Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet whose protean genius enthralls millions of Bengali-speaking people to this day. That he has been largely forgotten in the West after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for Gitanjali (Song-Offerings) is a cause for sorrow, for his poems and songs remain a timeless source of inspiration.
When Tagore was born in Kolkata, India, the American Civil War had just begun. Leo Tolstoy was reaching the heights of his powers as a novelist. James Clerk Maxwell had published his electromagnetic equations. The world was in the throes of a dramatic transformation. Tagore's contributions to literature and the vision he articulated for a world where tyranny had no place and freedom was everyone's birthright hastened this transformation.
Tagore went on to create a body of work greater in scope and power than Gitanjali, His true genius bloomed after he won the Nobel Prize, a fact unique in the history of literature.
A significant amount of Tagore's work is infused with a vision of greatness he saw possible in his native land, a confluence of civilizations due to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Skihs, Jains, Paris, Christians, Mongols, Dravidians and Aryans. India, as he saw it, was greater than the sum of its parts, a vision that continues to challenge India of today.
Britain in Tagore's time ruled India with an iron hand. But the rulers were becoming nervous. A young activist named Mohandas Gandhi had returned from South Africa in 1915 to lead the nationalist movement. becoming a proponent of Satyagraha (eagerness for truth, otherwise known as passive resistance) to British rule. Although Tagore and Gandhi differed on methods by which to achieve independence, both believed fervently in regenerating their people people by curbing their communal instincts. Both believed that India's hope lay in forging unity among people of different races and religions.
Politics did not interest Rabindranath but that did not keep him from boldly opposing British tyranny.
When government troops led by English officers opened fire on a political gathering in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 Indians and wounding scores of others, Tagore renounced the knighthood England had bestowed on him four years earlier. As a poet, he felt it was the strongest statement he could make to draw world attention to the crime.
It cost him friendships in the literary circles of Europe and popularity even in America, but he considered this act one of the high points of his life. It was also during this time that he composed some of his most powerful poems against tyranny and injustice. "Question" is a poem that stirs deep emotions in its impassioned plea for understanding sorrow and tragedy in a world meant to be just and filled with grace.
When Gandhi was imprisoned without trial in 1932, he condemned it. In a letter to England's Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, he warned that the British were closing the door on peaceful negotiations with India.
Tagore was self-taught. Attempts by his parents to educate him in schools completely failed. Young Rabindranath found conventional classrooms suffocating. In 1901, he founded an experimental school at Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace) near Kolkata, free from traditional restrictions. Classes were held in open air and joy in learning was the priority.
By 1921, the school had evolved into Vishwa-Bharati (World) University where students from all over India came to study. Tagore saw in it a model of his vision, of an India greater than the sum of its parts. It is a testimony to Tagore's ideal that funding for the University came from both Hindus and Muslims. A frequent visitor to Shantiniketan was a young politician named Jawaharlal Nehru, whose only daughter, Indira Gandhi, was then a student at the World University.
Tagore did not live long enough to see the end of the British Raj and the partition of the sub-continent along religious lines in 1947, He died six years earlier, still nurturing vision of a harmonious India, as riots were flaring.
In "The Religion of Men," a set of lectures delivered at Oxford in 1930, Tagore said: "Freedom in the mere sense of independence has no content, and therefore no meaning. Perfect freedom lies in a harmony of relationship."