He was born in 1861, eight years before Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma’s place in history is secure but history is secure but his great contemporary is less well known though he won the Nobel Prize and the admiration of the great literary figures of the West, among them being Yeats and Pound. He contrived to show India to herself and the importance of his contribution to her reawakening was subtle and deep-releasing and feeding hidden fountains of creative activity in fields, which the politician is powerless to exploit.
His first impact was followed, in the West, by a decline of interest; but his stature in East has grown and this detailed study of his life and work gives a picture of the complete man. He was a poet, playwright, storyteller, musician, painter and educator; and his many achievements were but partial expressions of a restless vitality and on inexhaustible zest living.
In n the hundred years' that have passed since Rabindranath Tagore was born, the face of India has undergone such radical changes as no optimist living in 1861 could have envisaged. But even more remarkable are the changes that we taken place in the mind and spirit of modern India of which the transformation in outward appearance is but a partial reflection. A shy, frightened pony which needed a lash to move at all has turned into a spirited charger that has to be held back from running out of hand.
In 1861 when Tagore was born India lay prostrate at the feet of the British. The foreign traders had been firmly en-trenched as rulers and the British Queen was soon to be pro-claimed the Empress of India. It was taken for granted that this bright jewel would continue to shed luster on the imperial crown forever. That the rulers should think so is understandable. What is significant is that many Indians shared this faith and welcomed it. The eighteenth century in India had been the dark age of misrule and internal wars, a jungle in which the beasts of prey, native and foreign, roamed and ravaged at will, so that when in the end some kind of law and order was established over the whole realm, the people in general were primarily conscious, not of the subtle tragedy that India had lost her freedom, but of the obvious and concrete fact that they could at last breathe in peace. After the menace of the jungle the peace of the desert seemed a blessing.
The great Mutiny2 of 1857 had been ruthlessly quelled and the ancient ruling classes had been either wiped out or lay cringing in the dust. A new class, a mixed middle class, with new interests and new education was on the rise, sedulously fostered under the patronage of the new regime. It is unfair to dub this rising class as the Quislings, for not them but the previous rulers had betrayed the interests of the country. This new class was in fact to become the vanguard of India's new destiny. But this awareness of a new destiny was to come later.
The outstanding feature of the intellectual and spiritual climate of the period which preceded Tagore's birth is the fact that Indians were enjoying the peace of the desert. India had ceased to be creative. Politically she was not even aware of the loss of national freedom, and culturally she hugged the trappings of the new servitude or blindly clung to the shackles of the old. It was an age of toadies and of reactionaries, those who aped the Western ways and those who sought consolation in the bondage of immemorial tradition and dogma.
Eighty years later, when Tagore died, the face of India had been transformed. Politically she was on the eve of an adventure unparalleled in her history, culturally she had recovered her self-respect, and spiritually she was discovering the hidden springs of creative life. It is not without significance that Jawaharlal Nehru named his book in which he surveyed his country's heritage The Discovery of India. We have all had to discover India-to recover it. We are still doing so. This in itself was a revolution, perhaps the only true revolution-to discover oneself.
A multitude of forces and factors were responsible for this transformation, not the least of which was what happened in the rest of the world and its impact on India. But forces, whether in nature or in the world of men, are in themselves blind, and unless harnessed and directed by individuals, might prove more destructive than creative. Among individuals who made these forces creative in shaping the destiny of India, two stand out as pre-eminent, Gandhi and Tagore. The contribution of Gandhi is unmatched; he made Indian history as no one else did. That of Tagore was less obvious, but subtler and deeper, for it released and fed the hidden fountains of creative activity in fields which the politician is powerless to exploit.
Essentially a poet, Tagore was much more than a poet as understood in the western sense of the term, as Gandhi was more than a politician or patriot. He was a poet in the traditional Indian sense of the word, kava, a seer, an intermediary between the human and the divine. His genius enriched what-ever it touched. Like the sun after which he was named (Rabi in Bengali, derived from Sanskrit rave, means the sun), he shed light and warmth on his age, vitalized the mental and moral soil of his land, revealed unknown horizons of thought and spanned the arc that divides the East from the West. To those who have access to the language in which he wrote the vitality of his genius is truly amazing.
No less amazing are the variety and beauty of the literary forms he created. He gave to his people in one lifetime what normally takes much longer to evolve--a language rich and flexible, freed of many centuries-old inhibitions, a literature cherished as much by the people as by the academics. There is hardly a 'aid of literary activity which was not explored and made fruitful by his daring adventures, and many of these were virgin fields in Bengali which his hands were the first to stir into life. He is one of the world's few writers whose works-in his own language-withstand the severest tests of great literature-eastern or western, ancient or modern.
Among modern writers he has the uncommon distinction that while the sophisticated Bengali intellectuals delight in his verse and prose and learned professors write volumes on them, the simple unlettered folk in the congested lanes of Calcutta or in the remote villages of Bengal sing his songs with rapture. Mr. Ernest Rhys has related3 the experience of Mr. Edwin Montagu (who later became Secretary of State for India) during his travel in India. Once when riding through an Indian forest at night, Mr. Montagu came upon a clearing and found a few men sitting round a fire. He too dismounted and joined the group and sat listening to their songs. Soon after, a poor looking boy came out of the forest and joined the group. When his turn came, the boy sang 'a song more beautiful in words and music than the rest.' When asked whose song it was, he replied that he did not know: 'They were singing these songs everywhere.' Later on Mr. Montagu heard the same song 'in a very different place, and when he asked for the name of the maker of the song he heard for the first times the name of Rabindranath Tagore.'
This was many years ago, long before Tagore received the Nobel Prize. Today this experience would be more common. And no wonder; for each change of the season, each aspect of his country's rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or in joy, has found its voice in some song of his. They are sung in religious gatherings no less than in concert halls. Patriots have mounted the gallows with his song on their lips; and young lovers unable to express the depth of their feeling sing his songs and feel the weight of their dumbness relieved.
All this, however, is true mainly for those in whose language he wrote and composed. Those who know him only in translation can have little conception either of the scope or the quality of his genius. Unfortunately, his language Bengali is only one of the many in India, so that even in his own country the majority of the people have access to his writings in translation only. To them, apart from what they can so receive, Tagore's main significance lies in the impulse and direction he gave to the course of India's cultural and intellectual development, and in the example he presented of a genius passionately. Devoted to his art and no less passionately dedicated to the service of his people and of humanity in general. He gave them faith in their own language and in their cultural and moral heritage. The contemporary renaissance in Indian languages is due largely to his inspiration and example.
Nor was the renaissance confined to the languages and their literatures. His many-sided genius and his almost missionary zeal for the development of the Indian arts, be it dancing or music or painting or the handicrafts, his appreciation of the indigenous folk arts and his fostering of both the classical and the folk traditions in his school at Santiniketan provided a stimulus and a prestige to these arts which has enabled them to flower.
What is even more remarkable is the fact that he who taught his people to cherish and take pride in their own heritage also gave them the courage and the example to break the fetters of tradition. Trying always to conform to a conventional type, he warned, is a sign of immaturity. Only in babies is individuality of physiognomy blurred their babbling sounds similar everywhere. The adult must cultivate and assert his personality, must outgrow the fixed pattern and respond to the stimulus from outside, no matter from where it comes. 'When in the name of Indian art we cultivate with deliberate aggressiveness certain bigotry born of the habit of a past generation, we smother our soul under idiosyncrasies unearthed from past centuries, These are like masks with exaggerated grimaces that fail to respond to the ever changing play of life. Art is not a gorgeous sepulcher, immovably brooding over a lonely eternity of vanished years. It belongs to the procession of life, making constant adjustment with surprises, exploring unknown shrines of reality along its path of pilgrimage to a future, which is as different from the past as the tree from the seed.'4
The basic and most robust characteristic of Tagore's philosophy of life was his emphasis on the development of the human personality and his deep-set conviction that there is no inherent contradiction between the claims of the so called opposites-the flesh and the spirit, the human and the divine, love of life and love of God, joy in beauty and pursuit of truth, social obligation and individual rights, respect for tradition and the freedom to experiment, love of one's people and faith in the unity of mankind. These seeming opposites can and must be
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