Monday, April 18, 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 1

Bust of Rabindranath Tagore by Jacob Epstein

The anniversary falls on May 7, 2011. In preparation there are many functions being organised all over the world. The celebrations were set in motion a year ago at the start of the 150th year with India and Bangladesh deciding to celebrate the occasion jointly. Rabindranath is, after all, the author of the national anthems of both countries, and the people of Bangladesh consider him as much their poet as the Bengalis on this side of the border.

Rabindranath's ceaseless experimentation is manifest in diverse forms. In his own estimation it was the songs he composed, Rabindrasangeet, by which he will be remembered:

I know for certain that the Bengali race must needs accept my songs, they must all sing my songs in every Bengali home, in the fields and by the rivers.
Fortunately, the work of a dedicated lover of Rabindrasangeet, Dr Purnendu Sarkar, has made all 2213 songs of the Gitabitan available on a single DVD, sung by various artists. See

Rabindranath's collected works are spread over 29 volumes. A collaborative endeavour was begun in 2009 to make all his works available on the Internet, since the copyright has expired on most of it. See

Rabindranath changed the literary language, as well as ordinary discourse in Bengali by his writing. He wrote, spoke and debated regarding every sphere of the nation's life. Travelling extensively to many parts of the world, he met fellow artists and persuaded them to come and spend time establishing his vision of universal education at Santiniketan.

Aspects of Rabindranath will be touched upon in this and succeeding blogs as a tribute and remembrance. Only once or twice in the entire history of a language and its literature could there be place for someone of his stature. As Jawaharlal Nehru noted, when it came to discharging his duty to write a preface to the centenary volume on Rabindranath:
reluctance seizes me and perhaps a sense of humility, even though I do not normally suffer from this feeling.
One can do no better in the 150th year than re-read Nehru's words from that volume to get under way with the celebration. Watch this blog for more on Rabindranath. Please click below. 


Rabindranath Tagore in his thirties, painting by Abanindranath Tagore

I have seldom been so hesitant about writing on any subject as I have felt about the writing of this Introduction to a book about Rabindranath Tagore. It is only the insistent demands of some of my colleagues in the Sahitya Akademi, who have told me that, as President of the Sahitya Akademi, it is my duty to undertake this task, that has almost compelled me to do so.

Why have I been so reluctant? I find it difficult to write about those who have been near and dear to me as I cannot easily share my emotional approach to them with others. I also find it rather difficult to write about persons who, in their greatness and magnificence, have over-shadowed my life as indeed they over-shadowed the life of the nation. Such were Gandhi and Tagore. With Gandhi it was not only his greatness but also his intimacy that comes in my way; with Rabindranath Tagore my physical contacts were limited and cannot be considered to have been intimate. And yet, the same reluctance seizes me and perhaps a sense of humility, even though I do not normally suffer from this feeling.

Who am I to write about or pass judgement on a person who was so deep in his humanity and so many-sided in his greatness? Many eminent persons have contributed to this Volume. Can I write anything that might be considered significant and that might add to our understanding of Tagore?

Gandhi came on the public scene in India like a thunderbolt shaking us all, and like a dash of lightning which illumined our minds and warmed our hearts; Tagore’s influence was not so sudden or so earth-shaking for Indian humanity. And yet, like the coming of the dawn in the mountains, it crept on us and permeated us. I belong to a generation which grew up under his influence. Perhaps we did not fully realise it at the time because of the powerful impact of. Gandhi’s thunderbolt. I speak more for the non-Bengali-speaking people in India, and more especially students and the younger intellectuals who did not have the advantage of reading Tagore in the original Bengali. In Bengal his influence was no doubt deeper and more pervasive because his songs reached the masses of the people.

Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi

I have always been fascinated by these two towering personalities, Gandhi and Tagore, both by their contrasts and what they had in common. Externally and in the course of their lives, there was a great deal of difference, and yet both were close to each other and had the greatest affection and admiration for one another. Both were rebels in their own way and fearless in denouncing what they considered evil. Both were attached to truth as they saw it, to the dynamic character of the living truth, and it is this that gave them their enormous strength. Both, fully conscious of the modern world and reacting to it in somewhat different ways, were heirs to the spiritual tradition of India. And thus both of them gave a spiritual basis to our demand for freedom. They laid stress on the life of the spirit and believed in the religion of Man. Both, in varying degrees, were against the bondage of tradition and denounced superstition and ritual, even though they attached the greatest importance to our inheritance from the past and sought to build upon it in the present. Tagore referred to ‘the unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past, who have lost the present age', and spoke about them as one of the 'disinherited peoples of the world.' Gandhi, laying stress on India‘s past treasures of the mind and spirit, told us not to close our doors and windows to the winds that blew in from the four quarters of the world; but he warned us not to he uprooted or blown away by these winds.

And yet how different the two were! Tagore was the poet and the singer; Gandhi was the man of action, the true revolutionary, single-minded in his aim and going as the arrow from the bow. To Tagore poetry and music were the essence of life which gave it rhythm, and his philosophy was one of living in harmony with nature. Gandhi did not talk or perhaps read much of poetry or art, and yet his life itself was a poem in action, and he wanted to put himself in harmony not only with nature, but with the lowest in nature. And so Gandhi crept into the hearts of those who were disinherited and whose life was one long tale of unhappiness.

Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940

I remember my first visit to Santiniketan. I think it was in 1921, when I went there with Gandhi. Greatly attracted as I was to Tagore, I still felt a little irritated that he should criticize some of the aspects of the new movement that Gandhi had started. It seemed to me then that Gandhi having thrown the challenge to British Imperialism, it was every Indian‘s duty to join the army of liberation. Basically, I still think so in the context of things as they were in that year l92l. But the more I have read what Tagore wrote then, the more I have appreciated it and felt in tune with it. Tagore's article ‘The Call of Truth' and Gandhi's reply in his weekly Young India which he called ‘The Great Sentinel' were wonderful reading then and, I should say, even now. They represent two aspects of the truth, neither of which could he ignored.

With all his criticism of Gandhi‘s movement, he gave a wonderful tribute to Gandhiji in that same article. He wrote:
Then at the critical moment, Mahatma Gandhi came and stood at the door of India’s destitute millions, clad as one of themselves, speaking to them in their own language. It was a real happening, not a tale on the printed page. That is why he has been so aptly named Mahatma, Great Soul. Who else has so unreservedly accepted the vast masses of the Indian people as his own flesh and blood? At the touch of truth the pent-up forces of the spirit are set free. As soon as love stood at India’s door, it flew open, All inward niggardliness was gone. Truth awakened truth.

This indeed, is the birth of freedom, nothing less.... It has little to do with the alien occupation of India. This love is pure affirmation.

In later years, my attraction to Tagore grew. I felt a great deal of kinship with his thought and with his general outlook on life. I visited him at Santiniketan on several occasions, during the intervals of my life outside prison. I sent my daughter, Indira, to Santiniketan hoping that she would imbibe something of the atmosphere of the place and, more particularly, profit by the presence of and contact with Gurudev.

Indira, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru

I remember particularly when he sent for me in the late thirties and expressed his great concern at the political trends, more especially in Bengal. That was probably my last visit to him, as soon after I was imprisoned again. It was in the Dehra Dun Jail that the news of Tagore's death came to me. In the solitude of prison life, I felt particularly desolate at the passing away of a man who had come to mean as much to me as to vast numbers of others. From an intellectual appreciation of his ideas and his outlook on life, an emotional bond had grown up between us.

It was war time when Rabindranath died, the Second World War was in full swing. Just before he died his last great essay came out—‘Crisis in Civilisation’, in which he laid bare the agony of his heart and we saw how deeply wounded he had been by the course of events and by the treatment accorded to India.

In the course of a conversation with Romain Rolland, Tagore said: ‘It is curious to note how India has furnished probably the first internationally minded man of the nineteenth century. I mean Raja Ram Mohan Roy; he had a passion for truth . . . He realised that a bond of spiritual unity links the whole of mankind and that it is the purpose of religion to reach down to that fundamental unity of human relationship, of human efforts and achievements.’

What he said about Ram Mohan Roy applies to Tagore himself. For all his Indian-ness, he was essentially a person of international mould and thinking. Nationalism is sometimes apt to become a narrowing creed. Tagore helped, to some extent, to break those barriers and yet he believed firmly in a people growing from their own soil and according to their own genius. He drew inspiration from outside sources. He loved the English language and took the trouble to learn German so that he could read Goethe and other great German writers in the original. But he was irritated when our young men, fresh from their visits and studies abroad spoke of Indian culture. In an article on education, in which he criticized the educational methods then prevailing in India, he wrote:
I have heard the West repeatedly ask, 'Where is the voice of India?' But when the inquirers from the West come to India and listen at her door, they simply hear a feeble echo of their own Western voice and it sounds like a parody! I too have noticed that modern Indians fresh from their study of Max Müller have always sounded like European brass bands, irrespective of whether they are bragging about their own ancient civilisation or condemning and repudiating the West.

For his aim in education, as for much else, he went back to the Upanishads. He suggested a motto for our Indian educational institutions:
He who sees all things in his own self in all things, he does not remain unrevealed.

He gave to all traditional ideas a new meaning and a new interpretation:
How to be free from arrogant nationalism is today the chief lesson to be learnt. Tomorrow’s history will begin with a chapter on internationalism, and we shall he unfit for tomorrow if we retain any manners, customs, or habits of thought that are contrary to universalism. There is, I know, such a thing as national pride, but I earnestly wish that it never makes me forget that the best efforts of our our Indian sages were directed to the abolition of disunity... 'He who has realised the unity of man by identifying himself with the universe is free from ignorance and sorrow.'

Both Tagore and Gandhi were against the earlier politics in India of praying and petitioning:
I try to make my countrymen see that man does not have to beg for his rights, he must create them for himself. Man lives by his inner nature and there he is his own master. To depend on gains from outside is to hurt one's true self. The denial of our political rights was indeed less grievous than the shameful burden of our prayers and petitions.

I underlined the fact that we must win over our country, not from some foreigner, but from our own inertia, our indifference.

At this dawn of the world’s awakening, if our own national endeavour holds no intimations of a universal message,the poverty of our our spirit will be laid piteously bare.

He wanted our students to learn foreign languages, but he was deeply convinced that education must be given in the mother tongue. ‘For the proper irrigation of learning, a foreign language cannot be the right medium.’ Music and art were to him essential ingredients of education and indeed of life.

During my last visit to him I requested him to compose a National Anthem for the new India. He partly agreed. At that time I did not have 'Jana-Gana-Mana', our present National Anthem, in mind. He died soon after. It was a great happiness to me when some years later after the coming of Independence, we adopted 'Jana-Gana-Mana' as our National Anthem. I have a feeling of satisfaction that I was partly responsible for this choice, not only because it is a great national song, but also because it is a constant reminder to all our people of Rabindranath Tagore.

Sheet music for Jana-Gana-Mana

He was in line with the rishis ,the great sages of India, drawing from the wisdom of the ancient past and giving it a practical garb and a meaning in the present. Thus he gave India’s own message in a new language in keeping with the Yugadharma, the spirit of the times.

This great and highly sensitive man was not only a poet of India, but also a poet of humanity and of freedom everywhere, and his message is for all of us. More particularly that message is for his own people. Even as he tried to create an atmosphere in his school at Santiniketan, so he tried to produce that atmosphere in the whole of India. I earnestly trust that that living message will always be with us guiding us in our life and our endeavours. 
                                                                                                        Jawaharlal Nehru 

Manali, Kulu Valley,                                                       
June 17, 1961.

from the Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume 1861-1961. Published by the Sahitya Akademi.


Shipra said...

Enjoyed the first piece. I can see you are reading a lot of Tagore, and a lot about him, as well.
wonderful! Keep writing.

deepika shergill said...

Thank you for the read. Enjoyed it. Been recently drawn to Tagore the Artist.
Gurudev started painting at 67 - his works on display at the National Gallery of Indian Art, New Delhi, are a must-see. Evocative. You might want to read this -
His opening of 'Kala Bhawan', where he invited famous artist Nandlal Bose to run with a free hand, is considered a decisive landmark to how Indian Art evolved.

deepika shergill said...

a correction please -
that was National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Management - Learning from Experiences by Reflection said...


You can read that the sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan is "curating a significant show of [Ramkinkar] Baij to be held later this year at NGMA."

As part of the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, Radhakrishnan has made a sculpture, ‘Maiya as arrow' which is installed outside the Uttarayan complex where Tagore lived in Santiniketan.
– joe

dee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
deepika shergill said...

thank you, dr cleetus .. shall check it out .. !