Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore are probably the two most famous Indians of the early to mid-20th century. The tiny, shaven-headed, dhoti-clad Gandhi (1869-1948) appears to us more sharply in focus than the lavishly bearded, robed Gurudev (Tagore’s nickname), with his air of an ancient prophet. You can’t imagine a film called Tagore filling the cinemas. Tagore (1861-1941) was a poet, a dreamer, an idealist; Gandhi combined his idealism with political nous. Yet in some ways, Tagore right now might be the more relevant, even essential figure. Perhaps that is the thinking behind the Tagore Festival at Dartington Hall, Devon from May 1-7, when poets, musicians, thinkers and environmentalists gather to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth.
Gandhi, born in western India, and Tagore, born into a prominent intellectual and artistic family in Bengal, were friends with differences. They held each other in great mutual respect – Gandhi’s title of Mahatma was even given to him by Tagore – but that did not preclude outspoken disagreement. That disagreement was perhaps more tactical than strategic – both shared the aims of Hindu-Muslim unity and the abolition of the caste system – but the tactical divergences could be acute. Tagore did not hesitate to criticise sacred tenets of Gandhi-ism, including the practice of passive resistance: “Passive resistance is a force, which is not necessarily moral in itself – it can be used against truth as well as for it.”
He demurred most strongly when Gandhi declared that the 1934 Bihar earthquake was divine retribution for India upholding untouchability; Tagore insisted that purely physical events should not be laden with metaphysical interpretations. As for Gandhi’s belief in the importance of spinning at a wheel, Tagore saw it as potentially dehumanising, risking turning human beings into machines. On all their points of difference, Tagore stood up for the inviolable freedom, dignity and creativity of the individual. If those sound like noble, woolly abstractions, they did not appear that way to Tagore. In the essay “My Life”, originally a lecture given in China in 1923, he explains how he was born in Bengal at the coming together of three great movements, one religious, one literary, and one political or national. His family happened to be prominent in all three areas; his father became the leader of a religious movement combining Hindu and Christian elements, which made him deeply unpopular with traditionalists. In fact, their unconventionality and revolt against orthodoxy made the whole family virtual outcasts.
Tagore was a poet; he had “a deep sense, almost from infancy, of the beauty of nature, an intimate feeling of companionship with the trees and the clouds”, and the urge towards expressing this feeling. All poets have to make their own idiom out of the common stock of language; or, as Tagore put it, the poet “should not only have his own seeds but prepare his own soil”. He started reading the Vaishnava erotic poems and then to write his own before he was 10; by his mid-teens he was a celebrated poet. Internationally, the culmination of his poetic career was the award of the Nobel Prize for his collection Gitanjali in 1913 – the first time the prize had been awarded to an Asian.
Formal education played very little part in all this. Tagore was suspicious of it; he strongly disliked the period he spent at a school in Brighton, England, and then left University College London without a degree; later he said he “never … had what is called an education” and that “the main object of teaching is not to give explanations but to knock at the doors of the mind”.
Quite strange then that he should have founded his own school. But Tagore’s school, founded at his father’s ashram in Santiniketan in 1901, was unconventional. He instituted open-air classrooms to give the living world of nature and human kindness priority over the dead world of rigid book-learning. He believed that “the object of education is the freedom of mind which can only be achieved through the path of freedom”. (The school, called Patha Bhavana, still exists, surrounded by Visva-Bharati university, and numbers among its alumni the economist Amartya Sen.)
What would Tagore make of the success of the galloping Indian economy? For him success depended on much more than national self-determination and economic growth. In his addresses “Civilisation and Progress” and “The Voice of Humanity” Tagore questions the western ideal of material progress devoid of a spiritual core. Already in the 1920s, he saw an aggressive force of greed linked to a science “smothering all time and space over the earth” and “all that was human … broken into fragments.”
Tagore speaks to us of the need for a return to simplicity: for the peace that “comes from the inner spirit, the power of sympathy, the power of self-sacrifice”.
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