On May 7, 1861, 159 years ago, was born the legendary Rabindranath Tagore, popularly called Gurudev. A great educationist and philosopher, he had the privilege to be born in an illustrious and literate family of thinkers and reformists. Tagore was born as the youngest child of Devendranath Tagore, an active propagator of Bramho Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement of the 19th century. Gurudev’s affluent family who owned estates was at the forefront of the Bengal Renaissance.
Tagore was born at a time when India’s cultural formations was gloaming gradually. An uneasy calm was prevalent after the 1857 revolt had ended. A sense of slavery and subordination was mounted as an attempt was made by the British rulers to glorify everything western through their own term known as ‘white men’s superiority’.
Tagore started writing poetry at the young age of eight. He never liked formal and classroom teachings and mostly learned through roaming and through tuition at home. Tagore went to study law at the University College London but returned home without a degree. At the age of eleven, Tagore left Calcutta with his father and toured several places for months including Amritsar and Dalhousie. There, Tagore read biographies, history, astrology and modern science. This is believed to be a turning point in Tagore’s literary journey ahead.
While in Amritsar in 1873, Tagore was greatly influenced by the chanting sounds of Gurbani, NanakBani at the holy Golden Temple. He wrote several poems in Bengali in the praise of Sikhism. Forty six years later in 1919 in the same city, when General Dyer and his soldiers mercilessly killed unarmed civilians Gurudev Tagore angrily relinquished his Knighthood (which was honored upon him in 1915 by King George V) to protest against the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
Tagore is credited with a galaxy of talents as a novelist, poet, musician, Ayurveda researcher, and an artist. He was a revolutionary, a rebel and a humanist at the same time. Tagore’s patriotic instinct was truly reflected in his writings in which he denounced the British Raj vociferously. The genes of 1905 Anti-Partition of Bengal revolt was based on the writings of Gurudev Tagore.
Tagore’s writings however were much beyond a pronounced line of patriotism and freedom from the British. They endorsed a Bengali renaissance, and mourned the poverty and the social decline of Bengal. They reflected a respect for scientific laws.
Tagore advocated strongly that there was no question of blind revolution as people must get rid of poverty through education and scientific learning. Tagore is thus considered to be much ahead of his time. Challenge to orthodoxy is evident when there was an earthquake in Bengal and Bihar in 1934 which Gandhi hailed as a divine Karma avenging the oppression of Dalits. Tagore rejected and rebuked this miserable assessment by Gandhi. Ironically, it was Gurudev Tagore who gave the title of ‘Mahatma’ to Gandhi.
Gurudev Tagore travelled widely to more that thirty different countries across the globe (including Peru, Mexico, and Java), and met notable people like Albert Einstein, Mussolini and popular Irish poet W. B. Yeats, among many others. Tagore became a cultural ambassador and gave a voice to the country. His paintings were exhibited in London and Paris in those times. (A little known fact is that Tagore was red-green colour blind, and his paintings contain strange colour themes.)
Tagore always considered philosophy higher than nationalism, and advocated cultural connections between societies. Tagore will never be remembered as a freedom fighter or a nationalist, but a reformist who believed in internationalism and breaking the division based on race, religion, territories and geographies.
The greatest achievements of Tagore are notably the Nobel prize in literature (1913) for his work Gitanjali (1910; published in English in 1912). Tagore became the first non-European to be honored with the Nobel Prize in literature.
Another milestone recorded in the history is the Tagore’s song “Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata”, dedicated to Supreme Divine God who is the dispenser of the destiny of India. The first stanza of the song has been adopted as the national anthem of India as “Jana Gana Mana”.
A rare and unique fact associated with Tagore’s work is that his songs are adopted as national anthem of two different counties: India’s “Jana Gana Mana“, and Bangladesh’s “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bengal)
Gurudev Tagore’s canvas is much larger than what words could express. Tagore reached out to the poor and preached the principles of freedom and cooperation among all people regardless of caste and creed. Tagore knew good English and the Vedas and the Upanishads were on his fingertips. He challenged most of the conventional religious lines and advocated the welfare of the people as supreme. In his own description of his Bengali family as the product of “a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British”.
Tagore’s contribution to nation building is unmatched as we can estimate how he gives millions of Indians in the country and abroad goosebumps when they hear the national anthem daily. Tagore has not yet been done justice by our history textbooks and much is still not known about him and his writings outside Bengal. However, to understand Tagore, some intellectual digging and training in Art is required. But there is certainly a need to teach more of Tagore beyond our usual GK textbooks questions like, “Who wrote Gitanjali or Jana Gana Mana?