‘In the dusky path of a dream…
… I went to seek the love who was mine in a former life’
Rabindranath Tagore was Independent India’s earliest cultural ambassador, and his generation’s most gifted dabbler. He proved that a jack of all trades could, very rarely, be master of them all. He was a poet, an artist, a scholar and a musician. He founded an university, a musical tradition, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the introduction to Gitanjali , W.B. Yeats wrote that his poems would be sought across history by highwaymen, by pirates, by lovers:
“Rabindranath Tagore.. writes music for his words, and one understands at every moment that he is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise, because he is doing something which has never seemed strange, unnatural, or in need of defence… A whole people, a whole civilisation, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image, as though we had walked in Rossetti’s willow wood, or heard, perhaps for the first time, our voice as in a dream.”
Of all Tagore’s avatars, it is the essayist that is least known, though he was as effective a prose stylist in English as he was a poet in Bengali. In the course of his travels, he wrote countless articles and gave hundreds of speeches. ‘I am a wanderer in my heart’, he wrote in one poem, ‘a stranger in a strange land’. Some of these observations were recently compiled by Ramachandra Guha in Nationalism, a brief glimpse of a thinker deeply engaged with his times.
For Tagore, India was a spiritual calling, not a political one. Like any aesthete of his time and breeding, he thought society ought to strive for perfection, harmony, beauty. Government was about more than consensus and representation, it was about nurturing the kind of community all humans deserve to inhabit. History, he would’ve told you, is written by those who heed her lessons. He believed that the burden of history now rested in the East, that Europe was “heaping up her iniquities to the sky”.
The East, he insisted, could resist this by drawing on a “vision of the infinite reality of all finite things…. The East, with her ideals, in whose bosom are stored the ages of sunlight and silence, can patiently wait till the West, hurrying after the expedient, loses breath and stops”. Tagore’s greatest fear was that India would inherit and import the iniquity of European civilisation, that we would emulate those who built their nations on the backs of their colonies and their poor. Across all the essays of Nationalism, he emphasises that the Nation, as a construct, is divisive and explosive; that it is built upon a “mutilated humanity”:
"This nation may grow on to an unimaginable corpulence, not of a living body, but of steel and steam and office buildings, till its deformities can contain no longer its ugly voluminousness -- till it begins to crack and gape, breathe gas and fire in gasps, its
death-rattles sound in cannon roars. In this war [World War I] the death-throes of the nation have commenced. Suddenly, all its mechanisms going mad, it has begun the dance of the Furies, shattering its own limbs, scattering them into the dust. It is the fifth act of the tragedy of the unreal.
Those who have any faith in Man cannot but fervently hope that the tyranny of the Nation will not be restored to all its former teeth and claws, to its far reaching iron arms and immense inner cavity, all stomach and no heart; that man will have his new birth, in the freedom of his individuality, from the enveloping vagueness of abstraction.."
Tagore wouldn’t live to see an Independent India, through his vision of the country it could be advanced the cause of freedom across the globe. His reservations, such as they are, are about nationhood itself, about the negotiating of arbitrary boundaries, not about the land and his love of it. It is no co-incidence that “Where the mind is without fear” is taught to school children across the country. His hesitation, moreover, has proved prophetic: who can deny that unbridled nationalism has been at the root of much of the destruction of the last century? As we celebrate our tryst with destiny, thus, we would do well to listen to the voices of our past.
Finally, since I cannot let a poet go past without scoring some verse, here is some to brighten up your day. The poem below could as easily have been written about India as any coy lover, for what is a country if she is not the most skilled of flirts?
Lest I should know you too easily, you play with me.
You blind me with flashes of laughter to hide your tears.
I know, I know your art;
You never say the word you would.
Lest I should prize you not, you elude me in a thousand ways.
Lest I should mix you with the crowd, you stand aside.
I know, I know your art;
You never walk the path you would.
Your claim is more than others; that is why you are silent.
With a playful carelessness you avoid my gifts.
I know, I know your art;
You never accept what you would.