150 years after his birth, India and Bangladesh together recall the pre-eminent literary genius.
The simultaneous celebration of Rabindranath Tagore's 150th birth anniversary in India and Bangladesh marked an exceptional move to honour the poet-philosopher. It also symbolised the deep admiration that exists in both countries for the man who enriched literature as much as he did humanity as a whole.
The versatile genius, who was much ahead of his time, wrote in his mother tongue of Bangla. But he did not limit his message to the people who lived around him. His creative works introduced a powerful dose of love and internationalism. This Indian rose to international heights: he was the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913.
Tagore was poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, educationist, spiritualist, painter, lyricist, composer and singer – a rare set of distinctions, an unbelievable conjunction of talents. His creative works, which still influence billions of people globally, are a matter of pride for the people of India and Bangladesh. He was born, grew up, worked and died here.
At critical moments he has been an inspiration for the people of what is now Bangladesh. Protagonists of the two-nation theory wanted to wipe out his influence. Pakistan's first military ruler, Ayub Khan, banned his songs. But the poet only became more relevant then before. A strong sense of linguistic nationalism grew around him. Finally, the people launched a strong cultural and political movement that culminated in the formation of Bangladesh.
Tagore made the Bengali middle class feel that he was an essential part of their national ethos. The emerging middle class, including students and intellectuals, regarded him as one of them. In no way could they think that Tagore was alien to them because of his religion.
Strangely, as in Pakistan's case, the successive military regimes in Bangladesh showed little interest in upholding his legacy. Tagore's songs and poems inspired Bengalis in their fight against Pakistan in the 1971 war of liberation. His songs and poetry inspired them culturally and politically. Never before had a poet left such an imprint and wielded so deep an influence on the psyche of the vast majority of the people. While India chose his Jana gana mana as the national anthem in 1947, Bangladesh has had one of his songs as the national anthem since its birth.
Sri Lanka's national anthem was also penned by Tagore: Apa Sri Lanka, Nama Nama Nama Nama Mata, Sundar Sri Boroni was originally Nama Nama Sri Lanka Mata in Bangla, written and set to its tune by Tagore. He did it at the request of his favourite Sri Lankan student at Santiniketan, Ananda Samarkun, in 1938. In 1940, Ananda returned to his native land and translated the song into Sinhalese and recorded it in Tagore's tune.
Indeed, Rabindranath is not only the pre-eminent literary genius of Bengal but all of South Asia, perhaps the whole of Asia.
The joint celebration of Tagore's birth anniversary began in Dhaka on May 6: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated it. In India, it was opened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi on May 7. With this joint celebration, the great poet, who represents much of the common heritage and philosophy of the two countries, brought the two closer still.
The changed political circumstances in the two countries made the joint celebration possible. Tagore's philosophy, vision and outlook must bring the two closer. He is a monumental treasure that can bless us with love, humanity and justice.
Remembering a personality whose ardent belief in humanism and universalism was striking, India has instituted a Rs. 1 crore award in Tagore's name. Bangladesh has decided to set up a Rabindra University at Shilaidaha in Kushtia, where the poet spent a considerable part of his creative life while supervising the family estate. Bangladesh will also preserve the poet's intimate memories in ‘Patisar' and ‘Shahzadpur.' Dhaka has also expressed its willingness to construct a Bangladesh Bhaban at Santiniketan. India will run a special train, Sonar Tori, between Dhaka and Kolkata.
Speaking at the inaugural, Dr. Manmohan Singh said Tagore's ideas of universal humanism resonate in the contemporary world. His belief in the spiritual unity of the East and the West was a powerful message of redemption for a society beset by greed, callousness and irreverence. The joint celebration, he felt, was of “unique significance” — it was the first cultural exchange of its kind between the neighbours.
India cherishes the Tagore legacy fondly, just as Bangladesh does. Together the two must endeavour to enrich that legacy for people's welfare. Tagore is a lighthouse, a strong voice of humanity. He should guide the social consciousness of the two countries. Vice President Hamid Ansari, who attended the celebrations in Dhaka, rightly termed the celebration a momentous occasion.
Rabindranath remains a pre-eminent man of letters on both sides of the border. He is still the most influential writer in his language. He is South Asia's voice of love in a wider global perspective, a bridge of friendship. His songs should be sung forever; his works should be read for centuries to come.
Tagore's enduring influence on history comes through the many layers of his thoughts. He modernised Bangla art by refusing to follow rigid classical forms.
As a story-teller, he is second to none. His lucid, lyrical prose and grasp of the human psychology are unique. He is the foremost lyricist of his language and the most celebrated composer. He wrote more than 2,000 songs, and these are widely considered to be his best creation. His songs are an integral part of the Bengali culture and collective psyche. His novels are also some of the best in Bangla. He wrote lovely plays. He was a painter of note.
Tagore was a committed anti-colonialist. He had a deep understanding of the world at large. He visited more than 30 countries and had personal ties with scientists and literary giants of his time. He was not a revolutionary in a political sense, but he inflamed his people by renouncing his knighthood after the colonial army indiscriminately killed Indians in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.
Tagore is a precious guide. He held that promoting one's own culture and approving the cultures of others could be one and the same attitude. “I believe,” he wrote, “the unity of human civilization can be better maintained by linking up in fellowship and cooperation of the different civilizations of the world.” The humanist added: “Let the mind be universal. The individual should not be sacrificed.”
He was a member of the elite, but Tagore did not have elitist views on education. He wrote: “I believe that all human problems find their fundamental solution in education… Poverty, pestilence, communal fights and industrial backwardness make our path narrow and perilous owing to the meagreness of education…”
Reflecting on the plight of his country under foreign rule, Tagore understood, just as Gandhi did, that violence cannot serve the ultimate purpose of humanity. He was deeply aware that India needed more than a change of political regime. Therefore, he opted for a self-reliant village economy. In the region that is now Bangladesh, he initiated projects of local initiative, local leadership and local self-government, developing cooperative systems. Besides being a poet and philosopher, Tagore started innovative research in agriculture and rural development in Patisar, Shahzadpur and Shilaidah. This spoke of his vision and commitment to the people around him. In a world dominated by technology and science, his thoughts are still relevant as he wrote: “Science has given man immense power. The golden age will return when it is used in the service of humanity.”
Tagore stood against exploitation and injustice in order to rise above geopolitical, economic and ideological divides. His messages can serve as a vital source of inspiration for cultural tolerance and lasting peace. As the two countries commemorate Tagore's birth anniversary, they should pledge to keep at bay the scourge of deadly birds of prey. A truly secular and democratic India and Bangladesh can keep alive the spirit of the great poet.
Tagore was born on May 7, 1861, in Calcutta, and died on August 7, 1941, at 80 years of age. Even a century and a half after his birth, his place in the collective life of India and Bangladesh is only getting stronger. The birth anniversary celebration is testimony to a new realisation and awakening. Invoking Tagore's timeless message of universal brotherhood, his thoughts and messages should be translated into reality.
Tagore belongs to India, and Bangladesh too. But in the truest sense, he belongs to the world. Even after 150 years of his birth, you feel his presence.
(The writer, based in Dhaka, is a Bangladesh litterateur and journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)