Uniqueness of Tagore, his relevance to our times
Seventy-five years after the death of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) the multi-faceted genius of the great poet keeps being illumined. With the passing of time, Tagore experts and scholars in Dhaka and Kolkata are found indefatigably engaged in exploring the unknown areas of the poet. Their efforts end in virtual serendipities. And the scores of admirers find themselves marvelling at the extent of talent Tagore was gifted with.
Rabindranath Tagore was a consummate pioneer in the context of Bangla literature, music and some other branches of the arts. But unlike many colossal figures in world literature, he used to keep himself tuned to the pulse of his times. Keeping abreast of contemporary realities in Bengal and India and in the global perspective turned out to be a great passion for him. The eventual freedom of India from the shackles of the British colonial rulers became a fond dream for the poet in course of time. In his impassioned speech titled 'The Crisis in Civilisation' the poet denounced the boastfulness of the then big powers, Britain in particular.
In direct reference to the colonised India, the poet lamented its exploitation by its colonial masters. He has not spared any exploitative nation, observing lack of empathy for the weak leads to ignominious moral defeat for the powerful. Delivered on the poet's 80th birth anniversary in 1941, the written speech unerringly predicted the rise of destructive forces in Europe which would eventually spell doom for mankind. A poet with the wisdom of a sage, Tagore had on several occasions made forecasts of an imminent global disaster. It appeared in the form of the Second World War and the rise of Hitler. In 'The Crisis in Civilisation', 'Sobhyotar Sangkot' in Bangla, Tagore presents a gloomy portrayal of humanity as it had been unfolding over the decades. But he did not lose hope. At critical moments the poet felt deeply about the positive attributes of man. These reflections would bring to the fore his ever-inquisitive spiritual self. This aspect of the poet at times had helped him attain the aloofness required for judging man and mundane things dispassionately.
A life-long quest of Tagore was to see the feeble stand strong-footed and build a fraternity among themselves. Almost like in his many philosophised observations, where he placed his hope in man's inherent strength, Tagore in his last speech visualised a new future for the world. He nurtured the firm belief that man was indomitable. The poet resoundingly uttered that the next dawn would emerge from the East, meaning the hitherto neglected parts of the world. In his sub-conscious he had a picture sketched: after the cataclysmic times were over, a new world order would be in place. Had he been alive today, Tagore would have been delighted to see the numerous post-World War-II independent countries. Most of them enjoy politico-economic freedoms at varying degrees.
In the context of the Sub-continent, Tagore maintained a balance between the positive aspects of the British as a nation and the ills of colonialism. However, the poet had always turned to the rich ancient Indian heritage. Given the combination of materialistic pragmatism and spiritual enlightenment in him, Tagore found himself opposed to radicalism. He returned the British Empire's knighthood immediately after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919; and, at the same time, felt comfortable with Gandhi's non-violence movement. The poet had been gifted with a mind that loved to remain alert to the happenings around him.
The greatness of Rabindranath Tagore stems to a great extent from his unique personality. His quintessential penchant for everything new and a clear view of the realities around him make him stand out among many international literary giants. His deep interest in the socio-political developments of his time apart, he had in him the strong flair for innovation. Thanks to this trait that honed his creative talent, Tagore introduced a lot of new features to Bengali literature and the then Bengal's socio-cultural canvas. He is considered the first Bengali 'modern poet' after Michael Madhusudan Dutt. The latter broke with the emotion-soaked and excessively poeticised tradition of Bangla poetry then in vogue. His was the first 'poetic rebellion' in Bangla literature as well as expression of dissent. Madhusudan defied the prevailing cultural myths. In the later era, led by Biharilal Chakrabarty et al, Tagore emerged with an unheard-of creative surge. Its sheer force and breadth shook the whole edifice of Bangla poetry.
Tagore redefined the subjects of poetry, putting emphasis on ideas, mood and feeling. In his hand, romanticism attained a new interpretation, drawing largely on European poetry in the 19th century. Besides being the undisputable forerunner of short stories in Bangla, he composed the first-ever dance dramas in the language. Before him the medium was completely unknown to the literary and musical connoisseurs. The new type of plays was a marvellous blend of songs, dance and dialogues in dramatic settings; and they have been immensely successful in heralding a new horizon in the Bangla-speaking land. The seemingly undying appeal of Tagore's 'Chitrangada', 'Shyama', 'Tasher Desh' etc among today's audiences is a pointer to the poet's great genius. The poet's musical talent found expression distinctively in his songs, the tunes of which came from a medley of sources. Those included Bengali folk, especially Baul, tunes and those of Scottish and Irish choirs. Tagore was generously eclectic in the selection of the base-tunes for his songs, that number nearly four thousand.
There is hardly any area of literature that has not been blessed by the genius of Tagore. They range from poetry, short stories, novels, essays, to plays and nursery rhymes. A fresh creative individuality exudes from all these works. While engrossed in the amazing creations of the poet, readers in general are found oblivious of his identity as an educator, a humanist, a social activist and reformer. He single-handedly established the school called Shantiniketan at Bolpur in West Bengal based on the teaching methods in ancient India. In the later years, the school emerged as a massive institution which excelled in teaching Rabindra Sangeet.
Besides the arts, there are few areas in life that have not drawn the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Due to his being the member of a Kolkata-based zamindar family, the poet would pay periodic visits to East Bengal, now Bangladesh, to supervise the vast areas under their jurisdiction. These visits prompted the middle-aged poet to grow an interest in farming, the chief livelihood of the people in the erstwhile East Bengal. The poet used to keenly observe the agricultural lands and patterns of crop production while in the rural areas. The problems of the farmers in East Bengal and other agro-related features aroused in him a passion for innovations in agriculture. He set up Kaligram Krishi Bank, the first agricultural bank in Bengal, in 1905. Later the poet poured in it the money he received from his 1913 Nobel Prize. The bank was set up at Patishar in the Naogaon district in today's Bangladesh. Since its chief function was to extend small loans to poor farmers, many credit the poet with pioneering collateral-free microcredit in pre-partition India.
Upon return to Kolkata, the poet expanded Shantiniketan in Birbhum district. It had been set up by his father Debendranath Tagore as a centre of meditation in 1863. After reshaping it in 1921 as a school, later a university, Tagore attached great importance to agriculture as a subject in the music-dominant syllabus. The poet was searching for new types of crops and new methods of cultivation --- coming away from the traditional farming. The poet's overseas visits that had enabled him to see closely the modern methods of agriculture played a significant role in his increasing interest in the newer farm practices. Improving the lot of greater Bengal's farmers eventually turned out to be a mission of Tagore. He dreamt of 'self-dependent villages' based on cooperatives.
In the perspective of Tagore's great height as a poet-philosopher, his thoughts on socio-economic uplift of the people appear astounding. It cannot but amaze us that a perfect poet like him could make time to think about enhancing the economic power of the masses. Tagore believed that concentration of economic power in small minorities would spell doom for society. Viewing the workers' productive power as their 'real capital', he would sound the alarm that exploiters were out to plunder it. When dealing with the relevance of Tagore to the realities of the 21st century, his socio-political and economic thoughts make him more akin to our times than to his own era. The days in the present century continue to become ever dreadful and complex. Tagore was no stranger to this reality. He faced up to it, armed with a unique intellectual activism.
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