Asia's first Nobel laureate was a poet, author, songwriter, painter and educator. Not surprisingly, he advocated the Universal Man
By SUKETU MEHTA
Aug. 15, 1997. I am at a party in a New York loft to mark the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. The guests are a motley group of Indian students, exiles, artists. We are all searching for some sort of connection to our distant homeland, something to give voice to the tarnished dreams we have for our country. Then, hesitantly, somebody reads out a poem, in English:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."
After this, we all sing in Sanskrit: "Jana gana mana... (Ruler of the minds of the people)." Not everybody remembers the words, but those of us who grew up in India know the song well; it is the national anthem. Like the poem, it was written by Rabindranath Tagore.
The clever young men don't write about Tagore anymore. As a contemporary American poet said when I mentioned him, "The only place I've heard Tagore's poems has been at Episcopalian wedding ceremonies." But he lives on in a place of considerably firmer loyalties: the hearts of his people, on both sides of the British-made frontier in Bengal. Bengalis will quote Tagore at the drop of a hat; his songs--known collectively as Rabindrasangeet, "the music of Rabindra"--are practically compulsory at weddings and during religious festivals. My father, a Gujarati diamond merchant in New York, sings them to remind himself of the Calcutta he grew up in. When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, it followed India's lead in choosing another of Tagore's songs--Amar Sonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal)--for its national anthem.
The word and the deed were never far from each other in Tagore's life. He was a polymath: a poet, fiction writer, dramatist, painter, educator, political thinker, philosopher of science. In appearance, with his long, flowing white beard, he was like a figure out of a mystical vision. Over six decades Tagore gave the world some 2,500 songs, more than 2,000 paintings and drawings, 28 volumes of poetry, drama, opera, short stories, novels, essays and diaries and a vast number of letters. The enormity and sheer emotional power of his output have made Tagore the one Asian writer whose work is widely known outside the region, and whose reputation has endured for most of the century.
Tagore was born in North Calcutta in 1861 into one of the richest and most progressive families of Bengal. His poems and plays brought him early recognition as the foremost Bengali writer of his time, but that was just the beginning. In 1912 he published Gitanjali, an English translation of some of his poems, which captured the attention of Western readers and led to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913--the first non-European to do so. In retrospect, the book demonstrates why writers should never be their own translators. Such lines as "Ah, that were better by far for tea!" do him no credit.
But Tagore's best works retain their power despite that handicap. I recently reread Kabuliwalah, his 1892 short story about an Afghan merchant's friendship with a little girl. It is a sentimental tale, though not melodramatic. Toward the end, the upper-class Bengali narrator discovers, through a small picture--a little girl's handprint, carried across borders as a memento--what he has in common with a murderous Afghan, something that spans the huge distance between them. "I understood then that he was as I am, that he was a father just as I am a father." This is what the best of Tagore's stories do: erase distinctions between the self and the other.
Tagore's most sustained endeavor was Santiniketan, the school and university he founded in rural Bengal. It would combine the best of Indian and Western learning, with a strong emphasis on the arts. After his death it slid rapidly downhill, but before it failed, it educated, among others, Indira Gandhi, Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray (whose best films were adaptations of Tagore stories).
The most controversial, and, in retrospect, prescient, aspect of Tagore's political thought was his opposition to nationalism. He was no friend of the British. In protest against the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, in which colonial troops killed 379 unarmed people, Tagore returned his knighthood. But he had strong differences with Gandhi on the direction the freedom struggle should take. He did not support Gandhi's non-cooperation movement with the British. Tagore's travels gave him an insight into the gross human folly of borders and patriotism. His ideal was Universal Man. "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity," he wrote.
Tagore died in 1941, at age 80, in the house where he was born. On hearing the news, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to his daughter Indira: "Gandhi and Tagore. Two types entirely different from each other, and yet both of them typical of India... There are many of course who may be abler than them or greater geniuses in their own line... It is not so much because of any single virtue but because of the tout ensemble, that I felt that. Among the world's great men today Gandhi and Tagore were supreme as human beings." Maybe the good Episcopalians know something the clever young men don't.
Born in Calcutta, Suketu Mehta currently lives and writes in both Bombay and New York