Even though his 150 birth anniversary had been celebrated with much fanfare by the government, seven decades after his death, Rabindranath Thakur’s legacy seems largely restricted to Bengal. Even in Bengal, as well as in Bangladesh, his chief legacy seems to be his songs. In reality, Rabindranath(1861-1941), the greatest flower of Bengal Renaissance, defined much that is modern in Indian cultural life.
Born in a wealthy and aristocratic Bengali family, he was home tutored and taught music from an early age. His grandfather Dwarkanath – a self-made businessman – was the richest Indian of his time. His father Debendranath was the leader of Brahmo Samaj. His eldest brother Satyendranath was the first Indian ICS officer. All his family members were deeply immersed in cultural activities. Women of Thakurbari were also equally accomplished and trendsetters in various fields. His elder sister Swarnakumari was probably the first Indian woman novelist. Writing poetry from an early age, Rabindranath ushered in a romantic classical age in Bengali literature single-handedly. The language he crafted was a modern one, compared to the heavily Sanskrit-influenced Bengali of earlier generation. Deep humanism, love for nature and philosophical content lent a magical quality to his poetry. A prolific writer and musician, he wrote and set to tune more than 2200 songs, which are known today as Rabindrasangeet.
Apart from poems and songs, he wrote numerous essays (which established modern Bengali language as a powerful medium of expression), eight novels and four novellas, including Chaturanga, Chokher Bali and Ghare Baire. He was the first author to write proper short stories in Bengali – it was in his short stories that he introduced everyday language (chalit bhasha) for the first time instead of formal sadhu bhasha. Throughout his life, he experimented with forms and style – Chaturanga was the first Indian psychological novel, where action takes place in the minds of characters. He wrote and acted in a series of plays and dance-drama. It was the participation of Thakur family members in open theatre, which brought respect to Indian theatre for the first time and also its acceptability for the middle class audience. After experimenting with different metres, he was the first Bengali poet to write free verses when he was well past sixty. In his last novel Sesher Kabita – published in 1929 when he was nearly 70 – he criticizes his own past works as conservative and advocates romantic love without any societal restraint.
It was mainly due to his efforts that men and women from middle class households started participating in dance performances and classical dance was elevated to the pedestal of high art. Manipuri classical dance form was revived and popularized from Shantiniketan. It was his vision of global friendship, which found expression in Viswa Bharati University at Shantiniketan. Here, along with the best of western and oriental civilizations, he nurtured the best of Indian minds too – one of the first Bhavans(Schools) to be set up at Shantiniketan was the Hindi Bhavan, where the first director was Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.
In late 1920s, Rabindranath along with Amrita Shergil heralded modernism in Indian painting. It is amazing that he formally started painting and held his first exhibition when he was more than sixty years old. It was even more amazing to know that he was partially colour blind. His genius extended to calligraphy (his Bengali handwriting, widely copied at that time – set the standard for future generations) and architecture (he designed the buildings at Shantiniketan himself). He also set up a school for agriculture and rural development at Shantiniketan with an American teacher. The only field of artistic expression, where his genius failed was cinema – his lone attempt at direction Natir Puja – was nothing but a stage drama, captured in celluloid.
His serene personality, versatility as an artist, deep philosophical nature of his poetry and his elegant appearance made him look like an Eastern sage to romantic Western intellectuals. But after 1920, in World War ravaged Europe, such messages of peace and romantic idealism lost significance. Also poor quality of his own English translation has often been blamed for his waning appeal in the West.
But the picture was quite different in Asia. In 1913, when he became the first Asian to win Noble Prize, it was a moment of proud acknowledgment for Asian culture. It is well known that he composed national anthems of both India and Bangladesh. Ananda Samarakoon, who wrote the Sri Lankan national anthem – was a student of VIswa Bharati. The song(Namo Namo Matha) itself was deeply influenced by Rabindranath. Rabindranath visited Sri Lanka thrice and was a major inspiration behind Sri Lankan cultural renaissance. Samarakoon, influenced by Rabindra Sangeet, pioneered a new form of artistic Sinhala music.
Rabindranath visited China in 1924 and was deeply influenced by Chinese culture, which led to the establishment of the Cheena Bhavan at Shantiniketan. His visit has been described as a great event in modern Chinese cultural history. He remains the most widely read Indian author in China even today. He took a cultural delegation with him when he visited South-East Asia. It was this team of artists, linguists and writers, who re-discovered the close cultural connection between India and the region. They brought with them batik printing, South-East Asian paintings and handicrafts and rediscovered the Buddhist connection. Despite repeated invitations, Rabindranath failed to visit Korea but wrote a famous four line poem called Eastern Light, celebrating the Korean Civilization. In Korea, which was then under Japanese occupation, this became a rallying point for Korean intellectuals to believe in their own culture. Even today this poem is part of South Korean school syllabus, highlighting the immense significance of Rabindranath in Korean cultural history.
But for Rabindranath, the most important country was Japan, which he visited four times. Interaction between him and the famous Japanese artist Okakura in Calcutta in the early twentieth century inaugurated the Indo-Japan relations in modern times. Rabindranath was hailed as a symbol of rising Asia in Japan and was every time accorded warmest welcome. His stringent criticism of rabid nationalism compelled Japanese intellectuals in turn to criticize him and begin their own introspection. Japanese culture left an indelible imprint in Rabindranath’s mind – he started writing short poems in Japanese fashion (haiku) and introduced in Shantiniketan, Japanese style ink and wash paintings, flower-designing (Ikebana), marshal art (Jujutsu) and carpentry with Japanese teachers.
At the age of 12, he got to travel for the first time as his father took him to the Himalayas. Since then, he was an intrepid traveler till almost the end. Apart from his extensive travel within the country, he went to more than 30 countries in five continents. He travelled to Europe and USA a number of times. In 1930, he travelled to Russia and wrote a series of insightful letters, later collected as Russiar Chitthi, providing one of the first glimpses of Soviet systems to Indian readers. Even at his death-bed in 1941, he wanted to know details about the Second World War and prophesied that the Russians would defeat the German demons. Already widely translated and popular in Spanish, Rabindranath went to Latin America at the invitation of the Peruvian government. But due to illness he had to stop at Buenos Aires and came back after a prolonged stay there. He had a deep impact on later day writers like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz.
Perhaps his biggest contribution was to give confidence to a subjugated country in its own culture by claiming its rightful position in the world. Today as India once again strives to reach out to the world; it is high time that we re-discover our greatest cultural icon and his global legacy.