Rabindranath Tagore: a celebration

Mohamed Mijarul Quayes

The multitalented Bengali Rabindranath Tagore – poet, novelist, playwright, composer and painter – became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 100 years ago 

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). This was an important event for the prize itself, considering that Tagore was the first non-European recipient of the prize. Recognised as the icon of Bengali sensibility, Tagore was endowed with a creative genius that appeared to be inexhaustible. His oeuvre includes more than 1,000 poems, nearly two dozen plays and playlets, eight novels, eight or more volumes of short stories, more than 2,200 songs, of which he wrote both the lyrics and the music, and a mass of prose on literary, social, religious, political and other topics. 

On top of these, there are his English translations, his paintings, his travels and lecture tours in Asia, America and Europe – and his activities as educationist, social reformer and innovator. He is credited with shaping modern Bengali language and the aesthetics and intellect of the Bengalis. In the universal ethos that he espoused and his capacity to celebrate the human prospect, Tagore has also left an enduring legacy for the world. At the height of the First World War, he had declared, “There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.” 

Notwithstanding the towering presence of Rabindranath Tagore in Bangladesh and in India, in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, the excitement that his writings created in the early years of the 20th century has largely diminished. According to Amartya Sen, the contrast between Tagore’s commanding presence in Bengali literature and culture, and his near-total eclipse in the rest of the world, is perhaps less interesting than the distinction between the view of Tagore as a deeply relevant and many-sided contemporary thinker in Bangladesh and India, and his image in the West as a repetitive and remote spiritualist. Many therefore also speak of confronting ‘a maze of contradictions’ in attempting a narrative of Tagore’s legacy. 

Rabindranath Tagore was born at the confluence of three important movements: the wave of social and religious reform, the literary renaissance in Bengal and the nationalist struggle against the British. His grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore, was a well-known entrepreneur and his father, Debendranath Tagore, was a pioneer of the Brahmo Samaj, a group of liberals who opposed Hindu orthodoxy. The youngest of 14 children, Rabindranath grew up in a privileged household in Kolkata, in an eclectic atmosphere where he was exposed to multiple cultural influences. His literary talent blossomed early and under the influence of his brother, Jyotirindranath, he discovered his gift for music. 

As a young man, he was sent to mind the family estates in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Here he fell in love with the riverine landscape that was to be a lasting inspiration for his music, poetry and short stories. His interactions here with the common people of rural Bengal led to the shaping of a strong social conscience, as well as an understanding of psychology. 

In the early 1900s, Tagore suffered a series of personal losses, with the deaths of his father, his wife and his favourite child. During this period, he first espoused, and then moved away from, the fiery nationalism of the swadeshi (nationalist) movement. In 1913 came the Nobel Prize, and international acclaim. In 1919, he renounced his knighthood in protest against the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre by British soldiers. All his life, Tagore travelled extensively, drawing from the diverse cultural experiences that this offered. Late in life, Tagore emerged as an artist of rare talent. 

When he died in 1941, Tagore left behind a staggering body of work. His collected works and letters run into more than 30 volumes. About 3,000 paintings are attributed to him. His doodles blur the line between writing and visual art. Rabindra Sangeet, Tagore’s own genre of music, is an eclectic mix of classical, folk and foreign influences, set to exquisite lyrics that have come to be regarded as a cornerstone of Bengali culture. He has the unique distinction of having composed the songs that would later become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. 

Though widely regarded as a poet-philosopher, he was also a brilliant writer of short stories and had a profound impact on the emergence of the modern novel in South Asian literature. In Chokher Bali, he highlights the plight of widows, and in Gora denounces forms of social discrimination. His letters are a treasure trove of ideas, experiences and emotions, and plays such as Raktakarabi remain landmarks in symbolic drama. His legacy is as much the poet with his eye trained on infinity, as the stringent social critic whose sharp, unsparing gaze targets the ground realities of his time; as much the visionary educationist, as the passionate lover of nature; the lyricist who sings of love and loss, rain-clouds and thunderstorms, as of the spinner of tales who writes so intricately of human relationships in his stories and novels. 

His experiments in music, ranging from working on existing melodies to incorporating folk, particularly the baul, and composing with ragas to innovations such as dance dramas and newer beats (talas) when the composition so requires – all are part of Tagore’s forte. 

In 1924, at the age of 63, Tagore started a late but productive phase in visual arts, beginning with doodles on the pages of his manuscript of the Purabi. He referred to his art as “Shesh boyosher priya” – an affair in the sunset of life, wherein he transformed his lack of formal training in art into an advantage that opened new possibilities in the use of line and colour. He was prolific in his paintings and sketches, which later evolved into masterpieces and lyrical pieces of art. It was evident that what his creative repertoire expressed in line and colour was different from what he did in his poetry and songs. If he sought peace and enlightenment in his songs, he seems to explore darkness and mystery in his drawings. Art – drawing and painting – took over from words to aid him in expressing his deep and unexplained feelings and emotions. Dark creatures and haunting landscapes of another, primordial world constituted Tagore’s works. 

His experience of painting led Tagore to reconsider his views on the role and the possibilities of the arts. Therefore, a study of his paintings provides a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness of his intellectual and creative life as a whole, and indeed, his creative personality. His painting style was very individual, characterised by simple bold forms and a rhythmic quality. His first paintings are highly imaginative works, usually focusing on animals or imaginary creatures, imbued with vitality and humour. Human figures are depicted either as individuals with expressive gestures or in groups in theatrical settings. In portraits produced during the 1930s, he renders the human face in a way reminiscent of a mask or persona. Landscape subjects represent the smallest output among Tagore’s works, but nevertheless, with no less significance in how he related to the physical world around him, drawn even from the hazy depths of childhood memories. 

Rabindranath Tagore’s artistic adventure began with doodles that turned crossed-out words and lines into images assuming expressive and sometimes grotesque forms. Many of them represent animals, but they are seldom of the real ones we know of; more often they represent what he has described as “a probable animal that had unaccountably missed its chance of existence” or “a bird that only can soar in our dreams”. Spurred by the same spirit of inventiveness, he also took to cross-projecting the movement of a living animal onto an imagined body, or a human gesture onto an animal body and vice versa. This exchange between the familiar and the unknown, the inhabitation of one in the other, has led him to forms that are as expressive as they are inventive. Painting also made Tagore more observant and sensitive to the visible world. More than ever before, he saw it “as a vast procession of forms”.

This new engagement with the visible world found a definite expression in his landscapes. In these landscape paintings, he more often shows nature bathed in the evening light, with radiant skies and forms coagulating into ominous silhouettes that invoke mystery and foreboding silence. 

Tagore did not name his paintings. By leaving them untitled, he tried to free them from literary imagination. He also wanted the viewers to encounter his paintings with their own sensibility and read them in that light. Yet his rendering of the figures is informed by his experience of the theatre as a playwright, director and actor. Animated by gestures that do not suggest everyday activities, even his individual figures have a dramatic presence; sometimes their costumes, and the furniture and the objects that surround them play a role in this transformation of the ordinary into a dramatic motif. They do not move into narration, but invoke narrative potentiality, especially when one figure is juxtaposed with another or when they are shown in groups. The human face is an obvious constant in this.

It demonstrates Tagore’s undiminished interest in linking human appearance with an inner human essence. In the beginning, this usually led him to turn the face into a mask or a hieratic symbol of a social type; later, as his representational skills and expressive assurance grew, shadows of faces he encountered or remembered began to meld with the painted faces and give them the resonance and expansiveness of characters. His painted faces are varied in appearance and social stature, but each one encapsulates within its small compass the lineaments of a vaster human experience. 

There is in all this a strand of prescience that seems extraordinary. His prime concerns – gender, class, caste, nation, community, language, violence, environment, education, rural reconstruction, literature, art and relationships – continue to haunt us today. His humanism and advocacy of tolerance have not lost their significance for our divided world. He raised his voice against the dominance of some nations over others, but also recognised the power of language, literature, art and music to create bridges of understanding across geopolitical divides. 

Tagore’s criticism of British colonial rule in India was consistently strong and grew more intense over the years. This point is often missed, since he made a special effort to dissociate his criticism of the Raj from any denigration of British – or Western – people and culture. Even in his powerful indictment of British rule in India, in 1941, in a lecture which he gave on his last birthday, later published as a pamphlet under the title Crisis in Civilization, he strains to maintain the distinction between opposing Western imperialism and rejecting Western civilisation. While he saw India as having been “smothered under the dead weight of British administration”, Tagore recalls what India has gained from “the large-hearted liberalism of 19th-century English politics”. The tragedy, as Tagore saw it, came from the fact that what “was truly best in their own civilisation, the upholding of dignity of human relationships, has no place in the British administration of this country”. He added: “If in its place they have established, baton in hand, a reign of ‘law and order’, or in other words a policeman’s rule, such a mockery of civilisation can claim no respect from us.” 

Given the vast range of his creative achievements, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the image of Tagore in the West is its narrowness, where he is recurrently viewed as ‘the great mystic from the East’. Amartya Sen contrasts Yeats’ praise of his work in 1912 (“These lyrics… display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long, the work of a supreme culture”) and his denunciation in 1935 (“Damn Tagore”), attributing it partly to the inability of Tagore’s many-sided writings to fit into the narrow box in which Yeats wanted to place – and keep – him. 

I wish to push this issue of Tagore’s capacity for prescience as I take up the question of his enduring legacy. Contemporary discourse on politics and governance is linked extensively to human rights, which in turn draw from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The declaration, adopted in 1948, rests on two pillars – the freedom from fear and the freedom from want. Close to 40 years before the adoption of the UDHR, Tagore wrote:

“Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high” in his Gitanjali, and invoked awakening “into that heaven of freedom”. Again, it was at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, with the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, that the global community recognised that women’s rights are human rights. Women and their place in society was a major theme in Tagore’s works. 

In 1936, he wrote Chitrāngadā, a dance drama on a subplot from the Mahabharata about the Pandava prince Arjuna and the Manipur princess Chitrāngadā. The final scene shows Chitrāngadā, who had invoked the love god Madan to transform her appearance, reveal herself to Arjuna. And she says: “I am Chitrāngadā, Princess royale; not a goddess to be placed on a pedestal, nor someone to be neglected and left behind. If you keep me by your side, in adversity and in prosperity; share with me your deepest thoughts, then will you know me.” Again, we see how Tagore, in three of his major dance dramas, has women protagonists representing, not a gender theme but the human context, and driving the narrative to its dénouement. 

On another trajectory, Tagore coined the word puro samaj, literally civic society, long before civil society became part of contemporary vocabulary. More than that, however, is the idea of an engaged puro samaj extensively devolved and in constant interface with the regulatory superstructure – an interesting notion like what later emerges as Project Europe, and the post-Westphalian evolution of the state as a political institution. 

Some of the ideas he tried to present were directly political, and they figure rather prominently in his letters and lectures. He had practical, plainly expressed views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness and so on. For Tagore, it was of the highest importance that people be able to live and reason, in freedom. His attitudes toward politics and culture, nationalism and internationalism, tradition and modernity, can all be seen in the light of this belief. Nothing, perhaps, expresses his values as clearly as a poem in his Gitanjali: 

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. 

Tagore is undoubtedly the presiding deity of Bengali culture. As we celebrate the centenary this year of the Nobel award, we pay tribute to that prolific man and his inexhaustible creativity – as much of Bengal as of the world. 


About the author:

Mohamed Mijarul Quayes is Bangladesh's High Commissioner to the UK


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International