Where the Mind Is without fear
“Music fills the infinite between two souls”
“Love does not claim <g data-gr-id="84">possession,</g> but gives freedom”
“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it”
“Beauty is truth’s smile when she beholds her own face in a perfect mirror”
“Bigotry tries to keep truth safe in its hand with a grip that kills it”
No, I’m not making you read quotes that have been haphazardly stacked together. Would you believe me if I told you that all of the above lines can be attributed to a single person? I possibly wouldn’t have had I not spent the past couple of nights reading up on the man who has <g data-gr-id="106">singlehandedly</g> shaped the language and culture of an entire community. That one man could oscillate between love and religion, music and philosophy, art and politics with such ease and finesse <g data-gr-id="111">is</g> unfathomable! Such was the genius of Rabindranath Tagore. And, last week, the grand, old, gorgeous man we all love to love turned yet another year older.
This isn’t the first time I’m writing about him. The last time I wrote about him in one of my columns, I remember telling you how I fell in love with him and his creations. I could talk about that love affair with equal excitement even now, but I shall refrain lest I upset his legion of lovers, yet again! One can never tire of writing/talking about him.
The man had so many facets to his personality, so many outlets for his creativity that one lifetime of a regular person like me is, perhaps, not enough to learn about him.
For Bengalis the world over, Tagore has <g data-gr-id="93">been,</g> and remains, an altogether exceptional literary figure, towering over all others. His poems, songs, novels, short stories, critical essays, and other writings have vastly enriched the cultural environment in which hundreds of millions of people live in the Bengali-speaking world, whether in Bangladesh or in India. Something of that glory is acknowledged in India outside Bengal as well, and even in some other parts of Asia, including China and Japan, but in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, Tagore is clearly not a household name.
Which, as a matter of fact, leaves me shamefaced. Tagore died in 1941, at a time when the country was yet to free herself from the clutches of the British <g data-gr-id="101">Monarchy,</g> when the world was almost constantly at war. It’s been more than 6 decades since, and world now has become a much smaller, at least virtually. In a world where the most inane things go viral in no time, why haven’t we, yet, been able to tell our friends what an absolutely cool guy lived amidst us and shaped our future?
Not only is language a part of the story in the contrast between Tagore’s appreciation at home and the indifference to him abroad, but a related component of the story lies in the extraordinary importance and unusual place of language in Bengali culture in general. The Bengali language has had an amazingly powerful influence on the identity of Bengalis as a group, on both sides of the political boundary between Bangladesh and India.
In fact, the politically separatist campaign in what was East Pakistan that led to the war for independence, and eventually to the formation of the new secular state of Bangladesh in 1971, was pioneered by the Bhasha Andolon, the “language movement” in defense of the Bengali language. Language has served as a very powerful uniting identity for Muslims and Hindus in Bengal, and this sense of shared belonging has had a profound impact on the politics of Bengal. With its independence, Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs (Amar Shonar Bangla) as its national anthem, making Tagore possibly the only person in human history to author the national anthems of two independent countries.
The central issues that moved Tagore most are the importance of open-minded reasoning and the celebration of human freedom- ideas that resonate the world over. Tagore spoke of religious equality, love, condemned bigotry, <g data-gr-id="104">romanticised</g> life, advocated the importance of education, championed the cause of women’s emancipation- all issues that remain deeply relevant even today. Let me share with you Amartya Sen’s translation of one of Tagore’s poems.
“Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!
Whom do you worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open your eyes and see your God is not before you!
He is there where the tiller is tilling
the hard ground and where the <g data-gr-id="92">path maker</g> is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in <g data-gr-id="89">shower</g>, and his garment is covered with dust.”
And yet, this was a man lampooned by his contemporaries. From George Bernard Shaw turning Rabindranath Tagore into a fictional character called “<g data-gr-id="121">Stupendranath</g> <g data-gr-id="122">Beggor</g>,” to Yeats declaring that “Tagore does not know English”, and adding “no Indian knows English”, the West hasn’t quite managed to warm up to Tagore, and it breaks my heart. But, I do see hope. I recently gifted Tagore’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, later made into a gem of a film by Satyajit Ray, a self-confessed Tagore fan) to a British friend. On finishing it, he wrote me a text, “What lovely writing! Think I might be in love with the man. I’m definitely in love with the way he writes!” So, I’m hopeful that one day the world will know what an absolutely cool guy Tagore was. Because hope is what Tagore inspired us to do. Hope for a better tomorrow, a better world. He wrote of what he so strongly desired for his own country and for the whole world:
“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.”
Can’t dream of and hope for much else, can we?
The author is a snotty single child, mountain junkie, playback singer, Austen addict and dreams of singing alongside Buddy Guy