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Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

According to some geo-political theoreticians we are on the west of the south-eastern shattered belt. Another shattered belt was identified in Eastern Europe. These shattered belts have reportedly witnessed maddening overflow of changes. We are on the east of the Aryabarta. The Aryans describe us as the fish-eating people talking in chirping language of the birds. Man does not rely on theories alone. In the worst of situation he tries to redeem himself.

Some of our foreign friends call Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim country. I shake off this pat immediately. I am yet to find a moderate Buddhist, Christian or Hindu country. We are all at once moderates and extremists, religious and secular, progressive and reactionary. Tagore was also a bundle of contradictions. But he took little time to redeem himself.

Our country is known outside as the Hujjatte Bangal. The term ‘Hujatte’ is usually translated as querulous. In self-esteem I translate the term as argumentative. Outsiders some times amaze at our pleas. In the 1940s, we as Muslims raised the plea of self-determination and we achieved Pakistan. Then as Bengalis we raised the plea of self determination and we achieved Bangladesh. Whether a country can take the plea of self determination for more than once or whether India’s support and sympathy for one million refugees was an intervention were loaded questions for international jurists. But they were all put into shredders by the fait accompli. The rise of Muslim middle-class and the independence of Bangladesh, a joint venture of all the people living in that country, is a spectacular event of 20th century.

A few decades back a section of Bengali Muslims had some reservations and/or misgivings about Bengali language and literature. It appears that there was a slight pool from extra-territorial loyalty to Islamic identity and to Arabic and Urdu supposed to be Islamic languages.

At that time Bengali literature was replete with idolatrous images and violent anti-Muslim writings of parsimonious Hindu writers who instead of inveighing the British rulers choose Muslims as Turks for the Shot. Even Tagore was criticised for a Shivaji Utsab. Muslim could not ignore the message. Tagore however ignored it and did not include the poem in his complete works. Muslim poets like Jasimuddin did not like the inclusion the song Bande ma taram, composed in a highly charged communal background. Muslims did not like the sanitisation of the song by Tagore.

In the first decade of the last century for the amelioration of the Muslims, a relatively backward community, Tagore advocated affirmative actions. After few decades Tagore joined with others to decry the relatively greater opportunities that were given to the Muslims.

Tagore, an elitist, never a democrat wanted greater representation for the Hindus according to their wealth, education and status in the society. A Bengali Muslim newspaper, Mussulman commented “We are rather surprised to find that in these days of democracy claims have been put forward on grounds which are totally anti-democratic. How far such claims are consistent with Dr. Rabindranath’s professed ideas we are unable to say”.

A great controversy arose on the question of observing Tagore Centenary in Bangladesh. On 5th July 1968 Abul Hassem, the director of Islamic Academy and a former leading politician who once advocated for the united sovereign Bengal said, “Those who want to boycott Tagore music on the plea of Islam and Pakistan are not only stupid, they are evil-minded and understand neither Tagore nor Islam.”

On 23rd February Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his release from the Agrartala Conspiracy Case declared before a mammoth meeting in the Ramna Racecourse “We do not obey the ban. We will read Tagore book, will sing Tagore song and Tagore song will be sung in the country. On 16th December that year after receiving some records of Tagore song he said, “…vested quarters will always be active to bring cultural subjugation to perpetuate exploitation of the people, but the people must stand united to courageously defend their language and culture under circumstances.” Just two year there after Bangladesh was liberated and celebrated her first victory day.

On 12 th January 1972 after relinquishing the post of president, he took over the charge of the prime minister and when he met the journalists he was asked by one of them “what is your message?” Sheikh Mujib promptly replied, “I hear whose voice on the horizon, there is no fear, Oh, there is no fear, He who will dedicate his life completely, he will lose nothing, he will lose nothing”

The task of contemporarising a great writer like Rabindranath Tagore is a problem greater than the one where the blind men were asked to describe an elephant. We may get some ideas in Tagore’s abiding interest in villages, rural development, education for strengthening self-power, and education through mother language.

Within two decades, 59 percent of the inhabitants of our planet will live in urban areas. There will be a great surge on migration from villages to cities. For reclaiming the villages we are to read again Tagore’s writings on villages and his suggestion for inculcating education for realisation of one’s own power and potential capabilities. In 1925, Tagore said in his essay on Achieving Self-Rule: If in India a single villagers of a single village could owned by their self-power then the work of achieving your own country on your own will commence. Have we succeeded in achieving that goal in Wardha, Shantiniketon or Comilla?

Tagore’s ideas are not only worth emulating but they call for further deliberation whether a village can be developed in isolation. The trickle down theory of development appears to be a pious wish.

In 1908 in his essay on Problem Tagore challenged the idea that public hatred of foreign rulers would contribute to our national unity and hasten our chances of reaching the goal. Tagore raised the question when the cause or object of hatred would disappear and the British would leave India for home the thread of artificial unity will be snapped we may be required to find another object of hatred. Then we may not be required to go out to find another. It is the blood thirsty maliciousness in us that would turn us into smithereens. The sage rightly foretold about the Punjab, Bengal and Bihar riots in India.

Tagore wanted to belong to the bigger world so that he could meet his countrymen all over the world. Tagore, just look around, your countrymen from four corners of the world have arrived for deliberating on you and to find out how good a contemporary you are. The poet is in the continuous line of Sufi poets like Tukaram, Kabir and Lalon. But here is a mystic who does not merely dwell on self-liberation and try to define the nexus between the meaning of Upanishads and the mundane world. Here is a sage who writes textbooks for teaching English, writes a scientific book on the Introduction to the Universe, inculcates scientific ideas and values, enters into polemics whether the spinning wheel can be an instrument of economic liberation and introduces machines like tractors in agriculture, try to build institutions for giving credit to the cultivators, and evolve methods for alternative dispute resolution.

Tagore ideas of life-god, Upanishads, the infinite and finite are not easily understood. Some of them are exasperatingly vague. On June 1913 Bertrand Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell from London, after hearing ‘The realization of Brahma’ (form Sadhana) : ” It was unmitigated rubbish-cut-and-dried conventional stuff about the river becoming one with the Ocean and man becoming one with Brahma… The man is sincere and in earnest, but merely rattling old dry bones.”

In 1967 he termed Tagore’s talk about the infinite as vague nonsense. Russell commented that the sort of Tagore’s language that is admired by many Indians “unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all”.

Einstein referred to Tagore punningly as Rabbi. George Bernard Shaw named an off-stage character in a play let, a poet ‘Stupendranath Begorr’. But when Tagore died in 1941 it was Shaw who asked the then director of the National Gallery to hang portraits of Tagore. The poet was treated by Peter Ackroyd, the biographer of T.S. Eliot, in 1984 as one of the six Britons who received Noble prizes.

There are many things in Tagore that are dated. That must be. There have been changes of appearances, apparels and instruments. From a bob cut hairdo you cannot expect that the chignon to fall down. When you get water by turning a tap you do not remind your friend that the time is up for fetching water from the river. Laws have also changed, divorce is permissible to Hindus in India. No one now raises his eyebrow on the question of widow-marriage.

But for many of his works, it appears that Tagore has written them for us. There is no stamp of expiry date. On education, on instruction through mother language, on the question of environment, tree planting and supply of drinking waters, human development, on the question of developing self-power, on the question of eradication of poverty Tagore is our contemporary and he will remain so with us for a long time. The rise of human development index in Bangladesh is to a great extent is due to his inspirational discourses. His books are not all closed for us. We read them often. We sing them. We dance them. Our wonderment about him and his works is unending. His words are our quotable quotes, our subhashito.

When we plan for development we may recall Tagore’s views that it will be deceiving the whole body if we pump all our blood in the face, and that it cannot be called health if we ignore the rest of the country. It is his views that we neglect our duty when for grandeur we plan big and prepare hugely. Tagore was an earlier exponent of the idea of that the small is beautiful.

Tagore did not write a full poem in paean of mother tongue, but he wrote several thoughtful essays, all of them are not available in English, on the importance of mother language. Bengali chauvinism misled him to treat the languages of the neighbouring provinces, Orissya and Asam, as mere extension of Bengali language. He soon corrected himself. After the death of Lakshmi Nath Bejbarua, adistant son-in-law of his, and a great exponent of Assamese language, Tagore said, when in India language of each province will prosper in full effulgence than the bridge of unity will be well-cemented with mutual regard.

Till recently the immersion method of teaching foreign language was very popular. Tagore’s idea was different. According to him, the foundation of mother language must be strong first and then edifices of other languages may be built on it. For this idea, Tagore is our contemporary fellow traveller. A minute back I said about Bengali chauvinism in Tagore. That is totally erroneous. Tagore was never an extremist. He tried to understand other people’s views. Knowing well the all-India perspective he did not oppose making Hindi as the national language of India.

Tagore once said, if there is any God that is only good for India then that goodness is no good. He forcefully said, if the God of India is the God for India only he will prevent our access to the heaven, because the heaven belong to the God of universe.

In his Golden Boat the poet wanted to say that when man presents his works the world receive them and do not destroy them but when a man presents himself as well he may not find a place on the boat. In death he is to give his self as the price for his life. Tagore was unnecessarily diffident. He is already on board on the golden boat and we wish him bon voyage to the land of unknown.

Here is a contemporary writer whose dramas we can stage now and enjoy. We may stage the Post-office as a drama of courage and resistance. It was rightly chosen by Radio France for broadcasting on the eve of fall of Paris in 1940. Jose Ortega ye Gasset once rightly pointed out that there is none of us who like Amal is not waiting for a letter from the king. In Mexico, according to Octavio Paz, in 1967. We are grateful to Tagore for delivering to us beautiful letters from his Jivan-Devata, the God of Life.

There is a remarkable revival of interests in Tagore in the Far East. In China after the opening to the world stance there is a renewed interest in Tagore. I have recently made three of the Chinese scholars Dong You Chan, Wei Liming and Yao Wei Ming and come to learn that the complete works of Tagore would be translated in Chinese.

After the Second World War Japan found something refreshing in Tagore to fall back. Twenty five years back, the Japanese scholar Kazuo Azuma came to my house and wrote down the titles of my books in his big volume of registry. Our Bangla Academy last year made him an Honorary Fellow. Tagore loved Japan, the land, the cottages, the paintings and the haiku. He wrote to his daughter Mira that he felt tempted to carry a whole Japanese cottage to Shantiniketon. Recently Japan suffered a great disaster in Fukushima-Dai ichia nuclear power plant.

I appeal to the foreign guests to visit Bangladesh, a Tagore country.


Muhammad Habibur Rahman is a former chief justice and the chief adviser of caretaker government 1996. The write-up was a valedictory speech for the ‘International Conference on Contemporarising Tagore & the World’

11 Responses to “Contemporising Tagore and the world”

  1. A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah

    The writer is fundamentally biased towards Brahministic culture and values. Hence, are his reflections.

  2. Mrs Smith

    Why is it that your article was the only one I thought an educated and sophisticated person would want to read in the entire month of May?

    Everyone else seems to be big experts in other people’s heads, making and taking down celebrities like in Bollywood producers or gang leaders from Slumdog Millionaire, giving lines to people because they seem to know the answer to life’s mysteries and also what others want to say even if they decline, and how to make people say the lines by employing great political skills.

    If Tagore wanted to talk to anyone, I believe he would only want to speak with you among the many people publishing articles over the last two months… because of their great interest in the poet..

  3. Mrs Smith

    By “people like us” in my last post, I meant “people” like you and I are “people” — not gods or celebrities or cheerleaders.

    A thinker is a person who “thinks.” He takes in views, debates those, experiments with those, comes up with his own ideas. Often the ideas need updating, but at times a few of those survive the test of time.

    If one did not like a person because any of his ideas, or results of his analyses, he is still not in the liberty of picking up another of the same person’s ideas and handing it over to a person he likes because it should look like the idea is coming from a celebrity, one who is a loyal activist for a thought.

    Loyal activists are loyal. They rarely come up with anything new. There is an inherent contradiction in the very idea that a loyal activist celebrity will be breaking ground and act as a role model to a loyal crowd that can also become a visionary by following this celebrity because the borrowed thought now came from not the flawed person who was not liked but was handed over to one who could cheer the crowd, make them hear what they wanted to hear.

    We all need to take our own chances with life even if we are not perfect, I believe.

    That’s why your article sounded so refreshing in a world where many seem to be looking for the role model who loves them and can show them the way. Only god can do it. Not thinkers.

  4. Mrs Smith

    I very much love how you separate a person with whom you do not always agree and his work. It is refreshing to see an article like this in an age where many seem to display the tendency of chopping off a person’s work from the real person when the poet fails to meet the criterion of a crowd pleasing celebrity or a god.
    Unfortunately not celebrities or gods, but often people like us who debate their views, err, often doubt themselves, change their views, fail but pull themslevs together and experiment with ideas that come up with poems that in the end strike a chord with us or say something new even if we cannot idolize the person or view him as a crowd pleaser.

    If one would always said what the crowd wanted to hear or adhered to preconceived ideas, one would possibly never come up with a new piece of thought.

    Tagore would probably have found this article, where he, as he was, had been preserved with his work, a great birthday present.

  5. shams talukdar

    Nice write-up, could be titled: Hujjatte Rabindranath

  6. sajjad

    Thanks very much sir, for an excellent article and for covering many a topics, each of which can be a topic of elaborate discussion.

    Luckily, the Aryans can no longer talk about us as ‘fish eating’ people because fish is now a very expensive food item, and scarce too, ever since our rivers have been blocked upstream by our “friendly” neighbour. We are now mainly vegetarians which, of course, is good for health.

    Best regards.

    • Syed Imtiaz Ali

      You have really dug deep, Sir. Thank you. Now that we have started to appreciate Tagore and drawn relevance even in today’s world and life, we shall eventually rise to his desired point of enlightenment, and shall not ‘vegitate’ any more, rather seek more water for cleansing our souls. Because he had advocated love, tolerance and accommodation.
      Yes, we are indeed proud to be so close to Bishya Kobi Rabi Thakur; an extremely rare personality, who was able to know much about our hearts and souls than we ourselves could!

      Thanks again.

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      “ARYA” simply means “Refined = Cultured”. Sita calls Rama as “Arya”, meaning “a refined person”. It is not a racial concept-word, unlike Hitler’s Aryan. The ancient Indians said: “Krnwanto Wishwam Aryam”, meaning “Let the world be refined”: surely the Mongolian or the African cannot be turned into a Caucasian.
      Fish is an increasingly scarce and expensive item in India also,due to population pressures on resources and due to the environmental degradation of water-bodies. Some people in Bangla Desh would have a hard time finding a whipping-boy but for India.

  7. russel ahmed.

    Thank you sir for expressing something about this legend. Actually, Tagore philosophy and his literature still work in our life.We are proud to be a part of Tagore.

  8. Golam Arshad

    Sir: Exquisite write-up in total confusion! Rabindranath Tagore was Keats and Byron tinged in color demurred by Wordswoth and Shelley! Sir you have made me wonder! Defining genius with genealty of cataclysm of poetic injustice!! Any comment??

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