A name that resonates around the literature world, Rabindranath Tagore is known for his open-mindedness that he displayed through his works. He believed in a world that did not indulge in petty thoughts of discrimination and saw everyone as equal. Rabindranath Tagore, also known as Rabindranath Thakur by the Bengalis, was an avid supporter of equality. Much of his later works were focused on the Shudras or the Untouchables, people who were downtrodden in the Hindu society—born in the Jorasanko Tagore mansion situated in north Kolkata, Tagore’s immediate neighbourhood brimmed with poverty and prostitution. But that did not affect much of Tagore’s childhood.The youngest son and the ninth child amongst thirteen, Tagore spent much of his early life enclosed in the mansion. He was tutored at home by his elder brother and was only allowed to step out of the mansion to go to school. Perhaps this stifling in his early life gave birth to the desire to be free and express oneself in Tagore. In his early childhood, Tagore remarks that he had to go through a period of “service hood” under the command of the servants in their mansion. The strict upbringing of Tagore only helped in growing the fire of expression within him. The atmosphere in Tagore’s household was marked by the absence of his father, Debendranath Tagore, who was usually outside touring. The Jorasanko Tagore mansion was also a hub of literature, poetry, and cinema. Amongst all the poverty in his neighbourhood, Tagore had never to feel its clutches. At the age of eight, Tagore wrote his first poem, and he was encouraged by his older brother to recite these poems to the people in the mansion.
An incident that changed his life and taught us about learning from our surroundings occurred on February 14th, 1873. Rabindranath Tagore, fresh out of completing his coming-of-age ritual, set out on an extended tour of India along with his father that lasted for months. This was the first close contact that Tagore had with his father, and it shaped his mind a lot, opening it for influence from nature. The first place that Tagore and his father went to was Shantiniketan (Abode of Peace), a family estate that Tagore’s father acquired in 1863, which was later to become the centre for Tagore to spread his influence. In Shantiniketan, for the first time, Tagore was free. He remarked its paddy fields being able to move around them as he chose to. Later on, Tagore and his father journeyed to Amritsar and stayed near the Harmindir Sahib while worshipping at a Sikh gurdwara. Here Tagore read Sanskrit and English books that exposed him to astronomy and biographies of famous personalities like Benjamin Franklin. What it shows to us is that all great personalities were influenced by knowledge and other great personalities. In mid-April, Rabindranath Tagore and his father moved to the icy hills of the remote hill station of Dalhousie in the Himalayan ranges. They stayed at a house high atop the Bakrota Hills. Tagore was deeply affected by the deep gorges, alpine forests, mossy streams, and high waterfalls. The effect of scenery was later seen in the works of Tagore. After two more months in Dalhousie, Tagore left his father and journeyed back to Kolkata, a changed man. His journey at a young age emphasizes the need for freedom in a youth’s life. It also shows how literature can create new horizons within one’s mind.
The Bard of Bengal, as he was fondly known, went on to establish a schooling structure in Shantiniketan that very closely followed the Gurukul model of ancient times. “Gurudev”, as his student often referred to him avoided classroom schooling. He was tutored at a young age and physically conditioned, but he remarks that his early childhood days did not have real education in them. According to him, education should stoke curiosity and not merely the remembering of facts and their applications. For him, the role of teaching was beyond the conventional method of imparting textbook knowledge. He critiqued the existing education model, saying, “If any boy is asked to give an account of what is awakened in him by such knocking, he will probably say something silly. What happens within is much bigger than what comes out in words. Those who pin their faith on university examinations as the test of education take no account of this.” So, he set up Shantiniketan as a centre wherein the gurus or the teachers would impart practical knowledge to their students. They would focus on the emotional and intellectual growth of the students with equal importance.
Tagore yielded the seeds of nationalism and inculcated it in his works. India, at that time, was caged under the wires of British rule. With every passing day, the slashes and scars grew, but it burst out blood in the year 1919. The entire nation shook when the British opened fire in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, claiming several Indian lives. A few years back, Tagore was awarded Knighthood by King George V in 1915 Birthday Honors. However, this honour did not stay with him for long. When the nation grieved and was shattered after losing so many lives in 1919, Tagore decided to return his honour, a subtle way to protest against atrocities of the British Raj in his motherland. He moderated the Swaraj protests, which were led by Mahatma Gandhi, taming the rage of protestors. Tagore’s love for his native soil could be observed in his poetry as well. One of his poems carries the lines, “Freedom from fear is the freedom, I claim for you my motherland”. His heart was pained seeing the lives in India perishing in the dust of poverty and shackles, so he wished for freedom that wipes away all the nation’s fears. He hoped for a country “where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high”, asking the people to rise above all agony and stay strong till the dawn can be seen.
In the time of the British Raj, India was battling and succumbing to the practice of untouchability. Dalits were alienated from society, right from sitting separately to living in houses that stayed in remote areas, away from upper castes. The country needed figures whose words and preachings might sweep away the age-old irrational practice. Tagore, from 1930, spoke against abnormal caste consciousness and untouchables. His pen was his sword, and so he used it to shape the map of a better society, a society built on stones of rational values and brotherhood. He presented heroes and characters in his writings who belonged to the so-called lower caste of the society. In his play Chandalika, he presents his pivotal character of the same name, who refuses to offer water to the monks, for she belonged to the lower caste. This play reveals Tagore’s attitude towards the Brahmin taboo and vague classification of humans under different castes. In his essay on nationalism, he penned down the belief that a nation is made of the organized power of all its people.
Bhanu Singha Thakur (Sun Lion), Tagore’s pseudonym, describes his works and lifestyle perfectly. His works were like sunlight that put the fallen society of ancient India into the light of education and morality. Many social issues like untouchability were brought to the limelight due to Tagore’s works. Today Tagore is immortalized in the national anthems of not one but three different nations. His lines serve to enrage the flame of nationality in the hearts of the people that sing it. The national anthems of Bangladesh: – “Amar sonar Bangla”; the Sri Lankan national anthem: – “Namo Namo Matha” written by his disciple Ananda Samarakoon and the Indian National Anthem: – “Jana Gana Mana” are the soulful words of Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore stands as an icon that inspires the need for kinship, honesty, and patriotism in one’s heart. He never forgot the soil which named him and took him to heights.
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