Very few in the world have won the love and regard of the people as Rabindranath Tagore has done with his contribution to literature and the arts. What is the significance of Tagore, the lion of Indian Renaissance, to us living in the 21st century? The sesqui-centenary volume On the Seashore of Humanity, a multilingual collection of writings on Tagore, brought out by the University of Calcutta, is meant to provide us with some answers. It is a rich treasure trove carrying, besides valuable essays, black and white photographs of Tagore, Gandhiji’s visit to Shantiniketan, the manuscript of Gitanjali in the poet’s handwriting and a few of his paintings.
The English section of this volume carries 16 essays, discussing the many-sidedness of his integrated personality: poet, dramatist, actor, producer, musician, painter, educationist, a practical idealist who turned his dreams into reality at Shantiniketan, reformer, philosopher, prophet, novelist, short story writer, critic of life and literature, and internationalist.
Jose Paz discusses Tagore’s views on and experiments with education which were the outcome of his own independent thinking on the subject. A value-based system of education which believes in drawing out the best from a child and prepares it to fit into society is the true one. The mind is an activity and unless it is channelised it can destroy itself. So he framed a curriculum that would keep the mind and the body occupied. Goodness, beauty and truth formed the foundation of his educational ideal. The essay ‘Tagore’s Social Thought’ examines his “version of cosmopolitanism that can converse equally with the proponents of universality on the one hand and tradition on the other” and his development of a “sense of modernity that can challenge the European” thought.
M.S. Swaminathan proposes a three-pronged strategy to convert Tagore’s vision creating social energy to create a bond between the rural and the global: Improve the productivity of small holdings through appropriate land use policies, enlarge the scope for the growth of agro-industries and promote opportunities for services.
William Radice, poet, translator and a learned Tagore-scholar focuses on a single poem, “On the Seashore of Endless Worlds Children Meet,” in the Gitanjali collection for close analysis. The published text was edited by W.B. Yeats while the manuscript of 1912 is preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard. Radice juxtaposes the Bengali original, Tagore’s poetic-prose translation and his own verse translation of this celebrated poem on childish innocence to show how great poetry can survive any number of translations. Guillaume Bridet argues in the essay, “The Beginnings of Literary Globalisation in France” that most of the European writers and philosophers who studied Indian culture considered its literature as belonging to long gone ancient history and false religions; Tagore’s Nobel award in 1913 proved a turning point when he, a native of a colonised country, was recognised as a universal writer.
Tagore once said, “My mornings were full of songs: let sunset days be full of colour.” Rather late in life, at the age of 64 when anyone else would retreat into a quiet life of retirement, Tagore discovered a new talent in him which had laid latent all through. He took to painting with such avidity and joy that when he passed away in 1941, there were no fewer than two thousand sketches and paintings all done with such marvellous dexterity that would put some renaissance painters to shame. Anand Coomarasamy referred to his paintings as “genuinely original, genuinely naïve expression — extraordinary evidence of eternal youth persistent in a holy and venerable personage.” One can only think of the Pre-Raphaelites some of whom were both poets and painters. Somendranath Bandopadhyaya, commenting on the painting technique of Tagore, observes that in the field of art Tagore was his own guide. He trod his own untrodden path covered with grass. He himself said, “My pictures did not have their origin in trained discipline, in tradition and a deliberate attempt at illustration, but in my instinct for rhythm, my pleasure in harmonious combination of lines and colours.” Gamini Fonseka analyses Tagore’s application of irony in Gora; Bimal Kumar Upadhyaya discusses the gender relations in Tagore’s short stories.
To say that Tagore was a many-sided genius is to harp on the obvious. As Carlyle said of Dante or Shakespeare, the Indian nation found a voice to speak forth in Tagore. This work is a dazzling collection of richly fertile essays which meticulously reconstruct his inspirational and trailblazing life and career.