Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is known to today primarily as a poet and litterateur. Not many people, however. Are aware of the vital significance of his efforts in the field of education and rural reconstruction. He loved the people of his country and strove for the rights of the rural poor to dignity and social justice. A pioneer in the field of education, he gave the last forty years of his life towards creating Visva- Bharati, an institution in rural Bengal, envisioned at the time as an Indian alternative to colonial education.
This brief biography draws on the history of Visva- Bharati to sketch the relatively lesser known aspects of Rabindranath’s life, namely, his work as an educator and rural reformer. It also deals, though less prominently, with the poet and the writer within him. Its primary focus, however, is the issues that concerned Rabindranath all his life and featured regularly in his writings, such as Indian history, nationalism and the search for self-esteem, education, religion, Religion of Man ,humanism and a Jiban –debata or’Lord of Life’.
This biography includes an appendix of selected letter by Rabindranath Tagore and will be of enduring interest to students as well as readers with an abiding interest in his life.
Uma Das Gupta is former Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, she is the editor of A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913-1940(OUP, 2003)
This book has two themes woven round the life of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. The dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre: lyric, poetry, narratives. Short stories, novels, and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since the book is not intended to be a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Rabindranath’s life equally. Given how active his life was that would have been impossible within the limits required of this series. I thought it best to examine Rabindranath‘s work as an educator and rural reformer because those aspects of his life are relatively unknown. We all know him as a poet, but do not think of him as a man of action. Many vague notions hover round the institution he created in rural Bengal called Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan. Having worked on a history of this institution, I thought it might be useful to bring some of that research into this biography. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre, I have drawn on the works of scholars who know the subject better than I do. There has some detailed research on his personal friendships from his letters and other related papers, such as Mary Lago’s work on the English painter William Rothenstein who introduced Rabindranath’s work to the west called An Imperfect Encounter: Letters of William Rothenstein and Rabindranath Tagore 1911-1941; Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s on Victoria Ocampo called In Your Blossoming Flower –Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, and on his letters with the English poet, missionary, and historian Edward John Thompson, edited by me titled A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913-1940. This biography contains only passing reference to that aspect of Rabindranath’s life.
My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in his writings and actions. These are racial humiliation and the search for self- esteem, India’s history, nationalism and internationalism, education, religion, Religion of man, humanism, and a Jiban-debata or ‘Lord of life’. His letters are evidence of how he longed only to be a poet, but they also reveal how he could not stay away from doing something practical and constructive for his country. By his own repeated admission, the work he did for education and rural reconstruction in the twin schools of Santiniketan and sriniketan in rural southern Bengal was very vital to him. Historians of the Swadeshi movement have analysed his work in the service of the nation as an example of ‘constructive swadeshi’. Disillusioned with nationalist politics, he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of the changing times. He was convinced that there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the santiniketan-sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He brought a different dimension to nationality by arguing for universal humanity. He remained true to it by establishing an international centre for studying world histories and cultures called Visva-Bharati at a time when other Indians were preoccupied with questions of nationalism. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed by British imperialism on the Indian race. He had the confidence to know that the awakening of India had to be a part of the awakening of the world.
In all his thinking and actions for his country’s future, he was one of the first modern voices in our country. He was open to many influences even while being rooted solidly in his heritage. The educational institution that he persevered to build against every possible difficulty, private and public, was, in the words of a very distinguished alumnus, ‘ a celebration of variety’. Rabindranath tried to open the teacher’s and the student’s mind to a fuller life. He wrote plays and acted in them. He danced with his students and invited dancers from various parts of the country to Santiniketan. He composed songs and made community singing a part of the syllabus of the school. And he ended the middle-class exclusiveness of his teachers and pupils by encouraging their interaction with the tribal and village folk around Santiniketan. He remained worried about the survival of his educational work because he could see that there were not many takers for his ideas. I hope that this biographical sketch does some justice to the moral core of his life and that it helps to raise some critical discussion among today’s young adults about his concepts and their applicability. A very small selection of his letters given in an appendix at the end should be useful.
I am indebted to Professor Rajat Kanta Ray for his comments on the first draft of this essay. I was fortunate, also, to have the comments of my friend Jayati Datta- Mitra on this draft, and the benefit of her editing. My thanks are also due to Shri Subimal Lahiri and to Shri Anath Nath Das, both formerly of the Visva-Bharati, and Sri Dilip kumar Hazra, Acting Curator of the Rabindra-Bhavana museum and archives, for their ready help with checking reference to Rabindranath’s works. I must not forget to mention the two people who take such good care of us in the archives reading room at the Rabindra-Bhavana, Shri Tushar Kumar Singha and Shri Utpal Mitra.
My gratitude is due to my place of work, the Indian Statistical Institute, for the excellent research environment it provides to its scholars.
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