Rabindranath Tagore: A visionary poet’s quest for relevance

A birthday tribute to the humanist thinker


May 9, 2017

/ By / Kolkata

Understanding Rabindranath Tagore as a prophet, who perceived the architecture of world order almost a century ago, is an international focus and every year the world engages in an exchange of Tagore philosophies that remain a source of inspiration for life, beyond all age brackets.

He was a poet, songwriter, novelist, painter, philosopher, friend, teacher and a contemporary humanist who was much ahead of time to distinguish between the generosity of science and the wistfulness of human behaviour. Tagore’s relevance delves in a classic universalism and a democratic framework blending education, culture, rural reform and a progressive harmony between the individual and the society. His body of work is monumental even if we limit our scope only to his cultural and literary contributions and, thus, trying to decode the relevance of Tagore probably in the light of his letters and small poems (haiku), we thought could make it a different read.

Tagore in the West

Pandit Ravi Shankar, the celebrated classical music maestro, in his book, Raga Mala, has argued, “Had Tagore been born in the West, he would now be (as) revered as Shakespeare and Goethe. When he grew up, India was going through a change like most of the countries in Europe.”

Tagore became a sensation in Europe in the early twentieth century. A selection of his poems, compiled and named Gitanjali, bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913; the first Asian to become a laureate. His works were published in March 1913 and were reprinted ten times to accommodate the demand by the time the award was conferred on him in November.

However, his thoughts reflected in the numerous essays, letters, and poems that date back to that era have often criticised the Western countries, especially the British regime for their high-handed governance and atrocities against the Indians.

Tagore the revolutionary

Returning the Knighthood was another instance of Tagore’s strong stance against the British Raj in India. In a letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, dated May 31, 1919, Tagore writes, “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.” Asking to be relieved of the title of Knight, Tagore puts his thoughts straight, “These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.”

Tagore on nationalism

Rabindranath Tagore was again very articulate about his disenchantment with India’s independence, although he was an active intellectual behind the freedom struggle of the country. He was quick to understand and anticipate the despair that was looming large on the fate of every Indian. His vision refused to adhere to the intrinsic outlook of nationality. He writes in one his essays called ‘The Nation’, “The nations do not create, they merely produce and destroy. Organisations for production are necessary. Even organisations for destruction may be so. But, when actuated by greed and hatred, they crowd away into a corner the living man who creates, then the harmony is lost, and the people’s history runs at a break-neck speed towards some fatal catastrophe.”

He spoke vividly about the deluge that was engulfing the country in a socio-political milieu that was airing the fire of radical nationalism and communal tensions. Tagore, in one of his letters to Mahatma Gandhi, dated April 12, 1919, writes, “Dear Mahatmaji, power in all its forms is irrational; it is like the horse that drags the carriage blindfolded. The moral element in it is only represented by the man who drives the horse.”

Tagore and his relevance today

It is his 156th birth anniversary and the country would awake to his tunes or his verses like it has done over the last seven decades. He had a vision that was devoid of boundaries yet cosy and free to allow cultural exchanges. What he desired for India and the world could be summarised through the following lines, where he writes:

Where the mind is without fear and

the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been

broken up into fragments by

narrow domestic walls

In the last two lines, Tagore quite evidently condemns discrimination on the basis of nationality. His perception of the West and his mind devoid of a colonial sycophancy speaks volumes about his foresightedness.

His song, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ was jointly suggested by Nehru and Gandhi as the national anthem of India; but, the country defeats the soul of the song in mere bureaucracy. While Tagore would probably have envisaged a country where a crippled human being would be enchanted to stand and sing the national anthem penned by him, his song now divides a nation at theatres and congregations under the compulsive decree of the lawmakers in the country.

His vision of globalisation is rather restricted to those souls scattered scantily in various quarters of the country, who have at least tried to decipher his philosophies in their lives.

Our video is a tribute and a humble attempt to understand his relevance today from the perspective of children, their parents, a youngster and an elderly statesman. Let us rediscover Tagore together.



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