Tagore the dreamer and the doer, the poet who felicitously blended the abstract and the concrete, the intrepid poet and philosopher, had endeavored lifelong to instill the need for an inclusive world and a level playing field. In a letter to CF Andrews, he had written, “I love India…but my India is an Idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore I am not a patriot ~ I shall ever seek my compatriots all over the world” Tagore’s last essay in English titled Crisis in Civilization, published just before his death, in 1941 is significant. The essay expresses an unusual pessimism as Tagore had staunchly advocated the principles of harmony and understanding between the East and West.

Tagore’s conclusion in Crisis in Civilization connects it to Samuel Huntington’s explosive essay, The Clash of Civilization, if not for the sameness, definitely to emphatically identify the differences that the world environment has had to negotiate since the death of Tagore. Huntington forecasts that either Europe and America will hang together or hang separately in the clash of civilizations. “In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war”. Tagore wrote, “From one end of the world to the other, the poisonous fumes of hatred darken the atmosphere…As I look around, I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a heap of futility. and yet I will not commit the grievous sin of losing my faith in Man. A day will come when unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage”.

Tagore knew that such a unique creative journey of eighty years was bound to be a lonely one, but he never lost heart and never lost faith in humanity as this inspirational and motivational song written and set to tune by him conveys. It is a song that tells the story of the path-finder, the leader who will have followers, and was regarded as a motivational song by many political activists of his times and after ~ Jodi tor dak shuney keu naa ashe tobe ekla cholo re… (If no one comes when you call, then just go ahead on your own Go ahead on your own, on your own, on your own If no one speaks to you, O Unfortunate One If everyone turns the face away, if everyone is afraid Then open your heart Just express the words of your soul, on your own If everyone turns back, O Unfortunate one, If no one goes with you while you traverse the dark lane Then the thorns on your path Crush them with your bleeding feet, on your own If there is no light, O unfortunate One During stormy, windy dark nights, if they shut the door Then with the thunderous lightning Ignite the ribs of your heart and go ahead on your own).

In fact, unlike most creative careers Tagore seemed to become more and more assertive and confident as he grew older and this is manifest even in the year that marked his demise, 1941, when he was eighty years of age. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister and a lifelong admirer of Tagore noticed this reverse process in Tagore’s mind which was unique and set him apart from most others, for with the advancement of chronological age, there seems to be a perceptible desire to seek the security of tested comfort zones. But Tagore differed. Age could not make Tagore passive, resigned and mellow. His mind not only retained its creative vitality but became far more assertive, at times exhibiting its power to break free of all essentialist discourse about the role of humanity and nationalist obsessions in a viciously politicized international environment.

At the same time on the local and domestic level his fictional narratives graphed the need for women’s empowerment and showed how the resistance of women paved the path for social change that would also contribute to nation building. About this aspect of his career and personality Jawaharlal Nehru, his lifelong friend and admirer had stated unequivocally, “Contrary to the usual course of development as he (Tagore) grew older he became more and more radical in his outlook and views.” Similarly, the poet and critic Buddhadev Bose had observed that Tagore’s ideational and imaginative odyssey became more daring as he advanced in years, which supports our view that at the age of eighty, Tagore was more youthful in expressing his ideas in his writing than when he was a young man in his twenties.

Buddhadev Bose stated: “Ordinarily, as people age they become more conservative, but in the case of Rabindranath it was just the opposite process, the older he grew the freer he became. That which was temporary, traditional, that which was related to the times and place incidentally, that which was about customs and rituals or just functional norms, his focus transcended all these, he credited truth as being of much greater purpose than rules and regulations, he regarded the demands of life as superior to normative practices.” Longevity without an open ageless mind may be an embarrassment not only for the person concerned but for everyone around. (In this piece I have used many relevant excerpts from our book, Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films. My apologies for self-plagiarism)


(The writer is former Professor of English, Calcutta University)