A cultural titan

Tagore after 150 years: Freedom to him was not just political freedom but freedom of spirit, independence of thought and rational thinking.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Rabindranath Tagore was born. To the average non-Bengali, Tagore is known as the Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize in literature, composed the national anthem of two countries (India and Bangladesh) and a few poems/songs like ‘Jodi tor dak shune keo na ashe, tobe ekla chalo re (‘Go alone if no one responds to your call’) - that too perhaps because Gandhiji popularised this song as one of his favourites.

In an interview, Aparna Sen, the noted actress and film director, narrated  that Sabana Azmi once asked Aparna whether Tagore was really that great as Bengalis make him out to be. Aparna replied: Yes, but it is very difficult to appreciate his greatness unless one can read Tagore in Bengali.

Tagore was a multi-faceted genius (almost unparalleled in the world in terms of versatility) who was a poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, essayist, composer, singer and a painter.

In addition, he was an activist who played an important role in national freedom movement (differing from the ideas of both the terrorist movement and the ‘Swadeshi’ movement). Apart from being a great thinker and philosopher with novel ideas, unlike many intellectuals he tried to put those into practice by devoting a considerable amount of his valuable time by setting up Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan (with no government support) where eminent scholars from many parts of the world (both east and west) came together.

He ran a rural cooperative bank with a significant part of his own Nobel Prize money, sent his own son to study agriculture in USA and tried to modernise the traditional handicrafts and leather industries to create employment for the rural population. He left a life of comfort in Calcutta and spent most of his life in Santiniketan—a distant rural place with no electricity or modern amenities, pursuing his dreams.

Tagore travelled widely all over the world. In the west, he was popularly compared to Jesus Christ for his looks and message. To the western audience he represented the best of eastern wisdom. But Tagore had no hesitation to absorb what he considered the best in western civilisation. His idea behind Santiniketan and Visva Bharati was to create a place of learning where the best of the civilisation from all parts of the world would meet. As it often happens with institutions set up by great men, the influx of scholars who came primarily  attracted by Tagore could not be sustained after his death.

In his Letter from Russia, Tagore was highly appreciative of the goal of universal education pursued in Soviet Union but was perceptive enough to doubt whether a system imposed from above could be sustained for long. History has proved him right. He criticised  Mussolini while in Italy. He believed that India needs to modernise its agriculture and industries which should be able to offer quality products which people would buy voluntarily. Here he differed from Gandhiji. He was more of an internationalist in outlook than a narrow nationalist.

Spiritual person

Freedom to him was not just political freedom from British rule but freedom of spirit, independence of thought and rational thinking. Tagore was a deeply spiritual person, rather than a religious one.  He believed in a god within (‘Moner Manush’) as also a god whom he could feel in the beauties of the universe. His religion was the religion of man consisting of universal values which lie above all conventional religions.

Tagore was a man who suffered hugely in personal life. He lost his sister-in-law who was a major early inspiration to the flowering of his poetic genius, then his son, daughter and wife. He had to face harsh and in some cases personal attacks from several literary figures in Bengal (who once were his good friends), mostly born out of jealousy. He faced financial difficulty  as the cooperative bank failed and he had to pay for the  recurring expenditures for Visva Bharati.  He took his dance drama troops to several parts of India and abroad  in old age to raise funds for Santiniketan.

But the really remarkable part of his life was that personal losses and adversities in life made him even more creative.  He took to painting at a very late stage in his life and developed a style which was considered highly original, specially by art experts in Europe.  Some of his plays anticipated Brecht. Tagore never shied from experimenting and the style of his writings and compositions changed enormously with time.

What has particularly endured even after one and a half century is his music. His songs (‘Rabindra sangeet’) capture all the moods (like happiness, love, wonderment, ecstasy, loneliness, melancholy, depression, death, surrender to a greater being) of a human being by creating a  beautiful harmony between words and the tune.

His music was created by adapting Indian classical music, traditional  folk music (like Baul, Kirtan) and when appropriate even Western music to suit the moods and the images evoked in the songs. His songs (more than 2000) are basically high-quality poems. Unless one understands the meaning and the lyrical quality of the words in Bengali, it is impossible to fully appreciate his songs. This is the essence of what Aparna Sen meant in response to Shabana’s query.

To many  Bengalis, Tagore still remains a great inspiration whose ideas and life—specially songs—still sustain them in times of great personal turmoil. He stands like a friend extending his hands across the boundaries of life and death. This is a unique achievement for a person who passed away more than seven decades ago.

(The author is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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