It was a late-monsoon day. The medieval Bengalee poets would find such a day filled with an unexplainable sadness. In a rare coincidence, the 22nd of the Bangla month of Sravan, August 07, 1941 in Gregorian calendar, marked a sad event in Kolkata, West Bengal in India. The great poet Rabindranath Tagore breathed his last on the day at his ancestral home in the city after a brief bout of old-age complications. The poet was 80 at the time of his death.
On that day, Kolkata experienced a colossally large funeral procession not seen before in India for a literary personality. Thousands of people from all walks of life joined the silent march, the flower-covered coffin of the poet kept on a slow-moving truck in the middle. It took hours for the poet's funeral procession to inch from his home at Jorasanko to the city's cremation site. In spite of the stringent measures to rein in the outbursts of emotion, the distraught mourners often turned hysteric. Those were the days without televisions and live telecasts. But running commentary over radio continued throughout the march of the procession. Academic institutions in whole Bengal, along with many offices and business houses, were declared closed for half-a-day on that Sravan 22. Normal activities in the socio-cultural world in Bengal ground to halt. Like Tolstoy (82), Thomas Mann (80) or Bernard Shaw (94), Tagore died at a ripe age. Yet countless of his admirers found it difficult to accept the death.
On reaching eighty, the poet was at the zenith of his creative accomplishments. His grand literary output included several thousand poems and songs; short stories, novels, essays, dramas, verse plays and musicals, letters, and even juvenile literary pieces. He had already set up his dream school at Shantiniketan after the model and style of the ancient Vedic open-air learning sessions. But in course of time, he also put foreign scholars from around the globe on the teaching staff. One of the most widely travelled literary geniuses in the 19th-20th centuries, Tagore visited almost every corner of the world stretching from northern Africa to Europe, North and South Americas to Russia. Few of his travels remained unproductive or without mentions in his later work. The poet dealt with a number of global issues of the time in his travel writings. His views on the vital features of socialism came up in the essay on his visit to post-revolution Russia. The essays on his travels to Japan, China and Persia (now Iran) portray the distinctive characters of these cultures and his incisive views about them.
Tagore had all along been more than a mere literary person. We see few writers in the modern times whose work blends so spontaneously with observations stemming from philosophy, socio-political thoughts and the journey of civilisations. Thanks to his reflections on the World War-I and its severe impact on humanity, he could produce an essay like 'Sobhyotar Sankot' (Crisis of Civilisations). In the long essay, the Nobel-winning poet laments the imperialist and expansionist ambitions of the powerful races that had resulted in endless miseries for the non-combatant peoples. The hubris and the tendency to flaunt might by a few nations had disillusioned him completely. In a crisis like this, the poet as a recourse had sought peace in the ancient Eastern meditative wisdom. At the same time he championed the universal philosophy of keeping faith in man. In the last part of the essay, the poet observes that showing mistrust for man is a sin. In the present conflict-torn world, Tagore's inner bleeding, coupled with optimism, may serve mankind with lots of healing elixir.
Rabindranath Tagore's stature as a poet and prose writer has entered the realm of immortality over one hundred years ago. His literary greatness in both regional and global contexts is beyond an iota of doubt. Bangla literature has placed him in the highest position of greatness. He is considered the pioneer of the romantic agony in Bangla poetry after the style of the great English Romantics. He is also credited with introducing lucidity and clarity in Bangla prose. He wrote the first-ever Bangla musical plays accommodating songs, drama and music-laced dialogue.
Seventy-six years after the poet's death, his admirers in Bangladesh and elsewhere might feel interested to gauge the legacy left by the poet for the 21st century readers. The modern phase of pure literature in Bangla finds its roots deeply ingrained in Tagore. Poetic form and content may have changed after the breakthrough experiments in diction in the 1930s, but Tagore still represents the basic character of the modern Bangla poetry, that has grown in the post-Biharilal phase. It was free of both pomposity and sentimentality. It is him who has first welcomed in Bangla poetry day-to-day feelings and thoughts in relation to nature and man's immediate surroundings. From his time on, the first person of 'I' has been given free rein in poetry, a trait radically different from that followed by his predecessors Michael Madhusudan Datta, Biharilal Chakraborty, Nabinchandra Sen et al. What nowadays sparks dispute is Rabindranath Tagore's relevance to the modern times. In the event of any sharp division, it won't be surprising if the 19th-20th century poet wins endorsements for his undying relevance to the present-day realities.
After crossing his middle age, the poet began emerging as a great champion of internationalism. The thought drew greatly on his inherent humanism that cut across all socio-cultural barriers. Despite his being one of the greatest advocates of the undivided India's freedom from British colonial rule, any India-centric stance did not have much appeal to the poet. The India that he had dreamt of comprised varied trends with roots in the cultural mosaic that had been shaped through ages. He found India to be an ideal abode of both Aryans and non-Aryans. As this great Bengalee humanist viewed, the Sakas, the Mongoloid Huns, the Mughals and Pathans had almost equal roles in the making of the grand structure of India. It is this international, 'global' in modern parlance, outlook that makes him unique and distinctive from others.
It's true he was staunchly opposed to the partition of Bengal in 1905 implemented by the British rulers, and played a critical role in its annulment in 1911. But he did not seem to have been driven by any surge of emotion-driven nationalistic feelings. What had piqued him was the communally schismatic nature of the partition. Tagore had always been in an oscillating position on the question of Bengali nationalism. Many of his essays and poems register his critical view of the Bengalees as an ethnic and social entity. In fact, the mind of Tagore was filled with an openness, which goes beyond national boundaries and touches the level of internationalism. In the present world torn by violent parochialism, ideological feuds and narrow regionalism, the internationalism of the poet seems more relevant than ever. Why it won't be? The 1878-1932 travels that he undertook in nearly 35 countries on five continents played a great role in releasing his mind from the confines of the sub-continental straitjacket. Perhaps few writers in the past and the present can rival Tagore in travelling countries of such varied historical backgrounds and later evolutions.
As has been the case of majority of the writers, it takes no more than half a century for their work to get consigned to researchers' desks. History has seen stunning exceptions in a number of authors like Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust or Dostoyevsky whose work remains handy to readers even today. Despite their virtues of being immortal and ever-green, Shakespeare, Goethe et al have hung a veil of sorts around them in hundred years after their death. They now require literary guides to reach their common readers. The impediment of faded relevance has made them inscrutable to many. In contrast, the artist and seer in Tagore remain vibrantly alive to his admirers.