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The other side of Rabindranath Tagore: Part One

A remarkable aspect of Rabindranath Tagores life is the way his persona had changed radically from the
restricted identity of an oriental romantic-mystic to the wide-ranging identity of a concerned citizen of the
world. A poet, who had earlier attempted to blend spiritual and romantic notions in his quest of grasping
the mystery surrounding individual human soul and the divine, increasingly began to give voice to the
minds of the colonized and oppressed people and expressed his passionate desire to be identified as one of
them. This absolutely stunning transformation is manifested in the non-conformist and modernist
approach of his later works. Quite obviously, this aspect of his life was somewhat overlooked by his
ostensible admirers who has imposed upon him the title Gurudev and converted him into a sacred idol.
W. B. Yeats, who was primarily responsible for forming the synthetic image of Tagore as a mystic poet in
the West found problems with his later works. Amartya Sen in his brilliant essay Tagore and his India, has
rightly pointed out that the neglect and even shrill criticism that Tagores later writings received from
these early admirers arose from the inability of Tagore's many-sided writings to fit into the narrow box in
which they wanted to place and keep him. To those who do not read Bengali, Tagore is exclusively a
literary person or a mystic of sorts, regrets historian Tapan Roychoudhury. He further clarifies, The fact
that some two-thirds of his writings are serious essays, mostly on political and socio-economic problems of
India and the crisis of civilization has been more or less ignored in Tagore scholarship. (Source)

The crucial social and political transformations that were taking place all over the world including his own
country was clearly the principal reason that had caused Tagore to take on such an inclusive approach.
During his later years, his concerned voice was heard loud and clear on every moments of crisis that has
taken place on every corner of the globe. Viewing through the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization
strewn like a vast heap of futility, he became disillusioned by history but firmly remained a quintessential
optimist to declare: I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. Instead of getting
dispirited, he became more and more responsive to the great rush of toiling people who works from age to
age on the ruins of hundreds and hundreds of empires. He had lamented about the missing notes of his
flute, about his lack of strength to break fences and enter the lives of the peasants, weavers and fisherman.
He had also recognized that art becomes fake merchandise if it cant link life to life. With a candid
admission about his own failure in this regard, he had eagerly awaited for the close to the earth poet to give
voice to the voiceless hearts. He had intensely aspired for the day when unvanquished Man will retrace his
path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage.

The young Zamindar

Tagore was profoundly influenced by the liberal humanistic thoughts of nineteenth-century Bengali
intellectuals like Ram Mohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Keshab Chandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda
and inherited a rich legacy from them. The seeds of humanitarian concerns were sowed in the mind of a
young Tagore when his father Debendranath sent him to live and manage the Tagore familys rural estates
in East Bengal and Orissa. He was then twenty-nine. His stint as a Zamindar (landlord) became a life-
transforming experience for him since it was in these rural terrains where for the first time in his life he got
the opportunity to observe the socio-economic conditions of his country. While living in the estate buildings
of Shilaidaha and Shahzadpur and in the houseboat Padma for a substantial period, he came into direct
touch with the existing economic and social wretchedness of the peasants who lived under the worse
indifference of a rigid social orthodoxy and of an alien political rule. From a great tenderness for these
peasant folk, he felt a deep urge to extend his aesthetic, philosophic and socio-political ideas beyond its
thin intellectual space and started thinking seriously about social reform and reconstruction as the principle
means for liberating the people of his country. But he was still skeptical about the shortcomings of his
middle class background which he thought might stand in his way of doing something for the rural people
because, whenever the middle classbabus intend to do something for the rural people, they show their
contempt for them.

There he had made two important discoveries, wrote Tagores English colleague Leonard Elmhirst, first,
that the villagers seemed to have lost all ability to help themselves; secondly, that both research and
technical assistance would be needed if they were ever to learn how to rescue themselves from their
creeping decay. While travelling all around the vast estate to collect annual rents from the ryots(peasants),
Tagore visited villages, conversed with the poor villagers, listened to their problems and also witnessed the
worse indifference that affected their lives. Depicting his experiences as the hideous nightmare of our
present time, an inundated Tagore later wrote, Our so-called responsible classes live in comfort because
the common man has not yet understood his situation. That is why the landlord beats him. The money-
lender holds him in his clutches; the foreman abuses him; the policeman fleeces him; the priest exploits
him; and the magistrate picks his pocket. Although at this stage, his attitude towards the impoverished
masses was of a romantic onlooker as he was still not well-acquainted with the basic complexities of land
relations and the socio-economic rationale behind the privation and helplessness of the subaltern class. But
he was definitely trying to understand the prevailing social contradictions through his daily encounters with
the rural people.

In the introduction of W. W. Pearsons book Shantiniketan, Tagore had described how he woke up to the
call of the spirit of my country and felt the urge to dedicate his life in furthering the purpose that lies in
the heart of her history. Ideas that had originated in his mind while spending a great part of his youth in
the riverside solitude of Shilaidaha become deep rooted in his consciousness. These ideas later developed as
a highly original and distinctive vision. From a genuine attempt to understand the problems, he gradually
came to realize the necessity of rural reconstruction as the real solution to Indias problems. Instead of
idealizing rural life, he started to sense that poverty can be dealt through the spread of basic education, by
inducing self-reliance among the peasants, through the application of scientific methods to agriculture,
setting up cottage industries and cooperative banks. He came to realize that the greatest enemies of India
are not the outsiders but the forces that reside within its borders. In The Future of India he writes, So long
as we, out of personal and collective ignorance, cannot treat our countrymen properly like men, so long as
our landlords regard their tenants as a mere part of their property, so long as the strong in our country will
consider it the eternal law to trample on the weak, the higher castes despise the lower as worse than beasts,
even so long we cannot claim gentlemanly treatment from the English as a matter of right, even so long we
shall fail to truly waken the English character, even so long will India continue to be defrauded of her due
and humiliated. To bring his ideas of rural reconstruction into reality, he later went on to establish
Sriniketan under the agricultural scientist Leonard Elmhirst.

In 1939, in an address on his last visit to Sriniketan, Tagore spoke about his early Shilaidaha days, I was
filled with eagerness to understand the villagers daily routine and the varied pageant of their
lives..Gradually the sorrow and poverty of the villages became clear to me, and I began to grow restless to
do something about it. It seemed to me a very shameful thing that I should spend my days as a landlord,
concerned only in money making and engrossed with my own profit and loss. From that time onward, I
continually endeavored to find out how the villagers mind could be aroused, so that they could themselves
accept the responsibility for their own lives.

(End of Part One)