Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the first Asian author to have won the Nobel Prize in literature, still remains an inspiration around the world. A poet, playwright, performer, musician, essayist, philosopher, and one of the finest storytellers from India (eight novels, four novellas and numerous short stories), he also had over 2,000 paintings and doodles to his credit.As he said in his first talk at Shanghai in 1924: 'I say that a poet's mission is to attract the voice which is yet inaudible in the air; to inspire faith in the dream which is unfulfilled; to bring the earliest tidings of the unborn flower to a sceptic world.'
That Tagore was able to give voice to the voiceless from among the colonised and subjugated nations is history now. But his legacy still lives on because, as Mahatma Gandhi had once said about him: 'In common with thousands of his countrymen I owe much to one who by his poetic genius and singular purity of life has raised India in the estimation of the world.'
It was not that he advocated a narrow definition of 'nationalism' to equate it with 'nationism', but he wanted to keep the idea of Asia and a spirit of universalism that emerged from this continent alive and foregrounded this idea.
For Tagore, the immense beauty that a localised vernacular language had to offer in the form of the best of poetry and writings that he churned out throughout his life, and the local knowledge bases that were created over centuries and millennia had very special positions.
The youngest of many children, Tagore was born into a Kolkata aristocrat family to Debendranath and Sarada Devi. He had de-schooled himself as a young child. Yet before him, nobody seemed to have thought about Complete Education as he did in the early 20th century.
In his model of teaching, the school would provide a learning opportunity where there is a communion between man and nature, between liberal and the performing arts. That education did not mean 'rote' learning, memorisation and reproduction is clear from his opening paragraphs of the book titled 'Visva -Bharati': 'The education that encourages repetition is not the education of the mind, because that can be taken care of even mechanically!'.
When Tagore started his school in Santinketan in 1901, he had wanted to include girls as well, but it did not prove practical until 1909, when a further blow to the traditional image of his Brahmacharyashram occurred with the admission of six girl students who were not put in separate classes but rather along with the boys in classes, sports and elsewhere -- a radical idea then.
He faced the death of his closest relatives one after the other but these could not deter him from creating the finest writings, music, theatre, and paintings for his legacy.
Tagore's literary contributions created a large following among Bengali and foreign readers by the beginning of the 20th century, and he published by then such works as 'Naivedya' (1901) and 'Kheya' (1906) - culminating with 'Gitanjali: Song Offerings' in 1912 that helped him win the Nobel Prize a year later. Talking about the charm of 'Gitanjali', W.B. Yeats wrote: 'These prose translations have stirred my blood as nothing has for years.'
Tagore was a widely travelled man and had himself said about his fascination for travel. 'I am a wayfarer of the endless road' - starting with his first trip to the Himalayas in 1873 with his father, and then on to numerous countries all around the world. The journey to Kolkata from Santiniketan in 1941 came immediately after his stirring address titled 'Crisis in Civilization' where Tagore observed the darkening clouds of war and destruction gather over the world.
Bengali theatre of the 19th century, which emerged as a product of Bengal Renaissance, was a colonial phenomenon and largely urban in nature, but it was completely revolutionised by Tagore through his numerous plays as well as dance-dramas. English theatre in those days mainly catered to the local British residents.
Tagore had created a new universe of theatre by bringing in a rare combination of traditional musical theatre ('Jatra'), didactic story-telling tradition ('kathakata'), singing of bards ('Kabigan') and folk-epic narratives ('panchali').
In that sense, with him, modern theatre was born in India, without aping the Western stage.
In addition, he created a truly large and varied body of music (over 2,230 songs) in 64 years between 1877 and 1941, where he brought in a rare fusion between the folk and the Indian classical, the traditional devotional songs with the western choir and church music, thus bringing in a rare convergence between the north Indian Hindustani tradition and the southern Karnataki tradition.
Tagore's legacy is not a simple case of a poet being remembered for some memorable lines. He was a model of a person who had all the wisdoms of the past, and yet was a modernist to the core - making a beginning in several endeavours that he had undertaken in each field he traversed. Even when he experimented with religious thinking and practices, his mission was 'divinisation of man and the humanising of god'.
This was the reason he adopted a lot of wisdom from ancient Hindu thoughts as well as from Buddhism and Christianity. His reading and commentaries on all religious texts and thoughts have given rise to many important philosophical and ethical questions.
Said Martin Kampchen, a German specialist of Tagore: 'Creative writers like Tagore do not merely produce works of art, but they also create a new art of living which translates, as closely as possible, the essence of their creative impulses into a social context.'
(08.05.2010 - Udaya Narayana singh is a linguist by profession, and is currently the Director & Tagore Research Chair, Rabindra Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, and is himself an accomplished poet, playwright and essayist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)