Tagore@2018

Today is the Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. 

Tagore was the first global Literary Superstar, the first Nobel Prize Winner from Asia, whose flowing robes and the white beard helped form the public image of an Indian sage on the global stage. 

It is somewhat peculiar what Tagore is now known for. Given that many people reading this blog wouldn't know his name, I had to mention his Nobel prize. Yet, Tagore was somewhat resentful - and said so when he was facilitated in Calcutta after receiving the prize - that his countrymen would only recognise him only after the West had given him an award. The alternative way to tell who he was - that he was the man who wrote the National Anthem of India, as well as of Bangladesh - is equally problematic: Not just this brings up an old controversy (see An Exceptional Man) but, at least in case of India, reminds one of a Cosmopolitan Republican Nationalism that the current Indian government so love to hate.

Going by the two things that Tagore is well known for, he appears to be what the Indian middle classes today hatefully call 'Libtard' or 'Fekular', a Western Educated Cosmopolitan man, who argued against - Quelle horreur! - majoritarian nationalism, the currently popular idea of nations defined as an organic whole, a pure, ever-existant Volksgemeinschaft. And, indeed, his politics was suspect: He was not only a member of the landed gentry (and his family fortune was intricately linked to the British Opium trade in China) but harboured a lifelong aversion to the politics of power. Only in exceptional moments - when Bengal was being divided along religious lines by Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy, in 1905, or when thousands of innocent people were gunned down in Amritsar under the orders of Colonel Reginald Dyer - one could hear him make sharp and passionate political statements; but generally, his was a nuanced argument, a search for truth without the pretension of ultimate knowledge, a quest for human dignity over the mere goals of political power. Many contemporary nationalists considered him to be a 'vacuous internationalist'; when the Historian Ramchandra Guha put him as one of three 'makers of Modern India' (alongside Gandhi and Nehru), it produced considerable debate.

In the majoritarian Indian politics of today, Tagore's position is actually rather enigmatic. He is not quite a hate figure like Nehru, perhaps only because his political positions were not exactly well known. His images, not unlike some Hindu godmen of today, make him a difficult figure to throw bricks at. His Nobel Prize makes it even more difficult to give him up entirely, as the wounded pride of India seeks global acclaim like an attention-hungry teenager. His educational ideas, modelled around the ancient Hindu Gurukool, appear attractive, though its cosmopolitan and secular character is to be somewhat overlooked. He is a fine figure as a poet, a regional and Bengali one, but uncomfortable beyond: A cultural figure to be expropriated, but a thinker to be ignored.

And, yet, the very rise of majoritarian politics, not just in India but globally, suddenly brings to fore Tagore the thinker. Long after his poetry lost its global appeal, his ideas - of harmony with nature and of development of our human identities over other sectarian ones - are more relevant than ever. His ideas of India as a reservoir of civilisation, a community within Asia, living in calm acceptance of the diversity and in never-ending quest of the unity of the whole world, have currency and relevance, being even more apparent in sharp contrast with domineering nationalism. Tagore in 2018 is central in marginal, a becalming guide in a confusing universe of ideas: As he would say: when the night is at its darkest, the glow of a steadfast lamp shines at its brightest.










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