Monday, April 18, 2011

Tagore: A Citizen of his Country and Universe

((This essay won me the first prize in KVS Tagore Mahotsav at National Level)

“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken…..”

These are not only lines from Tagore’s famous poem, but also probably his own vision of utopia. Tagore’s vision of his own universe. Yes, Tagore was not only a citizen of his own country but a citizen of the whole universe, wherein he had carved out a niche for himself. Not many people would argue if Rabindranath Tagore is called the epitome of world literature. Having spent the early years of my life in Kolkata, I have known Tagore right since when I have come to my senses. In Bengal, even if you fail to find the image of a popular deity at someone’s home, you are sure to find at least one image of Tagore in each and every home. Tagore is no less than the omnipresent god, “Rabindra-sangeet”is no less than a religion and “Rabindra-Jayanti” is as grand as any national festival. He is not just a legend, but a phenomenon worldwide.
Rabindranath Tagore belonged to a well-known cultural family of Kolkata, also known as “Thakurbari”. Many of his uncles, brothers and nephews were renowned painters, poets and writers. The great man who enthralled the world with his heart warming poems and novels had never got formal schooling himself. He had ventured into the world of writing at the very tender age of eight. At the age of 16, he first published his works under the pseudonym Bhanusimha1. The fact that people thought Bhanusimha was a 17th century writer whose works had recently resurfaced, itself speaks volumes of the quality of writing of the teenage Tagore.
Unfortunately the world outside Bengal was in the dark regarding the jewels coming out from Tagore’s pen. Till 1912 Tagore had never ventured outside Bengali, and neither did he need to. The fame and popularity he was enjoying in Bengal itself was more than enough. By then he had already brought pioneering changes to Bengali literature. But it was in the year 1912 that he redefined literature for the world. Tagore translated some of his works which collectively came out as “Geetanjali”2. The English poet Yeats, came across these translated works and was so overwhelmed by them that he brought it out in from of a book for which he himself wrote an introduction. It was a collection of only 103 verses, a tiny fraction of all works during his lifetime. And most of those had lost their rhyme and grace in the process of translation, and still the beautiful amalgamation of romance, spirituality, superpower, nature and the divine in his verses held the western readers spellbound – so much so that this collection of a meagre number of his works won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 19143, soon to be followed by Knighthood. Tagore also underwent schooling in England, though only for a short span of time but it sufficed to bring in elements of western culture into his life and his works. His works reflect of shades of English literature while staying rooted to the Bengali origins. Thus he succeeded in a converging the west with the east, and being probably the first to do it successfully by taking the best out of each realm. In his time, he soonemerged as the identifying figure of Eastern literature in the west. In fact he was the first non-westerner to be bestowed with the Nobel.
Tagore’s works are truly universal in the sense that they do not only bring together the west and the east but also try to embrace the modern without totally breaking free of the old tradition. Man and divine are also gracefully intertwined in his works. And most importantly, his works have been a sensation in the west and east alike. From Europe to Japan, USA to Bengal, his works have remained equally popular. Even his political views were never too rigid. Historians often find his political stand complex in nature. Though being a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, he despised the “Satyagrah” methodand maintained distance from it because he believed more in education than in revolution. And yet, after the Jalianwalah massacre, he gave up his knighthood as a protest. Then again during the partition of Bengal, he organised a mass festival where Hindus and Muslims tied rakhis to each other as a symbolic gesture of brotherhood4. Thus his political views always tried to accommodate everyone. Rabindranath Tagore had very refreshing views on education as well.
Through his famous children’s story “The Parrots Training”, he slams the rote method of learning5. His zeal to set up idealistic education institutions led him to establish Vishva-Bharati at Shantiniketan. Now a Central University of the name VishwaBharati University, it has glorious names like Satyajit Ray, Indira Gandhi, Amartya Sen among its list of alumni. He co-founded other schools in the west too.
His works have true universal appeal in the sense that you will find a Tagore poem for almost any and every occasion. From devotional chants to patriotic war cries and even the amalgamation of man and divine, his works have all flavours. His short stories too encompass the lives of people from all strata of the society. Moreover, in his later life Tagore also dabbled in painting. But he shall be best remembered for the ground-breaking music he had composed for his own lyrics. “Rabindrasangeet” is unique in its own way and is an integral part of Bengali culture, or rather it might be said that Rabindrasangeetis a culture in itself.
Rabindranath’s rich legacy still stands tall in our world. His birthday, Rabindra-Jayanti, is celebrated in form of “Kabipranam” not only in India but even in places like Utah University, Illinois, USA6. His works, having been translated into English, Dutch, Swede, French, German and numerous other languages and shall be read and remembered for generations to come. Tagore is the greatest poet and the greatest literary figure ever produced by India, but he shall belong to the world at large. Just 100 poems of his held the world spellbound, and no one knows what might have had happened if the worldhad stumbled upon his lifetime collections. Maybe that is why the people of Bengal not only preserve Rabindranath’s works (RabindraRochonabli) as a religious relic but for them Tagore is as much a basic necessity as food, water and air. The poet who brought Indian literature to the west shall ever remain a citizen of this country and of the universe.
These lines perfectly sum up Tagore’s rich legacy -
Thou hast made me endless,
such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
andfillest it ever with fresh life.


By Arnav Gupta
Class XI B
KV Janakpuri

Photo courtesy – JaduSaikia (

1.    Rabindranath as a poet (BhanuSingha) - RadhikaranjanSamadder
2.    Gitanjali: Selected Poems –Rabindranath Tagore, School of Wisdom
3.    List of Nobel laureates - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
4.    Rakhi Celebrations in Kolkata -
5.    The Parrot’s Training (English) – Rabindranath Tagore
6.    Rabindranath Tagore, Impact – Wikipedia

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