If the dates are correct, Rabindranath Tagore – whose 150th birthday has just passed – lived a life as brilliantly symmetrical as he was brilliantly talented: born on May 7 in 1861 and dying on August 7, 1941.
In the west he is usually considered a great poet (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1913) but throughout his remarkable 80 years he proved himself the most extraordinary person of the ‘Indian Renaissance’, publishing 30 or so collections of poetry, eight novels, four novellas, ten books of essays, several collections of critical writings and speeches on the culturally central subjects of literature, history, politics and religion.
He wrote possibly as many as 2000 songs, including the music, and a large number of dramas, many of them also ‘musicals’. Just for variety, towards the end of his life he took up painting and print-making. But there was more…
Tagore (Thakur) was born into a high caste Brahmin family and began writing from an early age. He was educated in Bengal, and later England, where he attended public schools and University but he left greatly disillusioned with an education system based, as he saw it, on military discipline. This was sadly consistent, in his view, with the dynamics of British colonisation in India and Africa. The same obsession with control was behind Britain’s domination of nature through resource-mining world-wide, with industry and over-reaching commerce. This abuse of nature by force and self-interest was something Tagore was deeply against, so he would now look very much the environmentalist in his overall philosophy. He eventually completed his university education in India.
But his travels left him with a passion to see India as a world nation, as a continually growing culture to be understood on equal terms with western culture, not reduced by empirical condescension to being “oriental’, and ‘Eastern’; these paradigms of definition all too often meant exotic, brooding, playful, magical, and superficial, a presence full of colour and surface and brilliantly fascinating – but not to be taken quite seriously compared to Western achievements. This was what eventually happened to Tagore’s own profile in the West: taken up suddenly with the first translation into English of his poems in Gitanjali, lauded by WB Yeats and Ezra Pound, made famous as a major world poet by major world poets, awarded the Nobel Prize; and then in a few years came a quite rapid re-evaluation of him as not so important after all. England ‘orientalised’ him.
How rare he was. This man used his Nobel Prize money to establish an ‘alternative’ secondary school and an Agricultural Bank. The former was free, and accepted boys and girls studying the same curriculum; and the latter was a banking system devised to allow peasant farmers to pay off their debts to their landlords and become self-reliant. This rural reconstruction work was opposed to Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj, a rejection of the state as epitomised by British rule. Tagore did not want India to become a traditionalist state but one that took the best of the West and applied it, freely, in agriculture as elsewhere. Tagore taught in the school (Santiniketan) and later travelled extensively throughout Bengal to raise funds for its continuation; the students travelled also, performing plays and musical works – often written by Tagore for this purpose. Students studied each morning and balanced intellectual work with afternoon involvement in community activities, music, sport and physical work, making up a diverse and socially-integrated curriculum. It must have been a fascinating school. Later he added a World University (Vivsa Bharati ) with international lecturers and students and even more travels by himself, internationally, to generate funding and interest.
Tagore was an educationalist, administrator, critic, humanist, lifelong commentator on politics, friend of Gandhi and famous figures like Einstein, a man who lectured throughout the US and Europe and Japan, someone never afraid of being open but also critical of his and these other major cultures. He supported Gandhi’s ideas of Satygraha but was troubled by the divisions he saw Gandhi’s politics were creating between Hindu and Muslim, and Gandhi later admitted Tagore had been prescient in this criticism. Tagore also wished to see the Untouchables integrated into the social system.
When the British massacred up to 1500 unarmed people at a political gathering in Jallianwala Bagh he returned his earlier-awarded Knighthood. During his life he lost his wife early (she was only 29), then his father, his daughter, his mother and two of his sons. Grief underlies many of his poems, regardless of the celebration of nature and humanity found everywhere in them. No champion of the privileged, his poems and fiction works focus on ordinary people, especially women, and trace deep chords of loss and loneliness within their music. He often cast Untouchables as heroes in his writings.
One early influence on his poetic was the ancient Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, a great figure in the tradition of a poetry that is suffused with philosophy and religion, who is said to have lived in the 4th Century, and a later influence came in the works of the Bakhti Sufi poet Kabir. Sufism and poetry have a strong history and Tagore was greatly impressed by this achievement even though he was not a Sufi and really can’t be called a philosopher. He was an accessible poet whose songs were extremely popular and whose poems and stories were familiar nationally. Tagore was himself was a strikingly flexible poet, using strict and loose forms, prose poems, poems of philosophy alongside intense lyrics and broader, descriptive poems. In the 30s he also took on a more Western Modernism and experimented with various of its styles, especially a narrative-based, vernacular and ‘low’ literature approach.
During the 20C he became a towering influence, not only in India, but throughout Asia, all the way down to Indonesia, where the Hindu people of Bali venerated him.
Happy 150th Birthday, Rabindranath.