Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is an icon in the millennium old literature of Bengal. He was an educator, social reformer and philosopher, best known as a poet and a painter. Gitanjali is the best known selection of his poetry for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, and its English translation was published in London. Recently, I got in touch with Dr Michael Collins (currently a professor at University College London or UCL) and got the inspiration to write an article about Tagore. Collins has done extensive research on the life and achievements of Tagore in his book Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s Writings on History, Politics and Society.
Tagore was a symbol of the collective Bengali cultural memory and identity. He was predictably hostile to racial and communal sectarianism and deeply involved in protest against the Raj on a number of occasions. Most notable of these was the movement to defy the British proposal to split Bengal into two provinces in 1905, a plan that was eventually withdrawn following popular resistance. He stood against exploitation and injustice in order to rise above geopolitical, economic and ideological divides. He was candid in denouncing the brutality of British rule in India, never more so than after the Amritsar Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919, when he renounced and returned his British Knighthood.
Tagore was concerned that not only should there be wider opportunities for education across the country, especially in rural areas where schools were few, but also that the schools themselves be more lively and enjoyable. He himself had dropped out of school early, largely out of boredom, and had never bothered to earn a diploma. He wrote extensively on how schools should be made more attractive to boys and girls and thus be more productive. He therefore founded a progressive co-educational school at Bolpur, Bengal, which came to be known as Santiniketan or abode of peace. The emphasis here was on self-motivation rather than discipline, and on fostering intellectual curiosity instead of competitive excellence. In many respects, Tagore’s ideas on the education of children resemble those of Rousseau, Frobel, Dewey, Montessori and others.
Tagore’s collected Bengali language writings, the 1939 Rabîndra Racanâvalî, is also known as one of Bengal’s greatest cultural treasures, while Tagore himself has been proclaimed the greatest poet India has produced. He was famed throughout Europe, North America and East Asia. He was instrumental in founding Dartington Hall School, a progressive coeducational institution. In Japan, he influenced Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. Leading figures of Spanish literature were also inspired by him. Tagore’s works were published in free editions around 1920 alongside the works of Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes, Plato and Leo Tolstoy.
Tagore’s post-death impact can even today be felt through the many festivals held worldwide in his memory, examples of which include the annual Bengali festival/celebration of Kabipranam (Tagore’s birthday anniversary), the annual Tagore Festival held in Urbana, Illinois in the US, the Rabindra Path Parikrama walking pilgrimages leading from Calcutta to Shantiniketan and the ceremonial recitals of Tagore’s poetry held on important anniversaries. This legacy is most palpable in Bengali culture, ranging from language and arts to history and politics; indeed, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen noted that, even for modern Bengalis, Tagore is a “towering figure”, being a “deeply relevant and a many-sided contemporary thinker”.
The implicit contention between Iqbal and Tagore, however, is little known to people at large and probably needs a separate article. Iqbal, being of Kashmiri-Punjabi descent, wrote mostly in Urdu and Persian, while Tagore was a Bengali and wrote in his native language. Iqbal’s fame mostly remained confined to northern India. Tagore, however, had become an international celebrity in his lifetime. Ikram Chugtai explained the issue: “Tagore’s award had been hovering on Iqbal’s mind throughout his life and he, directly or indirectly, could not free himself from this ‘award complex’. For this and other reasons, Iqbal is revered in Pakistan and Tagore has mostly remained a de facto taboo and controversial figure in Pakistan ever since its creation.
In South Asia, Tagore is also remembered for his profound influence on the movement for freedom from British rule, with his strong support for Mahatma Gandhi bringing in a spiritual and intellectual aspect to the struggle for freedom. A strong opponent of rote learning, he celebrated the imaginative freedom of the child’s mind. His creative works, which still influence billions of people globally, are a matter of pride for the people of India and Bangladesh. It should also be a source of pride for the people of Pakistan but the successive military regimes in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) showed little interest in upholding his legacy for the fear of arousing Bengali passions in East Pakistan. Tagore’s songs and poems inspired Bengalis in their fight against Pakistan in their 1971 war of liberation. Ayub Khan’s regime banned Tagore’s songs; censorship remained a favourite strategy of our past and present governments.
Tagore has left behind a staggering body of work. He wrote almost 100 short stories, over 40 plays and more than 2,000 songs. His collected works and letters run into more than 30 volumes. About 3,000 paintings are attributed to him. Rabindra sangeet, the form of music and songs invented by Tagore, is an eclectic mix of classical, folk and foreign influences, set to exquisite lyrics that have come to be regarded as a cornerstone of Bengali culture and consciousness. It is a pity that young people today know so little about Tagore despite so much that is available for their taking, for he has so much to offer them.
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