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Remembering Rabindranath Tagore: 'A Man of Letters Who Was Also a Visionary'

CC BY-SA 4.0 / Cherishsantosh / Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore
Portrait of Rabindranath Tagore - Sputnik India, 1920, 07.05.2023
The birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the famous Indian poet, is celebrated by Indians mostly along the Bengali calendar - on the 25th day of the month of Boisakh which is not fixed. Officially, for the rest of the world, it's marked on May 7.
As India gears up to mark the 162nd birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European Nobel Laureate for Literature, invariably a special mentioning among Russians for his unforgettable 1931 visit is found.
To delve a bit deeper, Sputnik asked Commodore Uday Bhaskar, Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank, to share details about Tagore's personality.

Tagore's Everlasting Influence on India and Beyond

According to C. Bhaskar, Tagore was a polymath - essentially a poet but also a gifted individual talented in multiple areas.

Stating that he was very much rooted in the Indian ethos, well-versed in the Upanishads, Bhaskar describes Tagore as: "Clearly a man of letters who was also a visionary."

He says Tagore was obviously able to explore various things with considerable clarity and conviction. And much of that is reflected in his writing, his poetry and his short stories. "He also turned to painting briefly. In short, he was a very creative person."
Bhaskar believes Tagore was able to relate to many of the existential questions that in a way characterized the human predicament. "And we are aware of his profile, wherein the British had even knighted him – but he returned the award as a matter of principle. He also won the Nobel Prize for his writings and was the first Indian to receive this prestigious award."

So, when you ask about his everlasting influence, it is derived from the vast body of his work and vision - which is why he is called 'Gurudev', Baskar says, adding: "Whether it is poetry, or music, his Bengali and English literature and the contribution to the Indian thought process in a very formative time – they all contribute to his abiding influence."

Bhaskar, the director of the Society for Policy Studies, concurs that Tagore was also quite close to the iconic Mahatma Gandhi. And, there were debates and discussions and at times they differed. So he brought a lot of energy and content to the discourse of the period – one could say, "he irrigated the socio-cultural and political ecosystem of a nascent India that was grappling with colonialism and various other excesses".

Tagore's Visit and India-Soviet Relations

Bhaskar highlights several moments of Tagore’s short Soviet visit. And we have his 13 letters as a guide.
"I think what attracted him to the Soviet Union was the core Marxist ideology and Moscow’s own experiments with communism."
First of all, Tagore was impressed by the education system, and if you read his letters, Tagore will talk about how, in his opinion, the Soviet experience in education and the new educational policy of their system was something that would have a lot of relevance for India.
"This was the main trigger. Although, of course, he was also, I would say, quite cautious, saying that the outcome of the experiment, or what he would call the “last fruit” of what Moscow was trying to do with communism, had to be waited for and objectively assessed. That we had to wait for the final result before coming at any conclusion."
But definitely, as Bhaskar suggests, the Soviet emphasis on education and the whole Marxist approach appealed to Tagore.
"I remember that he was very struck by the Marxist interpretation that, in a moral sense, the Right to Land belongs not to the landowner, but to the peasant," the idea that resonated with Gandhi's view.
Yes, he was drawn to the ideology, the untarnished ideology that inspired Lenin and the early communist phase. But it's important to remember that Tagore was not carried away, Bhaskar points out.
"He was able to recognize the shortcomings of the Soviet system. And that's why in the last few letters - I think the 13th letter, he is critical of Stalin and the Soviet regime. And we are aware that this was not taken kindly by the Soviet leadership at that time, particularly Stalin."
According to Bhaskar, Tagore was able to recognize it. "Clearly, he did not go to the USSR with blinkered eyes and noted that the Soviet Union took recourse to violence to suppress its own people, and individual freedom. All these inputs from the Soviet visit helped shape Tagore's own world view".

Soviet Way of Life Boosting India-Russia Ties

According to Bhaskar, a person can only make some tentative inferences. The normative essence of Marxism – before it was hijacked by Stalin – does resonate in India. "However a utopian, a classless society that is equitable and where the benign state looks after the citizen from ‘the cradle to the grave’...I think, there is a correspondence with the Ambedkar [founder of Indian Constitution] dream."
He mentioned that there are some references in Tagore’s letters to the way in which knowledge and power is used by the elite to intimidate - or to prevent a large under-privileged demography from being enabled by education. "I think, Tagore recognised this pattern as B.R. Ambedkar did" in later years.
Bhaskar told Sputnik that these were some of the elements where Tagore felt that there was a correspondence for India and the Soviet Union in terms of what was being envisioned.
"The Holy Grail. At the same time, Tagore was perspicacious enough to know that the Soviet Union under Stalin was making many mistakes. And, I think, he was reflecting on that well after he finished his Soviet visit."

Tagore - A Brief Life Sketch

Born to Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Devi in Kolkata, West Bengal, on 7 May 1861, Tagore is remembered as one of the most influential Indian poets of all time. He inspired millions during the Indian freedom struggle with his music and poems. He also penned the Indian national anthem.
The philosopher, painter, and dramatist received the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his work 'Gitanjali' which is a collection of poems. The Bengali bard offered compelling takes on relationships, feminism, love, and religion through his books.
He died on 7 August 1941.