dust was muddlied with your blood and tears.
Ugly lumps of clay
Trampled under the robbers’ hobnailed boots
Left indelible marks in your history of insult.

(Translated by Supriya Chaudhuri)

In 1927, Rolland along with the eminent French writer Henri Barbusse issued an appeal “To the Free Minds, Against Fascism” to denounce the persecutions and terror in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. The first French antifascist meeting was held in Paris on 23 February 1927 with Rolland, Barbusse and Albert Einstein as the three honorary presidents. In the same year Barbusse sent a personal appeal to Tagore asking him to “stand up to oppose and fight the invading barbarity of Fascism.” In reply Tagore wrote, “It is needless to say that your appeal has my sympathy, and I feel certain that it represents the voices of numerous others who are dismayed at the sudden outbursts of violence from the depth of civilization.” In the same letter Tagore also explicitly denounced fascism with his eloquent words, “It is natural to expect in primitive peoples their faith in ceremonies of power-worship dripping with human blood…..But when a similar phenomenon makes its appearance among cultured peoples it proves the second infancy of senility that has lost its control over animal passion…..Its infection is noxious because while it exhales from its core an unwholesome odour of decay and death, its outer skin swells and glows with an exultant flush of rottenness.”

For a long time Tagore was craving to witness and experience Russia’s socialist pattern of society. Though he did not have any definite idea about the character of the Russian revolution, his inquisitiveness about Russia can be found from what he wrote in a 1918 issue of Modern Review, “We know very little of the history of the present revolution in Russia, and with the scanty materials in our hands we cannot be certain if she, in her tribulations, is giving expression to man’s indomitable soul against prosperity build upon moral nihilism.” His long held desire was finally achieved when he was “privileged to witness” the country in 1930. Tagore’s excitement about the visit, which he had described as a “pilgrimage”, is evident in the letters he wrote from Russia, collected in Russiar Chithi (Letters from Russia). In the letters he had expressed how he was “totally surprised to observe the Russian achievements,” and at the same time “overwhelmed to find what they have achieved during these thirteen years after their revolution.” Tagore wrote excitedly, “The Russians have been able to set up a completely different social order very unlike the other nations of the world. For a very long time, a class of people has always been exploited in the society. They are deprived of all facilities of decent living. Very often I thought of them, but I could not find out any solution. I thought there was probably no way out. No social system can be based on mercy….. But Russia has taken up the programme of doing away with inequality.” Russia’s phenomenal progress had greatly impressed Tagore. He had observed that the key reason why Russia was “able to shake off the heavy traditional burden and erect a socialist setup in such a short span of time” was by spreading education among the ignorant masses. “The education is not only quantitative, but qualitative in nature. This education is filtered among men with the idea that no one would remain idle or unemployed in future,” Tagore noted with appreciation. He was further delighted to discover, “What we wanted to do in Sriniketan is being done in Russia on a large scale.” However, Tagore’s admiration about the Soviet system was not without a word of warning. In an interview to the newspaper Izestia, Tagore did not hesitate to utter the following words: “If you have a mission which includes all humanity, acknowledge the existence of difference of opinion. Opinions are constantly changed and rechanged only through the free circulation of intellectual forces and moral persuasion. Violence begets violence and blind stupidity. Freedom of mind is needed for the reception of truth; terror hopelessly kills it. Therefore, for the sake of humanity I hope that you may never create a force of violence which will go on weaving an interminable chain of violence and cruelty.”

On 3 March 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, The Statesman published Tagore’s appeal “To the Conscience of Humanity”. In this strong worded appeal Tagore had bitterly noted the “devastating tide of International Fascism” and its “inhuman recrudescence of obscurantism, of racial prejudice, of rapine and glorification of war” in Spain. Perceiving fascism as a potent threat he thus pleaded in his appeal to “Help the people’s front in Spain, help the Government of the people, cry in million voices ‘Halt’, come in your millions to the aid of democracy, to the victory of civilization and culture,” and also urged that, “Civilization must be saved from its being swamped by barbarism.” When his old friend, the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi appealed to him to endorse Japan’s invasion of China and ask China to disarm, Tagore wrote in reply, “how can you expect me to appeal to Chiang Kai-Shek to give up resisting until the aggressors have first given up their aggression?”

A few days before his death, an octogenarian Tagore delivered his last public lecture Sabhyatar Sankat (Crisis in Civilization) on 14th April 1941, the Bengali New Year’s Day. Sabhyatar Sankat is Tagore’s critique of modern civilization at the time when the entire world was shuddering under the Second World War catastrophe. Here, Tagore again spoke about his admiration for Russia, about the “unsparing energy with which Russia has tried to fight diseases and illiteracy,” about the successes the country has achieved in “steadily liquidating ignorance and poverty,” and also about how Russia is trying to build a society which is “free from all invidious distinction between one class and another, between one sect and another.” Observing the darkening despair of war and destruction that has gather over the world, in this extremely moving and momentous speech he spoke about his deep belief in the arrival of a new dawn: “I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization could issue out of the heart of Europe. But today, when I am about to leave the world, that faith has deserted me. I look around and see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet, I shall not commit the previous sin of losing faith in man.”

Tagore’s legacy

Rabindranath Tagore had an unremittingly tragic personal life. His mother Sarada Devi died when he was quite young. When he was twenty-two, his elder brother Jyotirindranath’s wife Kadambari committed suicide, with whom young Rabi possibly had a romantic communion. Between 1902 and 1907, he lost his wife Mrinalini, his father Debendranath, his daughter Renuka and his youngest son, Shamindranath. Then in 1918 his elder daughter Madhurilata breathed her last. “I am entirely convinced that any other ordinary person could never lead a normal and healthy life if subjected to such unrelenting heartbreaks and tragedies,” remarked the author and Tagore disciple Syed Mujtaba Ali recalling Tagore’s tragic destiny. Yet the sequence of personal losses and its excruciating experiences, surprisingly, did not shatter Tagore personally who went on to lead an eventful, dynamic and creative life. The sheer tragedies could neither deter him from his artistic credo nor has prevented him from being an active messenger of peace and harmony.

Ashis Nandy, in his essay Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self has rightly described Tagore as a political dissenter, who was “articulating … unspoken concerns of Indian consciousness at that time.” Through his tirade against the conventional political, social, cultural and religious superstitions, Tagore had peeved many of his detractors. His intrepid attitude has persuaded them to criticize and condemn him for being an apostate and perceive his alternative ideas as nothing but a moral utopia. In his autobiography Nirad C. Chaudhuri had remarked that Tagore was, “virtually rejected by a majority of fellow-Bengalis in his life time, because what he wrote was far above their head, and not fully understood even by the small number of admirers who made an idol of him.” Tagore’s legacy today, according to Chaudhuri is “nothing more than the holy mascot of Bengali provincial vanity.” He thus assumes that Tagore is likely to remain, “only a hagiographical legend in Bengal.” In a similar tone, celebrity historian Ramachandra Guha has blamed the intellectuals of Bengal in particular for “turning a thinker of universal reach and significance into a local hero,” and also finds that Tagore has been “reduced to a figure of merely parochial significance”. (Source) Both the remarks perfectly illustrate a bitter reality.

How much does the Bengalis who pride on their imaginary cultural superiority really know of Tagore? Instead of making a real effort to honor the poet by sincerely exploring the essence of his life and works, the Bengalis has found it easier to convert him into a cult figure. The conservative, reactionary and narrow-minded commissars of Vishva-Bharati, the university founded by Tagore in 1921, also played a prominent part in this regard by deliberately preventing Tagore scholarship to flourish universally. The educated Bengali conscience is satisfied by celebrating the annual Tagore birth anniversary just as a ritualistic practice. Not many of them have actually read his works, and fewer have understood them. Though knowing too little does not prevent the immodest Bengalis from talking too much of empty and artificial rubbish about the great man. Perhaps Tagore is fashionable to them because in some way he signifies classiness and cultural awareness.

Why is then the rest of India so ignorant and apathetic towards Tagore today? Are the Bengali intellectuals and the so called custodians of the Tagore flame so powerful that they can “shut Tagore off from the wider world” as Ramachandra Guha has remarked? It is not necessarily so. The initiative of some Gujarati, Kashmiri or Marathi intellectuals cannot be an indispensable requisite to spread the greatness and relevance of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. India’s ignorance about Tagore, therefore, cannot be justified by putting the entire blame on the Bengali intellectuals alone. Do the non-Bengali historians, literary critics and custodians of Indian heritage and culture truly care to claim the legacy of Tagore? Vishva-Bharati’s iron rule days have long been over after it failed to extend the copyright of Tagore’s works. What is preventing the non-Bengali intellectuals now from extending Tagore scholarship among the people of India? Is it sheer lack of concern, mediocrity, an ideological division within the elite intellectuals or the fallout of their intellectual and moral bankruptcy owing to a distorted interpretation of multiculturalism? That’s really not a tough call to make.

Rabindranath Tagore’s alternative vision has become more appropriate and relevant than ever in today’s violent world of intolerance, vengeance and fanaticism.

References:

1. Rabindranath Tagore - Selected Poems: Edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri
2. Selected letters of Rabindranath Tagore: Edited by Krishna Dutta, Andrew Robinson
3. The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 3 - A miscellany: Edited by Sisir Kumar Das
4. Glimpses of Bengal: Rabindranath Tagore
5. Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore
6. Letters from Russia: Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Sasadhar Sinha
7. Crisis in Civilisation: Rabindranath Tagore
8. The Argumentative Indian: Amartya Sen
9. Social thought of Rabindranath Tagore - A Historical Analysis: Tapati Dasgupta
10. Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement: David James Fisher
11. The Forerunners: Romain Rolland
12. Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Part II: Nirad C. Chaudhuri
13. Rabindranath, Koekti Rajnoitic Prosongo: Nepal Majumdar
14. Rabindranath Tagore and His Contemporary Relevance: Uma Das Gupta, Anandarup Ray

Image Courtesy: thehindu.com

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