New Delhi: Rabindranath Tagore needs no introduction. A simple Google search of his name yields roughly 1,22,00,000 results — explained by his timeless and ubiquitous contributions to Indian philosophy, culture, literature and music.
Even though Tagore died 78 years ago on 7 August 1941, scholars are still unearthing his works that have not been translated yet. And those already translated is often revisited and reinvented.
His name appears, almost mandatorily, in the syllabi of Indian history and literature. Films, TV shows and plays inspired by his works continue to be produced over and over again.
What explains the eternal fascination with a figure so revered, whose life and work we are reminded of daily when singing the national anthem?
Editor of the 2014 book The Essential Tagore Radha Chakravarty has an explanation: “Tagore was a man far ahead of his time. His writing is always relevant, there’s always something new to find. Every time we enter a new age, we need to revise the questions he had raised in his writings because of the valuable guidance and insights they offer.”
A culture of dissent
The last of 13 children born into a rich zamindar (land owner) family in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 7 May 1861, Tagore was no stranger to ideas of literature and philosophy. His father, the reclusive Brahmo Debendranath Tagore, was a religious reformist and a secular thinker. His brothers and sisters were all extremely accomplished, many were already pursuing their careers as poets, philosophers, and novelists as Tagore grew up.
He thus spent most of his childhood alone in the confines of the family mansion. Restless for the outside world, Tagore began writing at the age of eight.
Even though Tagore was distant from his father in his childhood, he was raised in an environment that valued dissent and freedom of thought. He even rallied against formal education while being taught by his older brother Hemendranath.
Many years later, in 1917, he wrote about the failure of formal education: “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed.”
Santiniketan, the educational complex Tagore founded, promised to go against this doctrine and invented its own syllabus — one that kept students abreast of political, social and environmental changes in the country.
The “abode of peace”, as it was called, was also where Tagore did most of his writings after it was established in 1901.
A formidable administrator
Ideas of sympathy, empathy and freedom teemed in Tagore’s writings and shaped his life. When it was his turn to manage the land estates in 1890 — his father had left for his sons and staff to manage — it was the first time he saw abject poverty triggered by feudalism.
He decided to change it as best he could. At his first rent-collection ceremony, he abandoned the caste-based seating arrangements that forced Muslims and Dalits to sit on the floor. He reformed farming techniques to make them more integrated and focused on the upliftment of the “ryots”— the rent-paying peasants.
In 1907, he pleaded with his fellow zamindars: “…if you do not empower the unfortunate ryots and allow them to be independent and able to save themselves from your own clutches and those of others, no laws, however good, and no government, however friendly, will be able to save them. The tongues of the greedy start watering the moment they see these people. If the majority of the people are forever exposed to the machinations of landlords, moneylenders, policemen and court officials, how do you expect them to take charge of their own destinies?”
Swadeshi and freedom for India
Tagore’s later years, in the 20th century, saw immense tumult. India was fighting the British Raj, and Tagore’s “mission” for freedom and justice, as he often called it, extended far beyond his roles as a writer and administrator.
“He considered himself to have been born at a time of confluence, and in the midst of three major movements: Nationalist reform, social reform and religious reform,” said Chakravarty.
Tagore was strictly anti-imperialist and supported the Congress in its attempt to end British colonisation of India. In 1905, when then viceroy Lord Curzon decided to divide Bengal along religious lines, Tagore took an active interest in the Swadeshi and Boycott movements, which he had hoped would be motivated by education and unity for the people of Bengal.
His songs of patriotism such as Banglar Maati Banglar Jol (Earth of Bengal, Water of Bengal) bolstered the movements and also epitomised Hindu-Muslim unity. And his essay, Partition of Bengal, served as a reminder of what the movements could do.
The tradition of tying rakhis found its origin in the Swadeshi movement — Tagore used it as another tool to unite Hindus and Muslims in the face of the impending partition. But as the movement grew in strength and violence spread, Tagore became more and more disillusioned.
“For Tagore, the view of nationalism and patriotism that the movement was taking on was too narrow. He disengaged with the movement but remained expressive on the issue of independence through his art and writings,” Chakravarty said. “Fundamental to his belief was that nationalism could not rise above humanity.”
It was at this juncture that Tagore and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (whom Tagore had given the sobriquet of Mahatma) disagreed. In 1925, Tagore wrote the essay, Cult of the Chakra, which severely criticised the Swadeshi movement and Gandhi’s idea of ‘chakra spinning’ as a means to achieve independence.
He saw the exercise as a futile revolt against the British, with no real spiritual or intellectual base.
Tagore’s brand of nationalism — one that could at once compel the Swadeshi movement but also transgressed the boundaries of the nation — inspired one of his most famous poems to date: Let My Country Awake, where he is hopeful for a “heaven of freedom”, where “the mind is without fear and the head is held high…”
It was included in Gitanjali or Song Offerings — a collection of poems published in 1910, which won him the Nobel prize, India’s first, in 1913. He was also the first South Asian to win the award, but his poetry had already travelled far and wide.
Over the course of his life, Tagore travelled to over 30 countries, meeting many famous personalities like Albert Einstein and W.B. Yeats, who wrote the introduction to Gitanjali.
It was through Yeats and poet Ezra Pound that Tagore’s name was popularised in the West. Yeats said Tagore was “a whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us,” and yet “we have met our own image…or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature, our voice as in a dream.”
Among Tagore’s most well-known works is also the national anthem of Bangladesh — Amar Shonar Bangla — making him the only musician to have written national anthems for two countries.
While some of his novels, the notable Ghare Baire (The Home and The World) and Chokher Bali are well-known, there still exists a whole galaxy of Tagore’s works, including dramas and short stories, that haven’t been adequately explored.
“We all know Tagore was a poet. But he was also a humorist who wrote satire. He has written letters to family, friends, and acquaintances that still remain untouched. He’s a writer of fiction too. It’s only if we look closer at all of his works that we can have a fuller sense of him as a figure of world stature,” Chakravarty said.