A World of Beauty: Tagore's Idea of India

Unlike the American founders, the Founders of Modern India generally get a bad press. Indeed, many people do not think of them as Founders at all - India was there for thousands of years, they say - and merely see them as political operators who negotiated Independence, a bad one, with the British, only in order to grab power for themselves. That the creation of Modern India was an act of political imagination is overlooked with purpose and intention. That the 'founding' generation had to come up with the idea of timeless India which we now take for granted - and give us the sense of History that we now have - has been completely forgotten. Besides, we are now in a destructive frenzy of an adolescent tearing down the house they built: There was never a worse time to claim the Foundership of what is being considered a great country and a failed experiment at the same time.

In this era of 'unfounding', speaking about Tagore's idea of India may only have the effect of muddying the water, bringing him into the meleé from the quiet sainthood accorded to his memory. In his life, Tagore distanced himself, more often than not, from the politics of power, remaining mostly removed from political discussions and devoting his enormous energy and organizational capability into building his school in Shantiniketan. And, yet, he was not indifferent - and his work was very much an integral part of the Founding cannon of the Indian republic. Much of its practical significance may have come through his interactions and influence on Gandhi and Nehru, the two principal architects of Independent India. But Tagore had more to offer, and some of his ideas, the ones I wish to explore now, are something of an acquired taste, more obvious now than they were at the time of Independence. In a way, Tagore's ideas are still emerging in view, and will continue to do so long after the Republic of India has been challenged, survived and reimagined.

While Tagore's ideas of India, befitting his long life, the open mind and restless travelling, progressively evolved, there were at least four consistent strands that defined it. Some of these were held in common with other leading figures, particularly Nehru, but the combination of these was Tagore's signature idea of India.

First, the idea of India as a melting pot of people, a land that accepts everyone, absorbs everyone. India's history, for Tagore, was not one of subjugation and servitude, but of inviting assimilation. The imaginary is not of the virgin being stolen away by rapine conquerors, as it is for the Hindu nationalists, but that of an all-forgiving mother, fostering the whole of humanity. Accordingly, India's culture - for him - is not Hindu-Hindi monochrome, but a canvass of many identities, diverse and redundant, a microcosm of the humanity itself. 

Second, the idea of India in Asia, a part of it, and never outside it. It is a civilisation deeply connected with its neighbours, Japan and China in particular, connected through History, Culture and a Common future. This civilisational identity, marked by a commitment to nature and spiritual engagement with the world, had been subverted by Western materialism and selfishness, but he optimistically looked at the East for a new beginning. Indeed, Japan's rise was a defining moment for nationalists all over Asia, and Tagore, though unimpressed with its militarism, looked hopefully for the signs of an Asian renaissance in the Japanese and later Chinese modernisations. That this modernisation came in the form of Western-style consumer civilisation was indeed deeply disappointing to him, and he hoped that India when it eventually joined the community of independent nations, would bring its spiritualism to the Chinese genius and Japanese energy to shape a new Asia. And, even as he was consistently ridiculed - his pacifism was seen as timidity befitting a servile Indian - he wouldn't give up: He remained committed, till the very last day of his life, to the idea of an India integrated with Asia.

Third, the idea of an India made of its village communities, an idea he shared with Gandhi, was the centre-piece of Tagore's conception of India. The idea of an Industrialised India, which would be key to Nehru's later vision, would be somewhat alien to him. And, indeed, while one may, from the vantage point of today's politics of GDP growth and 'make in India' slogans, feel this to be an impractical idea, it would be important to remember that India was, and still is, an agrarian society, where village communities, until the English started introducing private property rights on land and Zemindars to collect taxes, held the land and regulated all aspects of lives of many Indians. Today, the Indian city may look all-encompassing, but one should see this limited in time - the cities are a very recent affair in the long history of India - and space, as only a fraction of Indian people really live there.

And, finally, the idea of India was held together by a love of nature and spiritual commitments that were so instictively Indian. This is Tagore's way of reconciling the ideas of progress, open mind and engagement with the world, and his commitment to the uniquely Indian, agrarian ways of life. For him, being Indian is to renounce the material pursuits and live in harmony with nature, while keeping an open mind and engaging with the world. This is where Tagore's rural India is different from Gandhi's; it is not frozen in time searching for custom and tradition, but rather an active, evolving space built around new ideas and in constant engagement with new ideas.

Tagore, while in close collaboration with Gandhi and Nehru, developed his very distinct ideas of India, and, while he didn't live to see an Independent India these ideas seeped into the visions of his colleagues and in foundational narrative of India. Over time, however, his distinct ideas have become more visible: As the battles over India's soul intensified, and new narratives, of that of a monocultural, muscular and materialist India, contested the Pacifist and Inclusive ideas of Gandhi and Nehru, Tagore's ideas have found a narrative of their own.


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