Rabindranath Tagore was born on May 7, 1861 at Joresanko Rouse, 6 Dwarakanath Lane, Calcutta in a large family of fifteen children. We have just passed his 150th birth anniversary. To forget him literally is to forget God. He was in his long life-time, several things: poet, author, dramatist, essayist, artist, educationist-he established Shanti Niketan University and was a winner at age 53, of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913, the first ever Asian to do so, for his classic poem Gitanjali.
In 1961, writing an Introduction to a Centenary Volume on Tagore’s life and work, Jawaharlal humbly asked: “Who am I to write about, or pass judgement on a person who was so deep in his humanity and so many-sided in his greatness?” In that same volume, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, one time President of India wrote that he, along with Sir Michael Gwyer were deputed by the University of Oxford to confer the degree of Doctor of Literature on Tagore who, by then, had also come to be known as Gurudev. In the citation it was said that Tagore was “most dear to all the Muses”-and no more accurate an assessment could possibly have been made.
Tagore wrote primarily in his own mother tongue, Bengali, but he wrote with equal felicity in English as well. There was poetry in everything he wrote and his words touched the heart as they challenged the mind. Even a small event like planting a tree-he planted one when on a visit to Hungary in 1926-sent him into poetic ecstasy. In the Guest Book he wrote: “When I am no longer on this earth, my tree, let the ever-renewed leaves of thy Spring murmur to the wayfarers: “The poet did love while he lived”. He was not by any chance a politician, but he could come down sharp on politicians. When he was hardly sixteen, in 1877, he composed and recited a poem at a public meeting satirizing the Delhi Durbar, held to proclaim Queen Victoria as Empress of India, when the whole country was ravaged by the Great Famine.
When he was 79 he wrote an essay protesting against the Soviet Union’s aggression in Finland, in 1940. He spared nobody, when it came to it. He could even be critical of Gandhiji, but this was prior to 1921. After that he became an ardent admirer of the Mahatma. He wrote: “Then, at the critical moment, Mahatma Gandhi came and stood by the door of India’s millions clad as one of themselves, speaking to them in their own tongue. That is why he has been aptly named Mahatma, the Great Soul….” Gurudev’s love for his own country was evident in every line he wrote. As he once put it: “Whoever may rule over us, no one can snatch from us our sky, our fields and meadows….or rob us of our right to knowledge”. There was a deep tapasya behind his writings as indeed behind all his manifold activities. He travelled often, and widely. He lectured to western audiences, even as Swami Vivekananda did. And often he won their hearts.
Not many realise that he will remain part of India for ever and ever, not merely through his writing but for the national song-Jana Gana Mana-he unconsciously contributed to his beloved motherland. He was-and will ever remain-the quintessential Indian, steeped in Indian thought, Indian culture and Indian ethos. Though he is largely known for his poetry, music and dramas, he also wrote several novels, the best known among them being Gora-the White Man -which is in a class in itself and was subsequently translated into several languages like German and Polish. In fact, most of his works have been translated into European languages following is winning of the Nobel Prize. Tagore, incidentally was almost the first one to encourage study of Chinese at Vishwa Bharati University. Actually he was the first to set up a full-fledged Institute for Sinological and Sino-Indian studies at Shantiniketan. He had admirers everywhere, including the Soviet Union.
On the occasion of the birth centenary, the Union of Soviet Writers noted in a resolution how the event “of the birth of the great son of Indian people” was recalled by all Soviet people “with a feeling of gratitude and love” for his “tremendous, invaluable contribution to the development of world civilisation, and for laying a firm basis of friendship and mutual understanding between the peoples of the Soviet Union and India”. It is now seventy years since he passed away on August 7, 1941-a year before Congress passed the Quit India resolution. How well is he remembered today? Alas, not as well as he should be. Textbooks do quote his famous lines from the Gitanjali: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high where knowledge is free”. There have been patriots, writers, dramatists, politicians who, each in his or her own fired have excelled but no Indian before him and no India after him have exceeded Tagore in his commitment to India in so many fields. In his poems his love for India stands out.
In 1905 when he took an active part in the anti-British movement in Bengal, the first line in his very first poem says: “Blessed am I that I am born to this land and that I had the luck to love her”. He also appealed to the broad masses of the Indian people to unite with the words of a prayer. He wrote:
Let the earth and the water, the air and the fruits of my country be sweet, my God
Let the homes and marts, the forests and fields of my country be full, my God
Let the promises and hopes, the deeds and words of my country be true, my God
Let the lives and hearts of the sons and daughters of my country be one, my God
He was never comfortable with the British rulers saying that he was against “currying favour with the white lords”; he was more explicit in that one line in Gitanjali: “Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might”. After what happened at Jallianwala Bagh, he gave up his knighthood. That required courage, but then, that was Rabindranath Tagore, Gurudev. We need to remember him now more than ever for helping restore our pride in being Indians, heir to a great and vivid civilisation the like of which there is none in the world.