The Other Tagore

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

The sage of Santiniketan was rebellious and courted controversy sometimes to espouse a cause that mattered to him.

THE Tagore we usually get to know is the icon of the sage of Santiniketan, the widely respected author resting on his laurels from 1913 up to his death in 1941 as the first non-European to get the Nobel Prize, an ideologue of the freedom struggle admired by leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose a image of a pillar of the establishment. Arguably, there was another Tagore who was rebellious, courting unpopularity at some turning points of his life, reviled by his countrymen as an apostate and a traitor, and acutely conscious of his conspicuous isolation due to his frequent failure to connect with prevailing public opinion. That other Rabindranath Tagore is hidden in his letters, most of which still remain unpublished, in his quiet self-reflections in some isolated and infrequently noticed writings, and in the events of his quotidian life in the years before he attained fame.

The school dropout

The first rebellion in Tagore's life occurred before he reached his teens. As a child he rebelled against the system of schooling his generation suffered. He refused to go to school. He was successively transferred to four different schools by the elders of his family, and yet each time his non-cooperation defeated the elders. I rebelled, young though I was. Of course, this was an awful thing for a child to do the child of a respectable family! .When I was thirteen I finished going to school. So long as I was forced to do so, I felt the torture of going to school insupportable. 1

Tagore said he had used the freedom thus gained to educate himself. However, he soon found himself to be a literary outlaw because he was without the kind of education that gentlefolk in British India underwent. It was his good fortune to escape the prevalent colonial education system but he had to pay a price for it. My ignorance combined with my heresy turned me into a literary outlaw.I had neither the protective armour of mature age, nor that of a respectable English education. Thus he suffered castigation upon me from critics who were learned, but in his seclusion of contempt he had a kind of freedom. Tagore felt that as he persisted in producing one book of poems after another through his youth, he obtained blame and praise in the proportion of land and water on our earth, and eventually he gained a reputation in my country, but a strong current of antagonism in a large section of my countrymen persisted. He felt that I have never had complete acceptance from my own people. 2

Tagore's perception that he was isolated was enhanced when he emerged from his shelter of the enchanted solitude of a poet into the public sphere. He became a public intellectual in the Swadeshi movement against the partition of Bengal from 1905. In this phase, for the first time he made a conscious effort to connect with public sentiment against the vivisection of the Bengali people. However, very soon Tagore's mind rebelled against the turn towards individual violence in the form of militant nationalist action through political assassinations. In 1908, his writings, especially a long tract entitled Ends and Means 3, abundantly signified a break with his compatriots who supported militant activism. Another thing that worried him was a feature of the anti-partition movement in Bengal: the enforcement of diktats of the caste-Hindu upper-class leaders on Bengali's peasantry, among whom Muslims formed the majority. In the stance of the main protagonist Nikhilesh, in the novel The Home and the World 4, one can get a glimpse of Tagore's tendency to rebel against the predominant cast of mind of the elite in Bengal in the days of the anti-partition agitation.

When Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the national scene with the mantra of non-cooperation, once again Tagore found himself in the lonely path of a pursuit of an ideal that he perceived as unattainable in terms of the strategy of the Indian National Congress. From the beginning of the 1920s, Tagore found himself at odds with the line of action chosen by the Indian National Congress. Tagore's relationship with Mahatma Gandhi was cordial and although they debated many issues they remained constant in their friendship. 5 However, the same cannot be said of many in the ranks of the Gandhians. Tagore's critique of the Gandhian approach in the 1920s was deeply resented by the followers of Gandhi. Even in Bengal, where Tagore was on the way to attaining the status of an icon, the Gandhians were not prepared to tolerate any criticism of the Mahatma. This, for example, was the reaction in a leading Bengali newspaper to Tagore's scepticism about the efficacy of the charkha as a means of political and economic struggle. The charkha movement has been revealed to the poet's intelligence as a hoax. Only an extraordinary genius can say such an extraordinary thing. The ludicrous opinions of the poet may appeal to those who live in a dream world, but those who are grounded in the soil of this country will feel that the poet's useless labours are sad and pitiful. 6 Scurrilous canards and spoofs lampooning the poet were published in Bengali newspapers. Tagore's opponents were of the view that the poet's emotionalism was too much in evidence and that his criticism of Gandhi was devoid of reasoning. 7

Apart from specific issues such as Tagore's doubts about the charkha as the panacea, or his warning against the boycott of educational institutions without creating a nationalist alternative to the colonial education system, there was a deeper-seated cause of potential conflict. This arose in the context of Tagore's intellectual evolution from his position as a leader of the anti-partition Swadeshi agitation in Bengal from 1905 to 1908, towards a world outlook that can be best described as a kind of humanist universalism. I find myself obliged to separate myself from my own people with whom I have been working, and my soul cries out: The complete man must not be sacrificed to the patriotic man, or even to the merely moral man. To me humanity is rich and large and many-sided. As Tagore developed his own philosophy of humanist universalism, he felt compelled to condemn the curtailment of humanityoften advocated in our country under the name of patriotism. 8 Although Mahatma Gandhi shared that philosophy of universalism, to the large majority of people in the nationalist ranks Tagore's stance was no more than a pose and a cover for an unpatriotic ambiguity. Tagore's differences with the nationalist enthusiasts in the Congress became obvious, even though his reputation as a litterateur kept growing.

Tagore's break with the section of nationalists who were called biplabi, or revolutionary, in Bengal was even sharper. From his political essays in 1908, questioning the strategy of the biplabi leadership, to the novel published in 1934, Four Chapters ( Char Adhayay), Tagore consistently expressed on the one hand his deep admiration for the militant nationalists' courage of conviction and, on the other, his criticism of the path of individual violence chosen by them. The novel is remarkable for its ruthlessness in thinking through judgments about the ethics and strategic possibilities of political violence and the novel is, at the same time, tenderly sensitive to human values. The revolutionary nationalists were deeply shocked because Tagore had been and remained in the forefront of the movement for the release of political prisoners, mostly biplabis, who were imprisoned without trial. Many of the militant activists were his admirers. Nevertheless Tagore did not allow his judgment to be clouded by the sentiment that prevailed in Bengal, a sentiment that amounted to unthinking enthusiasm for militant action by secret societies without preparation for a wider popular base. This novel of 1934 was in a sense Tagore's last major engagement with the issues posed by militant nationalism. The reaction was so adverse that Tagore felt compelled to offer an explanation' of his position in the editions after 1934.

Another schism Tagore recurrently refers to in his writings in the late 1920s and the 1930s is connected with his role as an institution builder from 1901 when he founded his school in Santiniketan until his death. He perceived an unsympathetic attitude in Bengal towards his effort to innovate a new pattern of education. He found the response from Bengal particularly disappointing in the crucially important early phase of his school at Santiniketan. Reflecting on his experience, he wrote in 1933: I received no help from my own people; their opposition and animosity without reason impeded this school, but I ignored that and carried on my effort regardless. 9 Seven years later, shortly before his death, he spoke again in the same vein: I remember the long and arduous path that led to this ashram. No one will ever know the intolerably woeful history of that struggle against unrelenting adversity. 10 Unlike in other contexts there is bitterness in these and many similar statements he made about absence of support from his own people. These bitter remarks are directed mainly against the Bengali middle classes. Apropos of that one also recalls his rudely frank response to representatives of this class on a well-known occasion. When they flocked to felicitate Tagore soon after the award of the Nobel Prize was announced, he chose that moment to recall the insult and discouragement it has been my fate to receive from my countrymen. The felicitations which came after recognition from abroad, he said, were no more than a part of a momentary excitement which might soon disappear because only a few in the celebratory gathering truly appreciated Tagore's writings. Thus Tagore, on this and some other occasions, conspicuously distanced himself from the middle class, or the bhadralok, although they constituted the head and front of his audience as an author.

Tagore's alienation from such people can be contrasted with his perception that among the rural peasantry there was a touch of humanity. 11 Undeniably, Tagore was a landlord in relation to the peasantry he was acquainted with in the family's estates. He was acutely aware of that. He writes to his son in 1930: The whole business of zamindari makes me ashamed.I feel sad to think that from childhood we have been raised as parasites. 12 However, beyond the bounds of the landlord-tenant relationship there were many other spheres of Tagore's activities that created a sympathetic bond. There is plenty of evidence that he invested a good part of his inexhaustible energy and meagre financial resources to address issues of importance to the rural poor, for instance, the supply of potable water to the village people, prevention of malaria which was rampant in his villages which are in present-day Bangladesh, the absence of schools for children in rural areas, or the need for cooperative credit system for farmers (a major part of the Nobel Prize money was put by Tagore in a cooperative bank for this purpose; it was from the worldly point of view a bad decision, for the capital melted way without a trace). It seems unlikely that Tagore was merely attitudinising when he asserted that he felt in his bones a bond with the peasantry. Moreover, that style of attitudinising was not yet fashionable in those times.

In the 1930s, the last decade of Tagore's life, once again he felt besieged by apprehensions of being isolated and attacked because he had launched his debut as a painter towards the end of his life. Tagore was particularly despondent about the reception of his paintings among his own people. I have no wish to acquaint the people of my province with my work as an artist.Alive or dead, I have no desire to make this creation of mine public here. My pictures will not be allowed to commit the same offence as my other creations. 13 Thus Tagore confided to a correspondent in Bengal his apprehensions that his artistic work would be rejected by his people. Indeed, he first exhibited his paintings in Calcutta towards the end of his life, long after numerous exhibitions in Europe and North America. In part this was due to his general conviction that India was not ready for styles of painting other than what was popular and usually known as Oriental art. He surmised that artists were browbeaten to toe the line laid down by persons who were not creative and he urged artists to vehemently deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled as Indian art. 14 His was a strident call for rebellion against stereotyped art labelled as Oriental art, and many years later Mulk Raj Anand used this essay by Tagore as an agenda statement of modern art in India.

Perhaps Tagore's last act of rebellion was against the tradition of the European Enlightenment, which he looked up to for inspiration throughout his life. This was when he famously uttered, a few weeks before his death, his judgment on the crisis of civilisation as he perceived it in 1941. In the beginning of his intellectual life he had looked upon European civilisation as the pace-setter in bringing about a change in the mindset of the world with its message of rationality and science, democratic institutions, an agenda of abolishing slavery, and other analogous progressive values. Looking at the world in the throes of the Second World War as a result of the imperialist aggrandisement of the European powers, Tagore forcefully expressed his disillusionment. As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a vast civilisation strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. 15 Needless to say, in the heat and stress of the World War, Tagore's last judgment did not please the West.

It is interesting to reflect upon these and many other instances of Tagore's tendency of mind to court unpopularity to espouse a cause that mattered to him. History knows of many other great minds, in advance of their times, striving against the prevailing current. The unusual poignancy in Tagore's life was his loneliness. He often stood alone in the face of adversity. Since he rarely spoke of it except in private letters to a few confidants, this aspect of his life has received little attention in numerous biographies focussing on his external life. In his inner life the poet sang to himself ekla chalo re, walk alone, walk alone. 16

End Notes

1. Autobiographical', in Talks in China, 1925. In writing this essay I have drawn upon citations in the following forthcoming book: Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Rabindranath Tagore: An Interpretation (Viking/Penguin, 2011).

2. Talks in China, 1925.3. Path O Patheya (Ends and Means), 1908.4. Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) 1916.

5. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ed., The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore (New Delhi, 2009).

6. Ananda Bazar Patrika, August 19, 1929.

7. e.g. Editorial in Bombay Chronicle, September 9, 1925.

8. Tagore, letter to C.F. Andrews, January 14, 1921.

9. Tagore, Visva-Bharati, in Rabindra Rachanavali, Vol. IV, page 280.

10. Tagore, Visva-Bharati, in Rabindra Rachanavali, Vol. IV, page 290.

11. Tagore, letter to C.F. Andrews, July 23, 1915.

12. Tagore, letter to Rathindranath Tagore, October 31, 1930.

13. Tagore, letter to Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, December 20, 1929.

14. Meaning of Art, Lecture at Dhaka University, February 1926, in S.K. Das, ed., English Works of Rabindranath Tagore (Sahitya Akademi), Vol. III, page 586.

15. Crisis in Civilization, 1941, page 21.

16. Jodi tor dak sune keu na ashe tabe ekla chalo re', translation by Tagore, unpublished until his death, If they answer not thy call, walk alone, in Krishna Kripalani ed., Tagore's Poems, 1942.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, formerly Vice-Chancellor, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, and Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is the author of Talking Back: The Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse (Oxford University Press); Vande-Mataram: The Biography of a Song (Penguin).

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