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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 21, May 16, 2015

Cameos / The Legacy for Tomorrow

Saturday 16 May 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 154th birth anniversary was observed last Saturday (May 9, 2011). On this occasion we are reproducing two pieces by N.C. on Tagore written 74 years ago, in 1941. Both were published in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941 (that appeared after the Poet’s death on August 7, 1941). The first piece was carried under the pseudonym Vanguard. Though written during World War II when the global scenario was radically different from what it is today, the relevance of these pieces remains undiminished.



It was a wet September evening in 1936. We were driving back home after an interview with Tagore, then staying in a suburb of Calcutta. My companion was an Englishman—a young professor of literature, who had just had his first glimpse of Tagore. He was impressed with the Poet’s personality. But he had so many things to ask about him. There was still something that he had yet to figure out about Tagore. After a pause, he asked me how the people, the common people, regarded Tagore. I replied: “Well, we consider him as our national poet. But he is a votary of no narrow nationalism: he has condemned in no unmistable terms the system that is dominating our country, but he has sought refuge in a broad humanism.” “Yes, but,” he asked once again, “would you call him a People’s Poet, a poet who portrays the life, the struggle and the aspirations of the common man—the toiler in the field and the factory?” I do not remember what answer I could mumble out then, but it was not something that fully satisfied either him or me at the time. As I returned home, the question came back over and over again: Is Tagore a People’s Poet?


Two years later, the scene shifts. This time my friend is an Indian in London, who at one time was a student at Santiniketan. He has settled in England after a struggling academic career. We were discussing Andre Gide who had just come back from the Soviet Union and had started a tirade against that country. It was a shock to the progressive circles and was broadcast all over the world by the reactionary press. What a depressing feeling it was to find the great French writer in the camp of the enemies of the USSR! Little by little our discussion veered round to the favourite topics as to whether it was possible for the intellectuals to be above the battle and retreat into the Ivory Tower like the Eyeless in Gaza: while the world was being enveloped in a desperate struggle of power-politics, and culture stifled all around, nobody could remain neutral without helping the cause of reaction. Particularly was it true in a dependent country like ours, and, I asked, if our intellectuals were alive to their responsibility. Many were not, but how was Tagore? Was he socially conscious? Did he realise the issue at stake? Profit versus the People—does he really know on which side he should stand? My friend kept quiet for a moment, and then, from under a huge pile of books, he drew out a dusty file of type-written pages. It was an English translation of Tagore’s Letters from Russia, and he told me the story behind it.

Years back when this young man was absorbed in his research, there came to him a copy of Tagore’s Letters from Russia. He started translating it and he did it at a time when he was nearly stranded. But he felt a sense of responsibility towards his Gurudeva and was anxious that Europe should know where Tagore stood in this crisis of progress. The impression that the West retained about Tagore with “the lotus and the crescent moon” was out of date. It was time that they should know him again as the realist who had reacted to the sufferings of exploited humanity. With this end in view, he translated the book, and Bertrand Russell willingly wrote a foreword to the proposed English edition. From the Poet himself came glad consent and everything was arranged but, at the eleventh hour, unexpected circumstances came in the way, and the book was never published.

As I listened to his reading of the manuscript till midnight I realised what an unbelievable loss it was that the book never saw the light of day, for it might have given Tagore a new recognition in the West, more impressive and more significant than what he had received on the publication of Gitanjali. This time he would have received more coveted laurels than the Nobel Prize, the gratitude of struggling millons from Spain to China. With what clear under-standing he could delineate the ruthless working of imperialism in his own country and compare it with the tremendous material and moral progress in the Soviet Union. Here was Tagore as something more than a poet and philosopher. Though not one of them, he had felt with his own heart the misery and starvation of the common people, and he had the courage to admit the great social advance made under a system which destroys the propertied class to which he himself belongs. Here was the great humanist who would never hesitate to condemn exploitation to welcome a better order of things.


Summer 1939. An international students’ delegation was visiting a concentration camp of the Spanish refugees in the south of France. It was a small party but comprised many nationalities from the Chinese and the Indian to the Yugoslav and the American. The visit was intended to demonstrate the youth’s common front against Fascism and Imperialism, and for the purpose of conveying the greetings of the world students to the youth of Spain as the vanguard of the People’s struggle against Fascism. The camp was situated right at the foot of the Pyrenees, near the frontier, and had a population of 18,000—mostly from the Army of the Ebro, which included men from all walks of life—writers, artists, doctors, workers, peasants, clerks and shopkeepers—men of the famous International Brigade who came and fought shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people because they realised that the front of Peace, Freedom and Democracy was indivisible and could be defended against not by rival imperialisms, but by toiling millions out to build a new world.

The French commandant did not allow us to enter the camp which was under military control and was surrounded by barbed wire for miles around. He was polite but would not let us go in, lest the French Government should be exposed by the appalling treatment that had been meted out to the sons of the sister democracy of Spain. Daladier and Bonnet, the Chamberlains of France, who with their gang had abetted the Fascist attack on Spain, were now, by imprisoning these valiant fighters, acting as the goal-warders of Hitler and Mussolini. The alternative that was offered to these brave soldiers of democracy was either work in the labour-gangs in France or a passage back to Spain to face Franco’s firing squads.

We were allowed to interview about 20 people called out of the camp. There were Brazilians, Poles and Chinese in the International Brigade. Of the Spaniards, most of them in that particular camp were students from Colleges and Universities. One of them had been working in the University of Madrid on a thesis on literature for his doctorate, before the Fascist rising in 1936. We talked to each other in broken French, and he asked me a number of questions about India. He had heard a lot about Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. Of these, he ruled out the first, for, as he said, “Gandhi wanted to put the hands on the clock back, while we are out to create a new and better world.” But Tagore and Nehru, he continued, were different though they might be under the personal spell of Gandhi. He had read the works of Tagore in French, and had listened to portions of Nehru’s Autobiography read out by his comrades at the front. He wanted to know what Tagore’s attitude was towards Fascism. Fortunately I had then just read the Poet’s reply to Noguchi, and I told him about that. He was happy and remarked: “He might not be coming from the ranks of the people, but he is sensitive and he is honest. He is on the side of progress and justice.”

And he added after a pause: “You know, Fascism can never be effectively fought by imperialist governments—that is why today we are in prison in the so-called democracy of France. These governments might one day stand up against Hitler and Mussolini when their own interests will be touched, but Fascism will never die so long as imperialism survives; and it is for the common people to rise and smash up the present system of exploitation. In that struggle the intellectuals will be called upon to make their choice. Many would be frightened and go over to the side of the bosses. But the better type, men like Malruax, Fox, Cornford and Lorca who fought alongwith the peasants and the workers—and men like Tagore ad Rolland, Toller and Sinclair, who have sent their greetings from a distance—these will all be on our side. Many of them might not take part in the actual fighting, many might abhor the violence that will show itself in the process, but they will at least be honest when, moved by the agonies of suffering humanity today, they will welcome the birth of the new world of peace, freedom and happiness. By themselves they will not be able to build such a world, but they will welcome its construction when the toiling man will be enthroned. They are no doubt individualists and their reactions will be entirely emotional. Yet they will be our valuable allies in the struggle. Would you regard Tagore as one of them?” I did not have to hesitate to give him the proud answer: “Yes, we regard him so”—and was reminded of the foggy night in London when I had read the translation of the Letters from Russia, and of the monsoon evening in Calcutta when the Englishman had asked me, “Would you call him a People’s Poet?”


Things have moved since then and moved rapidly. I do not know what has happened to the young Spanish student. Perhaps he went back to the Spain that is Franco’s prison, or fell into the hands of the Gestapo after the betrayal of France, or if he is one of the few lucky ones, has escaped to some other part of the world, ever ready to carry on the real People’s struggle against Fascism. But Tagore has now belied our hopes, he has reacted magnificently to the suffering of toiling humanity trying to sever the bonds that bind them. Even in this evening of his life, he has shown the alertness of youth in tearing off the mask from the face of Fascism and Imperialism alike. As I read and re-read his New Year’s Message, “Crisis in Civilisation”, there came back to my mind the face of the young comrade from Spain behind the barbed wire in the concentration camp, and I remembered the ringing words of Rolland, written on May Day 1934 on the advent of German Fascism: “The decisive conflict has begun. It is no longer permissible to keep aloof..... Appeal to life against death, against that which kills, against these ravages of humanity: the forces of money, drunk with gold, the Imperialisms drunk with power, the dictatorships of the great companies, and the various forms of Fascism, drunk with blood. Working man, here are our hands. We are yours. Let us unite. Let us close up our ranks. Humanity is in danger!”

(The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941)

The Legacy for Tomorrow

Lenin once asked a group of Soviet students as to whom they regarded as the greatest literary figure of Russia. “Mayakovsky,” they replied. “Yes, but what about Pushkin?” asked Lenin, and added, “Could there have been a Mayakovsky without a Pushkin?” A hundred years from today the people would speak of Tagore in the same way and with more truth. At the moment we are too near to his personality to fully appraise its greatness. You cannot size up a Titan when you stand next to him. Tagore cannot be mesured by our standards, nor can we comprehend the infinite variety of manifestations in which his genius has taken form. He was not a personality, nor an institution, he was an epoch. He was as much the product of an age as the age was his product.

On the changing face of India, personalities come and go in rapid succession. The leader of yesterday is discarded today, and the hero of today slips into oblivion tomorrow. That is not the fault of the nation nor of those who play these fleeting roles. We in India are in the ferment of a dynamic world, the giant is awake, the unchanging East has stirred. But even at this quick Tempo, Tagore tried to keep pace with the times. He was never a back number.

But he was a progressive in more ways than one. On the one hand, he broke away from traditions—in language, music, painting and religion; on the other, he never lost touch with the vital currents of the day, absorbing within his receptive mind all the new ideas and thoughts of his age. A scientific study of the last fifty years would no doubt recognise in him the Pole Star of our national culture.


Consider the invaluable legacy that he has left behind. Bengal has had a veritable Age of Tagore. In language, he destroyed the traditional fetters of old Bengali. Take away Tagore and we at once fall back with a thud upon Iswar Gupta, with perhaps the exception of Michael, as our immediate poetic heritage. The hide-bound code of traditional technique had to give way before this wizard of words. He enriched our language with a diction that is at once supple and powerful. This has been a great achievement—a technical revolution—not only for having made the language more elastic and expressive, but also for having destroyed, from the point of view of future progress, the germs that were ossifying our medium of expression. He narrowed the gulf between the spoken and the written tongue, between the language of the man in the street and that of the learned scribe. Bengali has become a living language, ready to welcome new forms and expressions which future generations will bring alongwith them.

When the common man comes to inherit the culture that is today the monopoly of the few, he will have to battle against the age-old conventions of language to make it the true vehicle of his own expression. Tagore played the historic role of making the first assault in this war against outworn literary conventions. The language that he created is now ready to adjust and expand itself to suit the needs of its votaries of tomorrow.

In music and painting too, he played a similar significant role. He tried to give new forms, though never totally rejecting the content of the classical tradition. He realised that no art-from could ever be permanent. A living culture though retaining all that is best in human values would express itself through new forms in every age. That is one of the reasons why the generation that has come in his wake has been so creative in its output. Not only the men of today, but the men of tomorrow too, will pay their tribute to his greatness, for he made our language, painting and music free from the shackles of the past and at the same time set up a new tradition of innovations and experiments.

Technical perfection by itself does not exhaust his great gifts to our culture. The literature that we inherit from him is stupendous in both volume and quantity. To have reaped so much and reaped so richly has seldom come the way of an individual mind. His poetry has given voice to almost all our varied emotions and experiences. Our joys and sorrows, our hopes and frustrations —as individuals or in the collective—find echo in Tagore’s writings. He never lost touch with life and recognised that life is always on the move. The poet too moved forward with it, and not backward. He was not afraid to face realities, and that is why he soon discarded the escapist trends like symbolism with which he experimented in the days of Phalguni. Never since the age of Dante has the culture of a generation been epitomised so completely in one man.

Tagore’s religion is of no little interest to progressives. He never tried to reduce his idea of values to fixed categories. His God is not the Miltonic Taskmaster, a dispenser of Right and Wrong, nor does He speak in terms of Good and Evil. The Poet created his own God as the God of Beauty. For him, evil is bad because it is ugly, truth is good because it is beautiful. An idealist he no doubt was—for religion itself was the product of idealism—but an idealist of the highest order. Here is a mind freed from the stifling narrowness of a rigid code. It would not be wrong to say that he was never affiliated strictly to any organised religion. He appreciated much that is beautiful in different religious forms. Personal ties might have kept him within a particular fold. But he was no believer in dogmas and ceremonials. To him religion was mostly personal. Born in a country where feudal conceptions of religion still dictate the standards of behaviour, Tagore had the liberality of a mind that seeks after a freer horizon. He played the same role as did the Humanists in Europe in destroying the foundations of a dogmatic religion. Though still confined within the limits of idealism, however beautiful in form, he brought us out of the narrow grooves of orthodoxy. A creed such as Tagore’s marks a distinct stage in the evolution of a freer mind.


The age of Tagore forms one of the significant chapters of our national history. It relates the story of the rise and fall of a colonial bourgeoisie. This is the period when the Indian middle class came into the political field leading the whole nation against the foreign rule. In the common struggle for freedom the interest of the middle class converged with that of the common people upto a certain point. 1905 was the turning point when the middle class came into the arena of the mass movement, and the climax of this alliance began in 1920. Placed at the vantage point of the movement, the middle class called halt whenever their own leadership appeared to be in jeopardy. This was what happened after the 1920 and the 1930 Civil Disobedience movements, and this is exactly what has been happening for the last two years when the fear of organised masses has kept the national bourgeoisie in a state of coma. Viewed from this perspective the bourgeoisie in a colonial country has certainly a progressive role to play, though the potentialities of that role are being more and more exhausted as the masses are coming to the forefront, and, externally, as the general crisis of the whole capitalist system deepens.

The reflection of this relation of class forces upon the cultural front is clear and unmistakable. With the first stirrings of national consciousness, our writers and poets achieved almost a renaissance and Tagore was its high-priest. The 1905 movement shook off his complacency and he began to take an active interest in the burning topics of the day. Through his songs and poems he inspired the nation, but he went further. His pen became merciless in the denunciation of Imperialism, and in course of his numerous tours abroad, his speeches were equally uncompromising. At Santiniketan, he never failed to give shelter to the weary soldiers of the nation whenever they had approached him. Under his influence, our intellectuals as a whole have never lost touch with the national struggle.

This living link with the masses brought out the noblest instinct of Tagore’s humanism. He did not merely applaud the men in battle from the grandstand. He came down into the arena and responded to the demands of the people magnificently. The renunciation of knighthood was a small thing for a great man, but it brought down upon him the wrath of Kipling’s kin. The Englishman at the time wrote: “As if it mattered a brass farthing whether Sir Rabindranath Tagore who has probably never been heard of in the wilds of the Punjab, and who, as a writer is certainly not so popular as Colonel Frank Johnson, approved of the Government’s policy or not! As if it mattered to the reputation, the honour and the security of British rule and justice whether the Bengalee poet remained a knight or a plain Babu!” But the plain Babu was not to be brow-beaten by Frank Johnson’s fans. His ceaseless denunciation of imperialism continued, drawing him out, once again, of his seclusion to the public platform. Even in his old age he came out to lead the nation’s protest against the brutalities of Hijli.


Tagore’s reactions during the last ten years were remarkable. These were the years of tremendous activity in the national movement. But these were also the years that saw the nervousness of our national leadership drifting helplessly to a retreat through inaction. In the outer world too, these were the years of the menacing rise of Fascism, of the growing conflict between progress and reaction. For the intellectuals the hour of choice came. Many followed the line of retreat, either openly as advocates of reaction or indirectly by returning to their old discarded shell of romantic escapism. The hard realities were too strong for their frail constitutions to bear. But the nobler minds did not cross the line, they remained with the people. Consciously or unconsciously, they felt that their place was with the people and that there was no going back. Tagore chose this path of progress. He was, perhaps, not conscious of it but it came out of his mighty humanism. The poet who, years ago, realised the futility of Ivory Tower once again remembered his own old prayer: Ibar phirao moré,—this time with even greater emphasis. He felt that in this decisive conflict he could not go to Innisfree with its ‘nine bean rows’ and ‘hive for the honey-bee’. Even from his sick-bed he showed the daring and indignation of youth in his last public statement in reply to the Rathbone letter. Just when the class to which he belongs was following the line of retreat, the Poet chose to move forward with the people.

It is this which earns him the title of the People’s Poet. Though born and bred in the best bourgeois tradition of Bengal, Tagore could move with the times, and the sign of the times indicated that in the alliance of the bourgeoise with the common people, the latter would be asserting more and more. Tagore as the finest cultural product of this alliance was its most worthy mouthpiece. To brand him as solely a poet in the service of the bourgeoisie would be unfair.

Equally would it be wrong to regard him as a declassed intellectual in the service of the people. Tagore had no clear conception of the class forces at work in society. The biggest thing that impressed him in the Soviet Union was not the Revolution, but the liquidation of illiteracy—a thing which was achieved under bourgeois conditions in the metropolitan countries. Even in his care for the peasantry, he started in the well-meaning individualist fashion with a patriarchal benevolence, believing sincerely that model villages like Sriniketan could eliminate poverty. His first reactions towards constructive national work was to spread education whether through the National Council or the Visva-Bharati, and here too he forgot that education itself is determined by surrounding social forces.

But these do not detract from his greatness. His progressivism lies in the fact that unlike many of his contemporaries, he was bold and candid enough to admit his disillusionment with the bourgeois standards of values. His last Birthday Message was a tragic confession of a class confronted with its own moral bankruptcy. He found out the futility of the philosophy of his class. True humanism, he realised, could come now only through a new philosophy, a new social order with new social values. He could only faintly discern its outline, but he welcomed it. Therein lies his greatness, a greatness that will get its true recognition, not today when the wide world is mourning him, but on the day when such a social order will be realised, when the common man will receive his rightful heritage. They will hail him as the poet of this age, whose rich legacy will be the starting-point of the richer culture of tomorrow. 

[(The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial

Special Supplement, September 13, 1941)

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