Tagore: A People's Poet
Tagore: A People's Poet
by Satish Kumar
Cover: Small Yellow Bird by Craigie Aitchinson. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library
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Dancing woman by Tagore. Courtesy: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
A vision of wholeness and Integrity.
Next year Resurgence celebrates two important anniversaries: its own 45th birthday and the 150th birthday of the visionary Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. The inspiration to integrate the arts, poetry and the human spirit with ecology, economy and activism that you find in the pages of Resurgence originates from the life and work of Tagore, whom I first encountered when I lived in a Gandhian ashram in Varanasi (Benares).
Back then, my bedroom was opposite that of a Bengali colleague, Shishir, who was a fan, follower and devotee of Tagore’s poetry, fiction and music. Shishir edited the English weekly newspaper Land Reform, while I was the editor of the Hindi version. So we not only shared living space but an office, too.
Shishir frequently quoted Tagore, translating his words into Hindi for me (at that time I spoke no English), and would often play Tagore’s music on the gramophone. This captured my imagination, so I bought three books: one of poetry, Gitanjali (‘Song Offerings’) for which Tagore had been awarded a Nobel Prize; a novel, Gora (‘The Fair-skinned Boy’); and a play, Dakghar (‘The Post Office’). Of course I had heard of Tagore, had read a poem here or a song there, and knew his well-known song Ekla Cholo Re (‘Walk Alone’):
Walk alone, walk alone
Even if nobody follows you
Even if nobody listens to you
Don’t give up. Walk alone.
Keep flowing. Walk alone.
Mahatma Gandhi used to sing this song every morning and evening, as the song resonated with his own sentiments. Gandhi said that even if you are in a minority of one, truth is truth, and you should stand up for your convictions without fear.
The second Tagore song that everyone in India knew by heart was our national anthem, a song in praise of the diverse and delightful landscapes of the Indian subcontinent.
So I was familiar with the stature and importance of Tagore, but only superficially. Thanks to Shishir, though, I felt moved to pay proper attention to the great poet. What I discovered was that Tagore was a deeply spiritual poet, a poet mesmerised by mystery, beauty and love of Nature in the tradition of Rumi and Kabir. He dwelt in the divinity of flowers, rivers and seasons, he sang odes to the Earth, but he was also an activist, and I, being engaged in the Land Reform Movement, found myself spellbound by Tagore’s ability to combine his poetic imagination with his social activism. His poetry and plays emerged from his engagement with agriculture, education and service to the poor. Tagore was as comfortable working in fields and with farmers as he was at home in his study writing poetry and painting pictures.
He started a radical school for the poor on his land, and famously told the pupils, “Here you have two teachers: myself, your human teacher, and the trees, your Nature teacher.” He insisted upon holding all classes under the trees, believing that the book of Nature is a more profound source of learning than the printed word. Here was a man, a famous poet and playwright, who spent so much of his time with words and books and yet, recognising the limits of the written word, he also immersed himself and his pupils in experience of the natural world.
Gandhi called him ‘Gurudev’ (‘the divine teacher’), and Western writers and scientists such as W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein called him “the greatest son of India”. In his native place he was known as “the voice of Bengal”. Above all, according to Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (former UN Secretary General), he was a people’s poet and a poet of the world.
This is why UNESCO has declared 2011 as the year of Tagore. He touched millions of people around the world through his novels, short stories, plays, paintings, songs and poetry. He wrote more than 1,000 poems and over 2,000 songs, which are frequently recited and sung in every corner of Bengal, as well as wherever Bengalis now reside. Tagore’s work has been translated into all the major languages of the world, including English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese and Japanese.
When I became the Editor of Resurgence in 1973, Tagore was my source of inspiration, and his vision of wholeness and integrity continues to influence the ethos of this magazine. So, to celebrate these two significant birthdays, we are organising a week-long people’s festival of the arts, crafts and culture (from 1 to 7 May 2011).
And all Resurgence readers, contributors, supporters and friends are invited to participate with us in this joyful occasion.