The Unfinished Legacy of Rabindranath Tagore

The Unfinished Legacy of Rabindranath Tagore
Reverberating along the walls of an English Manor House in South Devon, the words of Rabindranath Tagore fall on new ears. Anthony Elliott explains why Tagore’s legacy will remain unresolved as long as political grievances divide groups and individuals from connecting to the rest of the world.

Each year, Dartington Hall hosts a festival to celebrate the poetry, prose, art, and philosophy of the most eminent of Indian authors, Rabindranath Tagore. A similar annual commemoration takes place in Illinois, USA. A bronze statue of Asia’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature with his characteristically furrowed yet compassionate expression stands in the centre of Prague. In Nicaragua, Salman Rushdie discovered a surprising reverence for the first non-European Nobel laureate. This ubiquity cannot be explained merely by Tagore’s extensive travels, but owes to a more pertinent value in his thought, which finds an audience across the world.

Born in Kolkata, the name, works, and plaster-of-Paris busts of Tagore have become an ingrained element of Bengali collective memory and identity. Furthermore, his songs were selected for both the Indian, and Bangladeshi National Anthems, tying his aesthetic to that of national pride. In fact, his music is played through loudspeakers at various junctions in Kolkata. It is in this ambivalence between, Tagore the patriot who brings Indian rhythms, scenes and ideas to the world, and Tagore the internationalist that brings a vision of a future world to India, that we might understand why he remains so profound.

The sheer volume of work makes it hard to lineate a consistent and clear theory or principle. Yet, taken as a whole, the writings, compositions, and drawings straddle a number of tensions arising out of the 19th Century British Raj in India: East / West; tradition / modern; private / public; nature / society; nation / humanity. These are not presented as oppositional or binary, but overlapping, confusing, and contradictory impulses. In the novel Ghare Baire, translated as The Home and the World,two characters caught in a love triangle pursue their passions with very different outlooks. Nikhil, embodies the gentility of European idealism and pacifism of certain Indian philosophies, while Sandip enacts the role of a realist and opportunistic revolutionary. Both characters are flawed, and it is not entirely clear who the reader, indeed who the author, should empathise with. Bimila, the subject of their adoration and desire, undergoes an epiphany upon meeting Sandip, but hesitates between her domestic responsibility as a wife and her political duty as a citizen. Eventually she realises the dual and combined nature of her position, at the very moment the country around them descents into chaos and riot: ‘I could not think of my house as separate to my country’ she concludes.

The fact that most of the world’s population remains caught between their personal and political struggles, between their own voice and that of society, means that Tagore’s lyrical imagination continues to resonate. The vision of a world in which the self is connected directly to the community, is what inspires as much now, as it did then. Academic Partha Chatterjee (author of The Politics of the Governed)explores Tagore’s importance for understanding contemporary politics in post-colonial democracies. He analyses a correspondence with fellow poet Nabinchandra Sen on how another Bengali poet, Chandra Chattopadyay, should be honoured upon his death. While Sen argues a traditional Indian tribute is practiced through personal grievance and homage, Tagore asserts a public commemoration unifies a community through their shared relationship with the artist. In this sense, it is fitting that Tagore’s own legacy remains unresolved so long as political grievances divide groups and individuals from connecting to the rest of the world. His memory is conducted through both conventions. Even in a Manor House in South Devon.

Two Figures (1934),Rabindranath Tagore