The idea and endeavour of Visva-Bharati thrived in its first two decades, the 1920s and the 1930s. Santiniketan became a hive of diverse communities. Rabindranath’s English biographer Edward Thompson, who had been visiting Santiniketan from 1913, wrote:
“If any foreigner desires to know how lovely is the heritage that India has received from her rishis and forest teachers, let him go to Santiniketan and be gathered into the arms of that friendliness which knows no distinction of creed or nationality.”
But Visva-Bharati’s future was uncertain. Rabindranath entrusted its preservation to Mahatma Gandhi. In his last letter to Gandhi on 2 February 1940 he wrote:
“Visva-Bharati is like a vessel carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation. Though national in its immediate aspect, it is international in its spirit offering to the best of its means India’s hospitality of culture to the rest of the world.”
Rabindranath died on 6 August 1941. To his utter shock the second world war broke out in his last years. That hurt the peace of even his far away rural hamlet.
His legacy is vast, from a great variety of the written form to song and music, to art, to pioneering work in the fields of education and rural reconstruction, to discourses on the nation-state, politics of power, militarism, war and decay of civilization. An intuitive historian and a humanist to boot he believed that India’s history grew out of a social civilization where every attempt was made to evolve a human adjustment of peoples and races. He viewed education holistically as a way to build a person’s values from childhood for the creation of a better world.
He saw the less welcome change that had come over his society in his lifetime. His own social class had undergone complete reorientation. They who had patronized jatra, kathakata, kirtan and other aids to folk education and folk entertainment had either left the village or lost their sense of brotherhood. The village folk were not able to benefit from what knowledge the city folk had acquired in the scientific age. Their life was no longer enlivened with music and ballads and tales. Torn by guilt over their misery Rabindranath wrote,
“The moment came when I had to pull myself away from preoccupation with literature. For, the sight of the terrible poverty of the Indian masses grew inescapable. I realized that perhaps in no other modern state was there such a complete denial of the basic needs of living: food and clothing, education and health.”
The younger generation of modernist Bengali poets criticized his poetry for its omission of the consciousness of evil. They compared his work with Baudelaire and found him wanting. It is fair to suggest that Rabindranath held firm to his faith in the beauty and sublimity of life. He did not lose faith in man. But that is not to say there was no anguish in his poetry.
He felt guilty that millions of his countrymen were so weighed down by their daily miseries to feel any beauty whatsoever from life. He felt circumscribed by the fact that he was not able to really reach out to them wholly, that he could not bridge the inherent distance. The aristocracy of his birth stood in the way. His poem ‘How little I know of this world’ is a self-examination of that regret.
“Come poet of the multitudes,
sing songs of obscure man,
reveal his unspoken soul,
soothe his humiliated heart,
restore life and song
to this dry land.
Resuscitate the failing hearts
of hidden men.
May your voice reflect
those standing bowed.
Let the one-stringed minstrel, also,
add his tune
to the great court anthem of the muse.
Come, poet of the new age,
lead me to those hearts
so far away, those hearts so near.
May they know themselves through you
whom I salute.”
A keen sense of his own failing perhaps made him utterly sympathetic and sensitive to Gandhi’s cause. He was full of hope and encouragement for Gandhi as a leader of the Indian masses. In Prayaschitta, an early play written in 1909, Rabindranath portrayed a saintly rebel called ‘Dhananjaya’ who argues for the need for chittasuddhi or atonement by means of moral reparation and the removal of untouchability.
It is not easy to measure his legacy because it would mean different things to different people. There was not a great deal he or any one individual could do to bring change to an unequal and unjust world. But he was never indifferent to the need, nor was he indifferent to the task. He tried hard to make a difference with as much constructive work as was possible for him. Can we hope to make that his legacy in our individual lives?
This article was written by Uma Das Gupta
Professor Uma Das Gupta is a historian and a renowned Tagore biographer. She is the author of many books and articles on Tagore. Some of the most recent are: Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2010; Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2013.