Home > 2016 > Remembering Rabindranath Tagore on his 155th Birth Anniversary

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 20 New Delhi May 7, 2016

Remembering Rabindranath Tagore on his 155th Birth Anniversary

Saturday 7 May 2016, by Gargi Chakravartty

Today we are facing a frenzied furore on issues such as nationalism and patriotism artificially manufactured by the ruling dispensation which has created a vicious ambience whipping up divisiveness within our society. This recent trend to incite people with jingoistic ultra-nationalist feelings with a definite aim to target certain sections, mainly minorities, has bewildered the saner sections of our country. And precisely for this reason, we go back for solace to Rabindranath Tagore whose poems and songs keep on reveberating in our minds with the messages of universalism and humanism.

Being born and brought up in the cosmo-politan city of Kolkata in the post-independence era, I was imbued with ideas of internationalism and humanism of Rabindranath, with Swami Vivekananda’s preachings of Karma Yoga (selfless service), with the unitarian ideas of Raja Rammohan Roy and other Brahmo Samaj stalwarts and with works of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa etc. It was spontaneous and natural for our generation not only to celebrate the week-long Durga Puja festival but also to attend Christmas Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral or to visit Muslim friends on Eid. I still remember the massive impact the Tagore Centenary Celebrations, organised by the West Bengal Peace Committee, had on the common people who thronged to the Park Circus Maidan in November 1961 from far-off places. They were enthralled by the perfor-mances of the artistes in that weeklong festival. In fact, after the Tagore Centenary in 1961, Rabindrasangeet became a popular catalyst to bind all of us irrespective of religion, caste, class and even political affiliation into a distinct cultural and aesthetic category. On the 25th day of Boishakh (8th May or 9th May), Tagore’s birthday, year after year, since then men, women, children come from even suburbs to Jorasanko (his birthplace) or the Rabindra Sadan complex to listen to Rabindrasangeet recitals and poem recitations performed by distingui-shed artistes, known or less known young ones. Similarly Dhaka also grooms up for that day, even for a whole month, as a cultural hub, and presently many of the Bangladeshi artistes are some of the best exponents of Rabindrasangeet. Rabindranath’s concept of Viswamanab and Jibandevata echoing through his verses creates a space for universal love for humanity and that goes deep into our heart.

Rabindranath set up a university at Santi-niketan with this concept of universalism and named it Visva-Bharati which was an effort to establish an international ensemble of cultural exchange. On 22nd December, 1918, he at a meeting placed this idea and the University was formally inaugurated in 1921. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan aptly explained Rabindranath’s vision of Visva-Bharati in the following words: “His Visva-Bharati is an international university where the whole world has become a single nest: yatra visvam bhavati ekanidam. In this institution he tried to impart the background of internationalism and help the students to realise ‘the true character of our interlinked humanity and deep unities of our civilisation in the West and the East’.“1

Rabindranath had a wide vision of humanity and in that perspective nationalism for him tended to have been a narrow creed. He even said: “I love India but my India is an idea and not a geographical expression. Therefore I am not a patriot. I shall seek my compatriots all over the world.”2 Rabindranath’s lecture in Seattle in USA in 1916 was later published in 1917 under the title Nationalism, where he said ‘India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them a country is greater than the ideas of humanity.’3 Rabindranath strongly believed in the ‘unity in human society, regardless of race, colour and creed’.4 He once told Gandhi: ‘The whole world is suffering from a cult of selfish and short-sighted nationalism.’5

Rabindranath’s warning against the fascist onslaught of Europe is relevant for all time to come. At the fag end of his life, he witnessed the holocaust of the Second World War and fascist onslaught of Hitler and Mussolini which made him write his famous booklet titled Crisis in Civilisation. He was extremely disturbed at the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on 22 June, 1941. Even at his deathbed he was keen to know the course of the war, as has been narrated by Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis in the Visva-Bharati journal.6 Even in his last days his concern for humanity, writ large on his face, was noticed by the writer of the article who called it as Tagore’s Visva Vandana.

Today we are extremely disturbed to watch the tsunami of exclusive nationalism creating hatred towards ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’ and thereby imposing majoritarianism, mainly Brahmanical hegemony, in the name of cultural nationalism. Any note of dissent from the views of the ruling party is often being misconstrued as ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic’. Why do we have to be so defensive like Javed Akhtar and a few others to chant vociferously slogans imposed on us just to placate or appease a handful of leaders ruling the country? Why should we bow down to the dictat of a few autocrats and fall in their trap? Today when a Dalit woman embraces Buddhism to become free from the clutches of an unequal social system based on age-old caste discrimination, one wonders how can she connect herself to an artificially manufactured nationhood, deifying as Bharat Mata, where she has no space of her own? She will rather be able to connect herself with the agony and distress of an oppressed woman, a victim of apartheid and similar social exploitation from any part of the world. In the vast ocean of humanity and universalism, we need to rise above the narrow creed of ultra-nationalism.

Let us strive to build a world free of exploitation and discrimination, a world free of conflict and war and an egalitarian society. Let the voice of sanity prevail over madness. Let us remember our universal poet Rabindranath, his repeated appeal to the conscience of humanity when he wrote: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;......” Increasing madness in the name of cultural nationalism knows no bound. We need to break our silence and remember Rabindranath’s prolific words — ‘Anyay je kare ar anyay je sahe, taba ghrina tare jeno trinasama dahe. (Those who commit wrongs and those who accept them, O Lord, let your wrath smite them as fire engulfs a blade of grass.)’


1. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, ‘Most Dear to All Muses’ in Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume, 1861-1961, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1986, p. xxiii.

2. Ibid., p. xxii.

3. Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism, Macmillan, 1976, p. 64.

4. Richard Church, ‘The Universal Man’, Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume,op.cit, p. 130.

5. Ibid.

6. Chinmohan Sehanavis, Rabindranather Antarjatik Chinta (in Bengali), Nabhana, Kolkata, 1983, pp. 115-116.

Gargi Chakravarttty, an activist in the women’s movement, is the Vice-President of the National Federation of Indian Women.