Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Tagore for Tired Times

Perhaps the virile poet has something to say to this tired age of scams and shams...

Do we hear him amidst the noise? 

Aseem Shrivastava

On the anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore's death, Aseem Shrivastava helps us to look  into the heart of a man who was both a simple poet and a remarkably insightful social commentator.

“The stars are not afraid to appear as fireflies.” - Rabindranath Tagore

The simple is never easy. It hides under the many skins we grow as we navigate our lives. No path leads towards it, though many roads emanate from it. Thus its elusiveness, but also its suggestive, natural beauty.

One who is intimate with the simple is sometimes known to humanity as a poet. He embodies wholeness and thus manifests simplicity. He is able to express infinitely complex thoughts or feelings because he approaches the Truth with empty hands. Life chooses him as its lips because he finds his strength in his ignorance. Because he knows how to listen, he is able to speak.


Such a man was Rabindranath Tagore.

First, consider this. Overweening social custom leads Rabindranath into marriage to an 11-year-old girl. His elder sister-in-law, who had been in love with him, commits suicide soon thereafter. By the time he reaches his forties, he loses his wife, and two children as well. What must this man not have suffered!

Later, he would write: “death belongs to life as birth does.” And again, “I have learnt the simple meaning of your whispers in flowers and sunshine – teach me to know your words in pain and death.” Rabindranath found the strength to bear the cruel blows of life by seeking in them the disguised messages of an ultimately benevolent creator. Furthermore, he had the rare faith and fortitude to embrace his sufferings and sorrows dearly enough to find the strength to share those of others.

In Rabindranath’s case cataclysmic personal losses yielded an astonishing harvest of creativity. Some mysterious force of divine justice must be at work, for he found the courage to live to the age of 80 and left behind over 20,000 pages of literature, thousands of songs and hundreds of paintings. No one can do this without being inspired by an unshakeable faith over an entire lifetime. Something much larger than life spoke through Rabindranath. The polymath was also a pilgrim, the kind of man they perhaps stopped making some generations ago.

Tagore is better understood when placed in the perspective of the long line of musicians, poets, artists and philosophers who took their inspiration from the medieval Bhakti tradition – which itself has older roots in the Sub-continental past. Not only did he read and translate Kabir, there are repeated references in his writings to the legacy of Mira, Nanak, Chaitanya and Tukaram. He also learnt much from Lallan Fakir and the Baul musicians of Bengal.

All his life Tagore was accused of wearing his heart on his sleeve – as though that was the crime, while hiding one’s heart behind countless layers of expected hypocrisies was the way to be! In an age rendered blind by a cruel and cowardly one-eyed reason, Tagore was a rare genius of the heart, whose natural authenticity and integrity meant that he had no use for the footnotes and references that scholars typically rest their careers and reputations on. Poems, after all, do not have their origin in other people’s thoughts and experiences. Their birthplace is the free spirit of humanity. Rabindranath was a seer, not a scholar, a visionary, not an intellectual. His writings are remarkably free from the ostentation of erudition which decorates the journals of academia today.


Rabindranath’s abiding concern and legacy is human freedom.

There is nothing more dangerous than the illusion of freedom, especially when it serves as a glove which masks the hand of greed and power. No one understood this great contemporary truth earlier, or better, than Tagore.

If there is one overarching meaning and mission to Tagore’s life, it is to show that the modern idea of freedom is a desperate fiction. It is a slave to power, not to Truth. Thus, the modern world can only promise freedom, but never deliver it. Tagore is never deceived into confusing mere political liberty with freedom itself: “We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free; they are merely powerful.” A man in search of freedom does not seek power. He recognizes from afar the faithless cowardice of such a quest. He seeks his destiny instead “with the living creatures that are crushed” under the wheels of power. “God grows weary of great kingdoms”, Tagore writes, “but never of little flowers.”

Such sentiments lead Tagore to an unqualified rejection of nationalism, which takes “organized selfishness…as its religion.” In fact, “the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented.” Einstein would have agreed.

The true temper of the times is evidenced in the letters people write to each other. (Today we mostly write messages across cyberspace, alas!) Much can be confided in letters that writing formally for the public cannot reveal. One of the thousands of letters of Tagore that survive is written to his friend C.F.Andrews. He writes there with even greater candor (and relevance) how he feels about the modern idea of ‘freedom’, especially as India has absorbed it from the West:

“Men of feeble faith will say that India requires to be strong and rich before she can raise her voice for the sake of the whole world. But I refuse to believe it. That the measure of man’s greatness is in his material resources is a gigantic illusion casting its shadow over the present-day world – it is an insult to man. It lies in the power of the materially weak to save the world from this illusion; and India, in spite of her penury and humiliation, can afford to come to the rescue of humanity. The freedom of unrestrained egoism in the individual is license and not true freedom…The idea of freedom which prevails in modern civilization is superficial and materialistic…”

At a time when the whole world is blindly chasing an impossible American dream, and when there are more ‘Americans’ perhaps living in India than in the US, it is appropriate to recall Tagore’s observation that “the temptation which is fatal for the strong is still more so for the weak.” The restless materialism of our day will inevitably meet its nemesis.

Only a myopic impatience, or a near-sighted cowardice, would ignore the warnings of the prophet.

Those who sing Tagore’s songs as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh would be well-advised to listen to this piece of wisdom: “it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity”. One truth that echoes throughout the writings of Rabindranath, is, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, this: the lines between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood do not run between countries, nor between religions. They actually traverse the width of our hearts. Only through a forgetful self-treachery can we afford to ignore this simple truth in the xenophobic world of today.

Not long before this 150th anniversary year of Tagore’s birth, on a visit to Communist-ruled Kolkata, I asked a friend if people still read his works. Her sardonic response was: “They are too busy worshipping him!” This, alas, appears to be his fate elsewhere in India too. The betrayal of Rabindranath is at once a betrayal of the highest values of this civilisation.