Rabindranath travelled almost incessantly. He went several times to England, to Continental Europe, to the United States of America, to Japan, to Ceylon, to Egypt, to China, to Burma, to Argentina, to Russia, and to the countries of South East Asia. Explaining his migratory instinct he wrote to his younger daughter Mira:
“Having examined myself from within I know for certain that God did not create me for the life of a householder. That is perhaps why I am a constant traveller, and not able to set up home anywhere. The world has received me in its arms, I shall do the same with the world.”
Of course there were many practical and pressing reasons for him to travel as much as he did besides the wanderlust. The reasons were, first, his family’s interventions; second, his own individual longing to break out of the isolation of being a mere provincial of British India; third, his great respect for Western literature; fourth, his admiration for the liberal secular values of the West; fifth, his longing to reach out to a larger humanity with his poetry which led to his Nobel Prize and his transformation into a global citizen; sixth, his intensifying concern over war and conflict; seventh, his inner need to condemn the destructive nature of territorial and militant nationalism; finally, his deep-seated conviction in the spiritual and cultural meeting of the races at a centre which would be a gateway to the world’s learning that led to his founding of Visva-Bharati. He carried the message of Visva-Bharati’s universal ideals wherever he travelled.
His close association with world literature had widened his horizons from early on in life. In his family Goethe was read in German, Maupassant in French, Sakuntala in Sanskrit, Macbeth in English. Rabindranath absorbed every bit of that cosmopolitan air. At sixteen he wrote an analytical essay in Bengali on the possibility of material prosperity in Bengal with the title “Bangali-r asha o noirashyo” (Hope and Despair of Bengalis) where he argued for the need to build up a new civilisation through the meeting of East and West.
His inclination to embrace the world came from the confidence of his own solid education in his mother tongue and his grounding in the Indian cultural tradition both of which were also family gifts. It was indeed poetic justice that of all the Tagore family, Rabindranath was most in need of that confidence as he worked his way to find a delicate balance between his commitments to his country and to the world. This was particularly so after his award of the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 when he felt more and more at home in the world. He wrote,
“I have felt the meeting of the East and the West in my own individual life… It was the same feeling which I had when I listened to those in my family who recited verses from English literature and from the great poets of those days. Then also I felt as if a new prophet of the human world had been revealed to my mind.”
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.