When along with Sudeshna Chakravarti and Mary Mathew we had published our co-authored book Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films (Orient Blackswan, 2013), many were sceptical about the title and were unhappy with the grammatical ‘slip’ of dropping the definite article ‘The’. We deliberated that dropping the definite article ‘the’ would strengthen our purpose of showcasing ‘Radical’ Rabindranath. As research guides we were aware how necessary it was to find supportive primary and secondary sources to support our opinion that Tagore had made many radical and non-conformist observations throughout his career as a public intellectual.
We carefully sorted and critiqued some of these comments so that we were not clubbed together as speculative fictionists. The Introduction of our book carried the following quotes and our comments which may seem interesting. In a letter to his friend and English biographer Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore had written on 27 October 1937: Do you know that I have often felt that if we were not Hindus (in the wide sense of Hinduism which included Buddhism as well), I should like my people to be Christians? By referring to this italicized statement we introduced our arguments by stating our purpose for writing our book, Radical Rabindranath, “If indeed every other statement of Tagore may pass the litmus test of a non-radical, benign liberal humanist, egalitarian approach, the excerpt above may well seem to be unambiguously radical, both in and out of its socio-historical context.
It is this exemplary and extraordinarily liberated and inclusive spirit of Tagore that we propose to recognize, explore and critique, identifying his moments of overt and covert non-conformism, his vacillations, his conservative reactions, his subjective conflictual self and his unequivocal overtures.” Though much has been said about the multifaceted genius of Tagore, we had endeavoured to focus on areas that have been somewhat marginalized in the wake of the more dominant and compelling desire in the West to establish Tagore as a transcendent visionary and poet-philosopher. As readers and cultural commentators, we felt that such an emphasis reduces and shifts the focus.
It appears that if regarded as a transcendent philosopher, it could be said that Tagore had merely made tangential negotiations with the micro-politics of daily living and the socioeconomic factors that influence and motivate the evolution of culture. Tagore’s fictional writing, as well as his non-fictional narratives, reiterate his deep engagement with both the mundane and the metaphysical, the absolute and the concrete, the empirical and the ontological. This remarkably wide trajectory of Tagore’s genius proves his astonishing contemporaneity as well as his rootedness to the spatio-temporal dynamics of his own times. Therefore, we argued that Tagore’s entire life had been a determined bid to follow his own conscience and creative ideas. Though it was not a misanthropist’s journey, it was the journey of the social reformer and cultural commentator.
Tagore ardently believed and hoped he could rouse consciousness through awareness campaigns about societal evils, exploitative politics and religious conservatism. He urged the people to step out of the narrow ambits of nationalism and internalize a cosmopolitan outlook, that could bridge the national and international with felicity. But unquestioned adherence to conservatism, changelessness, and traditional stereotypes made Tagore interrogate organized symbols of the establishment. Lifelong he remained an advocate of creative freedom that would lead to an inclusive spirit of universalism, rather than exclusive orthodoxy. Tagore therefore emerges as a pathfinder, emphasizing the need to go forward alone, ekla chalo, only if others did not respond to the call for support.
This is perhaps the uniqueness of his conditional motivational agenda. It underscores that only if others do not respond to the call of reform and progress, then it is one’s duty to pursue the dream on one’s own, having the courage of one’s convictions (Jodi tor daak shuney keu naa ashey tobe ekla chalo re ~ If no one responds to your call, then go it alone). Tagore was not a lonely scholar gypsy; on the contrary he made a concerted bid to embark on an inclusive path that would lead to reaching out to people of all races, classes, castes and colours. In his letter to Reverend Foss Wesott written shortly before his death, dated June 16, 1941, and which was his last letter that expressed his reservations about British governance of India, Tagore had stated categorically that it had been his lifelong endeavour and dream to realize an inclusive world, “I have as you are no doubt aware, worked all my life for the promotion of racial, communal and religious harmony among the different peoples of the world. I have also, at considerable personal cost and often at risk of being misunderstood by my own people, set my face against all claims of narrow and aggressive nationalism, believing in the common destiny and oneness of all mankind”.
Though written much earlier, his internationally acclaimed poem on freedom still resonates with tremendous impact at a time when good fences make good neighbours seem to be the new normal. 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, Where words come out from the depth of truth, Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way, Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit Where the mind is led forward by thee Into ever-widening thought and action Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. Harping on this spirit of complete intellectual and creative freedom, during his visit to the University of Rome in 1926, Tagore addressed the students there and stated, “Students everywhere belong to a country of their own, which has no distinction of nationality or race, a band of human hope, a band of young minds, seeking life and light, and in this band guidance and leadership belong to the Poet”.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is former Professor of English, Calcutta University)