The Universal Appeal of Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore

Before we ask you specifically about Rabindranath Tagore we want to begin with a simple question. As a sociologist how do you look at the world of poetry and literature?

Yes, I teach sociology, study sociology. And sociologists are deeply concerned about their methodologies—philosophic/epistemological orientations as well as techniques and tools of research. This makes them extremely conscious and alert as far as the issues relating to ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, ‘science’ and ‘narrative’ are concerned.  Furthermore, as part of the university/academic system sociologists often carry the heavy baggage of scholarship. These two factors shape the way they see the world, write their observations and articulate their ideas. And hence it is not impossible to make a distinction between these two languages—the language of empirical/theoretical sociology, and the language of poetry and literature.  A poet is not apologetic about the intensity of feeling, the intuitive light of truth, or the magical play of metaphors; whereas a sociologist—even the most sensitive one—is somewhat bounded by the methodological training, the disciplinary tradition and the structure of logical argumentations. A poet is free; she/he doesn’t need a bibliography at the end of her/his poem! Yet, a good poem or a novel speaks so much about life. Hence I have tried my best to overcome this disciplinary boundary. I have engaged with Max Weber as well as Franz Kafka, Karl Marx as well as Charles Dickens, Louis Dumont as well as Munshi Premchand. Likewise, William Blake, Rabindranath Tagore and T.S. Eliot—all have enriched my understanding of the human situation—our location in history, our struggles, our inner turmoil, our dreams and aspirations. I personally believe that if sociology loses its connectedness with literature and poetry, it would lose its soul. I loathe the idea of seeing sociology as a pure statistical document. I have always asked my students to read great literature, see classic films,  listen to good music, avoid bad prose, and keep their imagination alive.

The fact that you are a Bengali has possibly inspired you to engage with Tagore pretty intensely. Tagore is a symbol of Bengali culture. How do you see it?

Well, I was born in Bengal. Bengali is my mother tongue; I love Bengali food; I am fond of Bengali literature; and yes Durga puja does fascinate me. Because of these cultural markers I may be called a Bengali. And I do admit that because of my familiarity with Bengali language Tagore has come quite naturally to me. But in the process of growing up I have felt equally intensely the limits to this sort of bounded identity. Believe me, I dislike Bengali chauvinism—the meaningless pride that we carry the tradition of Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen and of course, Rabindranath Tagore, and hence we are necessarily superior to others! This is wrong and mean. Because every community has its own tradition and heritage of knowledge; and great ideas should not be monopolized by any particular community. I have tried to learn continually from many cultural traditions. And hence today I can say that there is no fixed/ innate Bengaliness in me. I have no hesitation in saying that it is wrong on the part of some Bengali bhadraloks to monopolize Tagore, and reduce him into a mere Bengali icon, an object of cultural capital. Tagore’s appeal, I would argue, is universal—the way Dostoyevsky is not just for Russians, or Premchand is not just for Hindi speaking people. To be truly cultured is to be able to live in this domain of fluidity. It is sad that for many Bengalis, Tagore has been thoroughly ritualized—celebration of his birth anniversary through his songs, visiting Santinekatan during the festive seasons, reciting some of his poems at different occasions. This excessive ritualization, I am afraid, has killed the spirit of Tagore. I do not feel comfortable with this. But I engage with Tagore in my own way. I am not a ‘Tagore expert’; nor am I a literary critic. I see myself as a wanderer without fixed borders and boundaries. And in my journey Tagore accompanies me with his songs, poems, stories, novels, essays. I converse with him in my own way—neither in a sophisticated/culturally snobbish Bengali gathering, nor in a scholarly seminar. My engagement is deeply personal, intimate and sacred. 

What is it that specifically appeals to you about Tagore?

 It is really difficult to answer. A creator like Tagore was truly oceanic with his stories and novels, poems and songs, essays and reflections. Tagore has entered my inner being and soul in multiple ways. However, as you have asked me this question, I will try to highlight three fundamental points. First, I am in tune with his deep religiosity—a ‘poet’s religion’ that reminds me of the Upanishadic sages—the longing for the universal, the urge to discover the infinite in the finite, the aesthetic play of enchantment. No wonder, to feel Tagore is to feel the magical power of gratitude and prayer. Many of his songs and poems take us to that sublime domain.  I can’t count how many times I have listened to a revealing Tagore song: Akash bhora surja tara…! And each time it enchants me; it becomes my song. See its depth, beauty and prayer. The fact that I have found myself in this magnificent universe with the sky full of planets and stars, and its abundant natural landscape generates a sense of awe, wonder and gratitude; it is this rhythmic connectedness with the universe that makes my life meaningful. You see a similar longing in many poems in Gitanjali.  Second, the characters he has created in his stories and novels reveal profound human sensibilities. His short stories—even if you read the translated versions—make you realize how with deep empathy, love, pain and care he painted the characters. Even at the moment of worst existential suffering Tagore showed the human possibility. Take an illustration—the short story called Streer Patra (The Wife’s Letter).  Yes, this is about a woman, her pain and agony, the stigma she bears as a woman, her broken relationship with her husband, her alienation and inner turmoil. And eventually, she comes out of the cage after fifteen years of marriage; she is alone—a wanderer trying to find herself, redefining her life.  And the story is about the letter that she is writing to her husband at this moment of self-discovery. No, she won’t die; she is not weak. Instead, life’s tragedy seems to have enabled her to find her path. See the way she ends the letter:  “ You think I am going to kill myself? Don’t worry; I won’t make such stock jokes with you. Wasn’t Mirabai a woman like me? Were her fetters any lighter?  Nevertheless, did she have to die in order to survive? Sang Mira: ‘Let father, let mother, let everyone abandon her. O lord, but Mira shall hold fast forever, whatever befall her.’ This holding fast is life. I too shall live. I live.” Likewise, the power of the feminine that I see in Tagore’s novels has always fascinated me. Anandamayee in the classic novel Gora and Nandini  in his play Red Oleanders  has made me realize that this brute hyper-masculine civilization with its gigantic machines and exclusivist doctrines needs the feminine grace—the oceanic love, compassion and courage to resist what is inhuman and undesirable.  And third, Tagore’s philosophic reflections and essays, I believe, are truly enlightening. Unlike ‘scholarly/academic’ pieces, Tagore’s essays—written with poetic/artistic sensibilities and spiritual longing—touch my whole being. Be it the critique of militant nationalism, the discontents of modern civilization that he reflected on at the time of World War II, his travelogue and observations on diverse civilizations (I still remember his reflections on the ghats of Varanasi and the meaning of death while he was on a ship moving towards the West), and above all, his essays on religion as the ‘surplus’ of man—give me yet another worldview. I can see beyond Marx and Freud; I can rethink modernity, nationalism and culture. I can overcome the Weberian disenchantment or existentialist absurdity and nihilism.

Don’t think that I am obsessed with Tagore. As far as Bengali literature is concerned, I believe that despite his overarching presence, there were creative writers who could come forward with new sensibilities and experimentations. I love Jibananda Das—possibly one of the finest poets in post-Tagore Bengali literature; I am fond of Buddhadev Bose; and yes, a novelist like Manik Bandapodhyay was superb with his sense of harsh realism.  Yet, I have no hesitation in saying that Tagore was like a banyan tree (don’t forget that he could surprise many of his critics by showing his ‘modernism’ in a novel like Sesher Kobita or The Last Poem); it is not so easy to find the grandness of vision in others that one finds in him. To me, in modern times he existed as an Upanishadic sage who created a new tapovan called Santiniketan.

This takes us to the realm of education. As an educationist how do you look at Tagore’s contributions?

Yes, as an educationist Tagore was simply great. He was a visionary; and he was also a practical doer. We can appreciate him if we understand—not just intellectually, but also through the depths of our souls—the discontents of the present educational scenario.  See the way education is equated with information-centric knowledge, the way the child is compelled to carry this heavy burden of knowledge—from geography to English grammar, from mathematics to world history; it crushes the soul of the learner (grammar is learned; the taste for the epics is destroyed); it dissociates knowledge from self-discovery, aesthetic enrichment and inner experience. There is nothing natural about it. It may produce a parrot uttering the borrowed words; or it may create a technical mind with an impoverished soul. Indeed, this sort of regimented schooling dissociated from the rhythm of nature acts like a gigantic machine. Tagore felt it in his own life; almost like Rousseau he evolved a sharp critique of it. For Tagore, the learner’s connectedness with nature—its abundance, its cycle, its rhythmic flow—is absolutely important; it is this connectedness that intensifies the aesthetic component of learning. Nature itself is the finest tutor. Not solely that. A teacher is not merely a professional expert. In his tapovan a teacher ought to live every moment with young souls; learning is a collective celebration; work is play, and play is work; and the life of the teacher—her calmness, her spirit, her communion with children—plays a key role; no text book can substitute it. Furthermore, with his universalism Tagore embraced the entire world; and his openness to science (recall his conversation with Albert Einstein), art, literature, philosophy, agriculture, rural reconstruction did create a new momentum at Santiniketan—the practical site of his grand vision. The difficulties were enormous; yet, the light of his charisma kept the spirit alive.

However, seldom do we learn anything positive. For us, Kota—the notorious town in Rajasthan known for its innumerable coaching centres with the tyranny of mock tests— is more real than the poet’ s tapovan with its mango groves and monsoon showers ; a young mind getting crushed by the burden of non-creative assignments, examination performance and parental expectations seems to be desirable because with our calculative thinking we argue that this is a small price to be paid for the future success—say, a placement in a corporate house! No wonder, aesthetic and artistic sensibilities or the spirit of communion with nature which Tagore was never tired of emphasizing are seen as ‘poetic’ ideas to be laughed at, or ridiculed as ‘utopian’. This is the tragedy. We censor what is truly life-affirming.  Again, as a nation we seem to be expert in destroying anything that is unique because of our obsession with uniformity and standardization. So we destroyed Santiniketan; today it is like any other university with the same rules, the same principles, the same politics of knowledge and the same notion of academics.  But then, as a teacher I do not want to give up. Despite institutional constraints under which I operate, I believe that I can still invoke Tagore and make some innovations in the practice of education—the way we learn, or the way the teacher and the taught merge. For me, Tagore is alive, not an archival material. 

 Our last question: You have also engaged with Mahatma Gandhi. How do you see the relationship between Gandhi and Tagore?

 Yes, enough has been said and written about this relationship. There is not much I can add. However, what strikes me is the core trust that enriched this relationship between the two, despite serious differences on the issues relating to non-cooperation, swadeshi and economic planning. Again, you could see two distinctive personalities. Tagore was musical; his poetic heart was in tune with the Upanishadic prayer. And Gandhi with his austerity and ‘experiments with truth’ was a man of strict discipline and self-control—more in tune with the Bhagvadgita’s satwic karmayogi. Tagore was finding his religiosity in the aesthetic domain of creative arts and educational practices; whereas Gandhi was trying to find God in the active realm of political resistance. Yet, the beauty is that these two beautiful rivers merged into the ocean. That is why, there was grace in dissent and differences. Gandhi could not escape Tagore; and Tagore knew that Gandhi was the one to be trusted at all difficult moments.  I seek to learn from both of them.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU, New Delhi.