Rabindranath Tagore: A Complete and Universal Person

Rabindranath Tagore: A Complete and Universal Person

 ‘ …He represents the best of modern and ancient Indian intellectual thought’
~ PM Narendra Modi during tribute to Tagore on his 154th Birth Anniversary.

We would love to add here that not only the best, Tagore also represents common man’s thought, nay, much of the entire humanity’s thinking–about the bitter- sweet truth of life that is full of longings and hope as well as cold indifference and irony. And, it is the ordinary man in his ordinary and extraordinary dimensions that finds undying voice in Tagore’s writings.

This may be the reason why, on reading Tagore or listening to his songs, the commoner like me and many others, think in awe and wonder: “how the poet knows all my feelings, emotions and thoughts!  I marvel and I marvel! Whenever I want to give vent to any of my feelings, I cannot but borrow words from his songs, poems, essays, articles, travelogues, memoirs and what not.

Tagore’s empathy for commoners are visible in many of his writings like the ones on a petty clerk whose desire for marriage remained unfulfilled, yet in his dream, a girl with vermillion on her head comes on, on a dark complexioned girl for whom marriage was a distant dream in the society of those days, on workmen with their daily rigours, on aspiration of an apparently ordinary but a promising girl for recognition, on unrequited love and on a neglected and wayward boy brought up in other’s house with his undying wonder at the sight and sound of the world around him..

Tagore was also a great lover of Nature. Thus his poems although often soar up the ineffable ethereal plane, they as often exude the smell and touch of earth as well. Buddhadev Guha, an  eminent Bengali writer said that Bengal’s changing seasons, the  vigorous flow of  her rivers, her  lush plains, her bamboo groves, her cool moist and richly fertile fragrance, her festival- canopies, her chariot festivals, her mischievous noisy lovable boys and girls, her kind nimble intelligent women, all are part and parcel of his poetry.

Three autobiographical works — Jibansmriti, Chhelebela and Atmaparichay and a collection of letters published as Chinnapatra along with a large number of other letters, give us a peep into Tagore’s life , snippets on Calcutta, glimpse of his childhood and most importantly, give us his reflections on himself, opening, as it were, a window into his heart and mind. Nirad C Choudhuri asserts that there is no better guide to understand Tagore than his own reminiscences. They tell us how his love of poetry and literature came into being and blossomed. His own words, reveal best how he became a complete person?

  • ‘The point of saying this is to assert that my childhood was not regulated by any ancient sacramental laws, that my young creativity was not subjected to the accusing finger of ancient norms….Through the joy of my freedom, I felt a real urging to teach myself. I undertook the task of playing schoolmaster to myself, and found it to be a delightful game. I poured over any book that came my way, not school-selected text books that I did not understand, and I filled up the gaps of understanding out of my own imagination’- -That is how the total man had his childhood initiations.
  • ‘In my mind, the world has always been full of wonder, full of the inexpressible. No ancient myth nor icon nor ritual has ever broken into my world of wonder….If someone smells a flower and says he does not understand, the reply to him is: there is nothing to understand, it is only a scent, or make it more abstruse by telling him that the scent is the shape which the universal joy takes in the flower…. Like a tear or a smile a poem is but a picture of what is taking place within.’- – Tagore’s perception of Truth and Beauty can be glimpsed here.
  • ‘Consciously or unconsciously, I may have done many things that were untrue, but I have never uttered anything false in my poetry — that is the sanctuary where the deepest truths of my life find refuge’ — He is surely one of the purest poets.

His purity was such that the largely Muslim citizens of Bangladesh had no problem in having a deep sense of identity with Tagore and his ideas. Nor did the religious differences stop the newly independent Bangladesh from choosing one of Tagore’s songs – the “Amaar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal” – as its national anthem. Another poem by him about Sri Lanka was actually translated into Sinhalese and set to music by Sri Lankan genius Ananda Samarakoon, a Tagore pupil, in 1940; it became the national anthem of Sri Lanka in 1951.

Tagore’s writings include eighty-four short stories that reflect upon the author’s natural surroundings, on human bond and sufferings, on love and devotion and woman’s role and emancipation and 12 novels, 6 of which deal with rising Indian nationalism, terrorism, and religious zeal in the Swadeshi movement. Tagore compiled fifteen volumes of writings, whereafter he continued his experimentations by developing musicals and dance-drama.

We have Rabindra Chitravali, edited by noted art historian R. Siva Kumar. We also recently had The Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore’s 208 paintings.

Tagore was both a spiritual and a humanitarian person. Love towards God’s creation and service to mankind is service to the Almighty. This philosophy permeates Tagore’s writings. .At the base of Tagore’s idea lies the Hindu Upanishadic notion that everything is Brahman, and Brahman is blissful. It implies a world which is the source of unconditional and aesthetic joy and which is experienced through an intimate closeness between man and man and unity between man and nature. Tagore viewed the goal of religion in attaining a relationship between God, human being and nature.True worship of God consists not in institutional rites and ceremonies but in extending a helping   hand to the suffering and the needy- “God is there, where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path maker is breaking stones”.

Tagore was a propagator of both universalism and naturalism: In Shantiniketan, the abode of peace and learning, he brought the best of East and West to the view of the students. He taught how to integrate with nature and Universe. Music and painting were part of the curriculum; theatre used to be taught. Tagore felt degree-oriented learning system didn’t allow pupils to know even the rudiments of the performing or visual arts and their appreciation. He saw to it that there was a family bond between the teachers and the taught so that the pupil didn’t miss the family left behind.  The flexibility of American universities was prevalent in Tagore’s Shantiniketan where  there was no rigidity in division of class  as this used to be decided upon the pupil’s ability or command over the disciplines taught. Thus a student could belong to more than one class at the same time, say, Class I in maths and Class II in literature, and so on. Examinations used to be held without invigilations and there was co-education system.

He sought to “make Shantiniketan the connecting thread between India and the world, a world centre for the study of humanity somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.” Through his writings and his influence on students and teachers, he was able to use the school as a base from which he could take a major part in India’s social, political, and cultural movements.

In 1921, Tagore and agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst set up the “Institute for Rural Reconstruction”, later renamed Shriniketan or “Abode of Welfare”.  Later Dartington Hall & School, in Devon, England was set up by Elmharst on the same lines. His ideas on village reform are comprehensibly recounted in ‘Pallikatha’. Tagore’s scheme of rural up-lift included pioneering cooperative banking and cooperative farming, eradication of casteism and untouchability, modification of joint family system, village autonomy, self- government through elected leaders, encouragement to dignity of labour and finally a proper relationship of the village with the city. And he spoke on village folk, town folk and urban gentry with equal ease.

Some of the ideas he tried to present were directly political, and they figure rather prominently in his letters and lectures. He had practical, plainly expressed views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness, and so on with Tagore pressing for more room for reasoning, and for a less traditionalist view, a greater interest in the rest of the world, and more respect for science and for objectivity generally.

Tagore also was a true champion of the emancipation of women. From his first short story, Beggar Girl to his final work, The Bad Name, the reader discovers how woman is the most creative transformative factor within social life.  We are aware of the feminine touch in the blossoming of Tagore’s artistic life- sister in law Kadambari, Annapurna, Turkhad,, Victoria Ocampo, Zona Gale and many others who provided inspiration and support throughout. In fact, he dedicated to Kadambari Debi while she was living, 6 of his works, and after her death, 2 more. So much he valued her as his literary companion and equal. She may be said to be the Muse of Tagore.

His interest in science was evident when eminent astrophysicist, Meghnad Saha, persuaded him to write a book in Bengali (“VISHVAPARICHAYA”-‘Introducing the Universe,) which he dedicated to Satyaendranath Bose, Father of Boson and of Bose-Einstein Statistics-Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) fame. At the age of 13, he wrote an article about planets and their inhabitants in Bengali: “Grahagan Jiber Abashbhumi (Planets are the home of things living). It was published in their family periodical- Tattvabodhini Patrika. Rabindranath  wrote in the 6th issue of Balaka on ‘Barafpara’ [Icefall]; ‘Vignan Sanbad’ (science news). He wrote on Acharya Jagadish Bose’s research in Bangadarshan (‘Acharya Jagadisher’ Joybarta- Victory Message of Acharya Jagadish,). He wrote many other articles on science (Indicators of Motion), (Suicide), (Leg of Ostrich bird), (Underground Water), (Force of Wind)].

He believed in a central and enduring unity amidst a dynamic and changing diversity, Rabindranath Tagore’s description of his Bengali family as the product of a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British, coheres with his following thoughts: ‘India had felt that diversity of races there must be and should be, whatever may be its drawback, and you can never coerce nature into your narrow limits of convenience without paying one day very dearly for it. In this India was right; but what she failed to realize was that in human beings differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever – they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and volume…….She treated life in all truth where it is manifold, but insulted it where it is ever moving. Therefore Life departed from her social system and in its place she is worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured’.

The ideals that strive to take form in social institutions have two objects. One is to regulate person’s passions and appetites for harmonious development of society, and the other is to help him in cultivating disinterested love for his fellow-creatures. Therefore society is the expression of moral and spiritual aspirations of man which belong to his higher nature.

Tagore’s music was a blend of different genres. He was a prolific composer with 2,230 songs to his credit which merges fluidly into his vast oeuvre consisting of diverse branches of literature, poems, novels, stories, or plays. About nine-tenths of his work was revamped with “fresh value” from select Western, Hindustani, Bengali folk and other regional flavours “external” to Tagore’s own ancestral culture.

Many of his poems and songs were sung in Western classical mode too. Firstly, under his patronage when two asramites in Shantiniketan,  namely, Allen Danielu and Arthur Gedes, presented in a new form where lyrics were in English, tunes were Tagore’s but rendered in Western style with Piano as accompaniment. Secondly, there were 4 English lyrics by Tagore sung in Western tune from composition by Carole Shymenvosky, a Polish composer. Similarly, many Europeans, Americans, Britisher, Australian, Canadian and Norwegian composed Western Classical songs with translations of Tagore lyrics.— How the East and West transacted ‘Debe are nebe, milabe milibe’ (offer and take, integrate and be integrated).

Tagore continues to be an Inspiration to many: The idea of a direct, joyful, and totally fearless relationship with God can be found in many of Tagore’s religious writings, including the poems of Gitanjali. Gulzar mentioned the tremendous inspiration he and others derived from Tagore especially from ‘Sishu’ and ‘The Gardener’. He is bringing out 2 volumes of his translated works of Tagore. His admiration for Tagore compels him to seek Tagore in school texts across India.   Sunil Ganguli wrote in TOI, 2010 Bangla Supplement that ‘never ever was there another man in this world, as talented as Tagore’.   According to Sri Chinmoy, a spiritual leader ‘..Tagore was a sea of beauty and delight’….. and a soul stirring flute…..’.

Truly a complete person!

To me, Tagore was not only a complete person but also the true citizen of the world without borders. His text, poetry and music as also his painting embodied love, service and devotion all across the world. Tagore’s pilgrimage to the outer world helped him to appreciate the abundance of energy in the Western man. However, West’s espousal of jingoistic nationalism dismayed him. He meant every bit of what he said in the following:”……It is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity……  There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one…” That is why he differed with Einstein in that Truth is realized through Humanity.

By Sumita Bhattacharya and Sudip Bhattacharyya.  Sumita is a retired journalist, Sudip is a commentator on Society, Politics and Economy.

Indebted to:

Outlook, FREYA DASGUPTA, May 07, 2015
Interview of IDAN SODAR by BAIJAYANTI CHAKRABORTY published in Ei samay on 8th

May, 2015.

Tagore and His India by Amartya Sen
Frontier: Vol. 44, Nos. 11-14, Sep 25-Oct 22, 2011 A TRIBUTE IN HIS 150TH BIRTH ANNIVERSARY Rabindranath’s Thoughts on Science SISIR K MAJUMDAR


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