Of late, Rabindranath Tagore, whom even Gandhi had to call Gurudev, has received adverse comments by two outstanding literary persons. Girish Karnard dubbed him a second rate playwright, while Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire portrayed him as poet unwelcomed in China during his visit in 1920s. These comments may surprise many and even shock some but are unlikely to downgrade the height of the man who turned to be the first non-European to get the Nobel prize in Literature for his collection of poems entitled Gitanjali in 1913. That Tagore remains one of the few outstanding sons of modern India is established by the book written by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a retired Professor of History from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who subsequently became Vice-Chancellor of the University started by Tagore, called Visva-Bharati.
In the history of India, Tagore has remained the most widely acclaimed known multi-dimensional man, the best known example of what Marx visualised as the idea of a complete man, that is, a social being who is proficient in several fields. As an exponent of the Bengal Renaissance, Tagore advanced a vast canon that comprised plays and paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts—of poetry, novels, stories—and some two thousand songs known as Rabindra Sangeet. His legacy also endures in the national anthem of two nations—India and Bangladesh—and the institution he founded—Visva-Bharati University— an experiment that can boast of producing a couple of personality of international repute including Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Amartya Sen and Satyajit Roy. Bhattacharya’s interpretation of Tagore is a unique attempt at portraying him as a man who was sensitive enough to recognise the gender differences between men and women and domestic dominance of the aged over the young at home. According to Bhattacharya, this conflict between the tradition and modernity “produced a complex discourse of modernity within indigenous parameters” and subsequently seems to have shaped his philosophical outlook.
The book, which is divided into six chapters, illustrates various stages of Tagore’s intellectual evolution spanning over a period of eight decades. His early childhood gets illustrated in the chapter entitled as “The Enchanted Garden” and the chapter termed as “The Sage of Santiniketan” hints at his disillusionment with the politics of his time. Tagore stood against both British Imperialism and Nationalist Chauvinism. That is probably why he is in favour of free exchange of ideas and cultural exchange.
Unlike the leading nationalist thinkers of his time, Tagore believed in the alternative path of “rural reconstruction of nation building”. Bhattacharya emphasises that Tagore’s “approach stemmed from his understanding of Bengal’s society, the problems facing the peasantry”. He reiterated the need to develop atma-sakti or inner capability of the people and was of the opinion that the middle class is, to use the words of Bhattacharya, “isolated from the life and mind of the common people”. The book is concluded with an outline of Tagore’s philosophical perspective on humanity that is a world-view, which believes in a harmonious, casteless world, where cultural exchange and mutual trust among nations could flourish uninterrupted. Professor Bhattacharya’s effort is an extremely valuable contribution to the study of Tagore.
By P C Singh