In the pantheon of great writers to have emerged from the subcontinent, Rabindranath Tagore holds a unique place. In his book Raga Mala, Ravi Shankar, the renowned musician, argued that had Tagore been born in the West “he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.”
For Indians, particularly those of Bengali extraction, Tagore has always been a towering figure. His poems, songs, novels and other writings have enriched the nation’s cultural legacy, justly celebrated, and elevating him to the status of national icon. But the truth is that, outside of the subcontinent, he remains, other than to those of a literary bent, a relatively unknown quantity.
Who was the man they called the Bard of Bengal?
Tagore was born in 1861 in Calcutta, a Brahmin Hindu. A child prodigy with a restless mind, his talent manifested at an early age. He wrote poetry as an eight-year-old and released his first poetry collection aged just sixteen. His father, however, had other plans, packing his dreamy-eyed son off to a public school in Brighton, England in 1878, followed by a brief stint at University College London where he read law in accordance with his father’s wish that he train as a barrister. Tagore found the endeavour less than inspiring and soon dropped out, instead opting to study Shakespeare – on his own.
In 1880, he returned to Bengal – without a degree, much to his father’s chagrin – and embarked on his career as a creative artist, quickly moving beyond his initial forays into poetry. A polymath, Tagore became a key figure in the so-called Bengal Renaissance. His vast canon comprises paintings, sketches, poetry, novels, essays, short stories, and some two thousand songs.
As he grew towards adulthood, he became infected with the sensibilities of the era – an ardent nationalist streak emerged within the stately artist, encouraging him to use his public platform to advocate for Indian Independence.
He gained worldwide attention with Gitanjali (“Song Offering”), a selection of one hundred and three prose poems for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-European to earn that honour.
For years thereafter, he became the doyen of European literary circles, touring to packed audiences. In 1915, he was awarded a knighthood by King George V but renounced it after the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India’s Punjab region where almost a thousand unarmed Indian civilians were murdered in cold blood as they gathered to protest the continued occupation of their country.
This nationalistic bent can be found in one of the most famous works from Gitanjali – “Where the Mind is Without Fear”, a clarion call to Tagore’s fellow Indians to rise up against the Raj:
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.
By the 1930s, however, Tagore-fever had ebbed. (Graham Greene even remarked that “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously.”) Nevertheless, he remained an important literary and international figure, an ambassador for his country, his white kurta and striking long white beard instantly recognisable.
During this period, he became a fashionable guest of western luminaries.
On July 14, 1930, he was welcomed into the Berlin home of Albert Einstein where the pair discussed, amongst other things, the age-old friction between science and religion. Einstein and Tagore had a genuine curiosity about each other’s views of the worldand explored the fundamental questions of existence, touching on science, philosophy, consciousness, and beauty.
In one exchange Einstein asked, “Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?”
Tagore replied: “Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth. I have taken a scientific fact to explain this. Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature, and the religious consciousness of man.”
Einstein discovered that he apparently believed more in absolute truth than the ostensibly spiritual man he was debating, causing him to exclaim, “Then I am more religious than you are!”
Tagore’s legacy lives on today in Indian and Bangladeshi schools, where children are required to sing the national anthem. In both countries, they are singing compositions by Tagore: in India’s case Jana Gana Mana (“Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people”) and in Bangladesh Amar Shonar Bangla (“My Golden Bengal”).
As India moves into a future increasingly influenced by western culture, Tagore remains a much revered and affectionate touchstone of her great literary past.