On May 6 as the world celebrated the annual celestial event of the supermoon, in at least three countries the curtains were being drawn on the year-long commemoration of a rarer event — the birth of a star.
India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have just concluded celebrating the birth, 150 years ago, of Rabindranath Tagore. Poet, song writer, singer, dramatist, actor, painter, social reformer, educationist, mystic philosopher and freedom fighter, Tagore was a colossus whose full life of eighty years saw a remarkable sensitivity to life and nature, a phenomenal productivity of over 2,500 songs, a new kind of music named after him, thousands of untitled paintings in his distinctive style, the establishment of a university and an indelible stamp on the anti-colonial movement.
Nirad C Choudary once paid tribute to him saying ‘If I were asked who was the greatest poet India has produced, including the greatest of ancient India, Kalidasa, my firm answer would be: Tagore’.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913 for Gitanjali, his song offerings to God, Tagore was already famous in India. After 1913 he was enthusiastically hailed as the first non-European to become a Nobel laureate and became a well known figure in Asia and Europe. But such was the cult following that soon developed around him that Thomas Hardy wrote impatiently about ‘this wretched worship of Tagore’. Yeats who nominated Tagore for the Nobel Prize wrote in 1935, complaining about the ‘sentimental rubbish’ of Tagore’s later books. Of course, one need not take too seriously Kafka’s refusal to meet him, and of Thomas Mann’s rudeness in disparagingly referring to him as ‘a fine old English lady’.
Today, 70 years after his death, it is possible to make a more objective assessment of Tagore’s contributions to civilisation. He conceived of a universal humanity while the world was still suffering under the yoke of colonialism and racism. He revelled in the joy of creation, both artistic and artisanal, and chided those who prayed in front of idols for not realising that their God was in their work. He restored to play and playfulness their rightful place in human life and he proclaimed the importance of the artist and of aesthetics. He recreated rites and rituals to make them more meaningful to the modern age. He held a religious view of life, which was also an integral view that saw death as a part of it — he invited it, pleading with it not to be stealthy.
Tagore was a sage and a balladeer of freedom — and just as he enriched the Bengali language so he did with the movement for India’s political independence. He admired Gandhi and conferred on him the title of Mahatma, the Great Soul, but disagreed with him frequently.
When Gandhi proposed that all Indians should spin the wheel for 30 minutes a day to transform India’s economy, Tagore who described Gandhi’s movement as ‘The Cult of the Charkha’ gently queried why not 8 hours? When Gandhi asked for foreign cloth to be burnt, Tagore objected that cloth was needed by the naked millions.
When Gandhi proposed satyagraha which includes fasting as a means of personal purification and political action, Tagore warned “For lesser men than yourself it opens up an easy and futile path of duty by urging them to take a plunge into a dark abyss of self-mortification. You cannot blame them if they follow you in this special method of purification of their country, for all messages must be universal in their application, and if not, they should never be expressed at all”.
When Gandhi attributed the Bihar earthquake of 1934 to divine retribution for India’s sin in upholding untouchability, Tagore, like Voltaire, admonished him that unreason was ‘a fundamental source of all the blind powers that drive us against freedom and self-respect’ and asserting that ‘physical catastrophes have their inevitable and exclusive origin in certain combination of physical facts.” He worked with Gandhi but provided an alternative and modern vision for India.
Tagore wrote Jana Gana Mana, India’s national anthem which was first adopted by Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army based in Singapore. In 1972 the newly formed Bangladesh adopted his Amar Shonar Bangla as its national anthem. In 1938, at the request of his student Ananda Samarakun, Tagore wrote in Bengali Nama Nama Sri Lanka Mata — it was almost on the lines of Bankim’s Vande Mataram: Mother Lanka we worship Thee! Plenteous in prosperity, Thou, Beauteous in grace and love, Laden with corn and luscious fruit…
Sadly, a superstitious Sri Lanka changed the first line of the anthem attributing the country’s problems to the first lines. Which of Tagore’s anthems is universal? Not these three as they simply praise land and its beauty. In fact, in a different context, Tagore condemned the idolatry of geography. What will be immortal of Tagore’s poems is the one that offers a modern and inspiring manifesto to the world. It does invoke God, but the measure of a man is not his faith in God but his belief in man, of which Tagore had plenty.
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
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
This is the real anthem of the great teacher, and should be the Morning Song for the World.