An Exceptional Man

Today, in parts of India and Bangladesh, celebrations will mark the 150th Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, largely known as a poet to the rest of world, but a polymath who shaped the language, education, music and art of his countrymen.

Being a Bengali, I grew up in the shadow of his intellectual presence. I am no connoisseur of music, I shamefully must admit, but the renditions of Rabindrasangeet, the music and lyrics created by Tagore, were an inescapable part of my identity. His books filled our shelves and school curricula. We learnt to look at nature, god and love through his poetry. And, finally, growing up, we learnt to look at our country and its politics through the lens of his ideas.

While I can keep going about Tagore's all-encompassing impact on our lives, it is his politics that I would want to talk about today. Indeed, he was not a political figure for the rest of the country, largely forgotten in the nationalist struggle and even branded an anglophile. There were two occasions when he was seen to be participating in the Indian national movement: Once, in 1905, when the Presidency of Bengal was divided in two parts, and Bengali intellectuals took to streets to stop the division; and, much later, after the Jalianwallahbagh massacre, when Tagore renounced his knighthood, much to the affront of his British friends and admirers. Apart from these, and despite his closeness with two leading men of Indian national movement, Gandhi and Nehru, Tagore was seen to be mostly aloof, a distant figure, perched in a sort of poetic loneliness.

This is seen by many as a betrayal of the nationalist cause. Tagore's political thought was largely ignored in modern India. Today, he is seen to a poet and a musician, and his political ideas were glossed over.

However, at this day and age, he seemed to be deeply relevant. His was a post-nationalist conception of India, perhaps early for his time. Steeped in liberal humanism as he was, Tagore saw nationalism as a force of evil. This was, of course, not welcome in pre-independence India, where most of his contemporary nationalist leaders, C R Das, Subhas Chandra Basu and the like, treated his 'woolly ideas' [to quote Subhas Basu] with suspicion. The left leaders, who did not participate in the nationalist struggle and who would have been ideologically most comfortable with Tagore's universal humanism, never accepted him because he belonged to the despised landlord class and never forgave him for writing the song which was to be sung in the coronation of George the Vth in India [which later became India's national anthem]. Tagore, in fact, earnestly believed in what he said, and he actively campaigned against the spectre of nationalism when he travelled in Asia and Europe in 1920s. His anti-nationalist stance was widely derided in Japan, the same country which would go on to demonstrate the horrors of nationalist violence in a few short years, and in Europe, where nationalism was seen as a progressive force at the time. His anti-nationalist stance drew criticism from all quarters, uniting people from all ends of the political spectrum, including D H Lawrence and the Marxist George Lukacs.

Tagore was deeply anti-nationalistic, because he saw nationalism as an invention of a few political thinkers for the sake of achieving short term political objectives, and his liberal humanism was essentially at odds with such narrow, exclusionary, violence-based concept. He never even accepted the point that the expansionary nationalism or nationalist supremacist conception was different from nationalism as a progressive and unifying force in countries like India or China, where a people, long subjugated, needed to find a new way of life, and argued about a cosmopolitan conception of India built on diversity, openness and tolerance.

However, paradoxically, one can also point out events where Tagore seemed to be enthralled by nationalism. First, one can talk about an infamous faux pas during his tour of Europe in 1926, when he praised the ascendant nationalism in Italy under Benito Mussolini in glowing terms. He was on a conducted tour, and was shown the great progress Italy has made under the Duce. However, he missed the point that this came at an unacceptable human cost. He was made aware when he travelled to Switzerland subsequently and ended up meeting the exiled Italian intellectuals. In fact, this incident crystallised his distrust of nationalist politics further, and pushed him further into isolation in the Indian political circles.

The second example of his nationalist thinking can be seen in context of his now famous song, Jana Gana Mana, a Bengali song which was later made the National Anthem of India. Curiously, the song was composed in December 1911, coinciding precisely with the timing of coronation of George the Vth as the emperor of India. This was sung first time on December 16th 1911 in the Calcutta convention of Indian National Congress, till then a loyalist organisation. Further, this was the second day of the Congress convention and the agenda for the day was to welcome George the Vth, the emperor, to India. Hence, Tagore was accused of betraying the nationalist cause by writing this song.

Now, if we listen to the song closely [a modern rendition here], the lyrics seem to operate at two levels. One, it seems to heap an enormous amount of praise and power on the 'Overlord of India', the King Emperor in the literal sense, perhaps. However, it also operates at a different level - praising God who oversees the Indian union, rendering an age-old vision of India as the land of diverse people and mountains and rivers.

The song reads like:

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India's destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sind,
Gujarat and Maratha,
Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
mingles in the music of Jamuna and Ganges and is
chanted by the waves of the Indian Ocean.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India's destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

[Taken from Wikipedia]

This is actually a classic symbolism Tagore was always so capable of doing. He can be seen praising the supreme God. One can read this as a near sycophantic effort to praise King George, as some people do, or one can see this as a statement of Tagore's nationalism.

To delve into his statement of nationalism, let us set aside the thought that this was written for George the Vth at all and read through the other, less known, stanzas of the lyric [you will have to put up with my translations here]:

Thou invite everyone, with open arms,
Hindus, Budhdhists, Sikhs, Jains,
Persians, Muslims and Christians;
East and West come together
And a new unity is scripted
By your throne;
The unifier of all, the dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

Our eternal journeys,
Through decline, fall, ascendancy and difficulties,
Steered through by thee, thou Charioteer!
Your clarion call
Leads us through revolution,
Thou reliever of all.
The guide of all, the dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

As we slept, ill and unaware,
Through the dark night of Fear and Nightmare,
Thou stood by, unwavering in your blessing, thee untired!
Your unblinking eyes,
Protect us in our sorrow,
Thou loving mother!
The protector of all, thou dispenser of India's destiny,
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

As the night ends and the Sun rises in the East,
Birds sing and the air brings the smell of fresh life,
India awakens to your subtle tune.
We salute you
We give ourselves to you.
Oh Lord of Lords, the Lord of India,
Glory, glory, glory to thee.

George the Vth would not have been pleased with this. Here, Tagore is almost a nationalist, he in fact evokes one of the core doctrines of nationalism, 'the dormission of nationalism', as Ernest Geller calls it. The sleeping nation - note the imagery of night and sunrise, of awakening - is one of the key concepts nationalists fell back on all the time. However, his is a cosmopolitan nationalism, a conception of India which welcomes all and returns no one, absorbs all cultures and houses all religions, which was at odds with exclusionary, violence-based, pure-race nationalism in fashion at the time. This is why he was so misunderstood; this is also precisely why he seems so relevant today.

The other incident which signposts Tagore's political life was his renunciation of knighthood, in June 1919, on the wake of Jalianwallahbagh killings. By then, Tagore has withdrawn from all public activities and was not seen as a political threat by the British. But, deeply pained by indiscriminate killings of an unarmed civilian population, whose only fault was to participate in a political meeting, he chose to do something which deeply alienated his British friends and admirers. It was one of the most talked about protests at the time, and seen as a political act of significance. [One can read the letter he sent to Viceroy here]

But, then, there was no plan of action, political agenda here. This was an individual protest against inhuman government action. This was more about human rights than nationalism, if I may say, though the context and timing of this happened to coincide with the nationalist agenda [just as the timing and context of Jana Gana Mana coincided with the imperial agenda]. The educated anglophile Indians did not like Tagore's arrogance. The reaction was : why was he so humiliated, when he does not seem to bother about the ongoing terrorist activities in India, burning of churches, killing of English women etc. [One can see Rustom Rustomjee's comments to this effect here] The point, of course, is that Tagore's was not a strictly nationalist stance, it was made based on his deep commitment to human rights and dignity, something thoroughly misunderstood both by the colonial administration and Indian nationalists.

Today, as nationalism goes out of fashion, human rights and dignity become a priority of international governance and national policy making, Tagore's political thinking seems to assume a new relevance. Not that he knew all the answers or had an ideology to offer; but he was a decent man, a concerned citizen and a perceptive commentator who believed in the goodness of human beings and aspired for a better world. As one comes to think of it, Tagore may not have been institutionalized as a political thinker, but his ideas, in a secularized form, may have seeped into Nehru's, and had a formative effect on the idea of India.

So, the parting thought on Tagore's birthday: We may see more deliberations on his political ideas in the days to come.


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