Celebrated from Bangladesh to Rural England, Rabindranath Tagore is one of the most significant figures in the literary and artistic history of the Indian subcontinent. However, argues Anthony Elliott from The Culture Trip, his legacy is a divisive issue as diverse political groups choose to interpret the works of Tagore in contrasting and oppositional ways.
Each year, Dartington Hall in England hosts a festival to celebrate the poetry, prose, art, and philosophy of the most eminent of Indian authors, Rabindranath Tagore. A similar annual commemoration takes place in Illinois, USA. A bronze statue of Asia’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature with his characteristically furrowed yet compassionate expression stands in the centre of Prague. In Nicaragua, Salman Rushdie discovered a surprising reverence for the first non-European Nobel laureate. This ubiquity cannot be explained merely by Tagore’s extensive travels, but owes more to the continued relevance and value of his work, which has found an audience across the world.
Born in Kolkata, the name, works, and plaster-of-Paris busts of Tagore have become a deep-rooted element of Bengali collective memory and identity. Furthermore, he wrote both the Indian, and Bangladeshi National Anthems, tying his identity to that of national pride in both countries. In fact, his music is played through loudspeakers at various popular spots in Kolkata. It is in the duality between Tagore the Indian patriot, who celebrates the scenery and life of his home country, and Tagore the international icon who transcends national boundaries, that we might find the source of his continued profundity.
The sheer volume of work makes it hard to summarise with a consistent and clear theory or principle. Yet, taken as a whole, the writings, compositions, and drawings straddle a number of issues and tensions arising out of the 19th Century British Raj in India: East/West; traditional/ modern; private/public and the nation/the individual. These are not presented as oppositional or binary, but overlapping, perplexing, and integrated impulses. In the novel ‘Ghare Baire’, translated as ‘The Home and the World’, two characters caught in a love triangle pursue their affections in very different ways. Nikhil embodies the gentility of European idealism and pacifism of certain Indian philosophies, while Sandip enacts the role of a pragmatic and opportunistic revolutionary. Both characters are flawed, and it is not entirely clear who the reader should empathise with.
Bimila, the subject of their adoration and desire, undergoes an epiphany upon meeting Sandip, but is torn between her domestic responsibility as a wife and her political duty as a citizen. Eventually she realises the dual and combined nature of her position, at the very moment the country around them descents into chaos and riot: “I could not think of my house as separate to my country” she concludes.
The fact that most of the world’s population remains caught between their personal and political struggles, between their own voice and that of society, means that Tagore’s lyrical imagination continues to resonate. The vision of a world in which the self is connected directly to the community is still an inspirational one. Academic Partha Chatterjee, author of ‘The Politics of the Governed’, explores how Tagore’s work can aid the understanding of contemporary politics in post-colonial democracies. He analyses a correspondence with fellow poet Nabinchandra Sen on how another Bengali poet, Chandra Chattopadyay, should be honoured upon his death. While Sen argues a traditional Indian tribute is practiced through personal grievance and homage, Tagore asserts a public commemoration unifies a community through their shared relationship with the artist. In this sense, it is fitting that Tagore’s own legacy remains unresolved so long as political grievances divide groups and individuals. Different societies and nations continue to interpret Tagore’s legacy in various, often contradictory ways, thus evoking the tensions between political groups, and between the individuals within them, which motivate so much of Tagore’s work.
By Anthony Elliott, The Culture Trip