In his autobiography, Ravi Shankar writes that being Bengali, of course, makes it natural for me to feel so moved by Tagore; but I do feel that if he had been born in the West he would now be as revered as Shakespeare or Goethe He is not as popular or well-known worldwide as he should be. The Vishwa Bharati are guarding everything he did too jealously, and not doing enough to let the entire world know of his greatness.
Like Ravi Shankar, I believe that Rabindranath Tagores appeal is universal; like him, I am distressed that he has been reduced to a figure of merely parochial significance. But for this I would not single out Visva-Bharati alone. It is the Bengalis as a whole who have shut Tagore off from the wider world. Despite the brave efforts of scholars such as Sukanta Chaudhuri and Uma Dasgupta, he continues to be seen as pre-eminently, a writer, thinker, musician and institution-builder of, by and for the Bengalis.
Such was not always the case. While he lived, Tagore was read and discussed in parts of the world where he is now completely forgotten. In The Gate of Heavenly Peace, his magnificent history of 20th-century China, Jonathan Spence describes a lecture tour by Tagore in the spring of 1924. Wherever he went, Tagore was met by admirers and by detractors. As Spence writes, he was entertained at many convivial gatherings, and obviously many students revered him; but from the first his visit also drew taunts and protests. The Chinese communists damned him as a reactionary and revivalist. His ideas, they claimed, were the morphine and coconut wine of those with property and leisure.
Radical Chinese students met Tagore with black flags and told him to go home. But his meetings were fully subscribed nevertheless. And more sensitive souls, such as the writer Xu Zhimo, wrote that Tagore was a miracle in human history. His unlimited imagination and broad sympathy reminded Xu of Whitman; his gospel of universal love and zeal for spreading his ideas of Tolstoy; his unbending will and artistic genius of Michelangelo; his sense of humour and wisdom of Socrates; the tranquility and beauty of his personality of Goethe; the touch of his compassion and pure love of Jesus.
Xu Zhimos effusions are in a class of their own. Still, while he lived, Tagore was a figure of considerable interest in Latin America, Japan, Germany and the United States of America. In all those places, he is now unknown, for which blame accrues equally to the passage of time and the protective wall thrown around him by Bengalis after his death.
Earlier: Appropriating Nehru
Also see: An august dispute
The diminution of Tagore at the hands of his fellow Bengalis has a parallel, I think, in the colonization of Jawaharlal Nehru by the Congress. Because this party has been led by direct descendants of Nehru, and because it is so seriously steeped in nepotism and corruption, Indians born after Nehru himself died tend to see him also as nepotistic and corrupt. In fact, he was neither. For one, he never dreamt or desired that his daughter, let alone his grandson or great-grandson, would become prime minister of India. For another, he was an individual of a transparent integrity. More fundamentally, this equation of Nehru with the interests of his party and family has obscured the very real differences between his political practice and theirs. Later Congressmen have assiduously stoked the forces of division and conflict, whereas in those crucial early years of independence, Nehru forged a countrywide unity around the ideals of socialism and religious harmony. Nehru also worked hard to nurture the traditions of democracy, traditions which his own descendants have since done a great deal to undermine.
Thus Tagore, once a genuinely global figure, has been reduced to being a Bengali icon. And Nehru, once so greatly admired by Indians of all parties (or of no party at all), has become captive to the Congress. Move on now to a third remarkable figure of modern India, B.R. Ambedkar. His posthumous reputation has followed a more complex and intriguing trajectory. While he lived, Ambedkar had a solid following only among the Mahars of Maharashtra. His name would have signified nothing to Dalits elsewhere; in fact, outside Maharashtra, the lower castes were then more likely to admire, and follow, Mahatma Gandhi. However, after his death, Ambedkar has emerged as an authentic hero of Dalits all across India.
In some ways, this countryside deification of Ambedkar is very welcome. His name, and example, have provided a focal point to contemporary struggles for human rights. If that Dalit could breach the citadels of class and caste privilege, claim his modern-day followers, so shall we. In other respects, the deification has been less helpful. For it has encouraged the rest of us to see Ambedkar as a figure of Dalit interest alone. In truth, he was much more a thinker and scholar of a dazzling originality. As a lawyer, he had thought deeply about how best to lay the foundations of constitutional democracy. As an economist, he wrote insightfully about among other things finance, industrialization and labour. As a philosopher, he wrote provocatively of how to reconcile the often competing claims of faith and reason. Whereas his writings on caste may be of particular relevance to Dalits, his writings in these other spheres might be read with profit by all Indians.
Other Indian nationalists have suffered from similar kinds of parochialization. Consider how Tilak has been reduced to being a Maharashtrian alone, Rajagopalachari to being a Tamil Brahmin. Perhaps only one Indian whose 135th birth anniversary we mark today has successfully escaped sectarian labelling. For few see Mahatma Gandhi principally as a Hindu. Fewer still as a Gujarati. Somehow, his appeal transcends the confines of caste, religion and language. We see him as an Indian, as, indeed, the Father of the Nation.
It was Rabindranath Tagore who first spoke of the idea of India. That idea was developed and given flesh by Mahatma Gandhi, working with and sometimes against Nehru, Ambedkar and Tagore himself. In columns to follow, I shall lay bare the elements of this integrative idea, and also outline how it has been degraded and demeaned down the years. What I have attempted in this column is simply to clear away the under-rubbish, thus to reveal Tagore, Nehru and Ambedkar as being like Gandhi figures of a truly pan-Indian appeal and significance.