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The man who saw India

It is time we recognise that Rabindranath Tagore belongs not merely to the Bengalis but equally to the rest of India, and to the world, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2009 23:40 IST

In his autobiography, My Music, My Life, the great sitar player Ravi Shankar writes that ‘being Bengali, of course, makes it natural for me to feel so moved by [Rabindranath] Tagore; but I do feel that if he had been born in the West, he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe… He is not as popular or well-known worldwide as he should be. The Vishwa Bharati are guarding everything he did too jealously, and not doing enough to let the entire world know of his greatness’.

Ravi Shankar is right in arguing that Tagore is not as well-known as he should be, but wrong in blaming the Visva-Bharati for it is the Bengalis, as a whole, who have thrown a chauvinistic ring around Tagore. When, as a Tamil with a Bengali surname, I did a PhD in Kolkata in the 1980s, I was put off the poet by the sanctimonious sentimentalism surrounding him and his legacy. Years later, I came across a book entitled Truth Called Them Differently, which contained a collection of letters exchanged between Tagore and Gandhi. Although the exchange brought credit to both men, the poet came out sounding better, or a little less parochial. Fascinated, I read more of Tagore to discover in the end that the man I had thought of as an insular Bengali was, in fact, a precocious internationalist.

To the non-Bengali ear, Tagore’s poems can sound vapid; his songs, utterly monotonous. No matter, for the non-Bengali should look more to his non-fiction. For it is in his lesser known essays and lectures that Tagore speaks insightfully on nationalism and internationalism, and the conflict and cooperation of cultures. Consider this excerpt from an essay of 1908, where Tagore deprecates the sectarianism and xenophobia that lay at the heart of nationalist politics. ‘Whether India is to be yours or mine’, said Tagore, ‘whether it is to belong more to the Hindu, or the Moslem, or whether some other race is to assert a greater supremacy than either — that is not the problem with which Providence is exercised. It is not as if, at the bar of the judgement seat of the Almighty, different advocates are engaged in pleading the rival causes of Hindu, Moslem or Westerner, and that the party that wins the decree shall finally plant the standard of permanent possession. It is our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights — the only battle is the eternal one between Truth and untruth.’

The most definitive statement of Tagore’s capacious internationalism is contained in a little book of 1916 ironically entitled Nationalism. It drew a sharp distinction between what he called the Nation of the West and the Spirit of the West. The first he decisively rejected; for, as he put it, ‘the political civilisation which has sprung up from the soil of Europe [and] is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based on exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep at bay the aliens or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril, and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries, forcing down races of men who are weaker, to be eternally fixed in their weakness’.

Europe had produced imperialism and militarism, but also liberty, justice and the spirit of scientific inquiry. Tagore argued that Indians must resist the former, but always seek to retain the latter. He put it beautifully in Nationalism: There is one safety for us upon which we may count, and that is, that we can claim Europe herself, as our ally, in our resistance to her temptations and to her violent encroachments; for she has ever carried her own standards of perfection, by which we can measure her falls and gauge her degrees of failure, by which we can call her before her own tribunal and put her to shame…

These words are not merely of academic interest. For (although the Bengalis do not know of or care to acknowledge it) both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were profoundly influenced by their encounters, in print and in person, with Rabindranath Tagore. It was by reading and speaking to Tagore that these two men developed an idea of India that was inclusive and open-minded, that did not privilege a certain religion, language or caste within India, and that did not set India apart from the world.

The Indian Republic, the 59th anniversary of whose founding we celebrate today, is different from other republics
precisely in this respect — that it is not based on a single national ‘essence’ (whereby people of a certain faith
or speaking a certain tongue are deemed superior to the others), and that it does not imply the demonisation of other nations. Of the many patriots who contributed to the making of the Republic, three have deservedly received much attention — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B.R. Ambedkar. But behind and before them was a fourth Indian whose contribution was at least as significant. It is time we recognise that Rabindranath Tagore belongs not merely to the Bengalis but equally to the rest of India, and to the world.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi. Rabindranath Tagore’s book Nationalism has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with an introduction by Guha.