Bengalis tend to quote poems to contextualise a situation or event, particularly delving into the vast oeuvre of ‘Kobiguru’ Rabindranath Tagore. As people get ready to celebrate Rabindra jayanti on pachishe Baisakh (25th Baisakh in the Bangla calendar) on May 9, his birth anniversary (though he was born on May 7, 1861), many are humming his song “Banglar mati, Banglar jol” (the soil of Bengal, the water of Bengal) to establish the state’s identity in the aftermath of the electoral win of the home-grown party against the domineering national party.
On another note, some of those who are less familiar with Tagore’s work might think that his relevance beyond Bengal is rather faded today. After all, much water has flowed under the bridge since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. But here, a little pause is due.
Tagore’s creative genius encompassed many fields. He was a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, composer, essayist and an artist. He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He may have been the only person in history to have authored the national anthems of two independent countries — “Jana Gana Mana” for India, and Bangladesh, which chose one of his songs “Amar Sonar Bangla”. He’s also believed to have influenced the national anthem of Sri Lanka, which was written by his student.
A truly Renaissance man, Tagore was receptive to varied socio-cultural ethos, whether at home or abroad when he was on lecture tours. These impressions percolated into his writings. Punjab was one such region. The teachings of Guru Nanak deeply influenced him right since childhood when he first visited the Golden Temple as an 11-year-old with his father. He wrote six poems on Sikh heroism and martyrdom, including three on Guru Gobind Singh and one on Banda Bahadur. In conversation with actor Balraj Sahni, he described Guru Nanak’s Aarti as an anthem for the whole world.
His association with Punjab, however, went beyond the visits. Pained by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, he wrote a letter to the Viceroy returning the knighthood bestowed on him by the British Empire. An excerpt from his letter dated May 31, 1919, available at the National Archives of India reads, “The time has come when the badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.” His letter created much furore and the Anglo-Indian press went up in arms against him.
Tagore was never cocooned in an ivory tower. He was active in the Swadeshi movement and always believed that the rural population was not getting its due from the urban sophisticates, though he himself belonged to a Zamindar family — a thought that resonates with sociologists reading the tea leaves in current times.
Swaraj for Tagore was not just political freedom but freedom from hunger, disease, servitude and ignorance. More than seven decades after Independence, it is relevant to question whether these targets have been achieved.
In his play ‘Raktakarabi’ (Red Oleanders) written in 1923, Tagore questioned the stranglehold of commercial exploitation, oppression, and obsession with power. In a globalised world where unscrupulous capitalism and environmental exploitation prevail, the author’s concerns seem eerily relevant even after 100 years.
A true internationalist — he visited 34 countries — Tagore set up Santiniketan, his dream project, with limited resources as a centre of international understanding, introducing studies of different cultures and religions. Today, when bigotry and ignorance about ‘the other’ are rampant and creating conflicts, Tagore’s warning about attempts to curb “freedom of mind” deserves a deeper look: “Opinions are constantly changed and rechanged only through free circulation of intellectual forces and persuasion,” he wrote.
Equally important is to recognise Tagore’s views on women and their role in society. His heroines challenged social evils like taboo on widow remarriage, untouchability, rigid caste system, and patriarchy at large.
In the introductory chapter to ‘Tagore and the Feminine: A Journey in Translations’, author Malashri Lal writes: “Rabindranath Tagore evolved his own principles for portraying the feminine in a marvellous range of expressions. It is left to his readers to relate his literature to contemporary life.”
‘Streer Patra’ (A Wife’s Letter), for example, challenges the institution of marriage. The three women, oppressed in an extended family, eventually move towards female bonding. Mrinal, the protagonist, realises that she has to “design her own liberation”.
Lal also observes: “He reworked the old mythologies, investing them with new meaning, daring to play with some iconic tales such as those of Kunti and Gandhari in the ‘Mahabharata’. … he successfully rendered women from all classes, perhaps, recognising a gendered experience that separated their world from men in a patriarchal frame.”
Today, many women writers are relooking at women characters in the mythologies to examine the ‘feminine question’.
At a time when divisive forces are trying to get an upper hand and segregate people into opposite camps, it is well to remember Tagore’s words once again:
“Where the mind is without fear and
the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been
broken up into fragments by
narrow domestic walls …
Into that heaven of freedom,
My Father, let my country awake.”