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 Tagore’s 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 Zhimo’s 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.

Because Congress today is so seriously steeped in nepotism and corruption, and led by Nehru's descendants, Indians born after Nehru died tend to see him also as nepotistic and corrupt. In fact, he was neither.
 •  Bhimrao Ambedkar
 •  Rabindranath Tagore
 •  Earlier: Appropriating Nehru
 •  Also see: An august dispute
Ravi Shankar complains that this parochialization of Tagore has denied his work the global audience it deserves. But I worry that it has also kept him out of reach of his countrymen. For we who live outside Bengal and speak languages other than Bengali, have been denied the knowledge that Tagore was an Indian before he was a Bengali. That is how he saw himself, and that is also how we should learn to see his work. His ideas speak to us across the generations that divide us. His writings and opinions remain highly relevant to questions agitating Indians today: questions relating to our relationship with the West, to the role and responsibility of intellectuals, to the links between language and cultural identity.

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”.

Read this series in full

 •  Freeing our heroes
 •  Believers in free air
 •  Why India survives
In the work of giving birth to modern India, Gandhi was assisted and encouraged by numerous other patriots. Of these, the three most significant, in my view, were Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and B.R. Ambedkar. Unfortunately, we have been taught to regard the first as essentially a Bengali, the second as a Congressman, the third as a Dalit. Yet the example of Tagore remains relevant to those of us who cannot read or write Bengali, that of Nehru to those of us who shall never be members of the Congress party, that of Ambedkar to those of us who were not born in Dalit households.

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.