My mind took wing. Fly! Fly! – A homage to Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore Biography at Nobelprize.org
Rabindranath Tagore Biography at Nobelprize.org

My mind took wing. Fly! Fly! …

Science recognizes atoms, all of which can he weighed and measured, but never recognizes personality, the one thing that lies at the basis of reality. All creation is that, for apart from personality, there is no meaning in creation.

On the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary on 7 May 2011, we pay tribute to Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). His far sighted contributions to many fields are not merely relevant and inspiring for his and indeed our age; some of his insights, creations and contributions are yet to be made accessible to the general public outside his native Bengal.

Many of Rabindranath Tagore’s works still make enjoyable reading. Some are being made available in English, German and other languages for the first time as to reach a global audience. His love for nature and faith in the future of mankind  found their highest expression in Santiniketan (“Abode of Peace”), the school and centre for rural development he established in rural West Bengal in 1901. Unlike the schools known until then, pupils and teaches alike could put the concept of learning without fear into practice. By making lifelong learning a requirement rather than a pious wish, Rabindranath Tagore was far ahead of his time:

A most important truth, which we are apt to forget, is that a teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame. Visva-Bharati and its institutions–Santiniketan1961, p. 28

In Nationalism (1917) “he discusses the resurgence of the East and the challenge it poses to Western supremacy, calling for a future beyond nationalism, based instead on cooperation and racial tolerance.” – Synopsis for the Penguin reprint as part of the “Great Ideas” series (2010)

As observed by Harish Trivedi in his insightful 1991 Introduction to Edward Thompson’s Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, “Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was arguably the greatest writer of modern India. Yet the precise nature of his literary greatness and the evidence for it have by and large remained a fairly well kept Bengali secret.” This has remained the case in most parts of the world ever since his short-lived and quite unexpected stardom among western readers and listeners in the wake of receiving the Nobelprize in 1913:

Tagore had early success as a writer in his native Bengal. With his translations of some of his poems he became rapidly known in the West. In fact his fame attained a luminous height, taking him across continents on lecture tours and tours of friendship. For the world he became the voice of India’s spiritual heritage; and for India, especially for Bengal, he became a great living institution.
Rabindranath Tagore BiographyNobelprize.org

His immeasurable friendship found its appropriate expression in the works of fellow poets, artists, composers and peace activists around the world. Dutch artist Rie Cramer (1887-1977), reckoned among the best illustrators of children’s books of the 20th century, created a series of six miniatures for the Dutch edition of The Post Office. Just one of these very illustrations will suffice to convey the tenderness that permeates Tagore’s literary and educational work and continues to inspire fellow artists; and this even at a time when he suffered personal tragedies and challenges from political leaders.

The Post Office illustration by Rie Cramer - Utrecht W. de Haan, 1913
Illustration by Rie Cramer in De brief van den Koning (The Post Office); Dutch translation by Henri Borel (Utrecht W. de Haan, 1913); original size: 10x10 cm

The world of sound is a tiny bubble in the silence of the infinite. The universe has its own language of gesture; it talks in the voice of pictures and dance. Every object in the world proclaims in the dumb signal of lines and colours, the fact that it is not a mere logical abstraction or a mere thing of use, but it is unique in itself, it carries the miracle of its existence.–Rabindranath Tagore quoted by Dinkar Kowshik in
Doodled Fancy, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan 1999, p. 8

The following quotation leaves no doubt that it is never too late to rediscover the intrinsic beauty and timelessness of his contribution. In order to do justice to his genius, this effort needs to make sense to a younger generation, the world’s youth he cared for so much but as yet knows so little about him:

Amal: And what about streams and waterfalls?
Thakurda: … They flow like molten diamonds, and how the drops dance! The small pebbles in the streams hum and murmur as the waters gush over them, until finally they plunge into the ocean. No one, not even a doctor, can restrain them for even a single second.

By way of homage to Rabindranath Tagore, we invite you to join in Thiruvalluvar’s ancient celebration of water in chaste Tamil; here in a modern rendition appropriately set to Amritavarshini, the raga traditionally associated with rain in South India and Sri Lanka:
Violin key symbol

Thirukkural excerpt sung by Yoga Manickam Yogeswaran

By the continuance of rain the world is preserved in existence; it is therefore worthy to be called ambrosia.– Thirukkural (from Rev. Pope’s 1886 English Translation and Commentary found on the projectmadurai website)–Recording: Thirukkural in 133 Raagams by Saint Thiruvalluvar– Tamil Classics CD 2000

Open air classes at Santiniketan
One of the open air classes held at Santiniketan during the dry season

The opening quotes, “My mind took wing. Fly! Fly! …” are taken from the Translator’s Preface for Dak Ghar, English The Post Office. The following should be of special interest in our present context, namely the need for actively involving the world’s youth in issues that concern the future of all of mankind; be it in terms of peaceful coexistence or care for nature and the natural resources we all depend upon. Is this a matter for an enlightened westernized elite? Far from it, and this is why Tagore founded a centre for rural reconstruction to which the modern ecological movement owes so much. In the words of Satish Kumar, paying homage to Rabindranath Tagore in his capacity as Editor-in-Chief at Resurgence:

He not only healed the sorrow and suffering which he had experienced due to death, depression and disappointment in his own life but he worked too to heal the wounds of injustice and inequality within Indian society. …

The worldview of Tagore is seeing the unity of reason and religion, spirit and matter and letting them dance together. This is the big vision where science complements spirituality, art complements ecology and freedom complements equality.
The Wisdom of Tagore (Resurgence, Issue 266 May/June 2011)

A student practicing the esraj
A student learning to play the esraj, Rabindranath Tagore's favourite instrument

Like water, or rather the increasing scarcity of this life-giving resource for millions around the world, there are other issues that, according to Tagore, deserve our attention. To set an example, he dedicated his personal resources to an institution that provides modern education to children irrespective of their social background. Their education would include first hand knowledge of several arts as part of their daily routines; and combine the observation of nature with scientific insights. Such knowledge would be provided by visiting experts from many parts of the country and all over the world. The open spaces in Santiniketan, shaded by large trees planted for this purpose, became the preferred locations for holding classes. This effective approach has become an role model wherever resources need to be devoted to the welfare of children and their teachers rather than investing in cement.

Tagore wrote The Post Office in Bengal in 1911, not long after losing his son, his daughter, and his wife to disease. In the middle of the night, while lying under the stars on the roof of his house in Shantiniketan (the “Abode or Peace”), he had a strange experience. “My mind took wing. Fly! Fly! – I felt an anguish … There was a call to go somewhere and a premonition of death, together with intense emotion – this feeling of restlessness I expressed in I writing Dak Ghar The Post Office.” Soon afterward, Tagore’s worldwide odyssey began.
From the Translators’ Preface to The Post Office
translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson with illustrations by Michael McCurdy and an Introduction by Anita Desai, St. Martin’s press New York, 1996. (Amal’s dialogue with the Thakura, Tagore’s alter ego, is found on p. 35.)

In About the author, the translators provide a succinct biography that ends on a note readers will never forget:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1913, the first Asian writer so honored. Widely regarded as the greatest modern Indian writer, Tagore was also an accomplished song composer and painter. An educational and social reformer on a par with Gandhi, Tagore was one of the very first to perceive that East and West would be compelled to meet in the twentieth century, a theme taken up in many of his works. His most spiritually moving work and his only play that is still regularly performed outside Bengal, The Post Office served as inspiration to the children of the Warsaw ghetto. It was read over French radio in André Gide’s translation the night before the Nazis seized Paris.

Postscript 8 May 2011

William Radice, renowned translator of Tagore’s work and himself a poet and writer teaching in London, cautions modern admirers of Rabindranath Tagore not to get carried away by their good intentions.  Pious speeches and reflections on Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas and ideals are all very well, but what ultimately makes him relevant is the power of his art:

Putting Tagore the thinker above Tagore the writer has set up a barrier to the full appreciation of his creative achievements, ever since Gitanjali in 1912 launched his international career. His Nobel Prize of 1913 was given to him for his literature (though not for his Bengali writings), but the audiences who flocked to hear him on his extensive foreign tours wanted his message rather than his poetry. He gave them what they wanted, and lived up to his role as a sage by his long beard and unique, ‘pan-Asian’ style of dress. But he often felt constricted by that role. In 1930, he wrote to his close friend, William Rothenstein:
The rich luxury of leisure is not for me while I am in Europe — I am doomed to be unrelentingly good to humanity and remain harnessed to a cause. The artist in me ever urges me to be naughty and natural — but it requires a good deal of courage to be what I truly am. Then again I do not really know myself and dare not play tricks with my nature. So the good for nothing artist must have for his bed-fellow the man of a hundred good intentions.
Revealing words that all organisers of the 150th anniversary events and publications would do well to remember!–Read the full piece in The Hindu, 7 May 2011

By contrast, an Indian authority, Prof. Namwar Singh, urged that Tagore “should not be loaded under a wreath of flowers so that he is not even visible” at a seminar on “Tagore’s Universalism” organised by the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation: “in making him a global figure, we had forgotten that he laid stress on very small things that mattered in everyday life — from a seed flourishing in nature to rural economic development.”–Read the full report in The Hindu, 8 May 2011