For humanity and harmony
Remembering Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and it’s continuing universality and relevance in these divided times
In his presentation speech on December 10, 1913, Harold Hjarne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, commenting on Tagore's 'Gitanjali', affirmed that rarely in "the realm of imaginative literature are attained so great a range and diversity of note and colour, capable of expressing with equal harmony and grace the emotions and every mood from the longing of the soul after an eternity to the joyous merriment prompted by the innocent child at play." Following the announcement, Tagore in his acceptance message expressed- "I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother". An invigilating reading of both the presentation speech and its acceptance message unveils the common feature of pluralism and assimilation in both the content. Owing to the outbreak of the First World War (1914-18), Tagore had the opportunity to deliver his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, on May 26, 1921, eight years after winning the coveted prize. It was no mean task, particularly when judged in the context of the long duration between winning and formally accepting the award. The poet had grown older by eight years; different events, and emotions, arising out of them had been shaping his thoughts. There was every possible reason to have the effusion of the occasion fade out. But fortunately, nothing of this sort happened. The poet was found to be in a gleeful state of mind. Hence, his opening words of the acceptance speech echo a sense of pristine gratification: "I am glad that I have been able to come at last to your country". He further acknowledges his gratitude for his work being honoured with the Nobel Prize.
Tagore's Nobel Prize acceptance speech can be broadly divided into subjective and objective segments. The initial stage of the speech rings the poet's personal feelings arising out of emotions recollected in tranquillity. Gradually, as Tagore proceeds deeper, the philosopher in him emerges and we are transported into a world that is a fusion of 'Orientalism' and 'Occidentalism'. It is noteworthy as to how the poet is almost pictorial in remembering the afternoon when the news reached. The jocund of the inmates of the Ashram was a greater cause of pleasure in the poet's mind. As the speech rolls forward it appears like something that is 'growing up'.Memories converge and gather in the poet's mind, ranging from his experiences in the bustle of the city of Calcutta to the music of nature in the stretches of the countryside. The personal memoirs actually give insight into the very source and inspiration of Tagore's poetry; the way the poet could hear the call of humanity in the sounds of nature – "I could hear distinctly the voices of the children coming up in the air and it seemed to me that these shouts and songs and glad voices were like those trees, which come out from the heart of the earth".
Rabindranath Tagore's poetry was philosophically inspired by the Upanishads of Indian Philosophy. Guided by this influence, Tagore's poetry relied on spirituality, universality and craving for infinity. The very work, 'Gitanjali', for which Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize encapsulates all the features of Tagore's poetic philosophy. The Nobel Acceptance Speech of Tagore also reflects these aspects. It clearly delineates the growth of the poet's mind, who, according to his own words in the speech, sang the songs of 'Gitanjali' under the "glorious stars of the Indian sky" and eventually felt "impelled to come out and meet the heart of the large world". It is this union of the microcosm with the macrocosm that bred the true internationalism of Tagore, making his poetry a statement of the soul whose pulsations are non-specific to any one time and space. To be precise, Tagore's Nobel acceptance speech is the consecrated formulary of his own poetic faith or else he could never have uttered-"I was accepted and the heart of the West opened without delay".To Tagore, this has been the result of his seclusion from the West but the innate desire for peace of the Western people was offered in his poetry and the West accepted it gratefully. Here is the glow of Indian philosophy that Tagore brought to the West and bridged the two different strains of culture. This is the spirit of combination and embracing the cult of humanity. Swami Vivekananda had preached about this assimilation before; it was he who believed and opined that the West, being baffled by the riddles of materialism would have to resort to Indian philosophy. Tagore rejects individualism and accords multiculturalism as the reason for his work to be accepted in the West. Tagore is historically correct to consider "East as the mother of Spiritual Humanity", for it is the East that produced the likes of Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. The West, in a state of spiritual anaemia, has to look towards the East. The famous English poet TS Eliot also accepted the same view when he ended his famous work, 'The Waste Land' by the words 'Shantih, shantih, shantih', written in Sanskrit.
It was a bold statement from Tagore to declare that he represented the East and was lauded by the West, for the time had been ripe for cultural synthesis where the best of West should meet the best of East to combine resources for serving the cause of human benevolence. Is it not the panacea for the humanitarian crisis? Does it not remind us of Tagore's own words, translated by him into English-"Where the mind is led forward by thee into/ever- widening thought and action".
Ironically, Tagore being the first non-European recipient of the Nobel Prize was in itself drawing admiration for the East and here a representative of the East paved the way for the future by suggesting the blending of Eastern and Western civilisation. This is born of the great Indian tradition of acceptance and to incorporate without rejection. It believes in ultimate unification to comprehend all things with sympathy and love. All this is proudly vocalised by Tagore in his acceptance speech because to Tagore, "This is the spirit of India" and indeed so for even Swami Vivekananda who in his Chicago address glorified Indian culture as to uphold the principle of "Help and not fight", "Assimilation and not destruction", "Harmony and peace and not dissension".
Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel Prize acceptance speech is in true sense a cultural dialogue between the East and the West. But more than that, it teaches the values of tolerance, endurance and growth through mutual exercise of ideas and opinions. In today's world, intolerance has been pronouncedly visible not only in ethnic or linguistic issues but even in the domestic sphere. Here is the relevance and universality of Tagore's speech for it is so humane and catholic as to encompass everything about life, transcending geographical and cultural barriers. William Shakespeare's famous words — "We must endure everything/Ripeness is all'' —finds ultimate exemplification in the words of Tagore's speech and when that happens, where can you find a better amalgam of Eastern and Western civilisation, a better discourse eulogising the spirit of unity, humanity and magnanimity.
Views expressed are personal