Indian Council for Cultural Relations organised an International Seminar on Tagore’s Vision of the Contemporary World in October, 2011 in New Delhi. The occasion coincided with his 150th birth anniversary (1861-2011). The present volume entitled Tagore’s Vision of the Contemporary World is based on 15 papers contributed by foreign and Indian scholars on the occasion.
Almost all of the contributors must have been his devoted bhaktas, viewing the great man with total shradha. Several essays are well-written, well-researched and well-thought out reflecting fully the thought processes of the master. Mercifully, he is largely allowed to speak for himself in his own inimitable words as supporting evidence.
Very aptly he has been described as “the best of the Victorians and the best of the moderns” of his times. The real Tagore stands out six-feet tall as the king of all he surveys in his poem A mind without fear. Therein he has solemnly affirmed, “Where the mind is without fear and head is held high; Where the knowledge is free”. The verse sums up the man. He must have been like a bird soaring high in the sky savouring the breath of fresh air. There are numerous freewheeling epithets attributed to him by his admiring critics. Those are indeed hyperbolic and as also no less nauseating. To attribute to him the virtues of “universalism”, “cosmopolitanism”, “internationalism” is to beg your pardon, an entirely outlandish claim. After all he had belonged to the era, when concepts like individualism, progress, secularism and democracy were no longer one man’s exclusive preserve. Those ideas were universally accepted and also taken for granted as the common heritage of all of Tom, Dick and Harry on this planet.
He was a poet who revelled in his poetry, rather than feel at home in the other departments of literature. He brought a breath of fresh air to Bengali poetry and his influences was very much felt among the sister Indian languages. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetic work for Gitanjali. It was certainly not one of his best works. The honour had fallen to him as the manna from heaven on account of some clever and shrewd lobbying by his admirers abroad. That he deserved the award for his other works goes without saying.
He was no doubt a breath of fresh air, but he was no exclusive cultural and artistic renaissance man, as proffered on his behalf by his numerous euologists. All that could be stated was that he was indeed the best of the bhadralok, and the gentleman-at-large who felt equally at home among the peasants residing on his family countryside estates.
He was a very cultivated person who travelled all over the world, and indeed the entire world travelled in his direction following him after being awarded the Noble Prize. He has remained one of the best ambassadors of India to the world on account of his sheer novelty value. His physique was a bonus point in his favour. He was no doubt very much proud of his Indian heritage. He carried this burden on his shoulders wherever he went. His world view was definitely circumscribed by his large vision of this country. While he was deeply rooted in its past, he had also the visions of its future.
India was an idea and it was not a geographical expression for him. Thus his concept of India is not circumscribed by its geographical boundaries. During his Hibbert Lectures, he envisaged “India as an idea and not a mere geographical fact”. He had wisely employed the term BHARATAVARSHA, which has always remained an idea with no fixed geographical boundaries. Thus India the cultural configuration remained his foremost love.
Tagore was no doubt a multiplex personality, being novelist, short-story writer, poet, dramatist and painter in the same breath. Here was a man who dabbled in almost all walks of life. He loved all gored things of life. He travelled extensively throughout the rural Bengal. He thus savored the life from the closest quarters. He however remained a poet at the bottom of his heart. He was also a songster whose Rabindrasangit is now universally popular, not only in Bengal but also in other parts of India. Satyajit Roy has immortalised his literary works through films based on his writings.
The poetry must have been in his bloodstream. It was also in his genes. His poetry was rooted in the soul of Bengal. He had developed considerable empathy with the lands watered by the generous and plentiful waters of Padma. He had observed the rural life of Bengal from the closest quarters. Being the man of the leisure, he was also thick as thieves with the Bhadralok life of metropolitan Calcutta. All of that had been reflected in his free-flowing poetry. Alain Danilou has correctly attributed to him “the poet’s intimacy of every human concern”. In his own intimate words, he posited “neither being a scholar not philosopher, but a singer who listens to the harmony that emanates from ... music”. On another occasion, he wondered at the “Infinite playing its tune with the finite” and hence making “his music is so insious”. All of that underlines the Vedantic undertones in his poetry. It is a matter of regret that none of the contributions have cared to go into his underlying philosophy of life.
There is no one word other word that adequately describes the man. He was essentially a romantic who viewed life with a rosy tinge. If he were to have been born during the ancient times, he would have performed the role of rishi or sage to perfection. The role would have provided to him the golden opportunity to observe mother nature from the closest quarters. Imagine for a moment, Tagore to be stationed deep in a forest in his imagined ashram or hermitage and spending all of his days and nights among “the living growth of nature to enlarge his consciousness” and thus himself gradually “grow into the surroundings” all the time.
His image of Shantiniketan must have been the spit image of what he had envisaged in the foregoing paragraph. Here was a living document in the personae of his beloved Shantiniketan. Thus it was back to nature as the central stage of his life. Established in rural Bengal, Shantiniketan was envisaged to be a community of artistes worldwide living amidst dance and music in the backdrop of scenic rural Bengal. Was it to be a dream or a reality? It was back to the dark days, soon after he passed away. It is perhaps not in our genes to nourish, sustain, preserve and perpetuate our own heritage. Shantiniketan remains no more than a caricature of itself today. The Gurudeva has received compliments galore as the Renaissance Man. All that can be said is India, and for that a matter Bengal have far from experienced any genuine renaissance as of date. We remain proud of our heritage, but we should also learn to be modest about our current achievements. Rabindranath Tagore was definitely the best of the bhadralok amidst us. He was a very cultivated human being. He was also a great man deserving lesser of fulsome eulogies. What about the chinks in his armour? It is time for us to be both skeptical and critical of happenings around us. For once, the entire lot of our great man must be viewed with their clothes off as the mother-nature had made them. Who is to bell the cat?
The editor has done a commendable job of bringing together a cosmopolitan group of contributors in the volume. There are, however, no contributors from Bangladesh to be found among them. It is a pity because the poet is as much a household name in Bangladesh as in West Bengal.
(The reviewer is the author of Brahmacharya, Gandhi and his Women Associates (2006). His four- volume study of the Mahabharata is scheduled for publication very soon.)