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Rabindranath Tagore’s Legacy:

Rabindranath Tagore’s Legacy:

Rabindranath Tagore will be remembered as a litterateur, artist and philosopher, who has marked the Indian psyche in a unique way. The legacy of Gurudev’s prophetic presence still works as a creative amalgam of dissenting voices, dialogical gist, deeply woven literary truths and the celebration of life as inter or cross-cultural bonding. The structure of the vast oeuvre of Tagore’s world of creative endeavours is classically organic in nature. When Tagore’s creative works were drawing together India’s efforts to attain freedom through radical self-transcendence, the nationalist spirit of India’s freedom struggle had been divided into two camps, inclusive political nationalism and exclusivist cultural nationalism. As Ramchandra Guha has pointed ‘Tagore was a patriot without quite being a nationalist’. Though Tagore couldn’t travel fully with his critique of nationalism and the entire extent of the debate which determined India’s destiny later as time didn’t allow him, the authenticity of Tagore’s perspective foresaw the most decisive themes of coexistence of our times symptomatically for us such as the criticism of nationalism and transnationalism, religion as humanism, the idea of cosmopolitan freedom, education as encounter with nature and university as a democratic place for cultural celebration etc.

In the last few decades the term public intellectual has become a key vocabulary for marking the cultural conscience of democracies. The theme of the public intellectuals comes into the fore in connection with the need of value communication in the post-traditional contemporary societies and the transformation of public spheres. As Odile Heynders [1] observes, the themes emerged along with the idea of the public intellectual deal with debates involving questions about the cultural authority, social commitment, responsibility and activism, mainly of particular figures philosophers, artists, novelists and academics. Romila Thapar in a very recent interesting study says, public intellectuals are nurtured and inspired by heterogeneity of world views, deliberative democratic choices of civil societies and promoters of public spheres [2] . As a cultural icon Tagore also quite fits into and culturally refines the concept of the public intellectual to suggest the destiny and trajectory of many a streams of thoughts and contemporary discourses on them.

Tagore’s legacy   justifiably reminds us how the unique humanism that operates in Tagore’s creative endeavours constantly problematizes the discourses on ‘national/Indian and Asian identities’,   ‘Trans-cultural and Intercultural understanding of culture’, ‘the interface between spirituality and religion’, ‘democracy and linguistic representation’, and ‘education and the idea of the university’ etc. Consequently, Tagore’s critique as ‘civilizational’ dissent has ramified into many dimensions. However, its most visible manifestation can be seen in his critique of the fetish of nationalism. His critique of nationalism which was inspired by the broader Indian creative traditions of diversity and as the insightful caution against cultural nationalism, ethnocentric and racist ideologies not only enlivens his philosophical and creative vision but also adds to the spine of a group of radical Indian dissenters as Ashish Nandy pointed out in one of his major studies on Tagore and Nationalism. As Tagore asks the Almighty in his song ‘ Bhuban Jora Ashankhani’, his critique of narrow nationalism is a creative appeal “to the universal spirit to spread his seat of universality in the individual’s heart”:

Your universe-encompassing prayer mat

Spread it out in the core of my heart.

The night’s stars, the day’s sun, all the shades of darkness and light,

All your messages that fill the sky –

Let them find their abode in my heart.

May the lute of the universe

Fill the depths of my soul with all its tunes.

All the intensity of grief and joy, the flower’s touch, the storm’s touch –

Let your compassionate, auspicious, generous hands

Bring into the core of my heart.

Tagore’s scepticism against the dehumanizing regression built into nationalism that can blow out deeper values of friendship, social harmony and spiritual values/progress remains one of the major insights that determine contemporary discussions on human freedom and creativity. Gurudev presents us here a unique cosmopolitanism in the contemporary context of understanding human beings, life and dialogicality.   It can be undoubtedly stated that Tagore’s philosophical insights are capable enough to offer one of the important alternative frameworks that the hermeneutic-critical-deconstructive intent traces out of the postcolonial meta-theoretical approaches to situate the Indian intellectual engagements. Moreover, the burgeoning cognitive and theoretically challenging atmosphere that Tagore’s philosophy puts forward articulates the endeavours to understand cultural critique and the multicultural reality of India more meaningfully.

The corpus of Tagore’s literary achievements is praiseworthily vast. Even more notable is its uniqueness. Tagore’s transcending of the literary traditions around him which he abhorred and embraced does not make them cease to vanish forever. Within the universe of Tagore’s writing and compositions they live to attain an organic union.   The mystical and dissenting spiritual undertone of Tagore’s literary genius sometimes multiplies his vividly different genres and texts more than what they are and sometimes collapses them into the stillness and vastness of a single primeval word. In Tagore the qualified romanticism that he introduces to overcome the decadent literary conventions and orthodoxy of his time becomes a rare blend of lively expressionism and expressionist realism. Literary moulds and modes border-cross, most often tending what ‘Gitanjali’ and its author tend to constitute.

The artistic world that Tagore carves has been distinctively outstanding and rebellious. It, as pointed out by the contemporary commentators, is characterized by a unique expressionism that is radically different from its western counterpart. The medium of painting, theme and the style/the composition methods inaugurate a new era of Indian art and aesthetics. When it is argued that Tagore’s aesthetics as a source of inspiration gave birth to several other indigenous art movements, Tagore’s world of art and the generative idea that made it a necessity remain distinct and challenging

Tagore’s philosophy has its wings in both Upanishadic Darshana and modern western thought. But it flies up to perch in abodes more humane than both. It draws the existential magnitude of the Renaissance man quite distinctively to make him the ‘angel of surplus’. The angel of surplus was not imagined without a cultural and local identity and individuality. Instead, the ideal of ‘universal man’ has been installed at the heart of human endeavours to attain freedom that is beyond the bondages of all institutions/institutionalization. It is interesting to note here that when Tagore’s thought was exemplarily making efforts to interweave a concept of creative interaction to mediate his ideas about economic progress, development, anti-colonial rural and social reconstruction, intercultural bonding, artistic creativity and ethical basis of action, some of the major critical theories of the modernist West as its European counterpart were shifting their emphasis from the concept of interaction to formulate different assemblages centred on the ideal of labour force and related ideologies to explain socio-political coexistence. However, as we could see quite curiously later that the Western thought makes efforts afterwards to critically rethink modernist, ideological claims and as a result of such efforts brings back the notion of social interaction to the fore again as an ideal that can frame the social scientific wisdom more authentically.

Tagore’s thought reaches its zenith when philosophy as the unending quest to associate creative freedom is made to stand in constant dialogue with the notion of the universal mind that dignifies its local individuality. As Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate says, “It is in the sovereignty of reasoning -- fearless reasoning in freedom -- that we can find Rabindranath Tagore's lasting voice”. That is the reason why Tagore’s ‘freedom statement’ becomes one of the all time manifesto of freedom. Tagore writes:

Freedom from fear is the freedom
I claim for you my motherland!
Freedom from the burden of the ages, bending your head,
breaking your back, blinding your eyes to the beckoning
call of the future;
Freedom from the shackles of slumber wherewith
you fasten yourself in night's stillness,
mistrusting the star that speaks of truth's adventurous paths;
freedom from the anarchy of destiny
whole sails are weakly yielded to the blind uncertain winds,
and the helm to a hand ever rigid and cold as death.
Freedom from the insult of dwelling in a puppet's world,
where movements are started through brainless wires,
repeated through mindless habits,
where figures wait with patience and obedience for the 
master of show,
to be stirred into a mimicry of life.

Tagore keeps on singing in the inner courtyard of every Indian’s mind. The creatively itinerant sage poet makes us also travel to the innermost chambers of our minds and challenges us to diverge from the sick, conditioned and contracted our own selves and the mediocrity of our times.

(This was published in the Editorial Page of Eastern Chronicle.)  

(Published on 13th May 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 20)



[1] Odile Heynders. Writers as Public Intellectuals Literature: Celebrity, Democracy. Tilburg University, The Netherlands :Palgrave Mcmillan. 2016

  [2] Romila Thappar. The Public Intellectual in India.  New Delhi: Aleph. 2015. She adds to her observations about the idea of public intellectual that the gracious lineage of public intellectuals in India is on the wane due to slowly emerging anti-democratic and anti-intellectual culture.